Golf and the Art of Trump

In 1987 one of the best selling business books of the year was The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump, which the man himself referred to with typical understatement as the second most important book in the world, after the Bible. The Donald was the tycoon de jour, the most famous businessman in America, as prominent in the gossip pages as the financial press.

Until recently The Art of the Deal has lain unloved in the remaindered section of secondhand bookshops and the outer reaches of Amazon’s search algorithm. But now the ‘author’ of the book is in the race to become the most powerful man in the world and The Art of the Deal has been given a new lease of life. This time next year Donald Trump could have his hand on the nuclear button and assume control of the world’s biggest economy. His campaign for the Republican nomination has electrified and horrified audiences far beyond the voters of the 52 states, and has left voters of all political colours to ask the same question, what sort of president would Donald Trump be?

Part of the answer may lie in his approach to the golf business, a sector the four handicapper says accounts for less than 10% of his total net worth. ‘It’s not my primary business, I like it and have a great passion for it’, he said last year. The bulk of Trump’s fortune is based on his career as a property developer, a business he inherited from his father Fred Trump in the 70s, when the crashing American economy made commercial real estate relatively cheap. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump began with a $1 million loan from his father. With this equity he was able to borrow large sums from the banks, using the money to buy office blocks, hotels and casinos. Another loan from his father, this time for $7.5million, fuelled a move in to casinos in Atlantic City, after gambling was legalised in the state of New Jersey. The property was loaded with debt and then sold on, or sometimes maintained and leased by Trump, who collected millions in service fees.

Golf was a logical next step. Today, Trump Golf boasts 18 courses on its corporate website, a portfolio that began in the US and has since spread the Trump brand internationally, including the Trump International outside Aberdeen, Trump Turnberry and Doonbeg in Ireland, three courses the man himself refers to as ‘The Trump Triangle’.

In recent years, the pulling power of major championships has been added to the sales mix. Trump Turnberry hosted the 2015 Women’s British Open, the 2017 Senior PGA is due to be played at Trump National GC, Potomac Falls and the 2017 US Women’s Open & the 2022 US PGA at Trump National Bedminster. “Look, somebody made the statement that Donald Trump has built or owns the greatest collection of golf courses, ever, in the history of golf,” said Trump. “And I believe that is 100 per cent true”.

But beyond the courses he owns, Trump’s relationship with golf reveals far more about the man himself than his ability to cut a deal and his endless self promotion. The Art of the Deal shows Trump to be heavily influenced by the patron saint of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, whose book The Power of Positive Thinking really did rival The Bible for sales, when it was published in the 1950s.

Vincent Peale’s methodology is the basis of today’s sports psychology industry and its influence can be seen throughout golf. Whenever a Tour player talks of ‘taking the positives’ from a bad round, or of ‘visualising’ the great shot they want to play, they are tipping their hat to a man born in America in the latter part of the 19th century.

“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” wrote Peale. “Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.”

Donald Trump applied Vincent Peale’s preachings to every part of his life. When a reporter asks a difficult question, Trump tries ‘to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground’, a habit he calls ‘truthful hyperbole’.

This approach has been the basis of his famous salesmanship, both as a presidential hopeful and a golf developer, a process that can be summed up by the statement that if you don’t like the facts, find new ones. “I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys,” wrote Trump. “I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions.”

Critics of Vincent Peale’s positive thinking mantra say that it creates a false view of the world, in which difficult facts can be glossed over and followers are encouraged to believe that they can overcome any obstacle just by thinking positively about it. This may be fine when the topic is a tricky approach shot or a must make putt. But it is positively dangerous when applied to life and death decisions taken by the President.

Yet the odd thing about Trump’s run for office is that being proved wrong doesn’t impact on his popularity. In fact, the more he makes things up the more popular he has become, as though his audience want to buy in to the world as he describes it rather than deal in the less interesting reality. The Pulitzer prize winning fact-checking website Politfacts has monitored Trump’s various claims and statements for their veracity, using a scale that runs from ‘True’ through to ‘Pants on Fire’.

The list of dodgy claims, or ‘truthful hyperbole’ to use Trump’s own phrase, is a long one. Trump told reporters – twice – that he personally witnessed “thousands” of Muslim people cheering in New Jersey “when the World Trade Center came tumbling down” on Sept 11, 2001. Not true. He claimed President Obama’s fundraising trip to New York cost American taxpayers ‘between $25million and $50million’. It didn’t. His claim that ‘CNN did a poll where Obama and I are statistically tied’ was proved to be without foundation.

To Trump and his followers, it doesn’t much matter that the numbers are wrong, it is enough that they are ‘out there’ being pushed from headline to headline until it feels like the truth. ‘It’s really quite simple’ said Trump in The Art of the Deal. “If I were to take a full-page ad in the New York Times to publicise a project, it might cost $40,000, but if the New York Times writes even a moderately positive one-column story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me anything.’

He doesn’t care much where the publicity comes from. His two costly and high profile divorces he views as being ‘good for business’ because tabloid coverage of his affairs ‘made him seem virile’.

Trump’s ‘truthful hyperbole’ was there for all to see recently during the protracted efforts to build a new course in Aberdeen. The Trump International was going to be “the greatest golf course in the world”, creating ‘six thousand jobs’ and an investment of $1.5bn in to a luxury hotel, 1,500 houses and two championship golf courses.

Scotland’s politicians liked the sound of those numbers and were keen to be seen in Trump’s orbit. The then First Minister Alex Salmond, a keen golfer, backed the Trump bid, adding his political muscle to the process of overturning important environmental laws aimed at protecting some of Britain’s most valued natural habitats. Today, the promises of jobs and investment are looking less secure, says film maker Anthony Baxter, who witnessed Trump’s approach to the golf business first hand when he made a well received documentary on the issue, called You’ve Been Trumped. When the film came out, Trump tweeted that Baxter was “a stupid fool”, a “loser” and a “moron” and called his award winning film “a failed documentary”.

But look at Trump’s promises today, says Baxter. “In Aberdeenshire, far from creating the 6,000 jobs promised by The Trump Organization, the golf course employs just 95 people – and most of those are low-paid positions. There is no hotel, not one of the houses has been built, and the unique Site of Special Scientific Interest where the single golf course was constructed has been destroyed – depriving future generations of a spectacular centuries-old dunes landscape”.

This mix of bullying and hype was there for all to see when Trum sat down with American journalist Michael Bamberger to discuss the golf business. Bamberger is an experienced and talented writer and interviewer, however he allowed himself to fall under the spell of Trump. When Bamberger raised the issue of golf’s falling participation rates in America, Trump dismissed the evidence and instead took a bazooka to the messenger, the National Golf Foundation, or NGF.

In particular, Trump didn’t care for the findings of the NGF’s latest participation research, which revealed that there were about 25.3 million golfers in 2012, just off the 2011 figure of 25.7 million, part of a trend that has seen 4.7 million golfers lost to the game since 2005. “The downward trend in participation – is more alarming,” ran the NGF report. “Many people believe that golf has a problem attracting new blood to the game, but the truth is golf has a retention problem – we’re losing more people than we are gaining.”

Rather than debate solutions, Trump used his profile to call for the head of the NGF, Joe Beditz. Prompted by Bamberger, Trump said: ‘I think the NGF is run by a person who is incompetent.’

‘Would you fire that person?’ said Bamberger, in a cheap shot linking the conversation to Trump’s role in the American version of The Apprentice.

‘I would fire that person,’ said Trump, taking the bait. ‘The NGF should be a positive force but its a negative force’.

In other words, rather than report what they had found, the NGF should act as a propagandists for the golf business and for golf developers like Trump. ‘Golf should be an aspirational game. We should keep it a high level and not bring it down because a bunch of people want to sell some more golf clubs or balls’.

This is perhaps the most revealing line. Whereas organisations such as the NGF and the R&A exist to popularise golf, the appeal of golf to Trump is as a marketing channel to people like himself, the richest 1% in the world.

Golf’s much lauded ‘traditional values’ are very valuable. For Trump, investing in upmarket and exclusive clubs comes with considerable ‘reputational upside’, which is Trump-speak for hoping some of the good stuff rubs off on him. He took up the game in college mainly because he saw it as a way of making deals. The people he aspired to be all played the game and the course was where the moneymen talked to each other, and so that’s where he needed to be. He often measures golf’s role in his life in terms of dollars and cents, deals done and doors opened. Viewed through this lens, the broader popularity of the game is of no interest at all, and in fact is an impediment to business.

For all the comical bluster, at the heart of Trump’s business and political operations lies a canny business mind which is brilliant at targeting a particular audience with the message they want to hear and an innate ability to use the media to his own advantage.

He is extremely popular amongst certain groups of the population, and he knows how to polarise. He incensed liberals with calls to ban Muslims from America following the Paris terror attacks. But he knows it will boost his popularity among disenfranchised right-wingers, who are his target market.

But the anti-Muslim rhetoric may have done long term damage to the Trump brand, particularly in the golf market and his dream of Turnberry hosting The Open Championship in 2020 now seem remote.

Sandy Jones, chief executive of the PGA was just one senior golf figure to put distance between the game and the wannabe president. “I’m sure the R&A will be managing that situation very cautiously as they need to do and try to keep golf away from the political scene,” said Jones. “An announcement to play at Turnberry would cause a huge political uproar. I’m sure they’ll come to the right conclusion at the end of the day.”

By taking a stance against The Donald, Jones’ comments will position him as just one more ‘negative voice’ that has faced Donald Trump over his career, from New York City politicians and the National Golf Foundation through to Scottish environmentalists and Hillary Clinton. But history shows that it’s a mistake to think that a little bad publicity will harm him.

This story was first published in Golf International magazine