Ely Callaway proved this first. . . .
To become a big kahuna in the golf business these days, you need marketing savvy, product and friends. Not just any friends, but the right friends within the industry press, among the game's best players and within golf's governing bodies. Trump knows all this in his head. In practice it's another thing. He said to me once, "I like having friends, but I like having enemies more." The desire to bury the competition is one of his great motivators. (There's another golfer with that mind-set: Tiger Woods.) Naturally, there have been some dustups along the way.
Dustup Number 1: D. Trump vs. J. Nicklaus (Elite Golfers Division). . . .
There's a municipal course in South Florida called the North Palm Beach Country Club, which Jack Nicklaus recently completely revamped. I happen to think it's excellent. The course is inexpensive to play, easy to walk and hard to lose a ball on. It's traditional golf. I told Trump about it.
He called me one day in early March and said, "I went to your Nicklaus course, that dog-track muni."
"You played it?"
"I went there and put on a little disguise and bought my ticket and walked around. It's terrible. I hate everything about it."
What he was really talking about was Nicklaus, or how he felt about Nicklaus at the time. Trump went negative on Big Jack in the late 1990s, when Nicklaus owned a course construction company, separate from his design company. When Trump was looking to build his West Palm Beach course, he solicited bids from different course-construction companies. Most of the bids came in around $19 million. Nicklaus's company, called Paragon, came in around $9 million. (The figures are from Trump.) Trump hired Paragon, and according to Trump it was a disaster.
"They came in with these little toy trucks and moved little mounds of dirt, and after a couple of months they had spent millions and had done close to nothing, and we were way behind schedule," Trump said. "I could have sued Nicklaus and forced him to finish the job. He had a guarantee-completion bond. If I had made him finish it, it could have bankrupted him. But I didn't do that. I was a nice guy. I let him walk away. And did he ever thank me? No. A note? A call? Nothing! He was a great golfer but a terrible businessman."
Nicklaus, his spokesman notes, had no direct role in the day-to-day operations at Paragon, which was a subsidiary of Nicklaus's publicly traded company, Golden Bear Golf. But Trump is one to put a face on all his business deals. It wasn't Paragon that Trump let walk away. In his mind it was Jack Nicklaus.
You've probably never heard anybody in golf publicly dis Nicklaus quite as Trump does here. For one thing, most people in golf have an abiding respect for the way Nicklaus, the greatest golfer ever, has handled almost every aspect of his career. For another, Nicklaus is so prolific as a course designer, if you're in the golf business you never know when you might be working with him. But Trump likes letting the chips fall wherever the hell they may.
Then things started to change. On March 21 Trump was at Augusta National as the guest of William (Hootie) Johnson. Nicklaus happened to be there too. At dinner Nicklaus got up from his table and walked over to Johnson's and gave Trump a warm hello. Much was forgiven by Trump that night. Then, two months later, one of Trump's real estate companies sold $350 million in building lots in one day at a development in the Dominican Republic called Cap Cana, where there's already one Jack Nicklaus course with two more planned. Trump knows he and Nicklaus could wind up working on the same projects in the future. By the time of the Miss Universe pageant on Memorial Day weekend, Trump had softened on Nicklaus. ("He's all right," Trump said.) All it took was a handshake, a day of boffo business and the possibility of a future together.