Industry News

Can Trump make golf great again?

By Alex Miceli

As the first golf course owner to be elected U.S. president took the oath of office Friday, the golf industry waits with anticipation.

Will Donald J. Trump be good for the game?

Trump campaigned as a political outsider on a bold platform of change, notably to overturn Obamacare, reduce taxes, create jobs and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. His stunning run to the White House has been well received by Wall Street in the past two months, and a national poll of the small-business community – which includes most golf courses – has registered the highest optimism in more than a decade. 

To be sure, the challenges facing the $68.8 billion golf industry loom large. After yet another year of soft participation and more course closings than openings, American golf will turn to its golfer-in-chief – certainly as a single-digit handicap the most avid and accomplished player to occupy the Oval Office – for help on a number of key issues. Let’s call them the three Ws:

  • Wages: New overtime rules would more than double the minimum pay for salaried employees, to $47,476. Golf courses, most of which are seasonal, likely would trim staff during slower months. A federal district court issued a temporary injunction just days before the legislation was to have taken effect Dec. 1. Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, in a blog post on Fortune magazine’s website described the legislation as “just another added regulatory cost.”
  • Water: Any golf course with a body of water, regardless of size, would come under the Environmental Protection Agency’s scrutiny. In clarifying the Waters of the United States rule, known as WOTUS, the EPA demands another layer of approvals beyond local and state agencies. Trump has put the EPA in his crosshairs, appointing Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general and a fossil fuels proponent who dismisses global warming, to head the agency. 
  • Workers: Golf leans on temporary labor during the peak season, typically spring and summer in the cooler latitudes. The H-2B visa program creates a pipeline for foreign nationals to do much of golf’s dirty work. Trump has created a picture of contrasts: he campaigned for limited immigration yet he uses the H-2B visa program for foreign workers to supplement the staffs at his U.S. golf courses. Again, Puzder would be the wild card. As chief executive of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the Hardees and Carl’s Jr. chains, he has advocated for open borders and the use of foreign labor. 

Golf also will face other challenges during the Trump administration. Among them, the game’s “sin” designation by legislators as an elitist activity; EPA review of pesticides, many of which are used on courses; tariff relief for imported golf equipment, mainly clubheads and bags; a proposed border-adjustment tax that essentially would subsidize exports and hurt imports; and potential opposition to mergers and acquisitions, which could affect a company such as TaylorMade, which parent Adidas Group has been shopping.
In response to concerns about potential conflicts of interest, Trump said he will hand over his golf operations and other businesses to his adult children, though the game is certain to keep his attention as president.

“We're hoping that with Trump being in the White House and being a golf course owner himself, and has courses that are members of our organization, that there will be a warmer reception and/or flatter learning curve with regard to our issues,” said Jay Karen, chief executive officer of the National Golf Course Owners Association.

Coming Tuesday: The tug of war between golf and Washington

Alex Miceli is founder and publisher of Morning Read.