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Trump bets on PGA for gold course win

International

Washington - A little after 1 p.m. last Thursday, anybody watching the Senior PGA Championship on the Golf Channel got to see a little bit of American history.

A man came on the screen during a commercial break to praise the golf course hosting the event - a course that happens to be owned by the president of the United States.

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Two men near the stairs leading to the clubhouse at the Trump National Golf Club. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.

"This world-class venue features the best panoramic views of the historic Potomac River," said Paul Levy, president of the PGA of America.

The commercial showed beautiful views of the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, which charges new members a $60 000 fee to join. It ended with a shot of the championship trophy in front of a man-made waterfall, a setting that can be rented out for weddings.

"It's the greatest marketing in the world," Eric Trump, the president's son and an executive of the family company, said in an interview later at the course. He was celebrating the good publicity that the course had received related to the tournament.

As a golf tournament, this event is nothing unusual: one of five annual "majors" on a PGA tour for golfers 50 and older.

But the event, which runs through Sunday at this plush property just 25 miles from the White House, is a remarkable moment in President Donald Trump's young White House tenure - illustrating how the longtime businessman has retained some of his old identity as a golf-course empresario even as he adjusts to the presidency.

Spectators watch golfers practicing at the Trump National Golf Club. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.


The success of this course, one of 16 worldwide that bear his name, is the result of meticulous effort by Trump the golf-course owner, who made $25 million in upgrades to the Virginia course that are lauded by golfers and who also inked a bigger tournament, the 2022 PGA Championship, for his Bedminster, New Jersey, course.

Reminder

The weekend's festivities also offer a reminder of the complications surrounding the promise from Trump's lawyers that he would not use the presidency to boost his businesses. Trump has retained ownership of his real estate and branding empire - including the Virginia golf course - despite criticism from Democrats and ethics experts that he stood to personally profit from his public duties.

In this case, it's unclear whether Trump's business is getting a cut of the ticket revenue. But the business, and the Trump brand more broadly, certainly stands to gain positive publicity.

The Golf Channel broadcast Friday's round and NBC, the network that made Trump a star with the "The Apprentice," will broadcast the final two rounds Saturday and Sunday. Nine golfers are wearing Trump-brand gear while they compete.

"This course is going to get TV time. It's going to get status. The world's best players are going to be playing there on national television," said Andrew Wood, a golf marketing expert who has advised hundreds of course owners. Wood said that might cause the course to rise in national rankings and to attract more dues-paying members and more events for the course's ballroom.

There is also a crucial boost to the owner's status in the world of golf.

"It's ego," Wood said.

It's not clear, for now, whether Trump himself will attend. The president will be back in Washington on Sunday from his trip overseas, in time for the tournament's final day.

His arrival would bring the spotlight of the White House press corps to the tournament and this course, and it could allow a struggling president to associate himself with a success from his past life.

The White House won't say for certain if he plans to attend.

"This event is not on the President's schedule," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters wrote to The Washington Post. "Happy to circle back if that changes."

She declined to answer questions about whether Trump's advisers had considered the ethical implications of showing up at the course in the middle of a tournament.

Historical marker

Trump bought this course, formerly known as the Lowes Island Club, in 2009. He added a historical marker commemorating a Civil War battle on the site - though historians have said no such battle occurred there.

He rearranged the two courses so that the holes got longer and more challenging, and so that the most beautiful holes along the Potomac were linked into a championship-level course.

He also enhanced that view by cutting down 465 trees near the river. That move did not violate laws, but it alarmed environmentalists, who said it would cause more erosion and more sediment clouding the Potomac.

"It is now the single largest stretch of Potomac shoreline on either side of the river - from American Legion Bridge up to Harpers Ferry - without any trees on it," said Hedrick Belin, president of the nonprofit Potomac Conservancy. That is a stretch of roughly 50 miles.

Trump praised his work using the same metric: "You can go 20 miles up and down the river and there's nothing like it," he told a Virginia reporter.

The goal, all along, was to compete for big tournaments - to be on par with courses like Congressional Country Club in Maryland, which has hosted three U.S. Opens. "Congressional doesn't have a chance," Trump told The Post in 2009.

It took years. It took planning. It worked.

In 2014, before Trump began his presidential bid, the PGA of America awarded the Senior PGA Championship to his Virginia course.

And the PGA kept it there, shrugging off the controversies surrounding Trump's campaign and his young presidency. Trump has worked hard on this relationship: Golf.com reported in February that he'd spoken three times since the election to Pete Bevacqua, chief executive of the PGA of America. They met once at Trump Tower. They golfed in Florida. And Trump called Bevacqua out of the blue to talk golf, the magazine reported.

How did the PGA decide that Trump's politics were not an issue?

"The PGA of America is not a political organization. Our association with the Trump organization is strictly as a developer of golf facilities," a spokesman wrote in an emailed statement.

The PGA said that the commercial shown Thursday on the Golf Channel, touting the virtues of Trump's course, was a standard gesture.

For Trump, like other course owners, the tournament itself is unlikely to be a big moneymaker - at least not right away.

Two men near the stairs leading to the clubhouse at the Trump National Golf Club. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.


Neither the PGA nor the Trump Organization would give details of their financial arrangement. Experts on the golf business said that, in general, the host club may get a share of the revenue from ticket and concession-stand sales - or perhaps a flat "site fee." In some cases, the course gets nothing and the PGA keeps it all.

For the tournament's corporate sponsors, the benefits of supporting the tournament could extend beyond the four-day event itself.

Inked in February

A sign for one sponsor - Telos, a cybersecurity contractor that does millions of dollars in business with the government - was placed at the first tee in April, weeks before the tournament began. Trump has visited the course twice since then, once stopping in the clubhouse restaurant at the same time Telos chief executive John B. Wood was having lunch.

A Telos spokeswoman said the company signed the deal with the PGA in February, after Trump had taken office. She said that the sponsorship was intended to honour military veterans, who are working as volunteers at the tournament.

Eric Trump said corporate sponsors had signed on to support the competition years before his father ran for president and were deals with the PGA, not his company. He said the event - and the club - would be successful because of the quality and location of the facilities, not his father being president.

"This tournament is a validation of everything that we've done," Eric Trump said. "This course will stand against any course in the world at this point and that's why this event is here."

He said he doubted that his father's election had much effect on whether people were willing to sign up as members, its main source of revenue.

"I don't think you do that because somebody holds a political office," he said.

Read also: Should Trump earn a salary?

For Trump himself however, any visit to the tournament on Sunday would bring new questions.

Already, he has brought the presidential spotlight repeatedly to his for-profit businesses. He welcomed visitors at the Mar-a-Lago Club, which is taking new members at $200,000 each. He golfed at Trump National in Bedminster, where it's at least $75,000, according to documents sent recently to prospective members. Trump ate at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where the cheapest steak costs $52.

The idea that Trump might show up in person seems to have intrigued some potential ticket-buyers. Kurt Knapper, a PGA official, said before the tournament began that he'd heard the question repeatedly. Will the president show?

"I just give them the same answer," said Knapper, "which is that I don't know."

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