By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Leave your ego in the clubhouse if you ever get the chance to golf with President Donald Trump. He may well throw shade on your game. And puff up his own.
Trump suggested to his good friend Phil Ruffin that maybe he should be hitting from the women’s tees. Years ago, he repeatedly ribbed an AP golf writer after his drive didn’t go as far as a female pro’s — who happened to be ranked No. 1 in the world. As president, he’s even had the chutzpah to give grief to Ernie Els, who’s playing in the Masters this week.
“He’s very good at the needle,” says Jim Herman, who was an assistant club pro at one of Trump’s courses before Trump spotted his talent and helped him join the PGA Tour.
Since taking office, Trump has made it clear he has no qualms about spending quality time on the golf course even though he criticized former President Barack Obama relentlessly for doing the same.
And Trump isn’t shy about toasting his own skills as a golfer, even prodding a business leader who was at the White House recently to recount a time when the president got a hole-in-one years ago.
This is one area where the president’s boasts are borne out by performance.
At age 70, the president still is a very good golfer, with a strong drive, quirky but effective putts and multiple holes-in-one and 19 club championships to his credit.
While he hasn’t recorded scores for a while, his handicap was an impressive 2.9 last fall, even better than the 3.5 for 77-year-old Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major champion.
“He’s got to give me two shots,” as Nicklaus, who is retired, explained it.
In his 10 weeks as president, Trump has turned up at one or another of his 16 golf properties at least 17 times, spending more than 63 hours in all at different clubs.
But the White House, sensitive to accusations that it’s hypocritical for Trump to golf a lot after criticizing Obama for doing just that, fuzzes up exactly what the president is doing during all those hours at his clubs.
Trump is proud to say he uses his golf game to lubricate business and political pursuits.
As he tries to revive the effort to repeal the health care law, Trump on Sunday invited Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had opposed the latest plan, for a round of golf at his course in northern Virginia.
Paul said Monday that Trump likes to talk about “how we come together to get everybody on the same page, and he likes to do it through golf.”
Trump made a point of golfing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February, using the golden driver that Abe had given him just days after the election. The two used the Florida outing to foster deeper relationships in Asia, according to the White House.
Els, who was part of a foursome with Trump and Abe that weekend, says the talk wasn’t all business.
“He was giving me grief about my game,” Els reported. “He’s one of the boys. He didn’t talk anything down on the ladies or anything like that, so that was nice.”
Trump and former House Speaker John Boehner, a frequent golfer, became “texting buddies” after first getting to know each other on the golf course.
The president doesn’t just talk business while playing golf. He talks golf while conducting business.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that during his White House meeting last month with Trump, who has a course in Doonbeg, Ireland, “we discussed the kind of driver that the president uses — Titleist, 9-degree loft, Doonbeg, wind off the Atlantic. You have to roll the wrist at the top to get that shot straight.”
During a February meeting with CEOs at the White House, the president prodded GE’s Jeff Immelt to recount the time he saw Trump get a hole-in-one in the early 2000s.
Immelt obliged: “We were trying to talk President Trump into doing ‘The Apprentice.’ … President Trump goes up to a par of 3 on his course. He goes up to the three of us and says: ‘You realize I’m the richest golfer in the world?’ Then gets a hole-in-one.”
Trump gently corrected: “It’s amazing. It’s amazing. No, I actually said I was the best golfer of all the rich people, to be exact.”
Since becoming president, Trump has refined his criticism of Obama’s golfing habits to scold him for playing with friends when he should have been playing with people who would be useful to his presidency.
But Trump himself doesn’t always tee off with an agenda. He’s got a cadre of regular golfing buddies with whom he loves to talk trash.
“I’m upset with him about golf because he told me, ‘If you’re going to play with me, you’re going to have to play from the ladies’ tees,’ because I don’t hit the ball that far,” says Ruffin, one of Trump’s best friends and an occasional golfing companion. “He slams it. He’s a great golfer. He’s huge.”
Another frequent golf partner is John Stark, chairman of Stark Carpet, who told The Miami Herald in 2012, “I don’t know about the boardroom but on the course he’s fair and a pleasure to play with.” Stark declined to comment for this story.
In 1993, Trump got what he said was his third hole-in-one during a pro-am competition at Spyglass Hill in California.
“I just hope I don’t have to buy drinks for 25,000 people,” Trump joked, The New York Times reported at the time.
He was playing with Paul Goydos, then a rookie on the PGA Tour who remembers golfing “completely awful” that day, so he and Trump were eliminated before the finals of the three-day tournament.
For at least that one time, Trump went easy on his partner. “He couldn’t have been nicer,” Goydos remembers.
As for making golf more accessible for people without deep pockets, Trump just doesn’t want to go there.
He told the Golf Channel last year: “I’d like to see golf be an aspirational game, where you aspire to join a club someday. You want to play, you go out and you become successful.”
Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz and Alan Fram in Washington and AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson in Augusta, Georgia, contributed to this report.
Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/nbenac
(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)