WASHINGTON – The late golf legend Bobby Jones called his sport “the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.”
Unless you are Donald Trump.
I just read one of the best pieces of political journalism of the Trump age. It’s Sports Illustrated’s report on the president’s golf game.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Golf is a game of humility: Even the best players are brought low by nature and chance. And it’s a game of honor: You keep your own score and are often unseen by other players.
Then there is Trump golf. He breaks rules, exaggerates scores and ignores the game’s decorum. Sound familiar? He is, Sports Illustrated asserted, “easily the best golfer” ever to occupy the White House. Likewise, he is an enormously talented politician, with a genius for marketing. Yet in golf, as in life, he doesn’t leave it at that. He gilds the lily with dishonesty.
“Trump will sometimes respond to a shot he duffed by simply playing a second ball and carrying on as if the first shot never happened,” SI reports. “In the parlance of the game, Trump takes floating mulligans, usually more than one during a round. Because of them it is impossible to say what he has actually shot on any given day, according to 18 people who have teed it up with Trump over the last decade.”
Many duffers take mulligans, or apply “winter rules” to help themselves out of difficulty. But you can’t then claim your score was honestly attained. “In 2007, Trump called [SI senior writer Michael] Bamberger to brag about a 68 he had shot at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles,” the article reports. “… For Trump to shoot 68 on a tough course like Bel-Air would require him to play nearly perfectly from tee to green while making a number of substantial putts. One of his playing partners that day confirmed that Trump played ‘good,’ but that he took all the usual liberties common among everyday golfers: mulligans, gimmes, improved lies, etc.” Bamberger didn’t report that Trump shot a 68, and he “heard about it from Trump.”
Trump’s official handicap, the magazine says, is an astonishingly good 2.8, which means he’ll average about three strokes over par on 18 holes. But, the magazine continues, “he has posted only three scores since ‘14. [Pro golfer Ernie] Els, a South Florida resident who has known Trump for many years, estimates he is ‘an eight or a nine.’” Trump couldn’t be content winning the presidency; he had to make up fantasies about millions of illegal votes denying him a popular-vote victory. Likewise, he is a good golfer. But he needs to invent something better.
Or invent “championships” the way his clubs hung fake Time magazine covers of him. SI noted a 2013 Trump tweet in which he boasted: “I’ve won 18 Club Championships including this weekend.” But, SI said, “Trump has never made public a list of his club titles, and fact-checking calls to all of the Trump properties on this subject went universally un-returned. Winged Foot is the one non-Trump club at which the president is a member, and his name does not appear on any of the honor boards in the old clubhouse.”
Reaction to the article has focused on Trump reportedly telling members of his Bedminster golf club that he visits frequently because the White House “is a real dump.” A Trump aide denied this. Clearly, Trump isn’t just escaping – he loves golf. After criticizing President Barack Obama for playing golf, he has played once every 5.7 days as president, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump counts.
So why does he desecrate the game he loves? He drives his cart on greens and tee boxes. He talks through other players’ shots. He “doesn’t play a round of golf so much as narrate it, his commentary peppered with hyperbole,” SI reports. He says he’s attracted to the game by “walking down all those beautiful fairways,” but he only rides in a cart.
Maybe Trump has a chip on his shoulder because the old-boy golf clubs wouldn’t admit the gauche showman. So he built his own. Now the populist Trump boasts that he’s “the best golfer of all the rich people.”
The famed 20th-century golf pro and instructor Percy Boomer said that the game reveals much about the man. “If you wish to hide your character, do not play golf,” he said.
But Trump plays, and reveals more than we’d like to see.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.