Arnold Palmer famously described golf as “deceptively simple and endlessly complicated. It satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening — and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” Yet many Americans could take it or leave it. Golf, they might agree, is a good walk spoiled. With the PGA Championship, the last of golf’s four majors, concluding Sunday at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, and with the president in the midst of a vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., it seems a good moment to debunk some of the myths about this polarizing game.
Ahead of the inauguration, Golf Digest magazine ranked Donald Trump the best of the past 16 golfer presidents. And judging from his first six months in office, when he spent about 20 percent of his time at one of his golf clubs, he could set the record for total rounds played by a president if he manages to serve two terms. Then again, there’s no official Trump tally because the White House press office won’t say when he plays.
As for his skill level, his claim of having a 2.8 handicap index — meaning he’d generally shoot in the mid-70s on a par 72 course — surely qualifies as serious fake news. According to a recent story in Sports Illustrated, Trump’s handicap index is artificially low, mostly because (surprise, surprise) he doesn’t always play by the rules. In fact, he cheats. “Trump will sometimes respond to a shot he duffed [hit poorly] by simply playing a second ball and carrying on as if the first shot never happened,” according to SI writer Alan Shipnuck. “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.” In the same article, four-time major championship winner Ernie Els, who has known Trump for many years, estimated that he’s closer to an 8- or 9-handicapper, usually shooting in the respectable low 80s.
By comparison, John F. Kennedy shot in the high 70s and low 80s, despite back problems that limited his swing and participation. He didn’t play much after being elected in 1960, because his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, came under criticism for too many days on the course.
Ike may have been the most passionate presidential golfer. He scored in the high 80s, played an estimated 800 rounds, was a member of Augusta National Golf Club and frequently teed it up with his friend Palmer. Golf promoter Fred Corcoran said that Eisenhower was “the greatest thing that ever happened to the game,” helping to double the number of Americans who played. Trump, a significantly less popular president, is unlikely to have the same impact, however much he promotes his courses.
Sticking with Trump for a moment, in a 2015 interview he told Fortune magazine: “Let golf be elitist. . . . Let people work hard and aspire to someday be able to play golf. To afford to play it.”
Certainly golf once deserved that reputation. And in a few places, it still does. But by and large, the game has become far more diverse, far more inclusive and far more welcoming.
According to the National Golf Foundation, 75 percent of the courses in the United States are public, and the average peak-season fee at those courses is $38. Annual memberships at private clubs can run in the four and five digits, with initiation fees going even higher. But the vast majority of private clubs also have nondiscrimination policies.
A major shift began in 1990, when civil rights groups protested the hosting of the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., because it didn’t have any black members. In the wake of that controversy, the PGA of America (which conducts the PGA Championship), the separate PGA Tour and the U.S. Golf Association let it be known that no club that discriminated on the basis of race, religion or gender would be allowed to host their tournaments.
When Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996, Nike released its iconic “Hello World” ad, which included the line: “There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin.” Twenty years later, those places are truly few and far between.
After Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the PGA Tour issued statements saying that “Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”
Comparing players from different eras is always dicey, although a case could certainly be made that Woods took his sport into its greatest era of popularity with his stunning play over the first dozen years of his brilliant career.
Woods has won 14 major championships and 79 tournaments. He first reached No. 1 in the world rankings in June 1997, less than a year after he turned pro. He claims the most total weeks and most consecutive weeks in that position, including from August 1999 to September 2004 (264 weeks) and from June 2005 to October 2010 (281 weeks).
But Woods, now 41, hasn’t won a major since 2008 and hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since 2013. Both his game and his reputation took a hit after his public admission in 2009 of marital infidelity. This past week he was in the news for reaching a plea deal and avoiding jail time in connection with his May prescription-drug DUI charge.
The debate over the greatest golfer of all time always centers on the number of major championships won. Jack Nicklaus has 18, the last at age 46 in the 1986 Masters. Many believe that if Nicklaus had been playing with the same high-tech equipment Woods used, he might have won 30 majors. After all, he was runner-up in 19 of them. Woods is currently recovering from his fourth back surgery and hopes to resume playing, but surpassing Nicklaus’s 18 majors is a long shot, at best.
For now, it’s still Nicklaus.
The time it takes to play a round of golf is often cited as a primary reason the game isn’t more popular. “Playing golf has gone the way of the three-martini lunch,” declared a March MarketWatch story . An international survey commissioned in 2015 by Scotland’s R&A found that 60 percent of people who do play would like the game better if it took less time.
Yes, an 18-hole round usually averages four hours, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy the game in about the same amount of time as other leisurely pursuits — the gym, a movie, a couple of sets of tennis. Instead of 18 holes, just play nine. Go to a shorter executive or par-3 course and be done in a couple of hours. Hitting a bucket of balls at a driving range, then spending a half-hour on the practice putting green, will do wonders for your game. Miniature golf might help your putting stroke. And for a fun night, some high-tech practice facilities include target games for all ages and skill levels using microchipped balls.
The 2015 documentary “A Dangerous Game ” catalogues the offenses. “Golf courses just pound water on them, and that drives the chemicals into the root zone,” actor Alec Baldwin says in the film. There’s no doubt that building and maintaining golf courses have involved practices — including heavy water use, pesticides, tree-clearing and habitat fragmentation — that are harmful to the environment. The golf industry, however, is becoming more environmentally responsible, and it has the potential to play a positive role.
The major golfing bodies have established partnerships with leading national and local environmental groups. They have worked to cultivate disease and pest-resistant turf grasses, establish organic-turf courses, develop water conservation strategies, and protect habitat for native plant and wildlife species.
It still may not be a great idea to site a golf course in a drought-prone area. But golf and the environment don’t have to be in conflict. As biologist John MacKinnon has written, “Golf courses can serve as miniature nature reserves, harbouring local resident populations of otherwise endangered species, stepping stones for species dispersal and migration. Golf courses provide green breathing spaces in a concrete landscape .”