What's it like to play golf with President Donald Trump? According to legendary sportswriter Rick Reilly, who's in Colorado for a pair of weekend events tied to his new book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, the experience is akin to surviving an entertaining but destructive natural disaster.
"It's like you're the trailer and he's the tornado, and it's just a big tempest of bullshit and hype," Reilly says. "Don't get me wrong: It's fun. But at the end, you're like, 'What just happened?' And I think that's what his presidency is like. You wake up and there's a new controversy when you didn't even solve yesterday's thing."
Reilly, who got his start in journalism at the Boulder Daily Camera and did a stint at the Denver Post before becoming the longtime back-page columnist for Sports Illustrated, knows whence he speaks.
"I played with him a long time ago — around 2002, probably," he recalls. "I did a book called Who's Your Caddy?, where I caddied for twelve famous people, and one of them was Trump. But when he got there, he had no one to play with, so he had me play with him — and he cheated like a Mafia accountant. He gave himself a gimme chip, which I'd never heard of, and he had me write down a four when he got a six. He said he did that once a round. It was ridiculous."
The lies didn't stop there — and Trump spread them around.
"He started saying to people, 'This is Rick Reilly, publisher of Sports Illustrated,' or, 'This is Rick Reilly, managing editor of Sports Illustrated.' I took him aside and asked, 'Why are you saying that?' And he said, 'It sounds better.'"
Trump's approach to golf struck a sour note for Reilly in part because of a respect for the game nurtured over generations.
"I'm from a really golfy family," he points out. "I've always been golfing. My mom played. My dad played. My aunt is 91, and she still wins her flight in the Hyland Hills women's championship. I should mention that she's the only person in the ninety-and-over flight, but she still wins. Tomorrow, before my signing, we'll play in the Reilly Roundup. So we all play, and we count all our shots, believe it or not, and we all wear yellow, because my dad always wore yellow in honor of Jack Nicklaus, his favorite golfer, who wore yellow when he won the ’86 Masters. We even buried him in yellow. That's how much we love golf."
The idea of a golf book about Trump snuck up on him. "I was retired and loving life," Reilly says. "I was living three months a year in Italy. But then I started seeing all this crap from Donald Trump where he was saying, 'You should vote for me because I'm a champion. I won eighteen club championships.' But he forgot that he told me how he did that. Whenever he buys a new course and plays the course by himself, he calls it the club championship. How's that for devious? And then I found out he was winning tournaments when he wasn't even there. He was playing Trump Philly, and they were having a club championship at Trump Bedminster [in New Jersey], and he calls the pro and says, 'Who won?' The pro says, 'Joe Schmertz won with a 75,' and Trump says, 'I shot 73. Make me the winner.' So Joe Schmertz's name comes off the plaque and Donald Trump's name goes on. He was making up victories like some kind of Russian general."
At first, Reilly thought he'd write an article encapsulating his take on the president's golf game. But it became a book after more people shared stories with him about Trump's cheating and boorish behavior. "He kicked the ball at Winged Foot so much they called him Pelé," Reilly notes. "He has a golf cart that goes really fast, so that way he's ahead of everybody. He doesn't stand on etiquette: Usually if you win the hole, you're first off the next tee. But he's always first, and then he runs down and nudges the ball where he wants it to be. And if he hits the ball into the water, there's a good chance a ball will be in the fairway when they catch up to him — and if people say they saw ripples, he'll tell them, 'It was the tide.'"
That Trump deploys such tactics is doubly silly to Reilly because, he notes, "He's actually a good golfer. Tiger [Woods] says he's about a 10 handicap, but he says he's a 2.8, which is almost pro level. I'm like, 'Wait a minute. If Trump is a 2.8, John Hickenlooper is a weightlifter.'"
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Commander in Cheat applies these anecdotes to Trump's presidency. "I'm not a political writer. I'm a sportswriter," Reilly stresses. "So the book isn't political until the last chapter — because the more research I did, the more I realized that some of the stuff he does as president was based on his golf problems. He's a hotel and golf course developer, and he bailed on a project in Puerto Rico and left the territory with a $32 million debt. Now, I'm not saying that's why he turned his back on Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit, but that's twice he turned his back on Puerto Rico. And when he made his Muslim ban on seven countries, none of them were where he has a golf course. Indonesia is one of the places with the most incidents of terrorism in the world, but it wasn't on the list. And guess what? He has two golf courses there."
That's not to mention the dollars that Trump's passion for golf cost taxpayers. Reilly references the website TrumpGolfCount.com, which estimates the expense of the 181 rounds of golf Trump has played since he became president through June 5 at $100 million. And today, he's reportedly golfing at his course in Ireland.
"Trump is more loyal to golf than any political party," Reilly concludes. "He's more loyal to golf than any woman. He loves golf, which is why it's a litmus test into this guy's soul, and why I hope people read it. It's not about abortion, immigration, controversial things. It's about what this guy is like, and this is what he's like: He cheats his friends at golf."
Rick Reilly is scheduled to appear at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 Colfax Avenue; go to the Tattered Cover website for more details. At 5 p.m. Sunday, June 9, he'll be at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder; additional information is available here.