Donald Trump has major plans for his new courses

Tuesday November 18th, 2008
The 11th green at Trump National's New Course, Donald Trump's second course at his Bedminster, N.J. club.
Carlos M. Saavedra

For my close personal friend Donald Trump, these are the best of times. Yes, real estate is tanking, people are gambling with pocket change and nobody's buying books — and real estate and gambling and book-selling are critical to keeping DJT in his many mansions — but Trump, as per usual, is looking at the bright side. His golf game is excellent, and so is his whole golfing life.

Last month, Trump received initial governmental approval for a 36-hole golf resort in what Trump grandly (and accurately) calls The Great Dunes of Aberdeen, on the East Coast of Scotland. At 62, he plays better than ever. (Ask any of the pros who work for him.) He'll be the host this week for the season-ending LPGA event, the ADT Championship, to be played at Trump International, a superb and improbable course by the West Palm Beach airport, designed by Jim Fazio, Tom's brother. (Trump's pro-am playing partner will be the incomparable Annika Sorenstam, about to head off into the sunset.) And this fall Trump opened his second course at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., this one designed by Jim Fazio's ponytailed son, Tommy Fazio, who built 18 holes so unusually playable (for the most part) and fun you almost can't believe a modern architect built the thing. The second course is a wild ride, and I mean that as high praise.

I should probably mention one more thing in this golfing litany, Trump's elegant (and good-looking!) wife, Melania, who doesn't play, and let's be frank here: a lot of golf-playing husbands would pull the plug on wifely play if it were that easy. (Can 'o worms, right there.) In any event, Mrs. Trump has done something far more important: Two-plus years ago, she gave birth to master Barron Trump. The little guy, looking sharp in chukka boots on the new course in Bedminster last month, makes wonderful little swings, his blond hair flying at impact. When Trump came in from golf on that Saturday in October, Melania, young Barron and his nanny were having lunch on the veranda. Trump sat down at another table for a manly lunch. (He had a steak.) Trump's from another era. We're talking Jerry Ford, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Bench — men's men.

I am, in actual fact, not a close personal friend of Donald Trump's — just going for a little Trumpian hyperbole up top there — but I do like the guy and wanted to overstate my relationship with him, in case you want to dismiss what I have to say about his game and his new course. I've played golf with Trump maybe eight or nine times and find his game impressive. Trump and Ted Forstmann, the chairman of IMG, both claim handicaps in the same swanky neighborhood — sevenish — but I'd love to see a Battle of the Billionaires in which they play a Nassau for car, house, house, with David Fay of the USGA keeping the card. I'd take Trump, every time. His swing is a powerful and repeating lunge, not pretty but useful. If he was forced to hole everything out and take no mulligans — and who's going to make him endure such unpleasantness on his own courses? — he'd still break 80 as often as not at 6,600 yards.

I mention all that because of how Trump played with me on his new course in October. Even if you tacked on three or four strokes for gimmes and do-overs, he was still under 80, and that's the point. He's built a demanding course, and it can play at an ungodly length, but at its heart it's a course you can play to your handicap. Do you know how rare that is to say of a modern course?

Mike Davis, the USGA's course set-up man, offered suggestions on the course during its construction, and next year, the two Bedminster courses will serve as the site for the boys' and girls' USGA junior championships. Trump's guess is that other, bigger events are coming, and it's the kind of course where you can grow rough and narrow the fairways and push back the tees and make the wildly undulating greens all but unputtable. If your thing is to see great players shoot a thousand, the new Trump course in Bedminster will be fine for that.

But the way the course was last month, when Trump shot his seventy-something, is the way it should be: rough where you can find your ball, really fun greens on which you can stop your ball from 30 feet above the hole, and par-4s that can be reached in two. But what the course does better than anything is mix speeds: the par-3s are short, super long and in-between; so are the two-shotters. There's a drivable par-4. There's a reachable (for some) par-5. There's an island green, and it's not hokey. Plus, the course is beautiful, all hills and swooping fairways, with trees in the distance (but not, blessedly, on the course). As a walking course, I'd give it a "B."

In a long piece I wrote last year, I was critical of some of Trump's courses. The one in Westchester, N.Y., is way too hard for me (but my friend Mike Donald, a former Tour player, thinks it's excellent). The public one in Los Angeles looks like a super-model, but it's way too difficult for my wild and erratic game. The original course in Bedminster is nice, but it's too big, too sprawling, not really memorable. But I love the course in West Palm Beach. And I really like the new one in Bedminster.

Trump says golf is a very small part of his business, but he spends a lot of time on it, chiefly because he likes it. (And if golf goes belly-up, he could always turn the courses into housing developments, right?) I have the feeling what he does in Scotland will be his best chance to get something majorish. Maybe Barron Trump will be on a Ryder Cup team there, come 2036. If Trump gets his way, and he often does, a Ryder Cup will come to The Great Dunes of Abderdeen long before that. And a U.S. Open, or some reasonable facsimile, will come to Bedminster. It seems far-fetched, but, as noted before, I wouldn't bet against Trump.

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