Tour Confidential: The USGA’s Trump Dilemma and Terrifying Golf Holes

October 31, 2016
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Three Democratic U.S. senators have called upon the USGA to move the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open from Donald Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., course, because of what they described as Trump’s “pattern of degrading and dehumanizing women.” (In an email to USA Today, a USGA spokesperson said that the association is standing by a statement it made earlier this year that said while the USGA has no plans to relocate the event, “Mr. Trump has made some remarks that are at odds with our belief that golf should be welcoming and inclusive for all.”) Now that the USGA is feeling pressure from some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians, do you think the association might feel more compelled to make a move?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): I’ve felt all along that nothing would/could happen until after Election Day. Three to six months ago it looked like Trump might actually win this thing, and if you’re the USGA (and PGA of America) you can’t cut ties with the leader of the free world. But if and when Trump loses the election, the governing bodies will be free to move their tournaments, if that’s what their timid leadership desires.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Yep, the USGA is waiting for Election Day, and to see what the players are saying. I don’t think they’re going to say much, if Stacy Lewis is any indication. She told me yesterday, by email via her agent, “I feel like the event is too close to the actual date of the tournament to make a change given the existing plans and sponsor commitments that are already in place.” I don’t see anybody banging a drum to force a move here, even though it is the right thing to do.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): “Timid” is the operative word here. It’s a shame they won’t take a stand now — whether it’s to stay or go — instead of hanging back and following the political wind.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Agree with Alan. This should have happened months ago. The same can be said for the PGA of America and its decision not to move the 2017 PGA Championship out of North Carolina. It’s a bad look for the game.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): I don’t think the USGA will feel any more compelled to make a move. Golf poo-bahs, including the major associations, are pretty conservative by nature. I’m reminded of the Masters honchos who parried Martha Burk by stating they wouldn’t be forced to act by a bayonet being pointed at them. There’s been pressure for many months. The election results will help resolve this, most likely, very quickly.

Josh Sens, contributor, GOLF (@JoshSens): Right, Joe. Regardless of what you think of Trump, the guy has been showing his colors for quite some time now. A statement signed by three U.S. senators is going to do as much to sway the USGA as so much grass tossed to the wind.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Wait until something is obvious, then the politicians pile in. President Trump just added to his enemies list–well, if he gets elected.

MORE: The Donald Trump I Know, by Natalie Gulbis

2. Should Trump go on to lose the election and return to the private sector, what — if any — impact do you think his outsized presidential campaign will ultimately have on his golf-course business?

SHIPNUCK: It can only hurt. His political base – working class, rural, clustered in the middle of the country – was never going to pay $400+ to lose a dozen balls at Trump Doral or Trump L.A, or kick down half a mill to join one of his new-money private clubs along the Eastern seaboard. But many people of means have found the spectacle of his campaign to be distasteful and I suspect they will vote with their pocketbooks and play golf elsewhere.

RITTER: Totally agree. Win or lose, Trump’s divisive campaign offers no upside for his golf business. I wonder if he might knock the “Trump” name off some of his properties if his bottom line sags.

GODICH: He’ll never take his name off of anything. His ego is too big. I expect he’ll take a big hit, and when he isn’t second-guessing Hillary’s every decision, he’ll roll out a campaign to make golf great again.

SENS: Agreed that it can only hurt. Whether he would admit that hurt is another matter. A few years ago, I happened to interview Trump just before heading to Scotland for a story. He told me that his course in Aberdeen was doing such a brisk business that I should probably call him back for help getting on it. I didn’t call him back. But I also didn’t have do. When I got to Aberdeen, business at his course was looking anything but brisk. I could have walked out with a fourball at pretty much any time of the day.

PASSOV: Josh, I will say that he has delivered on his promises at his U.S. private clubs, in terms of value and quality, and our experts confirmed that the renovations to Trump Turnberry’s Ailsa have made a great course even greater. I think folks will still continue to seek out a superb experience even if you violently disagree with the guy who paid for the work. Having said that, yes, he’s probably lost more than a few customers with the approach he’s chosen. I’m also curious to see what ripple effect that the dispute he’s having with members at his Jupiter property will have on the overall Trump Golf brand.

SENS: Joe, no quibbles with the quality of his Scottish courses. That interview (which took place a long time before he announced his candidacy) just lingers in my mind as bemusing evidence of Trump’s knack for, um, self-promotion. It can be less bemusing when he talks about things other than crowded tee sheets.

VAN SICKLE: Donald has torched his brand name. The reverberations, if he loses the election, won’t stop at his golf courses. Every property he owns will lose value. I know of several people who have moved out of Trump Tower because of his actions. He’s got Nixon-esque potential but I’m sure we can count on him to be a good loser, right?

BAMBERGER: Trump is crazy like a fox. After Election Day, he’ll find a way to turn this brutal campaign into a positive for his golf businesses, including the possibility that some of them will become housing developments. Ultimately, Trump Golf is going to the next generation. Ivanka, anyway, is coming out ahead in this election.

3. Hideki Matsuyama, a 24-year-old rising star from Japan, blew away a stout field at the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China to become the first Asian to win a WGC since the series began in 1999. (His seven-shot win also elevates him to No. 6 in the world.) What does the win mean on a micro level for Matsuyama and on a macro level for the Asian golf movement?

BAMBERGER: The prototypical Japanese golfer was a finesse player. This guy is an animal. You have to be part-animal to beat the world these days. I see more of his countrymen, etc., following suit.

SHIPNUCK: If Hideki can putt better and more consistently he will be a force to be reckoned with. And he’s a big, brawny dude with a smashmouth style of play who should be quite marketable across Asia. I’m not sure he can be the male version of Se Ri Pak but Matsuyama’s ascension can only help, ahem, grow the game.

RITTER: It’s a significant win for Hideki, who has had the look of a player on the rise from the moment he arrived on Tour. His upside screams multi-major winner and becoming the biggest golf star Asia has ever produced. Worst case, he’s a top-30 player for the next decade who fights his flatstick while still carrying the torch for Japanese golf.

GODICH: The only thing that has been holding Hideki back is the putter. He put on a ball-striking exhibition at the PGA Championship but holed next to nothing. I trust that this victory will give him tremendous confidence, and let’s not forget that he’s all of 24. He’ll be in his prime when the Summer Olympics visit Tokyo in 2020. Talk about a potential gold mine.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): More than the huge win this week, I think a couple of his major finishes in 2016 have to give him hope for the coming season and the ability to join the single-named 20-somethings we spend a majority of our time talking about. He played a very tough Augusta National well enough to finish in the top 10 for the second time at the Masters (a good sign if/when the putting improves) and looked like a major-worthy player at Baltusrol. This win just tells us more of what we already know; when the putter wakes up, he’s as good a pick to win as anyone on the planet, and when he does finally win that major, he could finally be as talked about as Ryo Ishikawa seems to be now with Japanese golf fans.

SENS: Shane, I was thinking about those majors as well. Our perspective of what a career trajectory should look like has been skewed by the likes of Tiger, Rory and Jordan, who were out winning majors when they were barely old enough to vote. Putter aside, Matsuyama has also just been working on getting seasoning. He was just two strokes off the lead going into Sunday this past year at Augusta, where it wasn’t just his flatstick that let him down. For most mortals, those sort of experiences are necessary — the setbacks you suffer on the way up. This past weekend’s win was another notch on the ascent. As Mark says, potential gold mine. For all the dominant Asian players on the women’s circuit, the men’s game has lacked an enduring force from Asia. But much more interesting than tracking the endorsement deals will be to see how Matsuyama handles things next time he’s in the mix at a major, which won’t be long, you’ve got to figure.

PASSOV: Well, I’m the guy who’s picked Matsuyama in my office pool in 10 of the past 12 majors, so I’m a believer. No, I haven’t made a dime on him–yet–but he’s been a huge winner since his amateur days, winning the Asian Amateur in 2010, Low Amateur in the Masters in ‘11 and ‘12, then top 10s in the U.S. Open and its British counterpart after turning pro in ‘13. With some wrist injuries healed, additional experience and the confidence that comes from holing putts, the sky’s the limit for Matsuyama.

VAN SICKLE: It’s tough to out-ballstrike the field in a major. You’ve got to putt. Jason Dufner did it at Oak Hill. It can be done but the flatstick limits the opportunities in majors. Matsuyama is quite a talent. 

4. Acushnet, the company behind Titleist and FootJoy, went public Friday; trading under the ticker symbol GOLF, the company raised $329 million in its first day of trading. In an interview with, David Maher, Acushnet’s chief operating officer, said that despite the well-documented challenges facing the golf industry, “for the strong players left standing, and we believe we are one of them, the industry conditions are a lot more favorable than they have been in a long, long time.” Do you buy that?

BAMBERGER: Absolutely. There are tens of millions of avid golfers in this country alone. Somebody has to serve our needs! Also, the ticker name–how great is that? Almost as useful as owning

SHIPNUCK: Definitely. The golf brands were always deathly afraid of the marketing might and seemingly endless resources Nike and adidas could bring to the equipment game. Both have now been vanquished, in a matter of speaking. So traditional golf-only companies like Acushnet have to be feeling good about themselves.

RITTER: I’m not sure gaining Nike’s small slice of the pie will be the event that sparks Acushnet moving forward, but I love the optimism and hope Maher is right.

GODICH: I suppose I buy it. I’d buy it even more if someone could find a way to make the game easier and more affordable for the masses. Those are the biggest issues going forward.

PASSOV: I’m not buying it–but I’m with Jeff, really liking the optimism. What I marvel at with Acushnet is that in a time when trends and tastes change seemingly every hour, they (Titleist) have dominated the golf ball market since I was a kid. Since marketing dollars may or may not work–witness Nike’s lack of success–it has to come down to pure quality. I don’t know about industry conditions being THAT favorable, but I’ll tip my cap to one of the truly strong players left standing.

SENS: No doubt there’s been a market correction in golf that has weeded out more than just equipment makers, and it’s hard to argue that those left standing are in a stronger position for it. I buy that part. More telling will be the long term. As the more the industry goes to great pains trying to tilt younger, Acushnet is sticking to its guns by targeting the Gen X-ers and Boomers who make up the biggest spenders in the game right now. What happens when those folks age out? Will there be another generation of avid golfers coming up behind them? Acushnet isn’t the only industry player depending on that.

BACON: I totally agree with Maher and his points here. I’m 32 and more and more of my friends that never played golf are coming to the game as their knees continue to tell them to quit playing pick-up basketball and as their softball teammates continue to have kids and decide not to sign up for the next season. With that influx of players comes disposable income and they want the best. That’s why PXG has done so well so quickly and why places like Acushnet, a company defined by age and class, will have added business moving forward.

VAN SICKLE: Titleist remains undefeated as a ball-maker. Maybe some others have come close in quality, maybe nearly equaled them (and maybe not), but nobody has beaten them. So Titleist always has a solid future in golf. And they’ve put out some good clubs, too. Titleist has as much upside as any clubmaker. 

5. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson will battle in a head-to-head charity match in the Philippines on Nov. 28-30. Which two players would you most like to see square off in a mano a mano clash?

BACON: The easy answer here is Rory versus Jordan Spieth, but the golf nerd in me wants to see Rory and Patrick Reed go at it again. My only concern would be interest; if Reed isn’t playing for his country, is he that interested?

RITTER: Rory-Reed is clearly the match. Shane, you just have to trick Patrick into thinking the future of America is at stake.

SHIPNUCK: The problem is that this current crop of superstars are all nice guys and they get along well so there is no dramatic tension. Tiger brought all of his weirdness and petty grudges to these exhibitions, so when he squared off against Sergio or Phil or Duval there was still an edginess to the proceedings.

GODICH: After what we witnessed on Sunday of the Ryder Cup, a Phil-Sergio rematch seems in order.

PASSOV: Even if Tiger Woods showed up on crutches and Phil Mickelson were heavily medicated with Enbrel, I’d pay to see that, right now.

SENS: All of the above would be good fun, but what about reviving a Bobby Riggs vs. Billy Jean King battle of the sexest element? You know, like Lexi Thompson vs. Jordan Spieth. Of course, for ratings purposes we’d have to concoct some bad blood. But we’re the media. We’re good at that.

VAN SICKLE: There would have to be an overriding women’s player for that match to work, Josh. We don’t have one yet. Plus, to replicate King-Riggs would mean pairing a women against a senior golfer. Michelle Wie versus Bernhard Langer? I don’t see a hot men’s rivalry, either, unless you want to let Spieth try a rematch against Danny Willett. 

BAMBERGER: Or how about Dustin Johnson versus a Ko-Thompson better ball?

6. Happy Halloween! What’s the scariest hole you have ever played?

BACON: Not just the scariest hole, but the scariest close in all of golf is Carnoustie. You don’t even know where to hit it off the tee on 17, and once you play 18 you can totally understand how easy it is to Van de Velde that bad boy. The 18th at Oakmont can wake you up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, but no close has ruined more rounds than the one at ‘Noustie. A par-par finish there should earn you a free Tennent’s or two after the round.

RITTER: The 205-yard, par-3 12th hole, on Hawaii’s Lanaii Island, over cliffs and the rushing tide. I’ve never hit the green, and it leaves me so scared I spend the rest of the afternoon sipping mai thais and watching spinner dolphins in the bay while trying to recover.

PHOTOS: The Scariest Golf Courses in the World

SHIPNUCK: I’d have to say the 16th at Cypress Point because if you don’t make a great swing with a 3-wood you will take at best a double-bogey. There’s simply nowhere to miss. There’s also the overpowering feeling like, Holy cow, I’m on the 16th tee at CPC, I don’t want to screw this up! Which means, of course, that a screwup is likely.

BAMBERGER: To me, the tee shot on 18 at Cypress is impossible. I have had decent rounds their ruined by my inability to find the fairway. And when I mean find it, I mean literally identify it. All I see is trees, like in a Gary Larson nightmare/cartoon.

PASSOV: I live in mortal fear, for good reason, of the Road Hole, the 17th at St. Andrews. I can’t stand the idea of having to hit over or adjacent to an active luxury hotel with my tee shot, and then the prospect of hitting onto the road, into the Road Bunker, or into heavy rough next to a stone wall with a full Jigger Inn crowd hovering is almost paralyzing. I have suffered agonies here, including one occasion where my ultra-safe fairway wood tee shot elicited the comment, “Chickens***!” — from my own caddie. The opening tee shot at Scotland’s Prestwick, with seemingly nothing but broken ground to the left and an oncoming train to the right, is nearly as daunting.

SENS: I still get the heebie jeebies thinking about the crocodile pit par 3 at the Lost City golf course in South Africa, which calls for you to hit over exactly that. There are also a few water-lined holes at Hans Merensky golf course, on the edge of Kruger National Park, in South Africa. I remember ball-hawking near one of those hazards when the local guy I was playing with grabbed me by the shoulder and yanked me back, saying, “Not too close. There are a few crocs in there that’ll kill you. And a few others that’ll kill you properly.”

GODICH: I’ll go outside the box: the 596-yard par-5 14th (640 yards from the tips) at Jericho National GC, my old stomping grounds in Washington Crossing, Pa. It plays into a prevailing south wind, and it’s got a narrow fairway that slopes ever so slightly toward the hazard down the left side and is framed by a couple of bunkers along the right. Miss the fairway, and you’re faced with the prospect of negotiating the cross bunkers that are positioned 225 yards from the green. The approach is slightly uphill to a narrow, two-tiered, peninsula-shaped green that is guarded by a bunker on the right and has fescue grass not far over it. The front pin positions are manageable; the back, not so much. I made a few 4s there, but I can’t tell you how many times I walked off with an X, sometimes after hitting three shots on the button.

VAN SICKLE: I’d say all 18 at Ko’olau in Hawaii, the highest-rated course on the planet when I last played there in the ’90s. Its SLOPE was in the 160s and you could lose a ball down a ravine if you just thinned a greenside bunker shot. The record lost-ball count then, the pro told me, was 88 by one unlucky golfer. A beautiful setting but I haven’t been back. If it’s still open, I’m not going back, either.