The pres­i­dent’s greens

The PGA event at Trump Na­tional Golf Club in Vir­ginia is a mar­ket­ing bo­nanza.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID A. FAHREN­THOLD AND JONATHAN O’CON­NELL david.fahren­thold@wash­ jonathan.ocon­nell@wash­

A lit­tle af­ter 1 p.m. on 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.

“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 has 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 Trump’s White House ten­ure — il­lus­trat­ing how the long­time busi­ness­man has re­tained some of his old iden­tity as a golf-course im­pre­sario even as he ad­justs to the pres­i­dency.

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, N.J., course.

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 the course might rise in na­tional rank­ings and 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 event. 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 whether he plans to at­tend.

“This event is not on the Pres­i­dent’s sched­ule,” White House spokes­woman Lind­say E. 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.

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 been the venue for 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 pres­i­dency. Trump has worked hard on this re­la­tion­ship: re­ported in Fe­bru­ary that he had 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.

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.

A sign for one spon­sor — Te­los Corp., 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 honor 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’s 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.

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-aLago Club, which is tak­ing new mem­bers at $200,000 each. He golfed at Trump Na­tional in Bed­min­ster, where fees are 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 tick­et­buy­ers. Kurt Knap­per, a PGA of­fi­cial, said be­fore the tour­na­ment be­gan that he had heard the ques­tion re­peat­edly. Will the pres­i­dent show?

“I just give them the same an­swer,” said Knap­per, “which is that I don’t know.”


Vis­i­tors to Trump Na­tional Golf Club in Po­tomac Falls watch prac­tice Wed­nes­day. The tour­na­ment, which runs through Sun­day, draws at­ten­tion to the pres­i­dent’s real es­tate and brand­ing em­pire.

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