How and why President Trump cheats at golf — even when he’s playing against Tiger Woods
Adapted from Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
I used to have this coach who told us, “How you do one thing is how you do everything. You loaf in practice, you’re gonna loaf in the game. You cheat on your tests, you’re gonna cheat on your wife.”
I’ve found that to be true with golf. The guy who plays slowly on the course is going to be molasses in meetings. The guy who’s generous with compliments on the course is going to do the same at dinner. And the guy who cheats on the course is going to cheat in business, or on his taxes or, say, in politics.
Jack O’Donnell worked with Donald Trump for four years as vice president of Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City. O’Donnell’s dad was one of the founders of Sawgrass, the iconic Pete Dye golf course near Jacksonville, Fla. “My dad always told us to respect the game,” O’Donnell says. “That’s the one part of the game that tells me what kind of person you are. You play the ball where it lies.” So when O’Donnell’s office colleague, the late Mark Eddis, came back after his first round with Trump, O’Donnell couldn’t resist asking.
“So, does he improve his lie?”
Eddis looked at him and threw his head back in laughter. “Every shot but the tee shot.”
Trump doesn’t just cheat at golf. He cheats like a three-card Monte dealer. He throws it, boots it, and moves it. He lies about his lies. He fudges and foozles and fluffs. At Winged Foot, where Trump is a member, the caddies got so used to seeing him kick his ball back onto the fairway they came up with a nickname for him: “Pele.”
“I played with him once,” says Bryan Marsal, longtime Winged Foot member and chair of the coming 2020 Men’s U.S. Open. “It was a Saturday morning game. We go to the first tee and he couldn’t have been nicer. But then he said, ‘You see those two guys? They cheat. See me? I cheat. And I expect you to cheat because we’re going to beat those two guys today.’… So, yes, it’s true, he’s going to cheat you. But I think Donald, in his heart of hearts, believes that you’re gonna cheat him, too. So if it’s the same, if everybody’s cheating, he doesn’t see it as really cheating.”
Okay, but …
a) Everybody isn’t. Except for an occasional mulligan on the first tee and accepting a gimme (a short conceded putt) from an opponent, 85 percent of casual golfers play by the rules, according to the National Golf Foundation.
b) To say “Donald Trump cheats” is like saying “Michael Phelps swims.” He cheats at the highest level. He cheats when people are watching, and he cheats when they aren’t. He cheats whether you like it or not. He cheats because that’s how he plays golf, that’s how he learned it, that’s how he needs it, and whether you’re his pharmacist or Tiger Woods, if you’re playing golf with him, he’s going to cheat.
In fact, he did cheat with Tiger Woods. Not long after becoming president, Trump invited Woods, Dustin Johnson (the No. 1 player in the world at the time), and longtime Tour pro and Fox golf analyst Brad Faxon to play.
They set up a bet: Faxon and Trump against Woods and Johnson. But because Woods and Johnson are so preposterously long off the tee, they decided Faxon and Trump could tee off the middle tees. Trump would get a stroke subtracted on the eight hardest holes; everybody else would play scratch. Off they went.
“On this one hole, Donald hits his second and fats it into the water,” Faxon remembers. “But he quickly says to me, ‘Hey, throw me another ball; they weren’t looking.’ So I do. But he fats that one into the water, too. So he drives up and drops where he should’ve dropped the first time and hits it on the green.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fairway, Woods, being Woods, has hit his approach to a foot from the hole for a kick-in birdie. Everybody’s on the green now, with Trump about 20 feet from the hole, and getting a stroke. Trump said, “So, where does everybody stand here?”
FAXON: “Well, Tiger just made a three. What’s that [putt] for, Mr. President?”
TRUMP: “Four for a three.”
Faxon had to laugh because Trump was actually putting for a seven, but he was claiming it was for a four, which would’ve worked out to a three with his free stroke on the hole.
“How great is that?” Faxon recalled. “Four for a three! But he missed it anyway. It was really fun to play with him. He rakes [picks up] every putt [as if it’s conceded], but you kind of want him to. You’ve heard so much about it, it’s almost like you want to witness it so you can tell the stories.”
Once, Trump hosted three famous ESPN football announcers — Mike Tirico (now with NBC), Jon Gruden (now the Raiders coach), and Ron (Jaws) Jaworski, the old Eagles quarterback — at one of his courses. Trump loves to show off his courses to celebrities, and the more celebrated you are, the more he wants you to see them and the more he wants his members to see you. Trump arrived as the other three were warming up and he picked the teams immediately. “It’s gonna be me and Gruden, ’cause I like winners.”
Off they went. At one point, they were playing a blind par 5, and Tirico, who’s a 12.3 handicap, had 230 yards into the green.
He hit the 3-wood of his life. “Oh my god!” his caddy said, open- mouthed. The thing had the flag covered from the start. It crested the hill perfectly and was going to be tight to the pin. Shocked at his sudden skill, Tirico high-fived his caddie and strode toward the green, his shoes barely touching the grass.
But, somehow, when they got there, the ball wasn’t near the pin. It wasn’t even on the green. It was 50 feet left of the pin, in the bunker. Unless it hit a drone and ricocheted sideways, there was no physical way it could’ve ended up there.
“Lousy break,” Trump said to Tirico, who checked the marking on the ball to be sure it was his. It was. Befuddled, it took Tirico two swipes to escape the bunker on the way to a 7.
“Afterwards,” Tirico remembers, “Trump’s caddy came up to me and said, ‘You know that shot you hit on the par 5? It was about 10 feet from the hole. Trump threw it into the bunker. I watched him do it.’”
What did Tirico do? He laughed, shook his head, went inside, and paid Trump his money. When it comes to golf, Trump is the tornado and you are the trailer.
But why? Why does Trump cheat so much when he’s already a decent player? And how can he be so shameless as to cheat right in front of people? They call him on it, but he just shrugs and cheats some more. It’s ruined his reputation in the golf world. Ninety percent of the people I interviewed — on and off the record — say he openly cheats. A lot of them said they stopped playing with him because of it. So why? Why cheat? Why lie? Why exaggerate his handicap, his scores, his club championships?
“Because he has to,” says Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Lance Dodes, co-author of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. “He needs to be the best at everything. He can’t stand not winning, not being the best. It had to have started very early in his development. To him, not being the best is like fingernails on the blackboard to you. He can’t live with it.”
Trump consistently says he doesn’t cheat. “I never touch the ball,” he says. That’s sort of true, maintains actor Anthony Anderson. “I’m not going to say Trump cheats. But if Trump’s caddy cheats for him, is that cheating?”
To be a master golf cheat, you need some clever tricks. Trump has two sleeves full.
1. The Invisible Dunk
“I’ve played with him a lot,” says a frequent guest in Trump’s foursomes. “This one time, I was in the fairway and he was right of the green but a little bit down the hill. He didn’t think anybody was watching, but I was. I saw him make a chipping motion from the side of the hill but no ball came up. Then he walked up the hill, stuck his hand in the hole and pulled a ball out. It must’ve been a ball he had in his hand the whole time. Then he looked up and yelled, ‘I chipped in!’ I mean, who does that?”
2. The Quick Rake
This is a sneaky little move in which you hit your approach putt and then quickly walk up and rake up what’s left of it, no matter the length, before your opponents can stop you or think to holler, “Hey, wait a minute!” Trump has mastered this move. He does it sometimes before the ball has even stopped rolling. MSNBC cameras caught him doing it once to a ball that had sped five feet past the hole and was gaining speed. By the time anybody can object, the ball is already in his pocket.
3. The Ball Switch
“Whenever I’ve caddied in Trump’s group,” says Greg Puga, an elite Los Angeles amateur and caddy, who has Trump in his group plenty, “he always gets his own cart. He makes sure to hit first off every tee box and then jumps in the cart, so he’s halfway down the fairway before the other three are done driving. That way he can get up there quick and mess with his ball.
So this one time — we were on the 18th — he hits first, kind of blocks it right, and jumps in his cart and starts driving away. My guy pures one right down the middle. I mean, I SAW it go right down the middle. One of his best drives of the day. But by the time we get to my guy’s ball, it’s not there. We can’t find it anywhere. And Trump is now ON the green already putting! Where’s our ball? And then Trump starts yelling back at us, “Hey guys! I made a birdie!” He’s holding up his ball and celebrating. And that’s when we realized. He stole our ball! He got up here early, hit OUR ball, and then hurried up and pretended like he made the putt for a birdie. I mean, what the hell?”
Trump’s friends defend his cheating, but in a way you might not expect. “My rounds with him have been some of the most fun days I’ve ever had playing golf,” says longtime NBA and college basketball coach Mike Dunleavy. “Yeah, he moves it and kicks it and all that, but no money changes hands at the end. There’s a wager, yeah, but then nobody pays anybody. So that’s not really cheating to me. It’s just fun.”
To show how much fun, Dunleavy tells a story about he and Trump as partners in a game against two of their buddies. Dunleavy hits his approach shot onto the corner of a kidney-shaped green that left him no possible putt. He was going to have to chip it off the green or somehow try to putt through the fringe and hope it came out back onto the green. Trump, his partner, came over and secretly knocked the ball on to a part of the green where Dunleavy could putt it. Dunleavy picked it up and put it back where it was.
“That’s when Donald starts yelling to the other two,” Dunleavy recalls. “He goes, ‘Guys, guys! I wanna tell you how great a guy Coach is. I knocked his ball over here so he could have a putt at it. But then he put it back! And that’s why he’s an unemployed coach and I’m worth $13 billion.”