How golf explains Trump. Seriously.

President Donald Trump waves while playing a round of golf at Trump Turnberry Luxury Collection Resort during his first official visit to the United Kingdom on July 15, 2018, in Turnberry, Scotland.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

Have you ever won a tournament you never competed in? Have you ever stolen the ball from an opponent to gain a competitive advantage?

If the answer to either or both of those questions is no, then you’re not cheating at the highest level. Which is to say, you’re not cheating like President Donald Trump.

In a 2019 book, Commander in Cheat, sportswriter Rick Reilly explores Trump’s complicated relationship with the game of golf, and shows the near-heroic efforts he makes to lie about his scores, sabotage his opponents, and generally defraud the sport.

Trump’s cheating at golf might seem trivial compared to his political shenanigans, but there’s another way to think about it: Golf is a game built on self-governance, Reilly says, and in that way, it’s like a “Rorschach test for your morality.” And some of the stories about Trump are truly absurd. “In a weird way,” Reilly told me, they “say as much about Trump as almost anything else we know about him, because it cuts to the core of his character.”

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Reilly follows.

Sean Illing

Trump claims to have won at least 20 club championships at his golf courses. What is a club championship? And how many of those has he actually won?

Rick Reilly

Once a year, every country club has a club championship for the best players. It lasts two or three days, and it’s a big thing if you win it. The best player I know of at this level won eight of these club championships — that’s the most I’ve ever heard of.

Trump’s going around telling people he has won 20. But that’s 100 percent a lie. I actually played with him once, and he told me how he does it: Whenever he opens a new golf course, because he owns 14 and operates another five, he plays the first club champion by himself and declares that the club championship and puts his name on the wall.

But it’s usually just him and Melania in the cart and nobody else. He just makes it up.

Sean Illing

Give me the most outrageous cheating story.

Rick Reilly

Well, this story isn’t in the book but it’s wild. While Trump was meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, a club championship was held at Trump International, the course Trump built near Mar-a-Lago in Florida. So later on, Trump’s back on the course there with the Secret Service and the SWAT team guys and all that stuff. And he sees Ted Virtue, who was involved in the financing of the movie Green Book.

I could never get Virtue to call me back on all this, but Golf.com reported it and I heard it from two members of the club as well. They say Virtue was there playing with his son. Trump sees Ted on the 9th hole and and decides to drive his cart over. He tells Ted: “Congrats on winning the club championship, but you didn’t really win it, because I was out of town.”

Ted tries to laugh it off, but Trump is dead serious. Trump says, “We’re gonna play these last six holes for the championship.” And Ted’s like, “Oh, well, I’m playing with my son, but thanks anyway.” But Trump says, “It’s okay. Your son can play, too.” So what are you going to do? He’s the president. It’s his course. They end up playing.

Apparently, they get to a hole with a big pond in front of the green. Both Ted and his son hit the ball on the green, but Trump hits his in the water. By the time they get to the hole, though, Trump is lining up the son’s ball. Only now it’s his ball and the caddie has switched it.

The son is like, “That’s my ball!” But Trump’s caddie goes, “No, this is the president’s ball; your ball went in the water.” Ted and his son look at each other confused, not sure if this is really happening. Trump makes that putt, and wins one up. Then, according to Golf.com, he tells Virtue something like, “I’ll tell you what, we’ll be co-champions.”

But the members tell me that when you look at the plaques on Trump’s locker there, it says: “2018 Men’s Club Champion.” No “co-” at all.

Sean Illing

Were you able to talk to Trump at any point while you were working on this and ask him about this stuff?

Rick Reilly

Nope. I tried to interview him. I sent him a FedEx letter. I called the people I know in the White House Press Office. I texted. I don’t know what else I could have done to try to get an interview. But he wouldn’t talk to me. Eric Trump, who’s in charge of the golf[-related business], wouldn’t talk to me. Don Jr. wouldn’t talk to me.

I talked to a ton of people while reporting this book — Republicans, Democrats, random people in Trump’s orbit. They all have a story. But half of them wouldn’t let me use it. Some of them like his policies, some don’t want to be [targeted by Trump]. Even when I said, “Just let me use the story and I won’t put your name on it,” they still said no.

Sean Illing

What’s interesting to me is what Trump’s cheating says about the unreality he lives in.

Rick Reilly

I mean, he’s always been like this. We’ve known this guy in the sports world for 30 years. He’s always told people that no one can beat him, that he’s the best of the rich guys. But it’s always been complete bullshit, and everyone knows it.

For example, he’s played in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a really popular golf tournament that’s full of rich guys, for seven straight years. His team has never made the cut — not once. He constantly says he can beat anybody among the rich, but I’ve played in the Tahoe Celebrity tournament with him several times and he’s never finished in the top half.

I realize how silly all of this is, but it’s also serious because of what it says about the man, about who and what he actually is. I always say golf is like bicycle shorts — it reveals a lot about a man. And the fact that he has to prop up his bullshit reputation as this fantastic golfer is pretty revealing.

Sean Illing

What’s the point of all this cheating? He’s not competing for money or a pro contract, right? What purpose does any of this serve?

Rick Reilly

He always wins, even if he loses — that’s it. He just wants to tell people he beat your ass. I asked a psychiatrist and he said that someone with this kind of narcissism, which is really a personality disorder, they just can’t stand the idea that they’re not number one, that they’re not the best. So they have to make shit up.

Someone once asked him to rate the best 10 courses in America. He put five of his courses in the top 10. But when you go to the Golf Digest Top 200, his best course is ranked 156.

Sean Illing

Do you think he’s convinced himself that he’s not cheating?

Rick Reilly

Oh, for sure. I’ve had three or four people tell me they called him on it on the first hole. He kicks the ball so much that caddies call him Pelé [a reference to the famous Brazilian soccer player]. He throws it out of bunkers, he retakes shots, he throws other people’s balls into the water.

But every time people call him on it, he has the same answer, which is, “Oh, the guys I play with, you’ve got to do this just to keep it fair.” It’s the Lance Armstrong defense: Everybody’s doing it, so I have to do it just to keep up, otherwise I’m getting cheated. It’s the default rationalization of a cheater.

But in reality, the National Golf Foundation says 90 percent of people don’t cheat when they play. But this guy cheats like a mafia accountant.

Sean Illing

Why should anyone care that Trump cheats at golf?

Rick Reilly

I can only speak for myself. I grew up in the game. My dad taught me the game. He taught me that we don’t cheat each other, you don’t cheat your friends, because the space of golf is so huge, it’s the very easiest game to cheat at. So it’s absolutely a Rorschach test for your morality. You could say it doesn’t matter, and I certainly understand that reaction. But in a weird way, it says as much about Trump as almost anything else we know about him, because it cuts to the core of his character.

Sean Illing

What happened with his big golf venture in Puerto Rico?

Rick Reilly

Before he was president, he went down to Puerto Rico and took a contract to help a course there called Cocoa Beach outside San Juan. He convinced these people that he was going to come down and bring all his celebrity friends and he was going to get a lot of press for them, and he was going to get their business rolling again.

Well, it didn’t roll. In fact, they lost money. And they said, “Okay, we’re quitting. We’re going to call it bankruptcy.” Trump said, “No, you need to take out a loan from the government,” so they took out a $32 million loan. And then, again, they lost money. Trump pulled up stakes and left, and the government was stuck with a $32 million unpaid loan.

Fast-forward to the time of his presidency, when Puerto Rico is devastated by a natural disaster, he turns his back on them again. I’m not saying these two things are linked. I’m just saying twice he’s turned his back on the same group of American citizens.

Sean Illing

I’m curious why you decided to write this book. You don’t really wade into politics that much, so why put this out into the world?

Rick Reilly

Because of my dad, who passed away. My dad taught me that golf was a gentleman’s game, that you never cheat a guy. To see a guy cheating and telling people he won tournaments he didn’t even play in, and telling people he won tournaments that weren’t even held — it just bothers me. He’s leaving a big orange splotch all over my game, and that’s why I wrote the book.


Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the interviewee mischaracterized the age of Ted Virtue’s son who played golf with Trump. All of Virtue’s sons are at least in their 20s, not child-age. We sincerely regret the error.

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