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Donald Trump speaks out on Phil, Jack, Saudi Arabia and the PGA that got away

After a reporter's story on Trump's lost 2022 PGA, the former president called unannounced to weigh in with his own thoughts.
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Chris Condon

After a reporter's story on Trump's lost 2022 PGA, the former president called unannounced to weigh in with his own thoughts.

TULSA — Donald Trump, former president of the United States and golf nut, said in a phone interview on Wednesday night that he will not be watching the 104th PGA Championship, which began here on Thursday at the historic Southern Hills Country Club, site of seven previous major championships.

“I won’t be watching it, no,” Trump told me in a phone interview. “I will not watch it. The only thing I like about it is that I love Oklahoma where, as you pointed out brilliantly, I have won 77 outta 77 counties. But I will not be watching it. No.”

Trump was referring to a long piece I wrote, which originally appeared on FirePitCollective.com on Monday, that seeks to explain why the PGA of America moved this year’s tournament from Trump Bedminster to Southern Hills in the wake of the Jan. 6 lethal violence at the U.S. Capitol and the threat to American democracy and ideals it represented.

Throughout the interview, which came with no advance notice, Trump sounded relaxed and upbeat and much as he did before he entered politics. I had not talked to him in about seven years. Prior to that, I had interviewed him often over a 15-year period as he went on a golf-course buying spree. On Wednesday he said something that he has said many times before: “I only do great. I’m very good at property.”

Trump watches a lot of golf on TV but his decision not to watch this year’s PGA Championship is an informal act of protest. For more than six years, Trump looked forward to being the host this week. The 2022 PGA Championship would have been the first time any of his 25 or so courses had been used for one of the four major men’s events. Anybody who knows Trump as a golf entrepreneur knows the intense wooing he has done in an attempt to achieve that goal. He was finally rewarded on April 30, 2014, when the PGA of America announced that Trump’s course in Bedminster, N.J., would be the venue for the 2022 PGA Championship. He had his major, the first of many, he hoped. Even after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, the PGA was something he eagerly anticipated.

And then came the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. To say they impacted the professional golf schedule is beyond trite — but they did. Trump said he heard about the PGA’s decision from his son Eric, who runs the golf business of the Trump Organization. “My son, who’s a great guy, called,” Trump said. “My son said, ‘Dad, they’re canceling the PGA Championship [at Trump Bedminster]. I said, ‘That’s terrible. Really? Are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they’re canceling it. Can you believe it?’ I said, ‘Not really. Let me think about that. That’s something.’

(Some of Trump’s comments have been lightly edited for clarity. “Clean it up a little bit because sometimes when I’m discussing things with a reporter, I speak differently than if I’m making a speech. Then I speak perfectly,” Trump said.)

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Stew Milne/AP Photo

“And then I had to get back to work and China and all this stuff, Russia, the country. But it’s a hell of a thing when you hear that.

“I would’ve loved to have done it and because I have the right place, I have the right location, the Tom Fazio course — he feels it was one of his best jobs he’s ever done. It’s essentially right outside the Lincoln Tunnel, 20 minutes away. It’s perfect and big. And I have the two courses there. We have parking for thousands of cars. It would have been phenomenal.”

The Trump Bedminster property is in the New Jersey horse country on the former John DeLorean estate, and it is 20 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel – by helicopter. (Google Maps has it, in rare traffic-free conditions, as a 54-minute car ride from the Jersey side of the tunnel named for the 16th president.) Many people who have spent time with Trump, from long before he became a candidate for president, have known not to take much of what he says literally. To some degree, his hyperbole is his sense of humor. But nobody would doubt that the Bedminster property would have room to park thousands of cars.

Trump said that Trump Bedminster will now be the venue for a tournament in mid-July, the third event of a new golf league financed by the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund and called the LIV Golf series. It is run by Greg Norman. Trump, who was speaking from Mar-a-Lago, an estate and private club he owns in South Florida, said he expects to attend that July event.

“They asked me, they said they wanted to use the course,” Trump said, speaking of the LIV Golf executives. “I made a deal with them. They’re very good people. They’re very fine people. Greg Norman’s been a total gentleman, you know, and he’s wanted to do this for years and now he has the right backers because, you know, [the Saudi money] is unlimited. They can do the job right. I think when you put up first-place prize money for $6 or $7 million, I think a lot of people are gonna be showing up, to be honest with you.”

The LIV Series will feature three-day, 54-hole events with team and individual components for 48 players. The event at Trump Bedminster will have a $25 million purse. The winner will receive $4 million, plus any money he may make in the team aspect of the competition. The series is open to male professionals and amateurs and only by invitation. Speculation has run rampant about who might be playing in the first event, in London in early June. The season finale, in mid-October, will be held at Trump Doral in Miami. The purse for that event is $50 million.

Yes, the numbers are dizzying, as they are meant to be. At this week’s PGA Championship, 156 players are in the field and the winner will receive $2.1 million.

I asked Trump if he thought the LIV Series would be viable for years to come. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “You could take a rich guy and start a tour and lose $100 million for a couple of years. Every rich guy I know, I don’t care how rich, including me after a couple of years, will say, ‘Well, that’s enough of that stuff.’

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“And you sort of saw that on the Nike Tour where you’ve had about 10 different sponsors over the years, because sponsors got tired of losing money. Right? But Saudi Arabia loves golf. The top guys there love golf. I know them very well and they’re very good people, the people that are involved. Five years ago they didn’t know anything about golf. They’re incredibly wanting to do this and they’re willing to spend, they have unlimited pockets, Michael. Unlimited pockets. Right?

“Everybody’s limited. I’m limited. All the rich guys you and I know are limited. We’re all limited, because we don’t wanna lose $100 million a year for the rest of our lives. Right? But Saudi Arabia has unlimited pockets, and it’s good for the country and it’s good for everything.”

In other words, yes. Trump is bullish on their chances.

Had the Jan. 6 protests been peaceful, I asked Trump, would the golf world — including Tiger Woods and Scottie Scheffler but not Phil Mickelson, the defending champion who is not playing — be gathered this week in Bedminster?

“I’ll tell you this,” Trump said. “If you took a poll inside the PGA, the 28,000 members of the PGA of America, I’d be 97 percent, I believe. I’d be way up there. And people are really angry at what the PGA did to me by taking that tournament away. And I had nothing to do with January 6th. They’d be very angry at what they did.

“I — meaning my people — told Nancy Pelosi on January 3rd that I think there’s a big crowd coming. I think you should have 10,000 soldiers wrapped around the Capitol or in the Capitol. And she said, ‘No, it won’t be a good look.’

“And that was up to her because she’s in charge of the security. So if you had had a thousand soldiers, Michael, you wouldn’t have had January 6th. And she’s the one that turned it down because she’s in charge of security. I had nothing to do with January 6th, but [the PGA of America] used that.”

It should be noted that representatives for Pelosi, the House speaker, have dismissed the claim that she rejected the suggestion for more security for Jan. 6. They also point out that House speakers do not have authority over Capitol Hill security.

I should also note, despite that lapse into politics, and there were others, that Trump spoke casually and happily for more than 40 minutes chiefly on a subject that is dear to him: golf, golfers and most especially golf, and golfers, on his courses. Trump’s unscheduled call to me came in response to interview requests I had made while reporting the long Fire Pit Collective piece. I had just filled the tank on my Nissan Rogue rental car at a Phillips 66 station on Route 66 in Tulsa when my phone rang. NO CALLER ID, the screen read. I answered and it was the former president, calling directly.

The earlier story, entitled “Trumped,” seeks to explain how the 2022 PGA Championship landed at Trump Bedminster, when the organization’s CEO was Pete Bevacqua and how it was moved from there by Bevacqua’s successor, Seth Waugh. Bevacqua was named CEO of the PGA of America in late 2012 and is now the chairman of the NBC Sports Group. Waugh is a former CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas.

In remarkable and personal detail and telling the story in the present tense, Trump described how Bevacqua went from the USGA to a talent agency before becoming, with Trump’s help (per Trump) the PGA of America’s CEO. Trump knew Bevacqua when he worked for the USGA. “So Pete is now an agent or something and I speak to him and I say, ‘Pete, do you have any interest in heading the PGA of America?’” Trump said, telling the story with a certain glee and energy. “He says, ‘Uh, I would cut off my right arm for it.’ And then Pete gets hired for a fortune by NBC — not my friends, NBC — but Pete gets hired for an absolute fortune by NBC.”

After Bevacqua’s move from the PGA of America to NBC Sports, in Trump’s telling, the standing of Trump Golf with the PGA of America fell. Trump heaped praise on Bevacqua and was dismissive of Waugh. In the piece posted on Monday, Waugh said, “Everybody wants to make this a political move, but we got put into a political place that was not of our own making. My feeling was we could do existential damage to our brand by staying at Bedminster.”

Trump knows many PGA Tour players, including Jim Herman, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Not one prominent active player has publicly stood with Trump on the PGA of America’s decision to move this year’s PGA Championship from Trump Bedminster. But Trump noted several times what Jack Nicklaus, whom Trump has hired for design work, said in the earlier piece.

“I like Seth Waugh,” Nicklaus said in that story. “Seth didn’t need this job. He took the job because he thought he could give the PGA of America some good guidance. And I think he’s doing that. But this move is cancel culture. Donald Trump may be a lot of things, but he loves golf and he loves this country. He’s a student of the game and a formidable figure in the game. What he does in the future in golf will depend on what the cancel culture will allow him to do.”

“I’ve been very good for golf,” Trump said, after discussing the quote. “Jack Nicklaus said it: ‘He’s been great for golf.’”

I asked Trump about the settlement he reached with the PGA of America on a lawsuit over the moved tournament. Trump did not divulge the number.

“It was fine, it was fine,” he said. “But money can’t replace that. I don’t need money and can’t replace that. They did something so terrible. They took away a major from somebody that’s done a great job for golf.”

Years ago, when Trump had a course-construction contract with a construction company owned by Nicklaus, the two men were feuding. In that period, I told Trump how much I liked a public course in North Palm Beach, Fla., that Nicklaus designed on a pro-bono basis. Trump said (and this is from memory), “I went to that course, that muni. I put on my disguise and bought a little ticket and walked around. That course is a piece of shit. You know nothing about golf.” He was being funny, I’m sure. I doubt he ever got past the parking lot, if he got that close. But the two men did not have a good relationship. In the years since, that has all changed.

In 2014, I was interviewing Nicklaus in his office in North Palm Beach about his life in golf. Near the end, Nicklaus said he had to wrap things up, because Trump and Kerry Haig, a PGA of America official, were waiting in another room to discuss possible sites for the PGA Championship, courses that would have both the Trump and Nicklaus stamps on them.

I asked Trump if he still thought he might get a men’s major championship at one of his courses, including Trump Turnberry on the rugged West Coast of Scotland, where the British Open was played in 1977, 1986, 1994 and 2009.

“I think it’s highly unlikely,” he said.

We talked about the Turnberry course, where Tom Watson won the ’77 Open, over Nicklaus, and lost the ’09 Open, at age 59, in a playoff with Stewart Cink. “Turnberry , you know — it’s very interesting,” Trump said. “In Europe, I’ve been given great credit for the job I did at Turnberry. I rebuilt greens, I moved the 9th hole out into the ocean. I moved the 11th hole and the 10th hole out into the ocean. You know, you had the ocean. I remember when Tom Watson — say hello to him when you can; I love Tom Watson — said, ‘Why don’t you move, I think he said, the 11th hole? You know, Tom Watson. He won five Opens, and I think he won five Senior Opens. Would you say he was a good links player?”

Beyond good. Watson won five British Opens and three Senior British Opens, by the way. But I had to look it up. While speaking with Trump, I mentioned the name Bob Charles (great links golfer from New Zealand) when I meant Peter Thomson (far greater links golfer from Australia). Trump picked up on the mistake immediately. He knows a lot about golf and he is good at golf, although some of the scores he has reported over the years, and some of the club titles he claims, seem beyond unlikely.

I asked about the 2018 club championship at his West Palm Beach course. A story I wrote for Golf.com about the event ran under this comical headline: “President Trump won a 2018 club championship — without actually playing in it!” After the event, a small gold plaque was put on his locker, under his name. There were six plaques in all, for events he won, the last one honoring the course owner as the 2018 men’s club champion. The actual winner was a New York financier named Ted Virtue.

“Ted’s a nice guy,” Trump said. “We’ll play golf with him. He’s a high-quality guy.”

I asked Trump if he had challenged Virtue to a nine-hole match after Virtue had won the title.

“I did,” Trump said. “I was not able to be down to Florida very much. So he won down in Florida. He played good and he won. He’s a good player. I said, ‘So Ted, I heard you won.’ I met him on the 10th hole. I said, ‘I’m gonna challenge you now for the club championship.’ Which of course he wouldn’t do, because the club championship is like a four-day deal. You have to win your different matches and all that stuff. I said, ‘Ted, I’m challenging you.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Which is cute. And we did it. I did challenge him, but I did not accept [the title]. You’re not gonna see my name up there. Now I did win the senior club championship there two weeks ago. And I’ve won the senior club championship in Bedminster too. So that’s good.”

I don’t know precisely what Trump meant when he said you wouldn’t see his name “up there.” Most likely his name in gold paint, on stained wood, on a clubhouse wall, as the 2018 senior champion. As noted, precision is not Trump’s strength. That relates to his golf too. His driving game is far better than his chipping game. Most of his golf is casual and contested at match play, which is why the scores he claims should not be taken seriously, even though they do reveal something significant about him. Regardless, just in terms of his golfing skill and his devotion to golf, he is head and shoulders above any other golfing president, although JFK had a lovely, flowing patrician swing with little oomph. Trump’s swing is an effective lunge in which he makes good use of his heft.

This is getting long! But that’s because golf is a sweet spot for Trump. I’m on 18 here.

I asked Trump if he expected Mickelson or DeChambeau or Johnson to play in any or all of the LIV events.

“I don’t know,” Trump said. “I know [the PGA Tour] is putting a lot of pressure on the players [not to play]. I don’t think it’s legal. It’ll end up going to court someday. And you’re gonna find out whether or not the Tour has the Constitutional right to stop them, to preclude them from playing. I think they’d want to play. Phil got himself into a little trouble with his explanations. That could have been better handled, I guess. But Phil’s Phil. Why is he not playing? What’s the real reason he’s not playing? Do you know?”

I said I didn’t but offered that maybe he was embarrassed by the remarks he made to my colleague Alan Shipnuck about the Saudi golf investors and the PGA Tour. I said maybe he was not ready to be with his peers and face reporters. “He can’t be embarrassed, not that bad,” Trump said. “Phil is, you know, a good guy, a great representative [for golf]. You know, with the smile and the whole deal. And Phil should be out playing in this championship. His manner, when he walks around with a smile, tipping the cap, the whole thing. You know?”

I do. Everybody who follows the pro game does.

I asked Trump if he expected to see Mickelson in the Mickelson Villa at Trump Doral when the final event of the LIV inaugural season is played in October.

“Well, hopefully,” Trump said, laughing.

I mentioned Woods. There’s a villa at Trump Doral named for Tiger too.

“I gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom because of what he’s been through, after he won that [2019] Masters,” Trump said. “That was incredible. And frankly, even when he played [at this year’s Masters], that was incredible.”

Trump brought up something from the earlier story, that (in my opinion) he was never embraced by the upper-crust, elite Eastern Establishment golf people. “I found your statement interesting,” Trump said. “You know, they treat me great. Like when I go out to National [Golf Links] or any of these places? You don’t know anybody. You’ve never heard of anybody. You’re meeting these people. You’ve never heard of Worthington Smith the third or the fifth. Right? You don’t know any of these people and it’s sort of strange because usually I know people, we’ve worked together or whatever. But they treat me great. And I do love Winged Foot.”

Trump is a longtime member at Winged Foot, where DeChambeau won the 2020 U.S. Open. After his win, on that Sunday night, DeChambeau hung out with Eric Trump at the Trump course in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Eric once told me about the success he had been having with a TaylorMade driver given to him by Dustin Johnson.

It was interesting to hear Trump mention Winged Foot. He plays nearly all his golf at courses that bear his name, and golf conversation with him is usually about those courses as well. When I asked him when he had last played, I got another surprise. His most recent round had been last Saturday, at Dallas National. “I played with Scottie Scheffler and I played with Tony Romo,” Trump said, along with two others from the club. “And you might ask them about the round if you want, if you’re with Scottie. I love Scottie. We had a great time. Tony Romo – he’s a very good player, And Scottie Scheffler? I mean, man, he’s very good.”

I asked Trump how he played.

“I played good,” he said. “I mean, you’d have to ask them. But if you asked them, I think they’d say very good. I had a lot of people watching that first tee shot, getting that ball off the tee. We had a lot of people, and it was good.”

Regarding Scheffler, Trump said, “He’s favored to win this week, right?”

You had the feeling that Donald Trump, former President and golf nut, might sneak just a peek at the golf from Southern Hills this week.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com