PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Donald Trump, the golf establishment and what might have been


Jared C. Tilton/LIV Golf

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

The writer Geoff Shackelford has himself a good time on the first of April. On Saturday, he broke the news that Augusta National had signed a deal with itself to make Augusta National the anchor site of the Masters through 2086. In 2012, he marked April 1 with the word that Donald Trump had become a member of Augusta National.

Had it not been a goof, maybe things would be different now.

The indictment of the former President is another example, in a never-ending series, of what happens when investigators follow the money. Three catchy words that are always useful for reporters, prosecutors, private investigators and others.

But follow the money has a first cousin that Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, used all of his typing life: Examine what people will do to raise their status.

For a jet-rich, golf-mad real-estate impresario like Donald Trump—and I could cite hundreds of other names you might know—joining Augusta National would be the ultimate looks-like-we-made-it golfing statement.

You could add other clubs to that list, including Cypress Point, National Golf Links of America and a select few others.

Trump joined Winged Foot as a young man, but Winged Foot does not have the social cachet of, say, Cypress Point. You can start a plumbing supplies business, become a multimillionaire and find your way to the Winged Foot grill room. There’s something almost working-class about the place. That’s noted here as a positive.

Trump has been a guest at Augusta National. Long before he became a reality TV star, he surely would have had a fantasy about joining Augusta National. That was never going to happen.

He developed and bought his own clubs instead. Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. Trump National in Bedminster, N.J. Trump Turnberry in Scotland.

Later, he took that descending escalator at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a June day in 2015, on his way to announcing his candidacy for the presidency.

Is there any position in American life that has higher status than being President? Is there any position with more power?

Dwight Eisenhower became a member of Augusta National in 1948 as a hero of World War II, and the club’s membership helped get Ike elected president in 1952 and again in 1956. By way of a cabin, an inconvenient tree (RIP) and various mentions of him in the club’s history, the ANGC-Ike relationship is an integral part of the club’s story. A skillful portrait Eisenhower painted of Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder, hangs in the clubhouse. Arnold Palmer told Ike-and-me-at-Augusta stories for 60 years.

Eisenhower had all the status he needed, and then some.

Maybe, just maybe, if Trump had been embraced by the golfing establishment in the 1980s and ’90s, the rest of his life would have unfolded differently. Because when you’re deep into golf’s inner sanctum, you lose some of your individualism in the name of decorum, convention, social order. Outsized personalities don’t get a seat at that table.

For the past 30 years, Trump has played virtually all of his golf at courses that bear his name, and his make-believe family crest. I have played 9½ rounds of golf with Trump. You might think he is the most dangerous threat to American democracy most of us have seen in our lifetime (count me in that group), but he is a lot of fun to play golf with. Good golfer, good storyteller, plays fast and he pays attention to his playing partners.

He doesn’t cheat, not in the classic sense of the word. That would imply that he cares about what a playing partner makes on a given hole. He doesn’t. He just lies habitually about his score. He takes mulligans whenever he feels like it. It’s really casual golf masquerading as serious golf.

I interviewed Trump by phone last May for about 40 minutes. The conversation veered into the golf establishment and my contention that he was never embraced by it. He was playfully dismissive.

“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.”

I noted, when writing about the phone interview, that I had no advance notice Trump would be calling. I was filling a gas tank near Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., when he called. Later, one of Trump’s media people called to say the comment was not true, that I had been told Trump would be calling.


Mike Stobe/LIV Golf

I would say there is zero chance of Trump becoming a member of Augusta National. The club is famously tradition-minded, and aligned with both the PGA Tour and the USGA. Trump is aligned with LIV Golf. Three LIV events are scheduled to be played on Trump courses this year.

As President, Trump made one big hire off the Augusta National driving range, appointing Rex Tillerson his first secretary of state. Tillerson had been a longtime member of Augusta National and you would see him every year at the Masters, helping run the practice range. He worked long hours, in his green club coat and with his tie neatly knotted. I haven’t seen Tillerson at Augusta since Trump fired him in late March 2018, 14 months after taking office.

About a week later, Trump told a reporter he didn’t know about the payment his lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, made to the porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence.

Years earlier, Trump told me about a 68 he said he had shot at Bel-Air Country Club. Later, I checked on the score with one of his playing partners. The report back was that Trump had played well but it was nothing like 68, or even 78.

The things we’ll do in pursuit of status.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at