The Politics of Golf

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re probably aware there’s a quite contentious presidential election campaign going on. With just a few weeks left, as the candidates choose to discuss sexual assault, emails and voter fraud, instead of health care, taxes, the Supreme Court and immigration reform, I wondered how might the upcoming presidential election impact (the all-important game of) golf and the golf course and club industry in particular?

As we all know, our industry has experienced a long period of declining participation, disappearing golf courses and reduced revenues for operators and clubs.  Some think a President Trump would be good for the game while others feel a President Clinton might be preferable for golf’s fortunes. While hoping not to inject my own political opinions (not easy) into this discussion, Here’s my take.

Golf has historically struggled to reach certain groups, such as millennials, women, minorities and the middle and lower income groups. Mr. Trump’s involvement in the golf industry through the ownership of a number of high profile and upscale clubs and resorts has been well chronicled, especially since his entry into the presidential race.  I’ve been consulted by numerous news organizations seeking information on the value of Trump’s clubs for everything from his personal wealth estimates to whether his tax assessment appeals were justified. Not having appraised the properties, I am unable to offer specific opinions. While Secretary Clinton apparently doesn’t play golf, it is widely known that former President Bill Clinton does, and at least until the election became heated occasionally partnered Mr. Trump on the links. How ironic!

First and foremost, with golfer participation being the most critical current challenge to our game, let’s consider whether the highly contentious and often ugly campaign between two candidates of unprecedented unpopularity has impacted participation in the short run. There are no statistics yet that have measured 2016 participation but there is an indication that Mr. Trump’s highly charged rhetoric relating to women and minorities has impacted play at his properties. At a conference I attended earlier this year at a Trump property, the onsite General Manager clearly indicated that rounds and other revenues had declined noticeably since Mr. Trump entered the race. The recent article ( in the New York Times also chronicles another example of this impact.

The PGA Tour cancelled the 2015 Grand Slam of Golf event scheduled for a Trump facility in California and moved the annual event that has been staged at Doral in Florida for more than 50 years to an alternative venue. There have been numerous calls for the USGA and PGA to relocate upcoming events scheduled at Trump facilities.  The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R & A) announced late last year that Mr. Trump’s Turnberry property would no longer be hosting the Open Championship, as it had done last (prior to Trump’s ownership) in 2009 during Tom Watson’s riveting run for the Claret Jug at the age of 59.  The reasons cited were Trump’s “controversial comments about Muslims, Chinese, women and others.”  The R & A noted not only the obvious public relations problem, but also the resulting impact of sponsor relations.

Though not running in this year’s race, Bill Clinton’s golf exploits have also been well chronicled. The former president hosted the annual Humana Challenge PGA Tour event for a couple years and is known as an active golfer.  While president, Clinton came under fire for being a bit loose with the rules at times in his personal (not in competition) quest to break 80. There have been similar rumblings about Mr. Trump’s adherence to the Rules of Golf as well.

Given that our game is predominantly played by a more affluent group, the issue of taxes is front and center.  Mr. Trump’s tax policies suggest that those in the golfer demographic would benefit the most by tax reductions for the wealthy, while the Clinton position advocates higher taxes on the rich and reductions for the middle class. How does this play for golf?

One’s position on this argument likely depends on their political persuasion.  As one who enjoys debating politics, I’ve heard both sides of this argument. Trump supporters suggest that if the wealthy (who already play golf) get tax relief, not only are they more likely to participate at a higher rate, but they will create jobs that might encourage others to play golf. Conversely, Clinton supporters suggest that the wealthy are not likely to be impacted in their recreational habits and middle class tax cuts would allow more of that group to participate. If there were a definitive answer to that question, it would make analyzing the golf course industry much easier.

To some it’s not an economic issue as much as an issue of appeal. Ms. Clinton is not normally associated directly with golf, and it would seem like her policies are less likely to have direct impact one way or the other on golfer participation.  Conversely, through his own words, extolling his own golfing exploits and his economic involvement in the game, current and potential golfers are more likely to associate Mr. Trump with golf.  While some present golfers may choose not to visit any of his (impressive and desirable) facilities, it is unlikely that a President Trump would be likely (as President Eisenhower, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 or Obama did) to attract new players to the game as suggested by the withdrawal of the PGA Tour and repeated calls for the USGA and PGA to follow suit.

The social argument has also been enjoined by Mr. Trump’s own assertion that golf should be “aspirational” clearly suggesting that golf is not a game for everyone.  What would Arnold Palmer think of that?

Just the other day, I played golf with a USGA insider who suggested that the USGA would like to move next year’s US Women’s Open from Trump’s New Jersey club, but fears lawsuits (from Trump) and logistical issues of relocating on such short notice.  The conclusion here is obvious. At least some golf organizations feel that a President Trump could have toxic effects that hinder the development of additional golf participation, especially among the groups that don’t favor his candidacy, like millennials, minorities and women, especially college educated women.

As previously suggested, a President Clinton would seem to have a very limited impact one way or the other on golfer participation.

Golf and the golf industry are largely populated by those who identify as Republicans. Many private clubs are largely dominated by memberships of white males in their 50’s and 60’s. Just the other day, we learned that after years of golf’s largest player segment comprising of the 45-55 age group, it shifted to those aged 55-65. That’s a bad sign because it means we’re not doing a good job of attracting the next generation. While I don’t think a presidential election typically has much impact on golfer participation, this one might. While some might see a President Trump as positive due to his extensive involvement in the game, others may find exactly the opposite, as suggested earlier based on their political persuasion.

Many presidents have played golf and there is little opinion on whether their impact on the game was positive or negative, but given the frivolous rhetoric of this campaign, it seemed like a good idea to explore.

As usual, only time will tell.  Whatever your persuasion, by all means VOTE!