The Loop

Ethical dilemma: What if you don't like a club's policies, but you really like its golf course?


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October 28, 2016

Earlier this month I felt passingly pleased with myself for turning down an invitation to play at a Donald Trump-owned golf course. The truth is I was over-scheduled and wouldn’t have had time to play anyway, but that didn’t stop me from noting, as an additional reason for not accepting the invitation, my qualms about the course owner.

Conveniently at that time, I seem to have forgotten that I was already registered to play in a two-day tournament at another Trump-owned course a few weeks later. That event, held at a different course each year, is one of my annual favorites. When it came around, I bailed on my political principles. I do vaguely recall being aware of the conflict, but it registered in my conscious mind to about the same degree that the hourly ringing of church bells near my office does. Only afterward, as I was struggling to write this article, did I begin to marvel at how dexterously I avoided confronting my hypocrisy.

Rest easy, dear reader, my purpose here is not to debate the political merits of our presidential candidates. There’s more than enough of that elsewhere. Rather it’s to think outloud a bit about when it’s appropriate and useful, in the context of golf, for people to take a political or ethical stand.

If I had declined an invitation to play Augusta National in the early 2000s, how much difference would that have made? Augusta is a hard invitation to turn down.

Most of the time, golf and politics have little to do with one another. In fact, that’s one of the game’s great virtues. Four to five hours tooling around on a beautiful course with friends, the mind pleasantly absorbed in a task with zero real-world relevance -- what better prescription could there be for escaping the stresses and concerns of our everyday lives?

But this year’s ugly presidential campaign has intruded on almost everyone’s emotional tranquility, and golf has not escaped. Just this week, for example, a group of U.S. Senators wrote a letter to the U.S. Golf Association demanding that next year’s U.S. Women’s Open be moved from Trump’s club in Bedminster, N.J.

“In declining future association with a brand that degrades women,” the letter said, “the USGA and LPGA have an opportunity to make clear to the world, and most especially young Americans, that our nation will not tolerate nor do business with any company that condones or excuses action that constitutes sexual assault.”


The PGA of America is also in the hot seat about staging its Senior PGA Championship next summer at Trump’s club outside Washington D.C. Last year, the USGA, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour found it necessary to issue a joint statement distancing themselves from Trump’s inflammatory early-campaign remarks about immigration. In June, the Tour opted not to renew its contract to hold the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump’s Doral Resort in Miami, where the Tour has been stopping since the 1960s.

Responding to moral and political issues is tricky territory, both for golf organizations like those above and for individuals. It’s easy to say, or wish, that golf and sports in general should be politics-free. Golf is just a game, after all. But we can’t control how, when or where the issues of the day stake a claim. Baseball in the late 1940s, after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier, became an unlikely early venue for America to sort through civil rights. Pressure from international sports organizations proved decisive in defeating apartheid in South Africa. Football is just a game, too, but the NFL is frequently a battlefront when it comes to social issues; the hot topic right now is spousal abuse.

Change and controversy pop up unpredictably, wherever they will, and not always or even usually in neatly-cordoned-off situations that we can monitor comfortably from afar.

For golf historically, more than for the major spectator sports, controversies have played out at the local and personal level. Long after the PGA of America removed its infamous "Caucasian-only clause" in 1961, private clubs continued to discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity and gender. Some still do. This practice, in most cases perfectly legal, endures in part because of the tacit support of people who accept invitations to play or socialize at such clubs.

And as my experience above illustrates, how easy it is to acquiesce! If you do play a round of golf at a club whose policies you disapprove, not many people ever have to know. That in turn feeds a handy rationalization: not many people will ever know that you declined an invitation, either, so why not go ahead and play? The decisions golf organizations make are high profile. If the USGA, for instance, were to yank next year’s Women’s Open from Trump Bedminster, that would be a major statement. (The USGA has given no indication it plans to do so.) By contrast, if I had declined an invitation to play Augusta National in the early 2000s, during the Martha Burk-led protests over the club’s lack of women members, how much difference would that have made? Not much, or at least so I could have rationalized. Augusta is a hard invitation to turn down.


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But small acts like declining invitations do matter. If the person whose invitation you refuse is at all sensitive to the issue, he or she may raise a hand at the next club meeting. If enough people turn down invites, clubs over time will make changes. That’s how boycotts work. That’s how society evolves. What happened when Tom Watson resigned from the Kansas City (Mo.) Country Club over the blackballing of a prospective Jewish member? He exerted just enough pressure for the club to reverse its thinking.

Another dissuading factor for taking personal action is the almost total disconnect between hitting a stupid white ball around a pasture and the issues that may be at stake. But it’s important to recognize when it comes to protest that participation itself is the point and the message. To say that you’ll play, but “under protest,” is to say nothing at all, because you’ve sacrificed nothing at all.

Luckily for golfers, the game overall and golf clubs in general have become more welcoming and transparent in recent times. But there will always be controversies. Who could have predicted the troubles Trump has created for the major golf organizations, or, on a more trivial scale, for me and others who might visit his clubs and resorts? Going forward, water usage and environmental concerns may increasingly pose ethical challenges. The game seldom asks much of golfers on the political and social issues front, but when it does, we need to listen, and act according to our conscience when we think we should.