My assignment, as it first came down to me from on high, was to play Trump's courses and write up the tour, and my goal at first was to avoid the owner.
Donald Trump, everybody knows, is a career .400 salesman, and I was afraid he'd overwhelm me. I had met him once, in 2002, when I was covering the season ending event on the LPGA tour, played at the Trump course in West Palm Beach, Trump International Golf Club.
The course looked beautiful, and by 2005 it was on the Golf Digest list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, in 84th place. But it was the kind of course for which, to borrow a phrase, I have unaffected scorn: crazy expensive to build and maintain, with a man-made waterfall, a man-made mountain and miles of cart paths. And apparently Trump was feuding with his contractors and not paying them, which may have accounted for the colossal clubhouse still showing exposed wires and (in places) concrete floors. Trump gave me a tour of his unfinished Taj Mahal with a lieutenant at his side.
We arrived in the grand ballroom where there were massive windows overlooking the course. Trump said to me, "My decorator says I need drapes on those windows, but I kind of like the unobstructed views of the course. What do you think?"
I figured the drape budget was gone. Trying to be polite, I said, "With those views of the course, who needs drapes?"
Trump turned to his lieutenant and said, "The guy from SI has spoken no drapes!"
It was as if Ely Callaway, another scratch marketing man who ultimately figured out a way to leave his mark on golf, was back from the dead.
Last August, I called a man named Ashley Cooper, described by an editor as "Trump's golf guy." There are five Trump clubs, and four of them are private, so I'd need help to get on them. I told Cooper my hope was to play the various courses with just one friend and that we'd pay for everything. I wanted to see the courses myself, and not through the prism of Trump. Cooper couldn't have been more accommodating. Naturally, there was a reason he returned my call so promptly: A big spread in SI about Trump's properties could be useful. Still, he knew what I needed.
When I showed up at the Trump National Golf Club, in New York's Westchester County, Trump was waiting in the XXL clubhouse. He was wearing a red baseball cap with the gold logo of his club on the front and one of those Little League adjustable straps, with the holes and the little plastic pegs, in the back. It was a rainy, gray day, but Trump was ready to go. We were a fivesome: Trump and me; Trump's friend Louis Rinaldi, who is in the pavement business; a young pro with LPGA aspirations named Bri Vega; and my friend Mike Donald, a former Tour player.
Rinaldi, a lefthander with a lot of swagger and a handsy scratch golf game, built all the cart paths on the course. Trump made him a member of the club and gave him a locker in the same row as those of Trump, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Joe Torre. "Are these not the most beautiful cart paths you have ever seen in your life?" Trump asked Mike and me. "Look at this curbing. You won't see curbing like this anywhere else. I can play with anybody, chairmen of the biggest banks, any celebrity I want to play with. But you know something? I'd rather play with Lou. You can take Lou anywhere." Trump slapped me on the shoulder and said, "You understand." He went off and played his shot.