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Donald Trump details his golfing ambitions, dustups with Jack Nicklaus, the USGA and Golf Digest

Donald Trump
Vincent Laforet
In his letter to the magazine Trump alleged that Golf Digest "fraudulently manipulated the results of the raters."

When Trump recounted the entire episode to me, he was still livid. He said that a former publisher of Golf Digest, Mitchell Fox, had told him in 2002 that the Westchester course was going to be named by Golf Digest as the second-best private course opened that year. Trump said that Fox, who is now a high-ranking CondÃ'© Nast executive, was regularly playing at the course for free with clients and friends, though he was not a member. "I told him, 'Trump does not do Number 2 — take me off the list completely,' " Trump said. The course was not on the list. Sometime later, after Fox had played the course, by Trump's count, about 30 times and always for free, "I told my people to tell him not to come back," Trump said. I asked Trump why he had allowed Fox to play the course so often and for no charge in the first place. "Look," Trump said, "I'm no angel." It was his way of admitting that he was trying to curry favor. "But the way he was using the course was not appropriate."

Trump described a round he played at the West Palm Beach course with Jerry Tarde, the editor of Golf Digest; Ron Whitten, the magazine's architecture editor; and Gary Wiren, a noted golf instructor. "On my 18th hole Whitten made a 30 — a 30!" Trump said.

Later, at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Trump, Tarde, Whittenand Trump's wife, Melania, sat at the same table. At the end of the evening, according to the host, Mrs. Trump said to Mr. Trump, "You know those two men don't like you very much." Trump thinks personal animosity plays a role in why he's no longer on the list.

I reached Fox on a weekday morning at 8:30, and he said he wanted to talk about Trump but that he was busy right then. He told me to call back at 10:45 a.m., which I did. I was told he was in a meeting. I was told the same thing in my subsequent calls. He did not respond to phone messages or e-mail. Ditto for Tarde.

Whitten, a former prosecutor, answered all my questions. He said he did not make a 30 on the par-4 home hole that day with Trump.he said it was no more than an 11. He said he doesn't dislike Trump and doesn't know why Melania would make that observation. He said he barely spoke to her all night. In any event, he said that his own personal feelings for course owners could never influence the Golf Digest rankings. He said that Fox could not have called Trump to tell him that his was going to be the No. 2 best new private course because Whitten is the first person to know where the clubs land on the various lists and the Westchester course never made any of them. Regarding the West Palm Beach course falling off the list, Whitten said the list was in no way manipulated to keep Trump off it. "We're not saying the Florida course is not a great course," Whitten said. "We're saying it's not one of the 100 greatest." To my ear, that last sentence would've sounded less arrogant had he added the words as ranked by Golf Digest.

I asked Whitten if human error could creep into the rankings. He described his careful procedures, the automated counting, how much time he devotes to the whole thing. The chance that he would make an error, he said, was highly remote. I asked if any independent accounting agency came in to check Whitten's work.

Whitten said, "Did Trump's lawyers put you up to asking that question?"

I assured him that they did not. I was thinking of the Academy Awards. There's always that little bit about the accredited accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers and how they count the ballots. In fact, Whitten described the Golf Digest list as "the Academy Awards" of the various magazine course listings.

"No," Whitten said, there has never been an outside, independent auditor. (Neither Golf Magazine's nor GolfWeek's rankings are independently audited.)

There's only one thing that could move this dustup between Trump and Golf Digest into something more major, and that's if anything comes of a 2 1/2-page April 2 letter Trump had his lawyers send to Fox, with copies to Tarde, Whitten and Thomas Bair, the publisher of Golf Digest.

Trump wrote most of the letter himself. The letter mentions all the free golf Trump maintains that Fox and his clients and guests played at Westchester, along with free food and drink. The letter maintains that Trump is "disappointed" in Tarde and Whitten's unspecified "behavior." It accuses Bair of coming to Trump's office last Nov. 28 and telling Trump that none of the Trump courses would make the 100 Greatest list unless Trump would agree, and here he says he is quoting Bair, to "play ball with us." (A Conde Nast spokesman denied all of Trump's claims.) The letter demands that all the courserating information be forwarded to Trump. "It is our contention," the letter says, "that representatives of Golf Digest fraudulently manipulated the results of the raters with the intent of embarrassing Mr. Trump and doing harm to his reputation."

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