The last time I took my 1989 golf clubs—vintage!—to the driving range, I was looking for relaxation. I went to Angel Park, a public course, paid $6 for a bucket of balls, and hooked, shanked and all-out-missed my way through about an hour of swinging. I’d been seeking fresh air and a teensy bit of exercise, and by the end of my bucket, I was satisfied. That’s about all I want from a golf experience anymore—not 18 holes of back breaking, sunscreen-reapplying, tiny white ball chasing.
For me, it’s not just my old clubs that feel retro. Almost everything about golf feels a little throwback, including its propensity to throw out my back: It’s a very slow game in an instant-gratification era; the luscious green courses feel environmentally ill-considered in western droughts; and worst of all, I still suck at it.
But I’m not alone in having misgivings about the sport lately, thanks to our highbrow presidential election discourse. Plenty of U.S. presidents have had their photos taken on golf courses; but it takes a special candidate who owns more than a dozen courses to reignite golf’s image problems. Is it still the elitist old-white-guy sport of yore?
Just as golf was having some success luring disinterested millennials—many of whom have said in study after study that they think the game is a time suck and they don’t like its non-inclusive, non-diversified image—here comes Donald Trump, standing on the fairway at Turnberry in Scotland last month, on the very day Britain voted to exit the EU, wearing his Make America Great Again hat, implicit in which are all of his racist, sexist, isolationist assertions. He rambled on about par 3s and his Scottish mother and completely misunderstood Scotland’s stance on the EU. I almost felt a little bad for golf. Maybe that’s why I decided to go hit some balls, as if to say to the sport, It’s okay, this too shall pass.
To be sure, golf as a money-making industry is doing fine—players will vie for a $9.3 million purse at the PGA’s Open Championship July 14-17 in Scotland, to be broadcast on NBC and ESPN. And it has long been a big lure in Las Vegas, where we can be proud of charity tournaments hosted by Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Justin Timberlake and others. Golf had made some progress with its diversity problem over the years—Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters, allowed blacks to play in 1975, and then a mere 37 years of thinking about it later, decided to let women join the club. In 2012. So things were looking up.
But last week, Martha Burk, National Council of Women’s Organizations’ corporate accountability director, began calling for golf pros to boycott Trump’s golf courses. Burk was the lead advocate for asking Augusta to open its doors to women (in 2002). Now she is joined by a cadre of African American golfers and golf historians in asking the U.S. Women’s Open to move from Trump National course in New Jersey next March to some non-Trump property. Burk said the ruling bodies of golf such as the USGA were “kowtowing to Trump’s overtly racist and sexist views.” Moreover, the Mexican American Golf Association objects to tournaments being held at Trump courses, and for the first time in 55 years, the PGA’s World Golf Championship will not be held in Miami at the Doral course, which is now owned by Trump. Instead, it has been moved to Mexico City next March. Trump’s response? “By the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the next generations were going to usher in some changes to golf regardless of its politics. Take the new experience Topgolf Las Vegas, which recently opened behind MGM Grand. It melds a four-story driving range with follow-your-ball microchip technology and a nightclub/bar atmosphere: food, drinks, pools, lounge areas, live music.
And then, for us lucky Las Vegans, there’s always KISS by Monster Mini Golf at the Rio. Looking for something better suited to my skill set, I strolled through this blacklight hair-band mini-course the other day. While watching a playful Hispanic family knocking golfballs up a giant Gene Simmons tongue into his mouth, sometimes missing and popping a cheek or an eye, I had a vision for Trump’s next golf course.