Rick Reilly has been one of the leading voices of sports writing for decades. He wrote for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, has authored 11 books, and was voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times. He’s written about high school basketball, historic boxing matches, about baseball’s steroid problem. He wrote a movie about early football called Leatherheads starring George Clooney. Even in retirement, he’s written about sports. So the fact that his latest book,Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, is so political it surprised people.
“Me too,” Reilly says. “I’ve never written about politics in my life.”
The plot turns on how Trump cheats, lies and steals so brazenly and so sneakily at the game that Reilly cherishes, that he tarnishes it with a “big orange stain.”
“One of the things I love the most about golf is that you’re your own referee,” Reilly writes in a chapter titled “The Big Lie.” “You call fouls on yourself. Integrity is built into the fabric of the game… Golfers live in mortal fear of being called a cheater.”
The evidence of Trump’s cheating and lying comes from golfers, politicos and celebrities who’ve played with Trump (including Reilly), from those who have caddied for him, TV and media coverage, official records and documents, even from self-incriminating comments made by Trump himself.
Reilly’s gift is fusing facts and testimonials with his deep analysis of the game, efficient writing, a healthy dose of indignation (“I got so mad I almost got blisters on my fingers writing this”), and a devastating sense of humor.
Trump claims he is a 2.8 handicap: “If Trump is 2.8, Queen Elizabeth is a pole vaulter,” Reilly writes.
Trump has said that his Trump Los Angeles golf course is better than Pebble Beach: “That’s a family-sized jar of stupid sauce.”
Trump claims he’s won 18 club championships (at his own golf courses), but Reilly reveals that most of those are senior or super senior tournaments: “The difference between ‘club championship’ and ‘super senior championship’ is the difference between Betty White and Vanna White.”
In the book, Reilly recounts an anecdote in which one of Trump’s employees was about to mount the name of the latest championship winner when Trump said to him, “I beat that guy constantly. I would’ve beaten him. Put my name up [instead].”
Reilly reports – via Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, golfer Brad Faxon – that Trump is a decent player: strong off the tee, fair on the fairway, a bad chipper, but okay putting. But he cheats like it’s part of the game. Reilly quotes Bill Rayburn, who caddied for Trump at a celebrity golf tournament: “He improved his lie, grounded his club in traps, and on the green cheated on his ball marking.”
Trump does do-overs, takeovers, floating mulligans. He has caddies who cheat for him. One chapter is titled “Pele,” a nickname that caddies have for Trump for his propensity to kick his ball into more favorable position.
“I don’t understand that,” Reilly says. “That’s not how I grew up playing golf. My dad said you never touch the ball, you play it where it lies. I’m not offended as a voter, but as a golfer.”
He paraphrases Arnold Palmer as saying that he never got into a business deal with someone until he had played 18 holes with that person: “You can’t lie about who you are for four hours,” Reilly says. “It’s such a frustrating game, it’s so easy to cheat, to lose your temper.”
He takes issue with Trump’s characterization of golf as an exclusive reward for those who have attained the means to play it, contrary to organizations like First Tee that are trying to make the game more inclusive.
“Screw you, Trump,” Reilly fumes. “If that was the case you would never have Tiger Woods whose dad [could not] afford a country club. Arnold Palmer was the son of a greenskeeper who couldn’t afford a country club.
“The vast majority of golf in this country – 89 percent – is played on public courses, like Del Monte.”
Reilly thinks he’s lost some fans due to the critical nature of his book, and surmises that he’s picked up a measure of fans too. But he stands by his defense of golf, and, by proxy, America.
Reilly writes: “The way Trump cheats at golf, lies about his courses, and stiffs his golf contractors isn’t that far from how he cheats on his wives, lies about his misdeeds, and stiffs the world on agreements America has already made on everything from Iran to climate change.”
It’s no coincidence that Reilly is in town now. The U.S. Open is being played on his favorite golf course in the world, Pebble Beach, a course that Trump has disparaged, and one that Reilly is not afraid to defend against the president.
He’s even eager for Trump to lob one of his infamous Twitter disses at him. As many embarrassing or disheartening anecdotes about Trump that Reilly has unearthed, he’s got a cache more.
“He hasn’t even tweeted about it, which is killing me,” he says. “A lot of people run scared of Trump. Not me. Not when you’re trying to ruin my sport.”