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Golf began when a couple of Scottish shepherds with low-tech clubs thought it might be fun to bat a rock around a field until it fell into a hole. Or, so I like to imagine.
For better and worse, the game has evolved.
James Dodson has played golf since childhood. As a reporter and author he’s won numerous awards for his writing about the game, and he has been associated with many of golf’s greats. He co-wrote Arnold Palmer’s memoir.
That’s no doubt why Dodson was sought after as a playing partner and luncheon guest by the man who said until quite recently that one of his primary jobs was making golf great again.
'Donald Trump Loves Your Books'
Though they hadn’t met, Dodson was aware of the fellow’s impact on the game.
"I knew Trump was very interested in golf," Dodson says. "I knew he was buying up golf courses. His M.O. was to find a financially distressed property, buy it, keep it in bankruptcy, do a half-a-million-dollar renovation, fire the entire staff and hire a third back."
So James Dodson, who grew up a Republican but currently describes his political stance as "radical centrist," knew that. And maybe he thought that’s all there was to know about Donald Trump. But that was before they’d met. Which, as I’ve suggested, wasn’t Dodson’s idea.
"This PR guy kept calling me and inviting me," Dodson says. "And he kept saying things like, 'Oh, Donald Trump loves your books.' And I kept saying, 'Donald Trump doesn’t read books, I’m told. And he hadn’t a clue who I am.' Anyway, he called three or four times. Finally, I said yes."
That was a little more than three years ago. And Dodson probably wouldn’t have regarded the invitation as an imposition if he hadn’t had other plans. Dodson and his wife had arranged to visit Arnold Palmer at Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. From there, the Dodsons were headed to Scotland for some golf. Joining Donald Trump at his new course in North Carolina meant juggling those plans.
But, at his wife’s urging, Dodson agreed to leave their home in Southern Pines, North Carolina and drive to Charlotte, site of the recently reconstituted Trump National Golf Club Charlotte, in order to meet with The Donald, who was not the only star attraction.
"Greg Norman was gonna show up, and he and Trump were gonna play the first nine of the course," Dodson explains. "I was gonna play with Eric, his son, a local congressman and the guy I assumed was his bodyguard. And then we would swap at the nine holes. I would play with Trump and Greg, and then we would have a big lunch and hear all about the club."
When the big day arrived, a dark, gray sky provided the first sign that all would not go as planned. Dodson was a little late arriving, and by the time he entered the Trump National Charlotte clubhouse, his host was already holding forth.
"Trump was strutting up and down, talking to his new members about how they were part of the greatest club in North Carolina," Dodson says. "And when I first met him, I asked him how he was — you know, this is the journalist in me — I said, 'What are you using to pay for these courses?' And he just sort of tossed off that he had access to $100 million."
"So when I got in the cart with Eric," Dodson says, "as we were setting off, I said, 'Eric, who’s funding? I know no banks — because of the recession, the Great Recession — have touched a golf course. You know, no one’s funding any kind of golf construction. It’s dead in the water the last four or five years.' And this is what he said. He said, 'Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.' I said, 'Really?' And he said, 'Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.' Now that was [a little more than] three years ago, so it was pretty interesting."
Well, yeah. It is. (Update: Eric Trump has denied saying this about Russia.)
'Ask Me Anything You Want'
Shortly after that conversation took place, James Dodson and Eric Trump teed off behind the foursome that included Donald Trump. And shortly after that, the promise of those clouds was fulfilled.
"A bolt of lightning literally hit a house, and the rains came down, and we raced in our carts back to the clubhouse," Dodson says. "And, truthfully, I thought, 'I’m going to be able to clear out of here now. This will be great.' And I’m loading my clubs in the back of my car, thinking I can get an early start back to Southern Pines for our trip to Latrobe. And this kid comes running out: 'Mr. Dodson! Mr. Trump really wants you to come in and have a cheeseburger.' And I said, 'OK, I’ll do it.' And that kid pointed out they were 'really, really awesome cheeseburgers.'"
"He [Eric Trump] said, 'Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.'"Writer James Dodson, on Eric Trump explaining to him where funds for golf courses came from post-recession
At lunch Trump continued to celebrate the virtues of the Charlotte course and those of various other courses he’d bought or was about to buy.
And the cheeseburgers ... they were awesome, tremendous, right?
"You know, it was — it was a cheeseburger," Dodson says. "It was a platter of cheeseburgers."
Dodson listened politely to Trump’s celebration of what he’d wrought, and when he’d finished his cheeseburger …
"I said, 'Well, I gotta go.' And Trump hopped up, and he said, 'Well, I’ll walk you to the door,'" Dodson recalls. "And he took my arm, a real bro hug, and we’re crossing this long room, and he says, 'You’re the one that writes all the books.' And I said, 'Well, I’ve written a few.' And he said, 'I haven’t read 'em. Because I really don’t get much chance to read books. But I write books. Have you read my books?' I deadpanned. I said, 'Yes, they’re all stacked up on my bedside table. I haven’t gotten to them yet.' But he didn’t seem to get the joke. And we’re walking in this bro hug. I mean, very snug, and he’s a big guy. And he said, 'So, you’re a journalist. You didn’t get to ask me any questions. Ask me anything you want. I’m the most open interview you’ve ever had. I’ll tell you anything. Straightest talker you’ve ever met.'"
Dodson tossed his host a couple of batting practice questions about golf courses. Then he tried a change-up.
"So," Dodson continues, "I said, 'Ah, are you going to run for president again?' 'Yeah, yeah, I’m thinking about it,' he says. 'You know, everywhere I go, people say to me, "Trump, Trump, this country is totally f-ed up. You need to run for president. You’re the only guy that could straighten it out. We need a businessman."' And he says, 'What do you think? I oughta run?' And I said, 'You’d be fun to follow.' So he said, 'Yeah, yeah. Let me tell you. I’m thinking of doing it. And he said, 'And I'll tell you what: I’ll let you know if I do it.'
"Now we’re at the door. And he’s still got me in the bro hug. And he says, 'Come on, those are nothing. Those are softballs.' And he says, 'One more for the road. Give me something with some mustard.' And this is what I said: 'Well, OK, fair enough. My wife and I watched The Apprentice for the first time the other night in preparation for coming over here. And, honestly, the question that kept popping up in my head is: are you as big an a--hole as you seem? Or do you just play one on TV? And this is what he did. He dropped my arm like it had caught fire spontaneously, stepped back at least a yard, made that kind of constipated furious pig face he makes, slapped my back, doubled over and popped up laughing like you can’t believe and declared, 'Yeah, it’s fun, isn’t it?'
"You know, I liked the guy. I liked him. I mean, he was somebody you’d like to play golf with. He’s got a good golf swing. He’s apparently a pretty good golfer. He clearly loves the game. I’m kind of sorry I didn’t get to play with him."
"And he said, 'So, you’re a journalist. You didn’t get to ask me any questions. Ask me anything you want. I’m the most open interview you’ve ever had. I’ll tell you anything.'"James Dodson, on President Trump
'The Real Soul Of The Game'
Dodson says his father, also a passionate golfer, had always celebrated playing golf with somebody as a grand way to get to know the person. Dodson, like his father, feels the game sometimes builds character, and often reveals it.
Alas, on that day at the Trump National Charlotte course, rain prevented that process of discovery. To understand the character of the future president of the United States, Dodson had only cheeseburgers, malarkey and that bro hug to go on. Still, he’s willing to draw some conclusions about his host from the encounter.
"He’s very beguilingly chummy, except for his handshake, which is sort of odd," Dodson says. "He really does want you to like him. I mean, I think understanding Trump is that simple. He wants you to like him. He wants you to feel grateful that you belong to his club."
As he took his leave, Dodson explained to the future president that he had to prepare for his trip to Latrobe."Who are you seeing there?" Trump asked. "Arnold Palmer," Dodson said. "And he smiled broadly at that," Dodson told me. "He crossed one finger over the other and he said, 'Arnold and I are like that.'"
"And I told Arnold that the next night at dinner," Dodson says, "and he laughed and said, 'Really, Shakespeare? It’s more like this.' And he crossed his hands and put them at his own throat."
Dodson thought Palmer’s gesture was pretty funny. And it was, but perhaps it wasn’t much of an overstatement. Arnold Palmer was the son of a greenskeeper. The way he saw it, golf should belong to whoever wanted to play it. As James Dodson has put it, Donald Trump celebrates golf as an "aspirational game."
"And by that, I mean something you achieve when you achieve success," he says. "And a measure of your success is you can belong to a very high-end country club. That the reason people should play it, they should get wealthy, and then golf would be the reward."
Through the '50s and '60s and '70s, Arnold Palmer, for whom Dodson has always had tremendous respect, popularized golf. His message seemed to be that if one determined kid in a working-class town in Pennsylvania could grow up to become, for a time, the most accomplished and popular golfer in the world, the game should be open to everybody inclined to give it a try. And that’s the attitude to which James Dodson subscribes.
"You know, there’s three times as many public golf courses than private in America," he says. "That’s the real soul of the game. And that’s the way it was in Britain. And it’s that way in America, too, by the way, with or without Donald Trump."
Mr. Trump would probably argue with that conclusion, if he had the leisure to do so. He recently said he misses his former life as the man who would make golf great again. He’s got more than golf and cheeseburgers on his plate these days.
Clarification: Dodson originally said that the golf course conversation with Eric Trump occurred "three years ago." In fact and after review, Dodson says the events happened in August 2013.
Read more about Dodson's life in golf in his book "The Range Bucket List: The Golf Adventure of a Lifetime."
This segment aired on May 6, 2017.