The 72nd U.S. Women's Open begins today at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J. However, controversy surrounds the women's golf's marquee event as observers continue to lob questions about why the United States Golf Association did not move the venue amid concerns about President Donald Trump's disparaging remarks about women.
That question isn’t as simple as it seems on its face. Besides the financial implications of moving the event, LPGA pros have been split in their support for Trump. Several pros are supporters with deep ties to the president; others who have been offended by Trump’s public statements have publicly expressed dismay but, with the tour’s biggest paycheck of the year on the line, are not pulling out of the event.
With a $5 million tournament purse and the president reportedly planning to attend, that means that this year’s Open could be a powder keg. And it looks like that might be just fine for stakeholders in women’s golf.
President Trump has a long, public love affair with golf. Beyond the 18 courses he owns, Trump has had relationships with the PGA and LPGA tours for years, with both groups hosting several tournaments at his venues. One of his courses, Trump National DC, held a senior men's major, the Senior PGA Championship, just over a month ago.
But Trump’s connection with the golf world turned controversial not long after he began campaigning for the presidency. When Trump made comments about Mexico sending its “rapists” in June 2015, members of the golf community urged the LPGA to change the British Open venue, which was to be held at a Trump property. Despite the demand, the Open stayed put.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan responded at the time: “With just three weeks until the championship, a change in venue for this prestigious major simply isn’t feasible without significantly diminishing the event. By no means, however, does this decision suggest support for Mr. Trump’s comments. The LPGA will continue its commitment to diversity and inclusion in the game of golf as it has done for the last 65 years.”
Trump continued making incendiary comments when he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Six months after the PGA Tour hinted it might move the World Golf Championship from Trump National Doral in Miami, the PGA announced that the WGC would be held in Mexico City in 2017.
Then PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem stated the move was apolitical and based strictly on financial reasons since Cadillac had dropped out as the title sponsor. But it was clear that hosting tournaments on Trump properties could prove to be risky business.
While the PGA Tour found a new venue in Mexico to host the prestigious WGC, the LPGA and USGA found themselves in a quandary. As the final months of the 2016 campaign wound down, a major question kept surfacing for them: Should they move the U.S. Women’s Open from Trump Bedminster to a new venue? Such a move would need months of lead time, and that time was running out.
It did not take long for Trump to continue his steady barrage of commentary on women’s looks, and when his infamous Access Hollywood tape came out, USA Today sportswriter Christine Brennan urged the USGA to end its relationship with Trump and to move the U.S. Open to a new venue.
“A Trump golf course, no matter how beautiful and centrally located it might be, cannot play host to an event that is the crown jewel of a women’s sport, with competitors from around the world — not after all the awful things Trump has said about minorities, immigrants, and women, culminating in the lewd and disgusting video that was made public last Friday.”
Three Senate Democrats also sent a letter to the USGA requesting a change of venue due to a “pattern of degrading and dehumanizing women” displayed by Trump.
The USGA released this statement in July 2016 amid the backlash it received: “We have reiterated for more than a year that we do not share his views, and that is still true. With the 2017 U.S. Women's Open less than a year away, our focus is still on conducting an excellent championship for the players, the spectators, the fans, and the volunteers."
This week, a report in USA Today revealed that Trump threatened to sue the USGA if the major was moved from his Bedminster course. It certainly made for an interesting and awkward visual as the news percolated out during the practice rounds in New Jersey.
On the left, Michelle Wie talks about her golf game. And on the right... pic.twitter.com/lxDdHCwF0f— Matt Stypulkoski (@M_Stypulkoski) July 11, 2017
The USGA governs whether or not it should move venues, so when we asked LPGA commissioner Whan what his views were on the matter, he said, “I’ve got strong opinions on everything, and everyone knows that. However, I had a player say to me at a tournament in Korea, 'You and I both have our views on politics, and we both think the other is wrong, but let’s agree that we’ll never let politics affect the opportunities for women to play and to grow the game and our fan base.' Regardless of what I feel about certain things, my job is to deliver opportunities [to the players].”
The LPGA cannot afford to get political, often taking what it can get to best promote the women's game and keep a full (or as full as possible) schedule. And while the LPGA may not have the financial freedom to move venues at a whim, the USGA, which runs the women's open, most certainly does. At the beginning of 2015, the USGA’s annual television revenue climbed from $37 million to $93 million when FOX Sports replaced ESPN and NBC in a massive new television deal.
Even with the financial means to move to a new course, many LPGA players did not see the relationship with Trump as an issue.
In fact, Trump has personal relationships with the players, like U.S. Open winner Cristie Kerr, who said, “Nobody treats the LPGA better than Donald.” In a separate interview she added, “I’m all for women’s empowerment and everything. Donald’s done tons for the women’s game.” Kerr is an honorary member at his clubs and also appeared on his show, The Apprentice. Ten-year LPGA veteran Natalie Gulbis also has a close relationship with Trump. She was on The Apprentice, too, and spoke at the Republican National Convention to endorse Trump as the GOP nominee. Kerr is in the field this week but Gulbis is not.
During the campaign, Trump made time to play with LPGA star Lexi Thompson, who also holds an honorary membership at his club in South Florida. After their round, Thompson called him a “great guy.”
So when people protested to move the U.S. Women’s Open to a new venue, the blistering critiques of Trump fell on many deaf ears in the LPGA community. Some players see him as their champion, someone who has made the tour better.
Victoria Elizabeth, an LPGA player, said, “I would be extremely disappointed that they would give into the minority of people who were offended.”
In fact, Elizabeth believes that Trump’s support for women’s golf makes him an advocate. “In my opinion, a person or company would not sponsor women's golf unless they truly cared about growing the game of women's golf," she said. "Anyone wanting to contribute monetarily to women's golf is a positive thing.”
For other players, their main concern is playing the top courses available to them, particularly for a major.
Mariajo Uribe from Colombia, who has played on the LPGA for seven seasons, said, “The U.S. Open is our biggest purse and most prestigious tournament. In my opinion the USGA and the community have put so much work into this event that it wouldn’t make sense to move it.”
Kim Kaufman, playing in her third year on the LPGA, found Trump’s comments offensive but believed his remarks should not have affected the USGA’s decision to host at Bedminster.
“I think it is a very separate arena. Taking the U.S. Open to Bedminster does a lot of good for that community and its golf programs, and the media should just focus on that instead. It is an amazing track and there are many people that have worked very hard to host this event and even more that are looking forward to us coming to play. Those people deserve to have us there.”
We could not find a player to go on record stating that she would prefer if the USGA and LPGA looked into a different venue. After the first round of the last major, the Women's PGA Championship, Brittany Lincicome said, "Hopefully, maybe, he doesn’t show up, and it won’t be a big debacle, and it will be about us and not him." There was a backlash to the comment, including from John Daly, who took offense to Lincicome putting down one of his "great friends."
For many players, they simply want to keep politics out of golf. Daniela Iacobelli said, “I think that the USGA should look at a venue based on the course; on its way of testing the players’ ability. Nothing else.”
When the political and sports worlds collide, controversy will always bubble or explode. When it happens, players want to keep the focus on the talent in their given sport and want the league to continue to run smoothly. In particular, for women’s sports where sponsors are sparse and coverage is limited in comparison to men, there is often little desire to make waves. Every player has dodged political minefields this week, immediately going to the talking point in every press conference that they are just there to play and talk about golf.
USA Today’s Brennan told SB Nation that she believes part of the reason players choose to remain silent is simply because they’ve been treated like third-class citizens in golf for so long, existing in a world dominated by old white men.
“Think about the women’s soccer team speaking out; think about Billie Jean King speaking out; women’s golfers sadly are always afraid to be second or third fiddle so they just don’t speak out. And they [players] could have ended this by saying something, but they never will.”
As for the LPGA, it appears it acted on its players’ behalf. Certainly there will be more interest in watching the women play the national championship at the 45th president’s course. Trump has already brought a truckload of media attention to the women’s tour that would not otherwise exist. But when it comes to the USGA and LPGA maintaining a relationship with Trump, they have made one thing clear: Their main mission is to grow golf, regardless of whether it takes controversy to do so.