In the rough, PGA hires lobbyist

There are longstanding, if not altogether happy, links between golf and politics. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush have used the sport to take a break from the rigors of the job.

Golf courses remain a popular fundraising destination. Just yesterday, two House Republicans held events at local courses.

But the sport has on occasion meant ridicule or worse for politicians. Michael Moore used a clip of President Bush on a golf course in Fahrenheit 911 to underscore his point that the president was disengaged.

Justice Department officials focused part of their investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and congressional staffers on a golf trip the group took to St. Andrews in Scotland.

Hoping to ensure the relationship between the sport and politics remain close, even with an occasional sand trap, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) recently hired lobbyist Erik Winborn, who lobbied for Wal-Mart before starting his own firm.

The PGA represents teaching pros; the PGA Tour represents golf professionals.

Winborn said industry professionals have been more worried that Congress didn’t appreciate the jobs that the sport provided more than any potential fallout to the sport after negative publicity surrounding Abramoff or Ney.

“Nobody should apologize for being an advocate for golf,” Winborn said.

“People might have been engaged in unethical and illegal behavior and they might also have happened to have been playing golf.” But the sport itself, Winborn said, puts a premium on integrity and self-policing.

Moreover, golf is “very much an economic engine,” Winborn said. The PGA estimates that golf generates as much as $62 billion in economic activity each year. Though the sport is often used to underscore the elitist tendencies of its participants, Winborn said that two-thirds of golfers play on public courses.

One of Winborn’s first jobs is to build support for a resolution that could be on the House floor this week, as the U.S. golfers, such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, prepare to take on European golfers in the Ryder Cup.

The resolution lists all of PGA’s charitable work and the enormous economic contribution the sport makes to the American economy.

The resolution’s main sponsors are Reps. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). At this writing, 35 of their colleagues had signed on in support of the resolution. 

The resolution celebrates the 90th anniversary of the PGA, which is based in Foley’s south Florida district, and details the various good deeds the association has done.

“The PGA has done some incredible charitable things that really make a difference,” said Liz Nicolson, Foley’s spokeswoman.

Winborn said the PGA was particularly upset last year that golf course owners weren’t included in a tax break Congress passed to help victims of Hurricane Katrina recover.

Golf was left out of the bill, along with the casino and massage parlor industries.

Given the company they were keeping, PGA officials felt they needed to take a “leadership role in being an advocate for the industry,” Winborn said.