A conversation about the president and his favorite sport with the author of Commander in Cheat
Last month, Golf.com reported that President Trump’s 2018 club championship at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, may not have been totally legitimate. Though a plaque at the club lists the president as the victor, the championship was actually won by a hedge fund manager named Ted Virtue. Trump didn’t even compete in the event, but when he ran into Virtue at the club on a later date, he challenged him to an impromptu nine-hole match for the right to the title. Virtue couldn’t not accept. Trump won. The title was his.
But as Rick Reilly explains in his new book Commander in Cheat, an in-depth look at the president’s relationship with golf released Tuesday by Hachette Books, an asterisk the size of Trump’s ego belongs next to every “win” he takes down on the golf course. The 2018 title at Trump International was no exception.
“They’re playing [for the title, along with Virtue’s son], and the story I’ve heard now three times is that Trump hit it in the water on 16. They see the ball go in the water. Virtue hits it on the green, his son hits it on the green, but when they get up there, because Trump is always way ahead in his own cart, the caddy is lining up Trump’s ball for a putt. Virtue’s kid says, ‘Mr. President, that’s my ball.’ The caddy says, ‘No, this is Mr. Trump’s ball. Your ball went in the water.’ And the kid, who’s 12 or 13 or whatever, goes, ‘Dad, that was a new ball. That’s my ball.’ And Virtue’s like, ‘I’ll buy you another ball.’ Trump sinks the putt on that hole and goes on to win, and that’s how he’s the club champion.”
Sadly, this is only the latest example of the president’s appalling disregard for the rules of the game. In Commander in Cheat, Reilly provides an exhaustive account of the myriad ways Trump has taken advantage of a game that requires its participants to self-govern. From lying about his scores, to hitting multiple balls, to sabotaging the shots of his opponents, Trump seems to have done it all. Not only does the president cheat on the course, he routinely stiffs contractors and vendors, and makes life hell for any community where he wants to build a course that doesn’t acquiesce to his every demand.
The 2018 club championship at Trump International is what Trump claims is his 20th club championship. You begin the book by essentially auditing his first 18, which he has long cited as proof that he’s a world-class golfer. You were able to debunk most of them, right?
Rick Reilly: Sixteen were lies. The amazing thing is that, I guess when you tell that many lies, you forget when you tell the truth. He had already told me how he does it, which is that he plays the first round whenever he buys a course and calls that the club championship. That accounted for a bunch of them. He told me that and then he goes on the campaign trail and says, “I’m a winner. This is why I’m a winner. Here’s proof I’m a winner. Vote for a winner. I’ve won 18 club championships.” He did a bunch of them that way. He did a bunch of them by winning senior club championships, which is fine but in no way is that the club championship. No way. Some of them were super seniors. Some he said he won and he wasn’t even at the course.
Golf match? I've won 18 Club Championships including this weekend. @mcuban swings like a little girl with no power or talent. Mark's a loser
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 19, 2013
OK, so on a scale of one to 10, 10 being a PGA Tour pro and one being your uncle who never takes less than three shots to get out of a bunker, how good of a golfer is Trump, really?
Well, for a 72-year-old, he’d be a six. Six or seven. So he’s good. He’s a good player. He’s among our best presidents ever to play golf. But he wants the world to think he’s fantastic. If I were a nine [handicap] and telling people I was a three, that’d be like if I could high jump four feet but I’m telling people I can high jump seven feet. It’s a huge, huge difference. It’s exponentially harder as you go up in the handicap scale. You’d have to play every day for four years to get from nine to three. Why isn’t nine good enough for a 72-year-old? Every pro who’s played with him, [Brad] Faxon and Tiger [Woods], Annika Sörenstam — they all say he’s about an eight or a nine, maybe a 10. But he wants you to believe he’s a three. He wants you to believe he’s beating the best players in every club. No.
The book is basically a compendium of all of the ways Trump habitually cheats at golf, which anyone who has played the game will find mind-blowing. What would you say is the most astonishing violation you came across?
I have never in my life heard of somebody winning a golf tournament from a 87 miles away. That is the all-time topper to me. He’s playing Trump Philly. They’re playing a tournament [at Trump Bedminster]. He calls in and says, “I shot 73 today at Trump Philadelphia.” Oh, good for you Mr. Trump. Walt won the club championship. “Well, then put me down. I shot better that.” That is incredible to me.
And I’ve heard of guys fudging their ball mark another foot forward. I’ve heard of a guy throwing it out of a bunker when no one could see him. But never in my life have I heard somebody taking another guy’s ball and throwing it in a bunker. It was Mike Tirico’s! How can you do this! You can’t do that! Really, it’s just such a head-slapper. Even if you don’t know golf, I hope people can understand what all this cheating means. You’re looking into the soul of a guy.
[In the book, Reilly tells the story of a time Trump played with sportscaster Mike Tirico. On a particularly tough par 5, Tirico smashed his approach shot 230 down the middle of the fairway toward the green, which wasn’t visible from where he hit the shot. Tirico knew he hit the shot of his life, but when he got up to the green, his ball was in the bunker. He found out what happened after the round ended. “Trump’s caddy came up to me and said, ‘You know that shot you hit on the par 5?’” Tirico said. “‘It was about 10 feet from the hole. Trump threw it in the bunker. I watched him do it.’”]
Outside of cheating, there are plenty of accounts of Trump breaching the etiquette of the game in really egregious ways. A few videos have surfaced of Trump driving his golf cart across the green, which is unconscionable.
He does that a lot!
President Trump driving his golf cart all over the green is the most Trump thing ever
(via MikeNFrank/Twitter) pic.twitter.com/UWuIcCIOnT
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 22, 2017
In the book you write about how he always tees off first, regardless of whether he won the previous hole, and then gets in the cart and takes off down the fairway before the other golfers have hit their drives — which, again, is hard to fathom. He’s played with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus a bunch, including earlier this year. Is he also doing this type of stuff when he’s playing with pros? Is Trump totally incapable of respecting the game?
He’s doing it all the time, whenever he wants. Now, if he’s got somebody like Tiger or Jack Nicklaus, he’s got them in the cart, but even then he’s cheating. He tried to cheat Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson. Brad Faxon told the story. Trump hits it in the water twice, and he goes, “I didn’t see it, give me another one.” So Faxon gives him another one, and he hits that one in the water. Then he goes up, gets on the green: “What are you putting for Mr. President?” Birdie. I mean, this is Tiger Woods! You didn’t think he even noticed?
A theme throughout the book is that people just sort of shrug in response to all this stuff. Why does no one push back at all? Why does everyone he plays with just smile and let him cheat?
Because it’s his course. You get to play free and he’s probably gonna pay for lunch, but all that matters is that he wins. That’s the only requirement when you’re on the Trump train. Like what [NBA coach] Doc Rivers said. You’re playing the course and Trump’s like, “You know you’ve got no chance. You’re gonna lose.” And you go, “Come on. Bring it on, baby.” And then you realize what he meant. You’re not gonna win. You’re going to lose.
It happened to me [when I played with him]. He took a gimme chip in. He took a bunch of mulligans. Then he said he beat me. OK. You’re playing his course, and he buys the lunch and you’re just hanging on. You’re just hanging on for dear life. But when the TV cameras are on, or it’s not his course, he doesn’t do nearly as well. He’s played seven times at Pebble Beach and never made the cut. Never came close. He played a bunch of times at Tahoe and never finished in the top half. When there’s cameras around and he can’t cheat, he’s a decent golfer. Not great. Pretty good, nothing great. But when it’s him telling the story, and his course, and his caddies, and his supercharged golf cart and his ethics deficit, then all of a sudden he’s the winner every time.
There’s no recourse.
I think after a few holes, people go, “OK, I get this. We’re just screwing around here. We’re not really playing golf.” And people say it’s fun. It’s not like Obama. He played everything out. Or the Bushes. They played everything out. It’s dull, but it’s pretty serious and you keep score and that’s it. You turn your score in. This is: Oh hell, he’s hitting another. I don’t know what that is, but it ain’t golf, and it’s depressing to me. The whole reason I wrote this book is because, as I say, I’m not as mad as a voter as I am as a golfer. You can’t do this to my game. I’ve known and loved this game for 50 years, and this guy is leaving a big wet orange blotch on it. And it’ll be years before we get young people to play again, because this guy makes it look so elite, so rich, such white-guy golf.
Golf has already had so much trouble shedding that stigma. There’s no telling how much Trump is setting the game back in that regard.
We had Tiger Woods, who brought this game to so many millions of people that never even heard of it. We had First Tee, trying to bring it to at-risk kids. We got Michelle Wie. We got great public courses and people walking. And then here comes this blowhard driving his cart across the green. Never practicing, never walking, wearing his too-tight cotton Dockers, and the bad red hat. It’s exactly what we didn’t need in golf.
Speaking of his courses, I wasn’t really aware of how his sensibilities are embodied in his course designs. Can you explain that a little?
You mean the giant, hundred-foot waterfall on every course?
I associate waterfalls more with putt-putt golf. They go right next to the pirate ship.
To me, his courses are an extension of when I saw his apartment at Trump Tower, which is all baroque this and crystal that. A white piano. It was like it was decorated by Mike Tyson or something. It was just so over the top.
And a golden telescope he bragged to you that he watched 9/11 through…
I’ll never forget that. He goes, “Solid gold.”
With his courses, everything has to be big and flashy and it actually ends up hurting him. The reason he doesn’t have a single course in the top 150 in America, even though he says he’s got the greatest collection of courses, which is bullshit, is because he goes too big. Big greens, big bunkers, big fairways, big waterfalls. The great courses in America — like Riviera, Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach — they have some great small holes, and holes that feel organic to the land. There are country clubs like Merion in Philly where the architect didn’t have to do much and he just played through the land — the dunes and the peaks and rises and the falls and the streams. You don’t need a crashing waterfall. In fact, that takes away from the experience. The best architects are the ones that don’t want you to know they were there.
How has the presidency affected how well his courses are doing financially?
I think the presidency has really hurt his golf business. Doral, I went there and it was so empty you could shoot a machine gun. In fact, the day I left someone did come in and sprayed the place with a machine gun and no one got hurt, because no one was there. I walked all over, and I saw one group. I walked every hole at Aberdeen and saw one group. Eric Trump lied at an opening and said, “Oh, we’re so busy here at Trump Ferry Point.” And I said, “Oh really?” So I went online Saturday night to get a Sunday tee time. I had my choice of the whole day. You know, $180 to play golf in the Bronx is not a big seller. His business is down, down, down. Doonbeg is empty in Ireland. Turnberry is always gonna be busy because it’s a great course.
Conversely, his issues with courses and potential courses seem to be affecting how he governs. Trump famously opposed a wind farm he says will ruin the view at one of his courses in
People don’t know. I get that sometimes people are like, “Well, what’s this got to do with the presidency?” And I’m like, “Well, you’d be surprised.” You got this whole path with golf that is interfering with how he is as president. The countries he picked for the Muslim ban. Did people know that he wanted to build a course in some of the [predominantly Muslim] countries that he didn’t have on the list? Or the Puerto Ricans, the turning his back on them. The Cuba thing. Getting caught trying to look into building a course there, and then after he becomes president he immediately shuts down the work that other presidents had done to open Cuba up. There’s a lot that he does that really started with golf.
Do you see Trump continuing to develop golf properties after he’s out of office?
He’s doing it now. He’s building two courses. He’s not going to own them, but he’s operating and building them in Indonesia, which is one country that wasn’t on his Muslim ban even though it’s the largest population of Muslims in the world. And he’s got two in Dubai, where one of his partners doing the cement is the government of China. So he’s got all kinds of conflicts that have not been given up. People don’t even know it. Really, did you know our president is, in a way, in bed with China on these golf courses? This idea that the kids are going to run the golf and he’s not going to touch it… In the book I talk about this person he calls all the time. He talks about pin placement. Hey how are we doing on that fairway? He’s the president. What is he doing?
The subtitle of the book is “how golf explains Trump.” How would you distill this? What does all the stiffing of contractors and disrespect for etiquette and flagrant cheating on the course say about the president?
People may go, “Well, who cares? It doesn’t even matter.” But the point of golf is that it’s based on integrity. We call our own penalties. So if he’s gonna cheat at this, and he does, in amazing and unprecedented ways, then why wouldn’t he cheat on taxes, wives, elections, meetings, things he said he said to people, things he wrote, things he said he got in the mail and didn’t and thoughts he had? He could lie about anything if he’s gonna lie about golf. Golf only matters if you actually play the ball where it lies. It reveals so much about you. Trump is a golfer through and through. He owns courses, he makes money on them, he has giant golf resorts. If you’re gonna lie about how good those are or what they’re worth with one hand, and then on the other hand tell the tax board that they’re only worth 10% of what you say they are, then why wouldn’t you do that with the country?
I remember what Arnold Palmer said to me when we were playing together and we were suddenly playing with a stranger that acted rudely. He said, “I never do a business deal until I played 18 holes with a guy.” In four hours, you can’t hide who you are. If you have a bad temper, it’s gonna come out. If you can cheat, it’s gonna come out. If you’re really fun to be with and can hang and are humble, it’s gonna come out. You go a round with Trump and everything comes out. More than you really want to see.