One weekend in early June, President Donald Trump tested out his golf course diplomacy with Sen. Bob Corker, making the Tennessee Republican one of his first congressional partners at his Northern Virginia country club.
The pair shared a cart and partnered up in a match that included former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. They discussed both politics and policy – “a little of it all,” Corker recalled in an interview earlier this week – and there wasn’t much in the way of the trash talking that Trump is known for on the green.
“Honestly, it was enjoyable,” Corker told POLITICO. “You learn a lot about him personally.”
But that springtime round hasn’t stopped Corker from undercutting Trump since then, firing off a series of blistering attacks in media interviews and Twitter against a president who he characterized as in need of “adult daycare.”
Trump also didn’t have much luck with another recent golfing partner: Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Just days after the former 2016 GOP presidential primary rivals played at the president’s members-only Virginia golf course, Paul sided against Trump on a critical budget resolution vote that the president hopes can pave the way for a wider measure cutting taxes.
The president found some early success using golf to his advantage in office, inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to play with him at two of his South Florida courses in February to cement their personal relationship – a favor Abe is planning to repay by hosting a golf game when Trump visits Tokyo next weekend. But it has worked less well in Washington, where the president hasn’t been able to leverage his nearby golf club into close relationships on Capitol Hill.
Trump’s other recent golfing partner has been South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said in an interview that his two rounds with the president over back-to-back October weekends have helped pave the way for him to be critical of the White House in a way that can ultimately advance his agenda.
“I said I want to beat you on the golf course,” Graham said in an interview. “But the best thing I can do for you is tell you what I think and be respectful about it. Here’s the one thing about playing golf, and you’re getting to know someone, you’re far less likely to take gratuitous shots because you’ve spent time with them.”
Graham hasn’t missed a beat in playing this role. He recently praised Trump for assembling a strong national security team that’s “good for the Republican party.” And after a recent visit to South Carolina together aboard Air Force One, Graham jumped at the president’s offer of a helicopter ride back to the White House.
But Graham remains a critic on one of the biggest White House sore spots: the Russia investigations. The senator a few weeks before his first golf outing with Trump issued a scathing warning to the president over the notion of firing special counsel Robert Mueller, saying it “could be the beginning of the end” of his administration. Last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Graham said Trump continues to have “a blind spot on Russia I still can’t figure out.”
Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt – a member of GOP leadership who cautioned that he’s “not in the club championship ranks” of golfing ability – said it wasn’t clear whether the president’s recent overtures on the golf course have been productive in building support for Republican policies.
“I don’t think it hurts,” Blunt said. “Anything that builds relationships is generally helpful, though I’d like to see…more specific votes that respond to the investment of time.”
Trump is likely at the tail end of his weekend golf trips this year to his Washington-area course. He leaves on Friday for a 12-day, five-nation Asia trip, and he won’t have many warm weekends left in 2017 by the time he returns to the capital.
Meantime, the president’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach beckons. It will open again for the season around Halloween, and Trump has his pick of three South Florida golf courses with his name on them, including one that’s a short motorcade ride from his beach home.
Trump’s bid to connect with lawmakers through golf is limited in no small part by a lack of people who play at his level. Former House Speaker John Boehner was the last congressional leader known to seriously golf. But he retired two years ago, and the current ranks of House and Senate leadership are bare when it comes to the type of quality player Trump prefers. The field of good golfers among rank-and-file members is small, too.
“I would not call it widespread at all,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who is both a member and property owner at the president’s semi-private golf club in Ireland.
By all accounts, Trump is a top-notch player. Golf Digest in January ranked him No. 1, ahead of John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford among the 16 most recent presidents who played the game. But his skills – and desire to keep a round moving – also can work against him when it comes to finding playing companions from the political ranks.
“It’s almost that he’s too good,” said Mike Sommers, a former Boehner chief of staff. “You can’t see him driving through the rough helping someone find their ball.”
Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, said Trump only likes golfing with people around his same skill level. “He doesn’t enjoy playing with real amateurs. He likes to move around quick. Someone who isn’t great is slower,” said Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative website Newsmax.
Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative Freedom Caucus founder, said he plays golf on some weekends back home with his brother-in-law. But he said he’d fall into the category of amateur golfer who would suggest that Trump – should he ever offer an invitation – try looking elsewhere.
“He wouldn’t enjoy playing with me because I’m nowhere near that handicap level,” Jordan said. “If the president asks you to do something you’d consider that. But I’d also tell him, ‘Mr. President, I’m not very good. You might want to play with someone else.’”
Another obstacle for Trump to forge golfing connections in Washington: his schedule. Playing as often as he does on Saturdays and Sundays doesn’t match up well with members of Congress who make it a point to go back to their states and districts on the weekends.
Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican ranked by Golf Digest last year as the best golfer among members of Congress, said he had just discussed playing 18 holes with Trump when the president visited the Capitol for a GOP luncheon earlier this week.
“I’ve been invited for sure,” Perdue said. But Perdue said that finding a date in recent weeks has been challenging because of his commitments back in Georgia.
While Perdue said he expected to talk political shop when he does finally play golf with Trump, he also expected the round to be heavy on the social side.
“I’m not sure he’s using it as a tool,” Perdue said. “It’s a personal thing to do. This man has friends and uses it that way. He uses it to get relaxation. He uses it to think.”
Ruddy said he also didn’t see Trump as trying to use golf to win allies or policy converts. “The idea that somehow you get an inside track just because you play golf is just a nonstarter,” he said. “Trump uses it as a good way to understand people and hear them out.”
Trump repeatedly disparaged President Barack Obama for golfing as much as he did during eight years in office. But Trump has ended up playing even more golf than his Democratic predecessor.
In his first 40 weeks in office in 2009, Obama played 23 rounds of golf. Trump, during that same period of time this year, has played at least 32 rounds that have been confirmed by either the White House, social media reports or journalists traveling with the president. There have also been another 28 times where Trump was known to be at one of his country clubs and seen as likely playing golf, according to data compiled by the website Trump Golf Count.
Trump and Obama have also followed similar paths in eschewing fellow politicians as their playing partners. Obama often filled out his golfing foursome with longtime staffers and close friends. In fact, just 5 of the 333 rounds that the Democratic president played over his two terms were with members of Congress, according to a tally kept by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller. Obama only played golf three times with foreign leaders.
For Trump, the playing partners he’s had who have been publicly named have included longtime friends like New York real estate executive Richard Levine and professional athletes, including Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and PGA professional Rory McIlroy.
Golf during Trump’s life prior to politics – and Washington — was all about making money. He frequented the links with his fellow golf-obsessed Manhattan billionaires and CEOs. His name is also attached to 12 courses in the U.S., including the iconic “Blue Monster” Doral in Miami, and five more abroad in Dubai, Ireland and Scotland.
Partisanship also wasn’t a factor in who Trump teed off with. In 2012, for example, former President Bill Clinton in a CNN interview – conducted by guest host Harvey Weinstein, standing in for Piers Morgan – volunteered this about Trump: “I love playing golf with him.”
But 2012 is not 2016. And the idea of hitting the links with the president is hardly seen as a smart career move for a Trump critic – especially in the smart phone era where club members and guests frequently post video and pictures of Trump whenever he’s at one of his courses.
“I’m not sure there’s a lot of Democrats who’d want to go out and spend four hours with him,” said Yarmuth, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a serious golfer who plays at about the same level as the president.
Asked if he’d entertain playing golf with Trump, Yarmuth hedged. He waited nearly six years before finally getting out on a course with Obama — at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Washington in 2015.
“That’d be a very tough call for me,” Yarmuth said. “I say it because I so cherish my one presidential golf experience. I don’t want to necessarily tarnish it. I’d like to keep it as my only presidential golf memory because it was so good.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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