At Tiger Woods’ Medal of Freedom ceremony, President Trump’s golfy ad-libbing was revealing

May 7, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. — So there they were, in the Rose Garden on a perfect spring evening, the two most famous golfers in the world, Donald Trump and Tiger Woods, occasional golf partners and occasional business partners, of a kind. No, not like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. But when Trump, then a real-estate developer and reality-TV celebrity, wanted to name a building for Woods at Trump Doral, Woods was there, cutting a thick yellow ribbon. That was in 2014. And when Trump wanted to give Woods the highest civilian honor a president can bestow, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Woods was there again. That was Monday night.

You’ve heard of good-good in match play? This was good-good on an epic scale, Jim Acosta of CNN providing the post-game analysis, unless you were watching on Golf Channel or Fox News or C-SPAN. On the front page of the Monday paper, The New York Times had a pre-game story, and it was understandably political.

Should we try to do an impossible thing here, and leave politics and “optics” and historic precedent aside for a moment? (A person can dream.) The event itself, not even a half-hour long, was spectacular. It showed Trump at his best. The ad-libbed shout-out to Joe LaCava, Woods’s caddie, for instance. And it showed Woods at his best, or his off-course best, to be more accurate. His voice going quiet for a few passing moments, to cite one telling moment, as he tried to express his gratitude to his late father and living mother, as she sat in the first row, next to Melania.

Joe LaCava, Tiger's caddie, was on hand to congratulate his boss.
Joe LaCava, Tiger's caddie, was on hand to congratulate his boss.

There were 100 gray folding chairs set up in the garden, in the figurative shadows of the West Wing, dotted with magnolia trees and white roses beyond full bloom. The front lawn of the White House had received a Monday afternoon cut but the Rose Garden grass was suitable for U.S. Open first-cut rough. There were about 20 women there, including Woods’s girlfriend, Erica Herman, and about 80 men.

But there were no representatives from the Golf Establishment, even if Trump might have craved their presence. In other words, no Mike Davis (USGA), no Jay Monahan (PGA Tour), no Fred Ridley (Augusta National), no Seth Waugh (PGA of America). Woods controlled the invitation list to a significant extent, and he wanted it to be a friends-and-family event (his daughter and son were on hand), plus some key employees. In addition to LaCava, Woods’s agent Mark Steinberg was there, as was his spokesman Glenn Greenspan, his wingman Rob McNamara, and some key people from TGR, Woods’s company and educational foundation.

Trump made only a passing reference to Woods’s significant charitable works, and Woods made none at all — a lost opportunity, but there were multiple agendas at work here. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was sitting practically behind McNamara, in the back row. So, yes, this was a TV show, as everything in modern public life is. Also among the 100 guests were Mike Pence, Eric Trump, Jared Kushner, Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. No IDs necessary.

But what made the brief ceremony spectacular, and revealing, was Trump off the teleprompter. There were two large screens, on either side of the audience, that Trump read off dutifully, reciting Woods’s golf accomplishments almost as if he were reading off the golfer’s Wiki page. When Trump got to the t in Tiger’s mother’s full given name – he turned Kultida into Cull-TEE-daah – you could see a dozen or more big, white presidential teeth. But it was in Trump’s many asides that he revealed a level of warmth and humor, and a depth of understanding, that almost never comes across in his edict-by-Twitter presidency.

You couldn’t possibly fake the level of interest in golf Trump showed. (He follows the NFL and heavyweight boxing with nearly equal zeal.) Comparing Earl Woods, a decorated Army veteran, and Tida Woods, who emigrated to the United States from Thailand, Trump said, “She might be tougher — she might be tougher.” She was and is. Earl and Tiger were more like brothers. When Trump spoke of the six straight years when Woods won USGA amateur titles, he said, off the cuff, “stroke play, match play — everything.” It’s an insight few make. To win all those matches, 36 in a row, he had to qualify in the stroke-play portions first. Later, talking about the 2008 U.S. Open, Trump said, “That was a great playoff — Rocco!” He said Woods’s competition, on Sunday at the Masters last month, was saying, “Oh, no — here we go again.” It’s almost comical, what an ordinary fan Trump is.

The two golfers were dressed almost identically, in blue suits and white shirts and red ties, except that Trump had an American flag lapel pin and Woods did not. Woods appeared to speak without notes. He was brief, but not because he was in a rush to get off the stage and let the six-piece chamber-group Marine Band resume its superb playing. In the cocoon of the Rose Garden, you couldn’t know what Twitter and the internet and Fox News and CNN and the late-night monologists would do with the event. Free speech in action, and what would we be without it?

Erica Herman’s sky-blue pashmina fell behind her and Mark Steinberg, Tiger’s take-no-prisoners agent, seated right in back of her, returned it to its owner without fanfare. All the while, a scripted event unfolded seamlessly. Woods, throughout his public life, has preferred shots played over spoken words, but he said thank you every way a person could. The depth of his gratitude, like the depth of Trump’s athlete-worship, was obviously sincere.

Yes, on the other side of the White House fences, the ridiculousness, maybe even the underlying cynicism, behind this event and its timing was in full spring bloom. Just to go down that path for a moment, consider the three golfers, all cited by Woods, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom before he did. Arnold Palmer was the first, in 2004, accepting it from President George W. Bush, when Palmer was 74. Jack Nicklaus was second, again under President Bush, in 2005, when Nicklaus was 65. President Obama gave the honor to Charles Sifford in 2014, when golf’s Jackie Robinson was 92 and, as it happened, nine weeks from his death. (Woods noted that his son, Charlie, was named for Charlie Sifford.) That threesome was long done playing meaningful golf by the time they got draped in the medal’s blue ribbon. It was their post-playing lives that made them so worthy.

Tiger Woods poses with his girlfriend, mother and children alongside President Trump and Melania Trump.
Tiger Woods poses with his girlfriend, mother and children alongside President Trump and Melania Trump.

Viewed that way, how, you might ask, should Woods, at age 43, despite all he has accomplished as an athlete and as a philanthropist, be deserving of this highest of honors? The subject is already getting the debate it deserves. Trump had his reasons for announcing his decision, by Twitter, the day after this year’s Masters. Woods had his reasons for accepting the honor.

Woods is studiously apolitical. He takes his cues not from Steph Curry but from Michael Jordan. Why he said nothing about his foundation work or learning from his past mistakes is hard to imagine – he had tens of millions watching – but what he did say was heartfelt, that was clear.

Anyway, this country, which takes so many of its cues, social and sporting and otherwise, from Great Britain, does ceremony well, and Monday night at the Rose Garden was pure ceremony. Dozens of cameramen filed out of the grungy White House press briefing room, as crowded and stifling as an inter-island commuter plane, and setup their cameras beyond the white ropes that defined the seating area. The band played “Hail to the Chief.” Tiger was referred to as “Eldrick.”

We know what Trump is like as president but this was different. He wasn’t profane or insulting or dogmatic. He was in the presence of GREATNESS, as his teleprompter rendered it. Tiger Woods is a great golfer, nobody could deny that. On Monday night, he received the country’s highest civilian honor, surely for what he has done but also, you hope and expect, for what he still will. The guests made their exits, the chamber group played “What a Wonderful World,” and the Rose Garden, before long, was empty again, save the spring flowers.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.