Golf and Politics Collide at Doral

March 2, 2016 Updated: March 8, 2016

MIAMI, FL.—Years ago when Greg Norman—the former world No. 1 player—came to Miami, the Great White Shark would assert the week’s event at Doral, as it truly served as the kick-off to the golf season ahead.

This week’s World Golf Championships/Cadillac Championship played on the famed Blue Monster at Doral brings the most complete field of the season with 48 of the top 50 world ranked players teeing off today. For the first time since last year’s Tour Championship at East Lake, the world’s top three players—Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlory—will all be competing in the same event.

Will the golf be the storyline or will something else push that to the side?

Making matters even more interesting this week is the connection to American electoral politics, as Donald J. Trump, the owner of Doral and leader in the Republican primary for President, will be on-hand at some point during the event. It was Trump who resurrected a tired and stale facility back in 2012 when he purchased the property and promptly pumped in roughly $250 million, bringing back to life a course that has been an annual fixture in professional golf since 1962—the longest of any PGA Tour event conducted in Florida and the 3rd overall oldest.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays during a practice round ahead of the Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral on March 2. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy plays during a practice round on March 2. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Trump smartly engaged the services of architect Gil Hanse, the same man who designed the host venue for when golf returns to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. The Blue Monster had lost its teeth prior to Hanse coming on board. Now, the course is stretched to 7,543 yards and remains a par-72. The word “blue” is not simply added for hyperbole: the course features numerous shorts where utter precision is a must to escape the penalty of a doomed watery grave. 

The most noted of these holes is the acclaimed 18th—where water hugs the entire left side of the hole. The slightest miscalculation can mean swift and certain ruin—especially when the prevailing southerly winds blow into the player’s face. No event at Doral is ever over till the final putt is holed.

The Trump Factor

This week’s event features a different kind of blowing wind. Trump has stirred plenty of emotions with his various campaign comments—most particularly regarding immigrants. With an event in south Florida and a large local Latino presence, the PGA Tour leadership has been quite adamant such comments have no place in golf and other similar sentiments have been mentioned by other prominent golf associations such as the United States Golf Association, PGA of America and Ladies Professional Golfer’s Association.

The Cadillac sponsorship ends this year, but the PGA Tour has a contract with Doral to stay through 2023, although there is a provision that allows the new sponsor to go elsewhere if they see fit. Losing the long time connection to Miami is not something the PGA Tour would easily embrace, however, the backlash on remaining with Trump may be something a new sponsor doesn’t wish to associate with in any long term new deal.

The PGA Tour is facing scrutiny on how this all plays out and generally the Tour doesn’t wish to be saddled with ongoing controversies—particularly the kind involving high profile Presidential campaigns. Trump has always relished his golf connection, and his investment in various properties here in America and in the United Kingdom have clearly made news for the qualities they have provided. However, the political kerfuffle is something the PGA Tour does not want to see continue, as that may inflict negative publicity on its overall brand and market positioning. Sponsorship of PGA Tour events has always been a general risk-free situation, but as matters proceed with Trump there may be a limit on which corporate entities will do if aligned with Trump’s ownership at Doral.

Finding another location in the immediate area would pose a considerable issue and likely would require the new host site to be amenable to staging the event over several years. The WGC connection and time of year are also two elements that would need to be gauged correctly. With the PGA Tour now making its Florida swing, it’s unlikely the event would jettison itself to another part of the globe. The time factor—convenience for the players—and need to have a broadcast television connection that works for the time slot, are just a few of the key hurdles.

Bubba Watson reacts to a putt during the final round of the Northern Trust Open Feb. 21. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Bubba Watson reacts to a putt during the final round of the Northern Trust Open Feb. 21. (Harry How/Getty Images)

In years past, Trump has taken a high profile in his golf facilities but this week at Doral may cause him to tone down the volume. The Blue Monster is not a course uniformly loved. There have been issues raised concerning just how close the water hazards are from key playing areas. Dry conditions are expected for the first two rounds with periods of rain showers off and on during the weekend. Scoring will come down to the strength of the wind as it always has at Doral. With gentle breezes the course can yield low scores.

Back to the Players

The storyline on the players side is quite interesting. World number one Jordan Spieth seeks to re-enter the focus after having missed the cut in his last outing in Los Angeles during the Northern Trust event two weeks ago. Spieth spent a considerable amount of time in the first two months of ’16 traveling to distant global locations. A solid week at Doral will show much.

Ulsterman Rory McIlroy missed last week’s cut at the Honda Classic and had a meltdown in the final round when competing at Riviera two weeks ago. Jason Day, the reigning PGA Champion and number two ranked player in the world is now making an effort to get fully engaged for the lead-up to The Masters in several weeks. Defending champion Dustin Johnson needs to show he is ready to finally demonstrate that the golf season ahead could very well be the breakout year many have been predicting for quite some. Aussie Adam Scott’s win last week at PGA National showed his game is in top form and, so long as his putting can cooperate, he will be a factor in just about any event.

And then there is the mercurial Bubba Watson. The two-time Masters champion has been a runner-up twice in the event and his recent win in Los Angeles showed a new maturing side. Bubba has sometimes seen fit to inflict himself with outbursts of one type or the other. A win at Doral can show the left-hander is intent in breaking through and climbing to the top of the rankings.

There’s little question the Miami connection has been a powerful presence for the PGA Tour. Now, with The Donald involved, the stakes are clearly high this week. Will the golf be the storyline or will something else push that to the side? Doral will clearly be a good indicator of just which players are rounding into top form, as Augusta looms just ahead in a few weeks.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.