If there were a Mount Rushmore for golfers, Tiger Woods would probably be on it. But President Donald Trump's decision to award the nation's highest civilian honor to Woods has raised questions about whether the president should be boosting the profile of a business associate of The Trump Organization.
Trump presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Woods during a White House ceremony Monday evening. The president announced his intention to do so after Woods won the Masters Tournament last month, capping a remarkable recovery from injury and years of personal troubles that had left some wondering whether he would ever win again at the professional level. Woods earned his 15th major golf championship with his Masters win and his 81st overall on the PGA Tour, both ranking second.
Trump understood the importance of the moment to golf and its fans, tweeting that he was awarding Woods the medal because of his "incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and, more importantly, LIFE."
Trump has been using Woods' cachet to attract fans to his properties for decades. Trump got Woods to show up at his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a day after the golfer's first Masters victory in 1997. The place was mobbed. Two thousand fans showed up as Woods walked down a 320-foot red carpet, some of them storming steel barricades to get a closer look.
Trump has also struck business deals with Woods.
Golfers at Trump's club in Doral, Florida, can stay at the Tiger Woods Villa. At a ribbon cutting ceremony in 2014, Woods lavished praise on the future presidential candidate, calling changes he made to the club "phenomenal."
In Dubai, Woods designed an 18-hole course to be managed by The Trump Organization.
The Trump Organization has "repeatedly demonstrated their ability to successfully manage unique, high-end courses and golf clubs, and this is no exception," Woods said in a 2018 interview in the company's in-house magazine.
Ethics officials have criticized Trump for not selling off his assets completely and holding the money in a blind trust. Instead, he set up a trust to hold his assets, handed day-to-day management responsibilities to two sons and hired an ethics lawyer to vet business deals. Trump can draw money from the trust and can benefit if his properties increase in value.
"You have to ask whether it's his true belief Tiger Woods deserves this award or whether he's doing it to help his business," said Jordan Libowitz, communications director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning public policy group.
Christopher Devine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said Trump may have a business angle.
Still, Devine said, when he stacks up Woods' accomplishments against other recipients, he believes Woods is deserving and calls his Masters victory "the greatest comeback in sports of all time."
"If President Obama or Hillary Clinton had given the award to Tiger, no one would have batted an eye," Devine said.
Woods is the fourth professional golfer to receive the award. President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Freedom to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Obama presented it to Charlie Sifford, sometimes referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of golf."
Devine also noted that previous presidents have presented the award to supporters and political donors. For example, Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Bruce Springsteen, who performed in concerts to support Obama's election efforts. He also awarded it to his vice president, Joe Biden.
The Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to the White House. Presidents have complete discretion over whom they honor with the medal.
Some athletes and sports champions have resisted visiting the Trump White House because of their differences with the president.
Rick Reilly, who wrote a book about Trump's golfing entitled "Commander in Cheat," said Woods has brought golf to people of color all over the world, while Trump has promoted it as a sport for the rich. He said Woods has not been one to stand up on political issues, but should have declined the award in this case.
"I can see how it would be hard to resist, but I still think it's hypocritical to do it," Reilly said.
Associated Press writer Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.