In An Unpredictable Debate, a Tussle Over Golf Was Par for the Course

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It was a surreal detour during a presidential debate already filled with peculiar exchanges and meandering remarks. On Thursday night, after squabbles about the economy, abortion and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump tussled over … golf.

“I just won two club championships — not even senior, two regular club championships,” Mr. Trump boasted as he answered a question tied to how he would be 82 years old at the end of a second presidential term. “To do that, you have to be quite smart, and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way. And I do it. He doesn’t do it. He can’t hit a ball 50 yards.”

Mr. Biden, 81, declared that he would be “happy to have a driving contest” with Mr. Trump.

“I got my handicap, when I was vice president, down to a six,” the president said, referring to a system by which golfers compare their abilities. The lower the number, the better the player.

“And by the way, I told you before, I’m happy to play golf if you carry your own bag,” Mr. Biden continued, addressing Mr. Trump. “Think you can do it?”

Mr. Trump, 78, routinely uses a cart. He did not respond to that particular challenge, but scoffed, “That’s the biggest lie — that he’s a six-handicap — of all.”

Perhaps it was unsurprising that golf — a cherished ritual for many presidents, but especially Mr. Trump — would surface during the debate. But the bickering was also widely panned as an unserious exercise between two aging men trying vainly to outdo one another.

Few presidents have been as closely connected to the game as Mr. Trump. His family company controls an enviable portfolio of courses, a fact that he often crows about when he plays events tied to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series that has hosted tournaments at Trump properties. (He has been much less eager to talk about how some in professional golf have shunned him in recent years, particularly after the Jan. 6 riot.)

Mr. Trump has long reveled in playing with major tournament winners like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and talking up his own prowess even on days when he did not exactly adhere to the game’s rules or courtesies.

“Not bad, right?” Mr. Trump asked me at his course in Doral, Fla., in 2022. “Like, right around that level of, you know what? Pretty good. Anyway, let me finish off this victory.”

Long before Thursday’s debate, despite his own record of twisting golf’s rules to his whims, he was eyeing and doubting Mr. Biden’s golf skills.

“Can Biden do that?” Mr. Trump muttered to me after he played a shot on his course in Bedminster, N.J. “He says he’s a six-handicap. He’s not a six-handicap.”

Mr. Biden has played for years but has lately hit courses more sparingly than his predecessor and has often adopted a more humble posture. (“The course record is still intact,” he told reporters after his first round as president.)

For what it’s worth, U.S. Golf Association records, which generally rely on self-reported scores, show Mr. Biden’s handicap as 6.7 in 2018 and Mr. Trump’s as 2.5 in 2021.



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