A year after Donald Trump acquired Turnberry for a knock-down price of $65 million – or at least we thought it was knock-down at the time – I was chatting to a very senior R&A man about it.
It was just after the much-loved and stunning Ayrshire venue had hosted, to date, its last major championship: the chaotic Women’s Open of 2015.
Trump, just beginning the journey that eventually ended with him in the White House, treated the championship like his personal fiefdom that week.
He buzzed the course with his helicopter during actual play, disturbing the players below. He noisily toured the course at ground level, again during play, with TV cameras in tow.
He held a madcap, showpiece press conference in the hotel, corralling golf reporters in the belief they were getting a golf story but instead forcing them to listen to an hour and half of “presidential” hectoring.
There’s been many press conference in my near 40 years in the business I’ve wanted to get out of, but that was easily the most torturous I can recall.
Speaking to the R&A man, I noted that the name of the venue had changed to Trump Turnberry. If the Open went back there, I suggested, it might be the way that the man could get his name actually engraved on the Claret Jug.
Usually an avuncular, smiling chap, the R&A man’s face changed gravely and his eyes narrowed. “That will never happen” he stated purposefully.
Maybe he just meant they wouldn’t engrave the Jug that way. But even yesterday’s statement from the R&A about Trump continued along similar lines: they couldn’t even bring themselves to say the man’s name.
The Turnberry Ailsa, everyone agrees, is one of the best courses on the planet, not just one of the best in the Open’s pool of venues. An updating a few years ago by Martin Ebert, the R&A’s designer of choice, has made it even better.
The R&A never said they wouldn’t go back to Turnberry. Every time we’ve asked – and it’s been at least twice a year – former chief executive Peter Dawson and his successor Martin Slumbers have insisted it remains in “the pool”.
Please see a statement from The R&A regarding Turnberry.
— The R&A (@RandA) January 11, 2021
Yesterday’s statement from Slumbers is much more explicit. “We had no plans to stage any of our championships at Turnberry and will not do so in the foreseeable future,” it read.
“We will not return until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself and we do not believe that is achievable in the current circumstances.”
This might seem like a change of policy, but it’s only publicly admitting what the R&A been quietly doing for the last five years. After the chaos of the 2015 Women’s Open, there was no way the R&A were going to let Trump’s gargantuan ego overshadow their precious championship.
Their policy was simply to ignore this enormous elephant in the room as best they could, until it either expired or rumbled off somewhere else.
There are also the issues that Turnberry presents in terms of infrastructure, road access and hotel rooms. In addition, it attracts the smallest crowds of any host venue – just 120,000 in 2009, the last time the Open was there.
Trump bought Turnberry for $65m from Leisurecorp, the people behind the Jumerai Estates in Dubai. According to the accounts since, they’ve ploughed $75m into doing the place up.
Losses now total $61m since Trump took over, although it did turn in a small profit in the last annual accounts.
While that’s extreme, there’s nothing new in Turnberry losing money. For all that it is a magnificent site and golf course, it’s really been a money pit for a succession of owners.
The biggest hit for the place was that it was an Open venue. But the R&A haven’t taken the Women’s or Senior Opens there since 2015, nor even one of their amateur events.
And they’re not going back while Trump is the owner.
While you might think him winding up a mob of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and actual armed terrorists to assault the Washington Capitol Building was the tipping point, it’s actually been pretty much the R&A’s policy all along.
Some of golf still too slow to dump Trump
The PGA of America, conservative with both a small and a big ‘c’, had already pulled next year’s PGA Championship from Trump National in New Jersey because they can no longer stand to be associated with the President.
Who’s next? There are a host of golf’s biggest names who attached themselves in some way to Trump’s now-toxic brand, including the biggest names of all.
Jack Nicklaus endorsed Trump for the presidential election and while this column a few weeks back stressed we shouldn’t decry Jack’s great achievements for that, the longer his silence now continues, the more his reputation is tarnished.
Just a day after last Wednesday’s debacle, Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam sneaked into the White House by the back door to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in private.
I get that the medal is a very big thing in the US, but this was ridiculously insensitive and obstinate.
All of golf needs to immediately join the headlong rush to dissociate themselves from Trump’s poisonous presence.