A familiar figure wearing a golf cap and emitting an air of imperiousness that overwhelms even the scent of cigar smoke wafting over the Blue Monster is missing from the posh grounds of the Trump National Doral resort.
No, it’s not Tiger Woods everyone wants to see at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship. Woods is out of action with recurring back problems.
The man in demand is Donald Trump, a leading candidate for president of the United States who also happens to own the place where the world’s best golfers are competing for $9.5 million in prize money and Adam Scott is leading after two days at 10-under-par.
Fans scanning the skies during the first two days of the tournament have yet to spot Trump’s helicopter whooshing in for a landing on the helipad adjacent to the ninth tee. Word is that he will only have time to stop by on Sunday to hand out the trophy. He is busy, after all, coming off his Super Tuesday victories, appearing at Thursday’s Republican debate in Detroit, preparing for four state primaries and caucuses, campaigning in Orlando and meeting the press at his West Palm Beach golf club on Saturday, and criticizing Republican party foe Marco Rubio not only for sweating profusely and having big ears but for being “a loser.”
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Rubio countered that Trump has untrustworthy small hands.
“But I’ve always heard people say, ‘Donald, you have the most beautiful hands,’ ” Trump replied, while assuring voters there is nothing small about any of his body parts.
It’s the kind of campaign rhetoric that reminded Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy why he’s thankful he’s not American.
“I’ve been following it, and I really thought I knew what politics were until I started to watch some of these presidential debates,” McIlroy said. “Not saying the political system in Northern Ireland is too strong at the moment, either. But it is shocking. I can’t vote and if I were to vote, I’m not sure I would want to vote for any of the candidates.”
Love him or hate him, Trump’s presence at Doral is undeniable — even when he’s not present. For sale in the pro shop are $30 “Make America Great Again” hats in white, red, black and camouflage. Framed magazine covers on the wall include one from Fairways + Greens with the headline “President Trump?” Guests can drink Trump Virgin Mojito Water in the lobby. The gold-embossed Trump crest is on fountains, lampposts, flags, polo shirts and restroom towels.
The Trump persona is so powerful that anticipation of his arrival and what he might say or do threatens to upstage the star golfers themselves.
“Trump is a master showman who knows that making noise and making news is more important than being right or liked,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic political analyst from Tallahassee. “He’s the John Daly of politics. You follow him around and he might score 17 or sink a hole-in-one or hit a ball off somebody’s head, but you know something is going to happen. More people will watch the tournament this year because of him.”
Asked about the convergence of sports and politics at Doral, Australia’s Scott demurred and gave the typical athlete’s answer.
“Hopefully, they don’t intersect at all,” he said. “Should be the beauty of sport.”
But Bubba Watson was more realistic, admitting he expected a “ruckus” when Trump arrives.
“We’ve had presidents and ex-presidents show up and cheer us on at different events,” he said. “But for it to be in the middle of a race — it will be different. It’s his baby so it would be great if he showed up just to encourage us a little bit.”
Trump, 69, is an avid golfer who claims a 7 handicap. He drives long and plays fast. His passion for the game led him to purchase 15 golf courses he lists as worth $500 million on his federal financial disclosure report. A CNBC analysis by appraisers said they are worth half that.
Trump bought the faded 800-acre Doral property at the bargain price of $150 million in 2012, then sank $200 million into renovating the resort and re-designing the Blue Monster course with Gil Hanse. He did it in Trump style, which nobody would describe as subtle.
“The course is bolder, louder, more dramatic and all the edges are more severe,” said Mark Rolfing, a reporter for the Golf Channel and NBC Sports. “It’s a lot like the man himself.”
Gary Koch, who won the tournament in 1983, said Trump made the course too difficult at first, but that players have been complimentary of adjustments since.
“There’s no mistaking the Trump influence — he likes it challenging,” said Koch, a tower analyst for the Golf Channel and NBC Sports. “When I used to play the 15th hole, it was a nice par 3. Now the lake has been expanded so there’s water in front, on the left and behind the green.
“The good thing about Trump is he’s a huge golf fan. No one enjoys the limelight quite like he does, but I don’t think it would be his intent to overshadow the event he’s worked so hard to improve.”
The PGA Tour chastised Trump for his inflammatory comments about Mexicans and Muslims three months ago and said the tour would examine whether to continue holding the event at Doral and its association with Trump after 2016. He has not toned down his message. On the contrary, he’s quoted Mussolini, insulted the disabled, mocked women, hesitated to reject the support of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. He wants to build a 1,000-mile border wall on Mexico’s dime. He’s promised to “rebuild our country, because our country is going to hell.”
“You have to consider the public relations aspect as to whether you’re aligned with someone’s views or not,” Koch said. “I could see Trump’s ownership as a potential issue for the PGA if he’s too controversial — or if he wins the presidency.”
Schale said the PGA Tour has to be careful not to alienate its followers or corporate sponsors.
“While the vast majority of people who play are white, there are other demographic segments that golf needs who are not white,” Schale said. “Trump is a lightning rod. Corporations don’t need the backlash.”
Trump’s bellicosity appeals to Americans who fear their nation has lost its power and prosperity and status as No. 1. He frames himself as a “winner” with no patience for the weak. He says the main reason he plays golf is because “I like to win.” So his muscular language appeals to golfers, too.
“I think Trump has been great for golf,” Rolfing said. “Golf has been flat in its growth, and Trump has been successful at attracting new participants.”
Among those who won’t be voting for Trump are eight homeowners living on Trump’s golf course. He’s suing them for chopping down or radically trimming trees he planted to block the sight of the houses, while the residents have complained he blocked their expensive views of the course.
It’s another wall, another fight, another headline in the Trump circus. When he does land next to the ninth tee in the Sikorsky helicopter with his name painted on the side, it won’t be a quiet entrance.