How shameless is Donald Trump? Of all the Trump outrages to have emerged since he began his successful presidential campaign, perhaps the most intriguing was that recounted by former Sports Illustrated editor Mark Mulvoy.
About 20 years ago, Mulvoy told the Washington Post, he played golf with the entrepreneur. Mid-round the pair were forced to take shelter from a storm. When the rain stopped and they returned to the green, Mulvoy noticed a ball near the hole that had not previously been there.
“Who the hell’s ball is this?” he asked. “That’s me,” Trump said. “Donald, give me a f***ing break,” Mulvoy hit back, “You’ve been hacking away in the weeds all day. You do not lie there.”
“Ahh, the guys I play with cheat all the time,” Trump is alleged to have replied. “I have to cheat just to keep up with them.”
It’s a story that the president-elect fiercely denies. “I don’t even know who he is,” Trump said when asked about Mulvoy’s account.“I don’t drop balls, I don’t move balls. I don’t need to.”
Now the Guardian has dug up the Mulvoy anecdote and raised questions about Trump’s professed handicap of three. This is the mark of a very good golfer. For a man of 70 who can’t have had much time of late to pick up his clubs, this is almost exceptional. These things matter to golfers, who monitor their rivals’ handicaps with a wary and watchful eye.
Whatever Trump’s handicap, images of him striding the fairways will inevitably appear once he is in office because this is how presidents – Democrat or Republican – relax. Last December, for example, he criticised Barack Obama for his fondness for the sport: “250 rounds, that’s more than a guy who plays in the PGA Tour plays. He played more golf last year than Tiger Woods.”
Like most Trump critiques, the arguments don’t stack up. The 250 figure was the number of rounds that Obama had played since taking office in 2009 rather than in one season. As for playing more than Woods, the former world No 1 was out injured for most of 2015.
A president who has only a fleeting acquaintance with the game’s etiquette would not be a novelty. In 2003, New York Times journalist Don van Natta Jr described a round with Bill Clinton in which the 42nd President took so many liberties with the scoring system that he would have been thrown out of any respectable club.
Three years later, I asked the champion golfer Greg Norman about the allegations. An Australian whose home is America, he is in the strange, unique even, position of being a Republican who is not only a good friend with both George Bushes but also Clinton. Was it true that his buddy Bill was as faithful to the laws of the game as he was to his wedding vows?
Norman’s response was diplomacy at its best: “The answer is yes but I don’t want you to take from that that he’s a cheat. People like the president have very little time to play, so, if when they do play, they hit a ball out of bounds, they’ll hit another one. At the end of the day, they’ll forget the bad shot and count the good one. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of business leaders and celebrities do the same.”
In 2018, a bullish USA team will defend the Ryder Cup against Europe in France. The prospect of Trump, who was MC for the opening ceremony of the 2004 contest, weighing in behind his team in his own inimitable way seems irresistible. During the 1999 match, a year before he became president, George W Bush was asked to speak to the US team, then trailing by four points. Bush quoted from a letter written by a soldier at the Alamo who knew he would die in battle. The following day, the Americans produced a dramatic comeback.
All of which suggests that as political associations go, golf is less toxic over there than in this country. It was not until David Cameron played with Obama in April, for instance, that I had any idea he was a golfer. Cameron was the first golfer in Downing Street since Harold Wilson, who kept his passion for the sport quiet and you can see why. When Labour ideologue Anthony Crosland was once briefing a journalist against Wilson, his argument of last resort was: “But the bloody man plays golf!”
Nick Greenslade is the deputy editor, Sunday Times Sport.