Let's assess the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on the all-important golf issue
Photo illustration: Ben Walton
The United States has boasted some very golf-oriented presidents in American history. Dwight Eisenhower was intimately connected with Augusta National, both Bushes are/were lifelong fans who became regular fixtures at golf’s big events, and Barack Obama, despite his well-documented love for basketball, also became a near-diehard. None of them, however, rise to the level of Donald Trump, a skilled golfer who also owns courses on both sides of the Atlantic. He has played with most of the world’s elite golfers, his courses are famous, and Trump National in New Jersey will host the 2022 PGA Championship. In his first eight weeks in office alone, he carved out time to play golf on 11 occasions. He has been called the “golfer-in-chief”—not always fondly, mind you—on multiple occasions.
It won’t be telling tales out of school to say that none of the Democratic contenders who hope to challenge him in November have comparable golf résumés. Not even close. But how do they really feel about the game? Do they loathe it? Are there some secret golf-heads among them? Let’s look at each candidate, working our way from top to bottom using the current national polling averages on RealClearPolitics.
As a teenager, Sanders was a legitimate track star, finishing third in the Brooklyn indoor one-mile championship and winning the Flatbush cross country championships and a number of other races while captaining his high school team. He also played basketball in school and kept playing at least into his late 30s in Vermont, where he was known as a “crafty” mid-range shooter with sharp elbows. (Those of us who are very online know that you can still find clips of him showing off his skills.) In Burlington, as mayor, he became obsessed with tennis. He even brought minor league baseball to Vermont.
But golf? Folks, I’m here to tell you there is one and only one piece of evidence that Bernie Sanders has ever thought about the sport in his lifetime. It comes from this New York Magazine story from 2014 where a “political associate” is quoted saying the following: “The guy works 100 hours a week. Maybe he hit a golf ball at the driving range once or twice. That’s his fun for the year.”
Photo Illustration: Ben Walton; Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc
Other than that? Nothing. Which probably makes sense—he grew up poor in a city, and golf is, in some minds, a sport for people with money and access to land. You may not know this, but Sanders has some thoughts on wealth inequality, so he and golf are not a perfect fit. Trump once claimed Sanders would take away golf if he became president (putting on my fact-checker cap, I rate this claim as “unlikely”), and that’s one of the few cases you can find online where the Vermont senator is even remotely associated with the sport ... though you can buy a Sanders ball marker and hat clip, if that’s your thing.
Golf rating: Very infrequent range rat.
Biden looks like someone who would play golf, and in fact those looks are not deceiving. Most recently, he was in the news for a golf outing in August 2014 with his son Hunter and some “business associates” (I’m trying my utmost not to make the post political, so follow this link or this link if you want). As Golf Digest covered in the last election, he’s supposedly a single-digit handicap. John Kasich, however, casted doubt on that self-evaluation at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and if he’s right that Biden embellished, it would fit a pattern—he played football and baseball in high school, but may have been caught in a fib about playing college football at Delaware.
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Nevertheless, it’s clear that he’s no stranger to golf, having played multiple times with Obama and leaders like former Irish president Enda Kenny, has publicly complained that politics hurts his game, and even once played with the next man on our list.
Golf rating: Legitimate hacker with delusions of grandeur.
I’ll spare you the suspense: Bloomberg is the biggest golfer on this list, and anyone who has been paying attention to presidential politics in the past week has seen the topic come front and center in a Twitter war between him and Trump. Behold:
Trump is attempting to emasculate the 77-year-old Bloomberg via golf, and while Bloomberg’s response didn’t invoke golf specifically, his history with the sport is long. He’s tweeted about it before, used golf to attack Trump in a TV ad and has fought Trump over the details of the construction of a course in the Bronx. These developments seem to indicate that if Bloomberg were to win the nomination, golf could be a major battleground in the 2020 election. Hurray?
The recent dust-up also makes it very hard to google anything about Bloomberg and golf that doesn’t involve Trump, but it’s clear that he’s been in the “playing golf with other famous people” club for a long time, and the absolute best information about his golf game comes from this New York Times feature, which alerts us to a few key facts:
1: He didn’t start playing until 2000, at age 58.
2. Once he started, he got obsessed, to the point that he hired professionals to help his swing and bought a swing simulator to measure his swing speed.
3. His security guards kept his clubs in their car so he could dash off to a course at a moment’s notice.
4. It took him a long time to improve, and it took him some time to break 100.
5. He is “scrupulous” about his score, and also gets very angry on the course. Relatable.
6. Trump is apparently right about his unimpressive distance.
7. As of 2009, he was shooting in the 80s and 90s.
8. He belongs to clubs up and down the east coast, and one in Bermuda.
9. Comically, Trump once said about him, “If he had more time to play, he’d be a terror.”
Golf rating: Passion-wise, a late-blooming real McCoy. Skill-wise … worked hard to become a normal McCoy.
Folks, things are about to get a lot shorter. When I googled “Elizabeth Warren golf,” suspecting there would be very little meat, the first result was a video called “Fighting for Golf View.” That sounded promising, but it turned out Golf View is a neighborhood in North Liberty, Iowa. Other than that, the distant associations are mostly tweets attacking Trump for spending time at his golf courses. There’s not really good evidence that she played any sport, unless you count “debate” (she went to college on a debate scholarship). She likes the show “Ballers,” and she once ran across a field, so you’ll have to settle for that.
Golf rating: Shrugging emoji.
Buttigieg is the mayor of a medium-sized city in the state of Indiana, which is basically the basketball capital of the world, but when asked recently whether he had ever attended an NBA game, he replied that he had “not had the pleasure.” If that bit of information makes you think his experience with golf will be limited, well … you think right. Other than the usual golf-related attacks on Trump, Buttigieg’s only real interaction with golf in his personal or professional career came when he tried to sell a South Bend public course to developers, but had to drop the plan under pressure.
Has he ever played? The only piece of evidence I found was from this Politico piece,, which confuses more than it enlightens: *“But after picking at a side salad, Buttigieg stands at the dais and delivers a polished and witty rundown of his priorities. He admits that, during golf outings, he usually hangs out near the putting green so as to avoid ‘injuries or arrests.’”
Photo illustration: Ben Walton
That seems vaguely promising—at least there were “outings”—but at a debate in November, while playing up his contrast to Trump, he was unequivocal:
Golf rating: Wants to sell your public golf course, thinks you can get arrested if you leave the putting green.
Played golf one time, killed a duck.
Golf rating: Attacked the wrong Donald.
He’s a billionaire, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he had this to say:
Look, I spent seven years traveling around full time talking to people across the country. You know, whatever people think, whatever you guys think that I do, which is presumably play a lot of golf? I don’t play golf. Spend a lot of time on vacation? I don’t take vacation. Hang out and do expensive things? Other than running for president, I don’t do a lot of expensive things.
There is some evidence that he recently sponsored a golf tournament, but that was about the campaign.
Golf rating: Money is wasted on him.
Golf rating: Known to hang ten, but not in the humiliating way most of us are accustomed to.
The conclusion is that we’re dealing with a motley crew, golf-wise, and you’d be hard-pressed to put together a foursome. But if you’re looking to vote based on each candidate’s history with golf (Note: please don’t do this), here are my power rankings:
P.S., if you were wondering, yes, Andrew Yang plays golf. Pity he dropped out last week.