At its best, the game of golf is both noble and common.
A golfer meanders meditatively through lightly cultivated nature, strategizing not against a foe but against wind, water, slope and one’s own fickle mind. Golf teaches life’s fundamental lessons: the role of practice and humility in self-mastery, when to play it safe and when to go for broke, and the social conventions of spending four hours with complete strangers. The culture of golf is open to all, an everyman’s game. Scotland’s village putting greens have neither fences nor fees. And Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, the oldest public course in the United States, showcases the fullness of American diversity.
But at its worst, golf is a game of lying, cheating, blaming and gambling. At its worst, the culture of private golf courses propagates misogyny, racism, exploitation of undocumented labor and unchecked privilege.
Golf, at its worst, is Donald Trump.
The relevance of golf to understanding Trump should have been clear all along. Golf courses feature prominently among his branding ventures. And if you catch a rerun of an old interview with Trump on the Golf Channel, what stands out is how earnestly happy he is when talking about the subject — a completely different person than the disgruntled bundle of id on display at his political rallies. In June, Trump even made the unorthodox choice to visit Scotland in the middle of the campaign. Some upstart candidates for president, feeling green about matters of international import, visit foreign leaders during their campaigns to open dialogue. Trump went only to open a golf course — and praise his immigrant mother from golf’s country of origin.
But there’s an ungentlemanly side to this gentlemen’s game, with which Trump seems well acquainted. The dark side of golf culture helps to unlock Trump’s worldview and behavior. Consider, for instance, that he used the phrase “locker-room banter” in his official statement that tried to explain away his foul behavior recorded on a leaked Access Hollywood tape obtained by The Washington Post. The phrase didn’t make much sense, especially coming from Trump. Athletes were offended by the analogy, saying that no one talks like this in locker rooms. And in any case, when was the last time Trump was in a locker room?
The truth is that Trump does go to locker rooms and that privileged, misogynist old men do really talk like this in locker rooms — locker rooms at private golf courses. In his official statement, Trump even tried to normalize his misogyny by reference to golf: “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close.”
Male golfers at private clubs are misogynist in both casual and structural ways. The acronym “Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden” is so widely disseminated as an etymology for the word “golf” that it needs to be refuted in the first line of a prominent golf history site. Many private clubs have divided their restaurants and courses by gender, with men eating in “Men’s Grills,” while women play on “Ladies’ Day,” which is often compressed into a midweek morning.
While men are playing the course, a woman often drives around selling drinks and food. Called the “cart girl,” even though she is a grown woman, she is almost always very attractive and, while alone, must frequently deal with unwanted advances or even cash propositions for sexual favors. Last year, a journalist went undercover for Golf Digest to record the experiences of cart girls. One who had formerly worked in human resources at a large corporation said, “It was total culture shock. Every single day golfers were saying things to me that would get them fired in a professional setting.” The hidden recording device captured a toxic masculinity, fueled by crippling insecurity. “I drove up to a group one time,” one cart girl recalled, “and the guy holds out a $50 bill and says, ‘Let’s see your chest.’”
Private golf courses are also frequently racist. Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters, is the most notorious example of racial discrimination, thanks to its exclusion of black people from competition in its Masters tournament until the mid-’70s. But really, walking onto any private course can feel like stepping onto a Southern plantation. In 1997, professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller was asked about the new phenom, Tiger Woods, winning the Masters. After calling the 21-year-old Woods a “little boy,” he dismissively said that Woods (who, as the winner, could choose next year’s menu) should not “serve fried chicken or collard greens, or whatever the hell they serve.” Sometimes on the golf course, old white men get caught saying what they really think into a microphone, just as Trump did with Billy Bush.
Meanwhile, who takes care of golf courses in America? They require constant groundskeeping and landscaping, sectors of our economy with large proportions of undocumented labor from Latin America. And though Trump claims he wants to keep such labor out, just a few years ago he had the opposite attitude. During a meeting with Latino immigration activists, he tried to connect their concerns with something he understood and cared about: his manicured golf courses. “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami,” he reportedly said, seemingly unaware that the term “illegals” might be offensive. “You know in Miami, my golf course is tended by all these Hispanics — if it wasn’t for them, my lawn wouldn’t be the lawn it is. It’s the best lawn.”
Besides these structural features of private golf culture, there is, finally, the game of golf itself. At its best, golf encourages honor, honesty and self-control. But for a man who plays poorly, there’s always a distraction from one’s failures. He can gamble on the side. He can kick his ball out of a bad lie, while no one’s looking. He can throw clubs in rage. He can blame his dark-skinned caddie for interrupting his backswing or the dark-skinned greenskeeper for mowing the grass too short.
And no matter what, in a few holes, the cart girl will come around again. He can have some fun with her. She loved it last time, he thinks. It’s just locker-room banter.