What does it say that President Trump's first activity after inciting an insurrection was to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three golfers? And that these golfers apparently didn't bat an eye in showing up to the White House after one of the darkest days in modern American history? Unfortunately, Thursday's ceremony is but the latest troubling interaction between the golf world and Donald Trump that has normalized his most incendiary impulses and hurt the game.
First, about that medal ceremony. One of the recipients (Babe Zaharias) is no longer living, thus presumably had little choice in the matter. But two are very much alive. I'm talking about you, Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player. Apparently these two legends of the game think it's all well and good to smile, shake hands, and take photos with someone who whipped up a mob of enraged zealots less than 24 hours earlier. Zealots who went on to storm the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to subvert democracy, leaving at least one police officer and four others dead. Sorenstam and Player should be glad the ceremony wasn't broadcast on TV, where the whole world could have seen them cozying up to a deranged, unwell man.
Thursday's White House letdown is the most recent example of the golf world's complicity in normalizing Trumpism, which is unequivocally bad for the game. Golf is probably the whitest of all sports and one with an unmistakable history of exclusion. At a time when the game is actively seeking to expand its base of golfers, watching lions of the sport rub shoulders with someone who foments hate toward so many cannot be good for business. Not to mention that it's morally despicable.
Yet we see the photos. Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Lexi Thompson. The list goes on. All playing golf with Trump and often looking almost giddy doing so. It's not political, some of them say. It's about respecting the office of President of the United States. Fine. If you don't see eye-to-eye on tax policy, set that aside and enjoy a round of golf. But when the man calls into question the very existence and basic rights of people with brown skin, those born in other countries, who follow different religions or speak different languages? When he repeatedly stops short of condemning white supremacy and instead fires up a Confederate flag-waving mob to besiege the Capitol?
Even before he was elected, Trump was recorded on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. Then there was the Muslim ban, which has repeatedly been ruled unconstitutional. Praising "very fine people, on both sides" of Charlottesville's white nationalist riot. Telling a group of elected United States Representatives to "go back" to where they came from. Four years capped off shamefully, if predictably, by spewing lies about our most sacred democratic process and insisting that votes from non-white citizens cannot possibly be legal. After recounts, lawsuits, state legislatures, and Congress failed to change the results, it was time for the final and most loathsome act: riling up militant extremists with fighting words and sending them toward the Capitol.
Pro golfers are notoriously conservative. For some, like Jack Nicklaus, who tweeted his support for Trump before last November's election, buddying up to the President is political. Perhaps others strongly support Trump's discriminatory policies and statements. But many seem willing to turn a blind eye toward Trump's hateful and inciting words. The fact that such hatred and anti-democratic actions come from the President of the United States does not excuse these actions, but instead makes it even more necessary to speak out against them.
It's not political to stand for fundamental rights and equal treatment for all people, or to unreservedly condemn violence. This is, in fact, the most basic level of human decency. If such views are considered worthy of debate in the political realm, there is something impossibly wrong with our politics.
Unfortunately, brushing aside bigotry and violence is not new in the golf world, nor is it constrained to Donald Trump. A full field went to play the European Tour's first Saudi International tournament in 2019, four months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The tournament, like the murder, was organized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government. Many players said they didn't want to play politics, just to play golf. But they seemed not to realize that their presence (and silence) was a tacit endorsement of a regime with atrocious human rights abuses.
In much the same way, playing golf with Trump gives legitimacy to his views and actions, whether or not one agrees with them. Many professional golfers admirably support important charitable causes, and it is clear they deeply care about other people. But they seem unable or unwilling to confront the fact that their silence in the face of hate, injustice, and violence allows them to be used as pawns, giving credence to extremist views.
While many other professional athletes peacefully protested or spoke out during the social injustices of 2020, many golfers were part of the problem. A number of players have spoken up - Harold Varner III and Cameron Champ come to mind - but their lack of backup from their peers is disheartening. Not only did golf's biggest names remain mostly quiet, they hit the links and took smiling photos with a man who has spewed hate and incited violence. The normalization of the Trump presidency has been one of its most disturbing elements. That the appearances of well-known golf stars with the President has contributed to it, at least in some small way, should give those who care about the game deep pause.
While the problems of inequity and exclusion in golf extend far beyond Trump, cutting ties with him is a necessary place to start. And golf's most visible tie to Trump is the 2022 PGA Championship, scheduled to be hosted by one of his courses in Bedminster, New Jersey. Surely, if the club hosting a tournament put out statements calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, the tournament would be moved elsewhere. Or if a sponsor told a group of white supremacists to "stand back and stand by," a new sponsor would be found. The fact that these statements instead have come from the President does not make them any more tolerable. And yet, the PGA of America continues to stand by Trump, even after his most recent and heinous antics.
Moving the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump's course is an absolute must. I don't want to hear excuses about how the preparation is already underway, or that it would be too difficult to move. The PGA of America postponed last year's Ryder Cup. In this Covid world, it has become common for sports leagues to reschedule games and change their locations with only days' notice. It can be done. The 2022 PGA is nearly a year-and-a-half away. Move it.
Golf as a whole, and the PGA of America specifically, has enough problems with diversity and inclusion even without Trump. Ninety-one percent of the PGA of America's members are white, and only 165 out of 29,000 identify as African-American. If the PGA sticks to conducting its 2022 championship at Trump's course, all the glossy "grow the game" brochures and feel-good commercials in the world can't change the reality that it is clearly a backwards-looking organization.
In addition to the PGA, other golfers and golf organizations need to speak out and take action against Trump. Trump's pro golf playing partners should stop playing with him as he enters into a post-presidency that promises to be filled with more inflammatory rhetoric and legal liability. Golf organizations should halt all business with Trump and his properties. Sponsors and other reasonable companies should do the same. Golf course rankings should drop Trump's courses. The publications that produce these rankings are not obligated to dole out credibility and plaudits - they can simply eliminate Trump-owned courses from consideration.
Many high-profile golfers contribute to the problem, and in turn the hostility of Trumpism does golf no favors. After the game has seen a year of growth, this is not a time to kick back. Huge untapped potential still exists to expand the sport's footprint, especially in traditionally underrepresented communities. When the golfer-in-chief espouses hate and encourages unrest, it's no wonder that the white elitist image of golf remains difficult to shake. On the other hand, a clear rebuke of Trump along with an alternative set of guiding principles for golf could help more feel welcomed.
The golf world must rid itself of the stain of Donald Trump. Moving next year's PGA Championship is a simple and necessary first step, after which real progress can be made. A commitment to inclusion requires actions, not just words. Parting ways with Trump can help turn such a commitment into reality. And heaven forbid, should another inferno see its flames fanned from within the White House, golfers must not be the first ones knocking on the door, ready to normalize and dignify such outrageous behavior.
*UPDATE (January 10, 2021): The PGA of America announced that the 2022 PGA Championship will no longer be held at Trump's New Jersey course.