News
July 21, 2020

Report: President wanted U.S. ambassador to help secure Open Championship for Trump Turnberry

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DC

A view of the green on the par-3 ninth hole on the Ailsa Course at the Trump Turnberry Resort on July 15, 2019.

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club is the purveyor of the Open Championship and has chosen the major golf tournament’s venues for more than 150 years.

Nevertheless, President Donald Trump asked the American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, to inquire with the British government about returning the Open Championship to his resort in Scotland, Trump Turnberry, according to a report in the New York Times.

Citing three people with knowledge of the circumstances, the Times reported that Johnson, who owns the NFL’s New York Jets, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 about Trump’s request. The sources said that Johnson’s deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, urged the ambassador not to follow through because the action could be an unethical use of the president’s position for private gain. But, the Times’ sources said, Johnson did eventually bring up the idea of Turnberry hosting the Open Championship with Scotland’s secretary of state, David Mundell.

The Times reported that when it contacted Mundell last week about the matter, he said it would be “inappropriate” to comment, and he cited a British government statement that said Johnson “made no request of Mr. Mundell regarding the British Open or any other sporting event,” though the statement did not confirm or deny that the subject was broached.

The Times said the White House declined to comment on Trump’s instructions to Johnson, as did the ambassador and the State Department. UPDATED: On Thursday, President Trump denied that he ever asked Johnson to intervene. No, I never spoke to Woody Johnson about that, about Turnberry,” Trump said during a press conference. “Turnberry is a highly respected course, as you know, one of the best in the world, and I read a story about it today … I never spoke to Woody Johnson about doing that, no.”

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Jeff J Mitchell

Then a nominee for U.S. president in June 2016, Donald Trump officially reopens the Trump Turnberry resort.

Originally opened in 1901, Turnberry is a young host course by Open Championship standards, joining the tournament’s pool of 10 sites in 1977. The Open has been held there on four occasions, the last in 2009, when then-59-year-old Tom Watson stirred emotions and nearly claimed a sixth claret jug before falling to Stewart Cink in a playoff.

Since then, the R&A has not yet announced another Open Championship for Turnberry. Trump purchased the property in 2014, two years before being elected U.S. president, and there has been speculation that the facility’s chances to host future Opens have been damaged because of Trump’s involvement there.

At the time of Trump’s election in 2016, the R&A had chosen its sites through 2019. Since then, four more venues were identified—Royal St. George’s in England for 2020, the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland for 2021, Royal Liverpool in England for 2023 and Royal Troon in Scotland for 2024. However, when the coronavirus forced the cancellation of this year's Open, the R&A announced that St. George’s would host in 2021 and St. Andrews in 2022, but did not specify what would happen with Liverpool or Troon.

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In a meeting with British reporters in early 2018, the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, insisted that Turnberry remained in consideration for future Opens held in Scotland, though he noted, “It would be complex having an Open at Turnberry at the moment. You’ve got the ownership issue of the course and the staging there.”

In possibly seeking to have an ambassador lobby the British government to stage a golf tournament at his property, the president is exempt from federal conflict of interest laws regarding government matters and personal financial interest, the Times reported. However, experts on government ethics told the Times that one potential violation of the emoluments clause was that the British or Scottish governments would most likely have to pay for security at the tournament, an event that would be profitable to Trump.

The Trump family owns 16 golf courses, seven of which are outside America. The holdings include Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., which in 2014 was chosen by the PGA of America to host the 2022 PGA Championship,

After Trump purchased Turnberry, he made $150 million in investments and improvements there, including a complete renovation of the Alisa Course, which reopened to mostly positive reviews in 2016. But the resort has continued to bleed cash, with the most recent annual report in 2018 showing a loss of nearly $1 million on $19 million in sales.