The Unavoidable Politics of a Major Golf Event on a Trump Property

STERLING, Va. — This week, the 2017 Senior PGA Championship will tee off at Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia. While this event would have carried plenty of political overtones had it happened a few weeks ago, the reality of the situation has grown far more dire and bizarre over the past week. Since then, the President Donald Trump fired the FBI director investigating him, reportedly asked the director to stop investigating his former national security adviser, reportedly divulged highly classified intelligence information to Russian officials during an Oval Office visit, and had a special investigation launched into the connections between Russia and the 2016 campaign.

In the introductory news conference back in early March at the Trump International Hotel in Downtown Washington, Eric Trump was careful to note that the family business and the PGA had “started talking about this tournament in 2012-2013, before any talk about politics.” The two are inseparable now, though, and have led to a weekend where the golf itself may well take a back seat to the very real national and global stories that threaten to make their way onto the banks of the Potomac.

It all adds up to a pall over an event that was in jeopardy of being pulled from the course 22 months ago, following then-candidate Trump’s derogatory comments about Mexicans during the early days of his campaign.

“There were people at the decision-making level within the PGA who had to make the call whether to keep the tournament there,” Michael Williams, host of The 19th Hole golf show on CBS Sports Radio told WTOP. “Everyone connected with a Trump course had to make a decision.”

The new reality put the PGA in a tough situation. The discussions to place this particular tournament at Trump National had gone back four or five years, and preparations were already well underway when Trump announced he was running, with the event less than two years out at the time of his remarks. Ultimately, they stuck with their decision.

“We felt like we had a contractual obligation with the Trump Organization,” Bryan Karns, director of championships for PGA, told WTOP. “The goal of the PGA is not to be political, and to put on the best golf tournament we can.”

Trump National, formerly the Lowes Island Club, was purchased in February of 2009, at the depths of the national and global recession, and renovated in the intervening years. Two weeks ago, golf writer Jason Dodson claimed Eric Trump told him in 2014 that the Trump family wasn’t relying on American financing for their golf business, instead getting “all the funding we need out of Russia,” a statement the younger Trump denies having made. Eric Trump’s brother Donald Jr. also made comments about the family seeing “a lot of money pouring in from Russia” as part of a real estate conference back in 2008.

According to an April piece in The Atlantic, the Trump brand has already been damaged across various elements of its business empire, with estimates from Forbes that Trump himself had lost roughly $1 billion in net worth over the last year. That reality, coupled with the fact that 96 percent of Washington residents — and even 62 percent of those in Loudoun County — voted for someone else, made this an already potentially problematic draw. Stick it on a holiday weekend when many locals like to leave town, and it becomes an even harder sell. But even three weeks ago, the environment may have been less hostile than it is now.

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At a media event last month, WTOP asked various staff members if they expected President Trump himself to show up for the event. While the answers were all noncommittal, the thought of such an appearance wasn’t unreasonable at the time. Now, it would be hard to imagine.

There have been multiple protests in Washington since the beginning of Trump’s administration, and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office confirmed it is planning for more this week.

“We are aware of the likelihood of protests, in light of it being a Trump-owned property,” Loudoun County Sheriff Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell told WTOP. “And we are aware of few planned protests, not necessarily at [Trump National], but in that general area.”

But Williams doesn’t think that will hurt the draw, which Karns estimates will be somewhere from 25,000-30,000 over the course of the week. In fact, he thinks it may help.

“I think it might be a little higher than normal, just out of curiosity,” Williams said. “People want to be there in case anything happens.”

And while the president himself may not show up, son Eric is a lock to be there, potentially alongside other family members.

“Eric Trump is the general chairman for the event,” said Karns, who declined to speculate on the plans for the rest of the family. “They haven’t been involved the way he has.”

Trump first announced his candidacy within 72 hours of the first planned media day at Trump National. That transformed what would have been a sleepy event into an absolute media circus.

“It turned from a thing where five golf writers showed up to 100 national press,” said Williams.

Williams actually had lunch at the same table with Trump that day, as the then-candidate watched coverage of himself on the clubhouse televisions and dined on burgers and fries served on giant dishes as big as most charger plates, but rounded upward, all white, save for the Trump family crest in gold at the top.

The walls of the clubhouse are lined with magazines featuring the president on the cover, encased in gold-colored frames. Trump’s well-chronicled interest in television ratings has continued during his presidency, but is preserved like a time capsule within one of those gold-colored rectangles. It features a page from the April 21, 2004 edition of the since discontinued Daily Variety, showing The Apprentice rated No. 1 among 18-49-year-old viewers, that line highlighted in yellow.

After lunch, sporting his trademark red “Make America Great Again” hat, Trump zipped around the course in a golf cart, detailing various aspects of the course to the press in tow. One part of the grand tour was a stop at the base of the giant American flag that rests behind the 14th green (15th for this particular tournament), touting it as the site of a Civil War battle that historians say never occurred.

Trump recounted the since-disputed story during the media day in 2015, but Williams said nobody challenged him on the facts at the time. So how will the television coverage of the event treat the landmark?

Thursday and Friday, the tournament will be televised on the Golf Channel from 1 — 4 p.m. Over the weekend, it will move to NBC, from 1 — 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 — 6 p.m. Sunday. With 12 hours of live coverage, it will be a challenge not only to address the monument, but to talk about the myriad issues surrounding the family name and the timing of the course renovation without delving into murky political waters.

Queries to NBC Sports regarding their plans to address such issues were not answered as of publication.

However the networks decide to present the week, the proceedings will be inexorably tied to the larger events unfolding around them.

The post The unavoidable politics of a major golf event on a Trump property appeared first on WTOP.

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