Jim Fazio is standing with his hands on his hips at the top of a mountain he built in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The elevation of the 18th tee at Trump International Golf Club is only 58 feet above sea level, but in ultra-flat south Florida, Fazio looks as if he’s on top of the world. With his life’s work at his feet, the emerald fairways and sapphire lakes of his acclaimed design shimmering below in the late afternoon sun, Fazio beams with the satisfaction of a man who knows he made good on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
At 58 years old, Fazio has never been hotter as a golf-course architect. He is emerging from the shadows of his younger but more famous brother, Tom, and late uncle, George, thanks in part to the strong reviews for Trump International.
“This course is special, and I don’t think we could have done a better job,” Fazio says. “I’ve been building courses for 40 years, and if I never do another one, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done.”
Fazio has luck, as much as his obvious talent, to thank for his partnership with Donald Trump, who could have hired any of a dozen more acclaimed architects — including Tom Fazio, who has nine courses on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. list, and 19 on the Top 100 You Can Play list (Jim has none). But Trump knew he wanted Jim before they had met face to face. He knew it after a memorable telephone call four years ago.
Back in 1997, after Trump purchased Briar Hall Country Club in New York’s Westchester County, he asked several architects to look at the course. Tucker Frederickson, a golf-course developer and former New York Giants running back, suggested Trump include his friend, Jim Fazio. Briar Hall was an old course on a small piece of property with a tiny, restricted driving range. Trump wanted to know if there would be enough room left for a first-class redesign of the course after the range was expanded.
Fazio looked it over, called Trump, and bluntly told him the course was terrible — but it was a great piece of property.
“You want a great golf course?” Fazio said. “Go across the ravine on the boundary of the property and buy the two houses on the other side, knock them down, build the first green and the second tee over there, and you’ll have a special golf course.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“I could hear Mr. Trump tell his secretary to get hold of one of his managers,” Fazio says. “He told the guy to make an offer to buy those houses. He later bought those properties, and we are knocking those houses down.”
Fazio’s idea made a huge impression. Trump knew he was talking to a man with a vision that broke through boundaries — a man like himself. “Those will be among the most dramatic holes on the golf course,” Trump says. “I was very disappointed I didn’t think of it.”
Fazio got the job at Briar Hall, which was re-named Trump National, and that led to Trump International, which opened in November 1999.
Trump International is extremely exclusive, with an initiation fee of $300,000. The course cost Trump $40 million to build, with Fazio moving three million cubic yards of dirt to create a rolling terrain reminiscent of the George and Tom Fazio-designed Jupiter Hills Country Club just up the road.
The fact that the courses share traits is no surprise. It was Jim who, in his hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, first ran the design business for his uncle George (a former Tour pro who lost to Ben Hogan in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion), while George served as the front man and played golf every day. Tom worked under them. Then in 1964, Jim enlisted in the Naval Reserve rather than be drafted. He married after being discharged and didn’t want to return to the hectic life of the family business. He took a job building Hidden Springs Golf Club in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, and stayed on to manage the club.
Tom and George became famous designers, and though Jim re-joined them in the 1970s, he worked mostly behind the scenes before striking out on his own in the early 1980s. He did so with his brother’s blessing. Though Jim admits he wonders if he made the right decision leaving Tom, he says he enjoyed a smaller business where he could work closely in the field with his sons, Jim, 34, and Tom, 33. He typically takes one or two projects a year.
If Jim was ever envious of his brother’s notoriety, Tom says he never felt it. They remain close, their families regularly visiting each other on holidays.
“Jim does things his way, and it works for him, and I do them my way, and it works for me,” Tom says. “I don’t think Jim wanted to deal with a big staff. The great thing about a high-profile project like the Trump course is that it allows people to see what Jim can really do.”