Honestly, there is no way to depoliticize an event held at a golf course owned by the family of the current President of the United States.
But that’s not stopping the players and officials at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, which is being held at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, from trying their hardest.
“I’m not into politics at all. I’m really just all golf. That’s all I focus on and I’m just going to focus on my play this week,” 22-year-old Lexi Thompson, currently the №3 women’s golfer in the world, told reporters at the introductory press conference on Tuesday when asked about the U.S. Golf Association’s (USGA) decision to keep the marquee women’s golf tournament of the season at Trump National.
“We’re here to play a golf tournament. We’re here to play a major championship hosted by the USGA,” Danielle Kang, who won her first major title two weeks ago at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, said as she attempted to pivot away from Trump-related questions. “We’re all just really happy to be playing the U.S. Open.”
“I would love to answer a golf question for you if you have one,” defending U.S. Open champion Brittany Lang told reporters after receiving her third Trump-related question in a row.
The golfers don’t want to address protests planned by the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, or the senators who wrote an open letter last fall asking the USGA to move the event due to Trump’s “pattern of degrading and dehumanizing women that has occurred over decades.” They don’t want to talk about whether or not the president should visit the tournament this weekend, and they certainly don’t want to talk about the Access Hollywood video release last year that captured Trump bragging about sexual assault.
In an age of increasing athlete activism, the silence from the LPGA golfers is almost deafening.
It’s understandable to be frustrated with the attempts to downplay the significance of hosting a major sports event at a Trump property. But the outrage shouldn’t be focused on players who are trying to do their job; rather, it’s the decisionmakers who put these players at the center of this firestorm who are ultimately to blame.
Biggest tournament of the year
This is not just any regular week on the LPGA Tour. For the next four days, 156 of the best golfers in the world from 28 countries will compete for a $5 million purse, the largest in LPGA history. Money like that could change lives for the winner, and for the players down the leaderboard, the paycheck this weekend could help sustain a ridiculously expensive career.
Plus there’s the prestige of the tournament. This is the most high-profile, pressure-filled week of an arduous season — and players are under that pressure even without the course’s namesake, the scandal-mired U.S. president with staggeringly low approval ratings, promising (threatening?) to pay the tournament a visit.
Regardless of players’ personal politics, this adds up to an event that’s hard for them to opt to skip.
Lizette Salas, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is the lone LPGA player who was vocal about her disappointment that Trump was elected back in November. This week, she had to address her fans who were disappointed that she still decided to play in this week’s tournament. “Sorry you feel that way but I deserve to play MY national championship alongside the best players in the world,” she told one critical fan on Twitter.
Sorry you feel that way but I deserve to play MY national championship alongside the best players in the world 💜 https://t.co/qTYFeErRCS
— Lizette Salas (@LizetteSalas5) July 12, 2017
“I think everybody just trying to avoid political questions because I don’t think they get — I don’t think they will get any advantage from saying whether they agree or disagree,” seven-time major winner Inbee Park told reporters.
Considering that golf fans are overwhelmingly rich, white males — a demographic that skews conservative — Park is completely right. These players, who are already fighting for a mere fraction of the attention and compensation their male counterparts receive, are truly in a lose-lose situation that the USGA and LPGA should never have permitted to come to fruition.
Where the USGA went wrong
Trump has long had close ties to the golfing community, and is always angling to host major events at his properties. The U.S. junior championships for the girls and boys were both held at Trump National in 2009, and after both tournaments went well, the USGA decided in 2012 to award its most prominent women’s major to the New Jersey hideaway.
Athletic associations partnering with Trump knew what they were getting into. Back in 2012, Trump’s appalling treatment of women was hardly a secret. But golf was also far from the only women’s sports league to have professional ties with Trump at the time — the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) also partnered with Trump for an ad in 2012.
Everything changed, however, once Trump announced his presidential bid on that now-infamous escalator in the summer of 2015. Soon thereafter, the organizing bodies of golf issued a statement denouncing his comments on Mexican immigrants.
“In response to Mr. Trump’s comments about the golf industry ‘knowing he is right’ in regards to his recent statements about Mexican immigrants, we feel compelled to clarify that those remarks do not reflect the views of our organizations,” the statement read. “While the LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA don’t usually comment on presidential politics, Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”
Still, the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open remained at Bedminster, even though at the time, the USGA had two full years to come up with an alternative plan.
Why didn’t the USGA move the event to a different property? This week, USA Today reported it was because Trump threatened to sue.
“We can’t get out of this. He’s going to sue us,” USGA executive director Mike Davis told the USGA executive committee after meeting personally with Trump, according to the USA Today report.
So, instead of standing firm against Trump and risking any potential litigation that might have resulted from that decision, the USGA punted and decided to wait out the storm — likely thinking, as many people did, that Trump would not win the presidential election and they could get out of this situation without making any major statements.
A no-win situation
That passivity ultimately led us to this weekend, where golf officials (except for LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who did not show up to the introductory press conference), are mostly continuing to sit on their hands and take the this-isn’t-about-politics rhetoric to a degree that is far more distracting than the politics themselves.
During a press conference Tuesday, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan bluntly asked USGA officials, “How is the topic of sexual assault politics?” After the officials pivoted dramatically, she followed up to ask if the USGA had a position on the crime of sexual assault. Their answer? “We are here to talk about the golf competition at this time.”
When your desire to “stick to sports” is so overpowering that you can’t even condemn sexual assault without feeling like you’ve stepped out of bounds, perhaps you’re on the wrong side of the line.
The USGA should have done better for its fans, for girls who dream of playing pro golf in the future, and especially for its current athletes, who are now caught in the middle of a political firestorm they didn’t ask for with no good way forward.
Just ask the few players who have spoken out against Trump — even in the mildest of ways — how that’s worked out for them.
After two-time major champion Brittany Lincicome dared tell the Chicago Tribune that Trump should perhaps not visit Bedminster this weekend, noting it would be better to keep the focus on the women playing, she was met with so much criticism from golf fans and Trump supporters that she had to step away from social media. Cristie Kerr was practically kicked out of a club member’s house because she dared acknowledge to a New York Times reporter that Trump’s bullying could be problematic.
When you’re playing on the president’s course, there’s ultimately no hiding from his politics. By trying to separate the inseparable, the USGA has created a tournament where nobody wins.
UPDATE: President Trump tweeted on Friday morning that he has departed France and is headed to the U.S. Women’s Open in the afternoon.
Left Paris for U.S.A. Will be heading to New Jersey and attending the#USWomensOpen, their most important tournament, this afternoon.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2017
UltraViolet, an activist group for women’s rights, will be flying a banner over the tournament on Friday afternoon that reads, “USGA: Stand with women, not with Trump.”