By Josh Dawsey
West Palm Beach, Fla. — President Trump golfed with professionals Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus on Saturday, ending the longest stretch of his presidency without a round at one of his courses.
The White House is usually reluctant to confirm the president is golfing. But on Saturday, aides alerted reporters that Trump was at his course in Jupiter, Fla., with Nicklaus and Woods. They even ushered journalists inside the club for a peek.
The president later shared a photo of the trio on social media, and a Trump Organization official bragged about the matchup, noting that Woods and Nicklaus design courses for the company.
Trump has spent more than 150 days at his golf courses since becoming president, playing significantly more than his predecessors, whom he had mocked for golfing too much. Aides used to worry about how much time Trump spent playing but have largely accepted it. They say the president is calmest when he’s on the greens.
He is a talented player by many accounts, usually breaking 80, though he sometimes takes mulligans. Par for most courses is 70 or 72 shots.
“The first nine holes I played with him, he shot even par,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a 2018 interview. “He beat me like a drum.”
Taylor Funk, son of golfer Fred Funk, said the president shot in the upper 70s when he played with him. “He hit a lot of great shots,” Funk said. “Flop shots and putts, up and downs. He kept up with me and my dad.”
Trump is speedy too, often finishing 18 holes in three hours by playing through other groups and driving on the edge of the green — a no-no, except perhaps when one owns the course. He is surrounded by a Secret Service detail, which expedites his movement. (A round takes between four and five hours for most golfers.)
The Washington Post reported in 2015 that playing partners said Trump often cheats. “When it comes to cheating, he’s an 11 on a scale of one to 10,” sportswriter Rick Reilly said in that story.
The president has denied this.
He usually wears a “USA” hat and often orders two chili dogs after nine holes, playing partners say. He likes to quiz fellow golfers about current events. He’s complained about the Mueller probe and regaled partners with stories of his life as a single man in New York.
He swears when he makes a bad shot or splashes in the water and complains about his chipping game, players say.
He talks nearly nonstop.
“We talked about the tax bill and how it got done, about North Korea, we talked about anything he wanted to talk about, what his fights were, what he liked least and most about his day,” Sharon Funk, Fred Funk’s wife, said in a 2018 interview. “We talked about his tweeting. He said, that’s his way of getting to the people. Every person he plays golf with, I think they talk to him about his tweeting.”
“He would talk about anything,” Taylor Funk added. “He’d say, ‘Do you think I’m doing a good job on that?’ ”
Trump also loves to quiz famous golfers about their travails, their favorite shots and how they learned the game. “Most of the questions he had were about golf. What made Tiger so good? What made Jack so good? Who was better?” Taylor Funk said.
He regularly goes off on asides about golf in Oval Office meetings. A former aide to Paul D. Ryan said the former speaker of the House would have had a better relationship with Trump if he understood golf and had been able to talk about it. One of the president’s most trusted aides, Dan Scavino, was his former caddie. He often watches golf at the White House, in a dining room off the Oval, and asks professionals such as Funk or Woods how he could improve his game.
How he finds his playing partners is shrouded in mystery — but is a combination of various methods, from people his organization sponsors to elected officials. He rarely plays with White House aides other than Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudolph W. Giuliani, his lawyer.
Trump shocked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by having so many impromptu chats with members on the course and driving his cart so quickly and all over, according to people familiar with their round. Then, the protocol-obsessed Japanese were surprised to be served a buffet lunch with hot dogs.
When the president was in Europe last summer, he frustrated aides and lawyers by demanding to visit his Scottish golf course for two days in the middle of the trip, according to current and former administration officials.
Trump often plays with friends or members of his club. Sometimes, the president will call a famous golfer or celebrity and invite them over. A regular partner is Albert Hazzouri, a dentist who did not respond to a request for comment but who stressed his ties with Trump when trying to get a license in Florida.
When Trump plays with private citizens, the White House does not release the names or acknowledge that he is playing at all, though video footage taken through the shrubs has captured him. Aides say on occasion, members at his clubs have given the president bad ideas they’ve had to thwart.
There’s another reason for the caginess. The president “insisted on trying to maintain the public perception that he was always working,” former White House staffer Cliff Sims wrote in his book, “Team of Vipers,” explaining why the White House rarely says he golfs.
Trump is proud of his courses, often describing how he designed the bunkers, turns and the intricate features in detail. “He shows how he took out trees, put in traps. He loves to describe how he developed the courses,” Graham said in a 2018 interview. “He really likes showing them off.”
But they’ve also gotten the president in trouble. The Trump Organization has come under fire for employing undocumented immigrants at his clubs and misappropriating Civil War history at one course, among other things.
Ethics experts have suggested it is unethical for the president to return so often to his greens because doing so promotes his business and allows people to effectively buy access. In a tweet, the good-government organization CREW called Trump’s tweet of himself with Woods and Nicklaus “an ad for his side business.”
“A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine a president using official statements” this way, the organization wrote. “Now it’s just an average Saturday.”
An experiment with three golfers revealed the practice can make a difference. Just not the one you might expect
By Sam Weinman
few months ago Golf Digest set out to answer a question almost as old as the game itself: does alcohol make you play better, or worse? The experiment and resulting video with three too-eager participants, was illuminating, comical, and fairly conclusive: a little bit of “swing oil” has some residual benefits owing to a decrease in tension and inhibition. Too much, however, leads to deteriorating focus and coordination, and then you just stop caring about advancing the ball at all.
A subsequent experiment with marijuana yielded similar results: some weed might take the edge off and loosen up your swing, but anything more than a little becomes counterproductive.
That brings us to our recent experiment exploring the effects of meditation, structured like the first two, but also plenty unique. Here, too, we submitted three golfers of varying playing ability to a series of golf tests while interspersing the influence of an outside element—beers and tokes became 15 minutes of meditation. The difference is that while meditation does induce some immediate physiological effects and boasts several long-term health benefits, we’re still talking about a rather nuanced exercise that is difficult to quantify. And if you really wanted to measure it well, best to do it over a few months instead of a couple of hours.
Still, a few hours is what we started with one day this summer, and I, along with colleagues Keely Levins and Ben Walton, was selected as one of three golfers who would spend the day hitting golf shots and meditating to see what type of difference we’d see. Although Keely and Ben had limited experience with meditation, I’d recently begun dabbling in no small part because mindfulness, as it’s also known, has been hailed as perhaps the best way to temper the freneticism of our modern lives. And no doubt I was a worthy candidate: a digital editor who spends his days tethered to one electronic device or another, a father of two high-energy boys, and someone who can overthink everything from family dynamics to what club to hit off the tee. As I said in the video, I first told my wife that I thought meditation would help because, “I run pretty hot during the day.”
“No,” she corrected me. “You run hot all the time.”
So in terms of how a few minutes of meditation a day can calm the mind and harness focus, I was already sold. What I hadn’t explored, and what we sought to discover that day, was how it might affect one’s performance on the golf course. Plus, we saw it as an opportunity to debunk misconceptions about meditation — what exactly it is, what you do, and why it might mesh well with the mental and emotional demands of golf.
The day was broken into segments of three different golf challenges—driving for distance, approach shot accuracy, and putting—followed by brief sessions with meditation teacher Jonni Pollard. Pollard is the founder of a meditation app, 1 Giant Mind, and a personal mentor to a roster of clients that includes corporate executives and professional golfers. With a clean-shaven head, an Australian accent, and an affable manner, he spent the day convincing us of the ways meditation can not only help us think clearer on the golf course, but at work and home as well.
Among Pollard’s central arguments is that for all our technological progress, the human body has remained virtually unchanged from man’s earliest days fending off regular physical threats, which is why we process stress the same whether it’s an unpleasant email or a bear attack. This disconnect between how we live now, and the biological constraints of our bodies and brains, can explain why we often feel scattered so much of the time, and why even the mundane stresses of everyday life can elicit profound physical reactions.
“This is the little glitch in our system,” Pollard said. “We are entrenched in a dysfunctional state of defensive living because the way we’re living now is so far removed from how we’ve biologically evolved.”
What does this have to do with our ability to hit a drive in the fairway? Plenty, actually, because the same forces that leave us feeling frequently disjointed also factor into our performance on the course.
Almost every golfer has to negotiate the chasm between the shots he’s capable of producing, and the those he actually hits. We’re too quick, we’re too distracted, we’re worried about the pond on the left—when the result falls short of our potential, it often emanates from somewhere between the ears. By contrast think about the time you mindlessly hit a shot on the range and it soars perfectly off the clubface; or when you rake in a conceded putt from afar without even trying, and it rolls straight into the hole. It’s precisely because you “weren’t thinking” that it worked out so well.
This, Pollard said, this is where meditation can make a difference.
“What it does is it hits factory restart and restores our natural capability,” Pollard said. “Our natural capability is there and we need to allow it to be there, so what is the thing that’s inhibiting it? From my perspective it’s the hyper stimulation of the thinking mind.”
Which is not to say that each meditation session sets you on a path to a truer golf swing. Not exactly at least. As the afternoon unfolded, my driver carry improved, but my approach shots were looser, and my putting stayed about the same. To think of meditation as some type of performance enhancer in deep-breathing form is to misinterpret the underlying machinations at work. As Pollard said, when you meditate for 20 minutes, focusing on your breath or a mantra and allowing outside elements to recede into the background, it’s similar to doing a set of bench presses at the gym. The act itself may make you stronger, but it’s really repetition and time that allows the effects to take hold
“The conversations I like to have when talking about meditation is one, it’s really wonderful to alleviate short term the symptoms of stress,” Pollard says. “But also it creates the internal infrastructure for us to be able to become resilient in this life, rather than feel like life is taxing you.”
Beyond technical improvement, what we really detected was an underlying sense of calm, noteworthy on what could have been a stressful day. Although Keely played college golf, Ben and I were not used to the strain of having every shot measured so precisely. Throw a handful of cameras and a crew of about 10 into the equation, and under normal circumstances I’d question if I could even draw the club back. But after each session with Pollard we began to mind the attention less, and distractions subsided.
“It became easier to be over the shot,” said Keely. “I had this odd sense of detachment to where it was going, like I didn’t want to look at the result. Not every shot was great, but there was some freedom and ease in not feeling painfully invested in how straight my drives were flying.”
This is what Pollard means when he describes the “infrastructure” meditation helps construct. Scientific studies of meditation have shown that the practice strengthens the pre-frontal cortex portion of the brain responsible for concentration, focus and problem solving while shrinking the amygdala section that triggers our panicky “fight or flight” response. So even though I didn’t hit the ball markedly better that day, the ingredients were all there to do so—I was more focused, less fatigued, not nearly as wrapped up in the shot I just hit or the one still to come.
And therein lies the real breakthrough, because golf is nothing if not an opportunity for self-sabotage. You start a round poorly, you stress over wanting to play better. You start out playing well, you wonder how long it will last. Pollard and other meditation experts like to say that the practice improves “present moment awareness,” which is a variation of the old golf cliche of “taking it one shot at a time.” Roll your eyes if you must, but think about how much easier the game would be if your mind were free of competing narratives and you just played.
Our Max Adler played a round of golf last year with Sadghuru Jaggi Vasudev, a spiritual leader with millions of followers and a surprising affection for golf. Adler attended one of the guru’s workshops to better understand how Eastern practices like meditation can translate to athletic performance. Sadghuru, too, emphasized the value of getting out of your head.
“People trip on their own minds,” Sadghuru said. “They need to create a little distance between what they think and what they do.”
So, to get back to the original question: Does meditation help you become a better golfer? The short answer is yes. The longer answer might be encapsulated by an experience from a few weeks after our session with Pollard, when I developed a wicked case of the shanks.
For about 10 days in the heart of the golf season, I had a hard time hitting an iron or wedge without the ball screaming off the hosel right into some unspeakable place. Golfers who’ve experienced the dynamic know no more maddening affliction, and in the grips of it, I couldn’t hit a simple 30-yard pitch without panicking. Then I recalled an exercise we learned with Pollard for right before address. We’d stand behind the ball, place both hands on the grip of the club, and take in a deep breath before proceeding. For an entire round, I did this over every shot —a mini-meditation session that attempted Pollard’s version of “factory restart.” My head clearer, my breath slower, the panic receded, and solid contact soon returned.
So if you’re asking, no, I don’t think you can measure the efficacy of mediation by saying it will drop this number of strokes from your score. But what I have noticed is that it can work to flush out our worst instincts—both on the course and everywhere else. I, for one, need all the help I can get.