Thursday 18 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Golf back on an upswing through Washington's corridors of power

Donald Trump plays the game better than any previous US president - and owns 17 courses

Donald Trump during the re-opening of the Ailsa Course at the Trump Turnberry Resort in June of this year. Photo: Getty
Donald Trump during the re-opening of the Ailsa Course at the Trump Turnberry Resort in June of this year. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

One imagines there was very little mention of golf last weekend in the corridors of Trump National GC at Bedminster, New Jersey, where the US president-elect had lengthy discussions with prospective members of his White House team. Mind you, the high-blown venue had already received plenty of attention in the American media, for decidedly different reasons.

The admirable American sports writer Christine Brennan didn't spare Trump nor the USGA a few days earlier when roundly condemning the decision to have this as the US Women's Open venue next July. You will get the gist of her outrage in USA Today from the reference to a man "who bragged on video that he sexually assaults women . . . "

Elsewhere in the piece, she suggested that for the "crown jewel of women's golf", the USGA "should immediately renounce Trump and his golf course and find a replacement location, something that is eminently doable for a tournament of its size with eight months to go."

Which, we can take it, is not going to happen. There might have been some chance prior to the outcome of the US presidential election earlier this month, when Trump appeared to have little hope of getting to the White House. Either way, eight months wouldn't be nearly sufficient time in which to prepare an alternative venue. Meanwhile, the USGA may expect further squalls.

I have just returned from wall-to-wall Trump in the US, especially on television. Some of it was interesting from a golfing perspective, notably an hour-long profile on Fox News which carried images of him displaying a powerful swing, while gouging divots of which Sergio Garcia would have been proud.

Trump proudly displayed a trophy as winner of the club championship at Bedminster - "winning is winning, and I'm talking with no strokes." It was also revealing to hear him repeat the old Mark McCormack dictum that you'll learn more about a business rival from sharing a round of golf than over a lengthy lunch.

As a reported three-handicapper and the subject of some fascinating stories over the years, he will comfortably become the best golfer to occupy the White House. One Trump tale concerns the father of Australian tycoon James Packer, currently in the news for a widely-publicised split with the singer Mariah Carey.

Boys, they say, will be boys, even when their pocket-money is counted in millions. So it was that when Kerry Packer arrived with his own club professional at the Trump International course in Florida 20 years ago, he threw down a challenge. The Australian suggested a my-pro-can-beat-your-pro match with Trump for a tidy little bet of $50,000.

The match was under way when Packer suddenly twigged he had made a costly miscalculation. He didn't realise his man would be up against Bruce Zabriski, one of America's most competitive club professionals. In the event, the combatants were level after 11 holes but Trump's man then wrapped up the match by covering the next four in five under par.

On collecting the winnings, Zabriski was directed by Trump to spend $10,000 on equipment for the golf shop, distribute $15,000 to the golf staff and keep the remaining $25,000 for himself.

From the time that William Howard Taft became the first US golfing president, with Delgany-born Pat Doyle as his personal tutor, most residents of the White House have been lovers of the royal and ancient game. And until now, John F Kennedy was acknowledged as the best.

When his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, was US ambassador to this country, I remember her telling me: "We all played golf as youngsters." Of her celebrated brother, she went on: "He had a very good swing, considering his back problems, and was somewhere between seven and 10 handicap."

Famously, his skill with a seven-iron almost became a political embarrassment. During the 1960 US presidential campaign, Kennedy happened to stop off the Californian trail for a golf game at Cypress Point. There, he watched in horror as a seven-iron shot at the short 139-yard 15th looked like going straight into the hole. "I'm watching a promising political career coming to an end," he admonished playing partner Paul B Fay Jnr, who was cheering for a hole-in-one.

JFK later explained: "If that ball had gone into that hole, in less than an hour, the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get in the White House." Though he rarely played 18 holes because of his back, he could card 40 or better for nine holes.

Kennedy had his own monogrammed golf clubs and bag with the lettering "JFK Washington DC." There is no indication, however, as to the whereabouts of a set of Dunlop clubs which Seán Lemass, as Taoiseach, gave him as a gift during an official White House visit.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1963, about six months before his assassination, Kennedy made known an enduring wish to have America's idol Arnold Palmer assess his game. But it never happened. Palmer later recalled: "I was scheduled to play him at Palm Beach Country Club, I think, in 1963, but got a call that he couldn't play, that his back was bad. So that was that." When a further arrangement was made, Dallas tragically intervened.

As it happened, Palmer had golf-related photographs of himself with presidents Dwight Eisenhower, George HW Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. He never met Kennedy, though he got to see film of JFK in golfing action.

"It's hard to compare Ike and JFK, because Ike was a much older man when I played with him, whereas Kennedy was in his mid-40s," he said after seeing the film. "President Clinton's swing might be a little bit more athletic [than JFK's]. Not much more so, just a little bit."

He went on: "I played with Clinton at Trump's course in New York. Clinton can hit it, but you never know what zip-code he's going to hit it into."

According to the Boston Globe, Trump didn't post any official scores in 2010, and returned only two in 2015. Still, of a total of 20 scores in recent years, 10 ranged from 70 to 79, and 10 ranged from 81 to 86. And what of his adherence to the rules? For a book titled 'Who's Your Caddy?' the American sports writer Rick Reilly caddied for a number of golfers, including Trump, of whom he wrote: "When it comes to cheating, [Trump] is 11 on a scale of one to 10."

The Globe goes on to tell us that Trump's current portfolio of golf properties numbers 17, comprising 12 in the US along with two in Dubai, two in Scotland, including Turnberry, and, of course, Doonbeg in Co Clare.

Serious apprehension expressed about Turnberry would appear to be totally unfounded. Clive Douglas, the current captain, said: "When he [Trump] bought this place, I thought 'Oops, what's he going to be like?' It turns out that he couldn't have been better."

Indeed the quality of Trump's upgrade is such that there is every likelihood of Turnberry being retained on the Open Championship rota. As it happens, the first available date is 2022, when the PGA Championship is scheduled for his Bedminster establishment.

By which time, Trump will have completed his four-year term in the White House and shown himself, possibly, to be an exemplary leader of the free world. Well, who could have imagined his election victory? And we've come to accept that just about anything is possible in politics and golf.

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