Golf, politics and two very different legacies

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Golf and Donald Trump were back in the news this past week in two scenarios. In the first, Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honour) to Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player and the late Babe Didrikson Zaharias the day after the attack on Congress. As usual, golf fans are divided. Some feel that Sorenstam and Player should have refused the medals based on Trump’s encouragement of the riots at the Capitol. Others try to separate politics and sport and see nothing incongruous in Trump’s political behaviour and his association with golf, be it awards, golf courses or his assorted playing partners. What’s your take? Should Sorenstam and Player have said no thank you and stayed home? 

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Well, first of all, I’d like to commend Babe Zaharias for not showing up. Annika and Gary were absolutely blind and tone-deaf for going to Washington, regardless of how friendly they are with Trump, or how non-political they may profess to be.  Accepting their awards the day after the most ignominious event in recent US history says that they’re either A.  ignorant of current events (bad), or B. insensitive to the assault on democracy in the country that enabled both of them to become multimillionaires (worse), or C. supportive of Trump and everything he stands for, including anarchy and sedition (unforgivable).  If we lost respect for Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Orr for their endorsements of Trump prior to the election, I’d say I now have ZERO respect for Annika and Gary.  A bad stain for the golf community as a whole.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): There have only been a few times in history that I’ve ever been pleased to hear about a sports star making a political stance that I cared about: Jackie Robinson (who ended up in politics after his baseball career), and Jesse Owens, both for a Civil Rights change for obvious reasons. But I don’t look to sports athletes for political views. I also don’t take swing tips from medical surgeons, or politicians, I just don’t think that’s a good source for input to improve my golf. So, why would I think political views from athletes would improve my views? I form my own political opinions based on research and people I value; sports figures don’t make that cut for me.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame Member, PGA of Canada: Is there a limit on our word count here? A police officer was killed in this attempted coup that desecrated one of the most symbolic buildings of American (and counties around the world) freedom and democracy. I hope the FBI uses every possible means to track down anyone who entered that building improperly and/or illegally and charges them with negligent homicide, murder and/or accessory to murder. This is a death that occurred during the commission of a crime. The “Ugly American” should be charged with reckless endangerment, and/or accessory to murder along with his idiotic sidekick, Rudy “The Mob Soldier” Giuliani. As for Annika and Gary Player, they are ‘Trumpers’ and in the same way I now regard Nicklaus and Tom Watson, they too have fallen to a depth beyond description. They each have done a lot of good in their lifetimes, but they ‘burned’ every bridge with one swing.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I have to admit that I was very disappointed that Sorenstam and Player didn’t back out of their ceremony, but not all that surprised.  I think we are all a bit taken back when we hear of our golfing heroes (Nicklaus, Sorenstam, Tiger) supporting Trump, but let’s be honest.  The sport of golf has always been a very white and privileged sport, and thus you have to expect the majority to be on the Red side of the voting ledger south of the border.  However, you’d think there would be a line that a Republican President could cross that would make you think twice about accepting an award from them.  Apparently that line is further right for some.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: They should have had sufficient self-awareness and decency to decline the award at anytime during Drumpf’s reign of error and terror. But turning a blind eye to his destructive and self-absorbed tyranny and accept the day after he fomented insurrection renders them unworthy of the award. Guess they watch the same network and read the same scripts as Nicklaus and Orr.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): Of course, they should have stayed home but perhaps the reality of the situation didn’t penetrate the little bubbles they live in. If it did, then they would have known that everything Trump touches turns out bad. Out of self-preservation they should have refused.  One wonders if in a week or a month or sometime next year, there will be a line-up to give these medals back.

In the other scenario, the PGA of America pulled the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump Bedminster Golf Club and will look for another site not associated with the outgoing President. Trump-owned Turnberry Golf Club in Scotland has been removed from the Open Championship rota and the R&A has no plans to put it back anytime soon. As Trump’s tarnished brand continues to receive self-inflicted damage, there is every likelihood that more associations, sponsors and tournaments around the world will seek to distance themselves from the ugliness of the 45th President. Where do you draw the line? 

Deeks: I don’t draw the line.  I say ban any event, on any tour, from any Trump-related enterprise.  Sticking with any Trump-related venue will unofficially support the man and condone his actions and will inevitably create controversy that the tours and tournaments — and players, for that matter — simply don’t need.

Loughry: I think as organizations, fans and all need to be careful where that political and moral compass is pointed. How deep and how far back do we go to hold anyone/organizations accountable for actions. You don’t need to look to far to see how countries labour forces have been exploited for corporate or government gain. Shall we look at the events and players that play in Dubai? Do we look at the inequality of purses between the men’s and woman’s Tours, and why? Have a look at some of the other clubs and courses events have been hosted on, some have tainted pasts (slave labour, suppressing segments of population, etc.). The list could be rather large depending on that compass you have, so I’m comfortable wherever it lands for you as long as you don’t force it on me. I’m not saying the PGA moving away from Trump is the wrong thing to do, I’ll watch with interest to see if the PGA distances themselves from Jack Nicklaus and another Trump supporters.

Schurman: We don’t have to “draw the line”. It has been drawn for us. The “Ugly American” is finally making it totally obvious who and what he is. He drew the line between decency and honour and separated them from crassness, audacity, disrespect, lawlessness and immorality. If every golfer refused to ever set foot on his golf course properties, hotels and office buildings anywhere in the world it wouldn’t come close to make-up for the hatred he has nurtured. The stains left by Richard Nixon’s abuses are exactly 50 years ago and America isn’t over them to this day. It will take at least 75 years or longer to rid them of the stench Trump has stained Americans with.

Rule: Some argue that politics should be taken out of the equation, but it’s important to consider the brand when running big events, and therefore removing his name from any event will be necessary in the near to distant future.  I for one hope that he has to sell his UK and Ireland properties.  They are great golf courses, but many of my clients won’t visit them because of the name attached.  Turnberry is in my all time Top 5 courses played, it’s that good.  I hope it gets into someone else’s hands so that the R&A can finally return to a venue that has provided two of the most dramatic finishes in Open Championship History, both involving Tom Watson!

Quinn: Of course, it was a travesty that the fake billionaire was allowed to buy Turnberry in the first place. Latest reports have his Scottish courses losing in excess of $65 M (US) in the past year, so the point likely will be moot very soon. He doesn’t have the money — never did — to hold on to the properties. The banks and the Russian mobs will call the loans and that will draw the line for everyone.

Mumford: No line required. When he was just a lying, money-grubbing huckster masquerading as an incompetent President, there was enough political cover to risk association with him. Now that his name is toxic, the rush to get away from him and everything he stands for will be breathtakingly quick. So long Donald!

Mike Whan (pictured at top with junior golfer) has announced that he will step down some time in 2021 after 11 years at the helm of the LPGA. What is Whan’s legacy as Commissioner and what type of leader should the Association look to as it searches for a replacement?

Deeks: This is from Global Golf Post on Monday morning: “Since arriving in 2010 he’s been a savior for the women’s tour, rescuing the circuit from the brink when it had only 24 official events and just $41 million in prize money. (In 2021, in the middle of a global pandemic, the tour is offering 34 tournaments and a record $76 million.)”. That’s a pretty amazing achievement in itself, but in the process, Whan increased interest and appreciation for women’s golf in the US and around the world, IN SPITE OF the fact that the LPGA has come to be dominated by foreign players. Jolly good show, Mike!  As for his successor, it’d be really great if they could find a clone of Mike Whan, but a female.  The last woman commissioner didn’t work out so well, but that shouldn’t stop them from trying.  Condy Rice might be a good choice…

Loughry: Mike was amazing as the LPGA’s leader over the past decade. He fixed so many things with that Tour (added events/partners/sponsors which meant more money for the players). Whoever steps in has a tough job ahead of them, but an exciting one at that and Mike has laid a great pathway for that next leader. The next person will have to be able to navigate the corporate world with savvy, I’d say that skill will be the most important over the next few years as the global economy will struggle recovering. Which shrinks the pool of current partners/sponsors as well as the potential partners/sponsors.

Schurman: Does he have a twin brother? Michael Whan took over a sinking ‘ship’. The product was developable and the players marketable. He has improved both. I never paid a lot of attention to the LPGA. Of course, a way, way back I followed Sandra Post and Annika plus a few others and now Brooke but nothing too time-consuming. Admittedly, I still have trouble with some of the Asian ladies’ names but once I get that straightened out, I enjoy their events. It is taking time (too long), but the gap is closing between men’s and ladies’ purses and that alone is proof sponsors are realizing an ROI a lot of it due to Michael Whan.

Rule: Well, I have never met Mr. Whan but he certainly has developed the reputation of being one of, if not the best commissioner in all of sports.  The players seem to universally love him, and he will be missed.  I love that he was part of the broadcast crew for the LPGA event at Reynolds Plantation in the fall.  It was great to see him interviewing the players, you could see the respect they all had for each other.  He’ll be tough to replace.  It would seem that Suzy Whaley would be at the top of the list now that her run at the PGA of America is done.  But it does seem that bringing in a commissioner that has experience in other sports and industries (i.e., Mike Whan, Keith Pelley) has worked well for golf associations in recent years.

Quinn: His legacy is that he saved the LPGA Tour, plain and simple. The next commissioner has to find a way — it will not be easy, maybe even impossible in the short term — to take the Tour beyond being the South Korean Ladies Tour, and that next commissioner better be a woman.

Mumford: Whan inherited a mess and has done an incredible job of putting the LPGA on a solid footing and exposing golf and the LPGA brand to women and girls around the world. His greatest accomplishment was convincing financial partners that the LPGA was a worthwhile investment and then delivering on his plans and promises. The next Commissioner will not only have to maintain that legacy but figure out how to navigate the tricky divide between declining American sponsors and fans and international support. The job has moved way beyond golf. It’s diplomacy and marketing at a very advanced level. I think the successful candidate comes from outside the industry.


The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

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