Donald Trump is not a lightning rod, as he’s often called. He’s the lightning — a loud, powerful, unpredictable force of nature. Love him or hate him, he’s been a boon to golf, engaging in several high-profile development projects at a time when the sport badly needed a boost. This has made him one of the game’s most influential figures. And now he’s running a controversial presidential campaign, leading the Republican polls late in the summer.
I met with Trump shortly before he entered the race and followed up with him after he made his shocking, unseemly remarks about Mexican immigrants. Not surprisingly, his 26th floor office in Midtown Manhattan is a monument to capitalism, boasting framed letters from presidents, signed footballs from Super Bowl heroes and billion-dollar views of Central Park. We talked courses, mostly, with a detour into politics. The Donald was at times impassioned, playful and combative, insisting that his immigration stance has not damaged his relationships with golf’s governing bodies, despite evidence to the contrary. Time will tell if Trump’s bluster will cost him the 2022 PGA Championship, currently slated to be played at his flagship course in New Jersey.
For all his bravado, Trump, 69, has a deep reservoir of respect for golf’s traditions, especially links golf. He remains a true champion of the game who’s capable of surprisingly sharp insight in respect to course design. After all, lightning can shock and harm. It can also illuminate.
You’re 69, and you have a great life—a beautiful wife, billions of dollars, and worldwide fame, not to mention an impressive portfolio of courses and real estate. Why do you want to be president? Or is this, as your critics charge, about building your brand?
Our country’s in trouble. It’s been run by people who are incompetent. It’s been run by politicians who are all talk, no action. They don’t get it done. Just take the example of my Ferry Point project—it was under construction for decades, and I got it done in a matter of months. This country has great potential, but if changes aren’t made soon, it’s going to be too late, so I’d like to make the country great again. It’s that’s simple.
We should address the controversial comments you made in June, when you announced your candidacy. You said of Mexico, “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Soon after, the governing bodies of golf distanced themselves from you, and the PGA took the 2015 Grand Slam of Golf away from your course in Los Angeles. Do you think their action was justified?
Do you feel your policies and remarks on Mexican immigration are insensitive and even unwise in light of the fact that so many course maintenance workers—some on your own courses—come from Mexico?
It turned out that my comments were correct and again, there’s been total vindication. People have been apologizing [to me]. Even media people have been apologizing. What I talked about was illegal immigration, and that’s now the hottest topic there is. I brought it to the forefront. I’ve been given great credit for it, including the fact that I’m leading all the polls.
Do you fear permanent damage to your relationships with the PGA and other governing bodies? And do you worry about losing the 2022 PGA Championship, which has been awarded to Trump National in New Jersey?
There is no answer to these questions. I don’t want to get involved because frankly I’m doing fine with all the governing bodies. I will just say this: Trump Golf is extremely strong and powerful.
So you have zero concerns that your brand has been tainted by your remarks?
You see what’s happened. I’ve been vindicated on everything. Totally vindicated. Everyone agrees I’m right and that’s why I’m no. 1 in the polls.
Well, not everyone agrees. The PGA moved the Grand Slam of Golf to a different course because of your comments.
Here’s my response. You ready? I’m no. 1 in every poll, okay? You know, I’m running for President, what can I tell you? If you were to have called me two weeks ago, it was a different story. You see what’s happened. I’ve been vindicated on everything. Totally vindicated.
With your vast celebrity and unvarnished opinions, you’re a big target for critics. Yet you’re one of the few people investing in the game and keeping golf in the news. Why is Donald Trump good for golf?
Well, I love great real estate, and I buy great real estate. I started building when I built [Trump National in suburban New York City], which is a great success, and then [Trump International] in Palm Beach. But I love beauty, and I love the beauty of golf. I put them all together, and it’s worked out. Golf is doing really well. People don’t realize it. I mean, my courses are full. It’s a great business at the high end. If you want to buy a good course today, you can’t buy it. I could never buy Turnberry today. I could never buy Doral today. I could never buy any of the courses today that I bought [in recent years]. The price would be three, four, five times what I paid. I made great deals because I bought them at the right time, at the depths not only of the golf market but the real estate market. The whole economy had crapped out. But golf is doing really well. High-end golf is doing fantastically well. And I always say golf should be an aspirational sport. You become successful, and you go out and play golf. I’ve been good for golf. I’ve built great courses, and I’ve saved great courses.
What does the future hold for Ferry Point, in the Bronx? Do you hope to bring tournaments there?
I’m very proud of it. It’s 350 acres in New York City, minutes away from Manhattan. It’s a Jack Nicklaus Signature course, built to the highest standards of tournament golf. I think it’s going have many great championships and massive crowds because there’s no better location. It fronts the East River, which is unheard of. You’re on those fairways and you’re looking right smack at the skyline of New York. We’re very proud of it because it was under construction for decades. I got it built rapidly because that’s what I do. I know how to do it. And we opened it long ahead of schedule, and it’s getting rave reviews.
Do you subscribe to the old-school definition that a difficult course equates to greatness?
Ben Hogan said, “I’ve never seen a great course that was easy.” And I believe that. I don’t think a great course can be easy.
The Blue Monster at Doral opened last year to generally positive acclaim. Yet a few guys took some shots at this year’s WGC-Cadillac. Brandt Snedeker’s caddie called it the “worst course I’ve ever caddied on,” and Ian Poulter suggested it unfairly favored big hitters. How do you respond?
It opened to great reviews. It is a tough course, as it should be. We tweak it a bit every year. Don’t forget that the winner used to shoot 21 to 25 under par. Now it’s 9-under [in 2015] and 4-under  winning it. Honestly, I’ve gotten great reviews. I haven’t heard any negatives. That was a tough one because the course had a history, but not a Turnberry-type history, where it’s sacred. We were just going to do a re-do—new greens and tees—but as Gil Hanse and I started opening up vistas, we realized that this is an unbelievable piece of land. Four weeks into the project, we said, “Let’s blow it up and build a great new course.” A problem before was that it was very flat, which is typical of Florida. The people couldn’t get views of Tiger and Phil and all these great players. We moved almost two million yards of earth and created tremendous mounding so that people can see. It’s a brand new course. The players love it. It’s become a great course.
What was the thought process behind redesigning Turnberry?
Turnberry is many people’s favorite course in the world. It was always one of my favorites. So you have to be gentle when you have a treasure like this. It’s had some of the best Open Championships in history, and the best one ever, I think—the “Duel in the Sun,” Tom Watson against Jack Nicklaus [in 1977]. The R&A loves and cherishes Turnberry. The first thing I did when I was lucky enough to buy Turnberry was to call Peter Dawson and the R&A. I said, “What would you like to do?” They’d been wanting to make changes for decades. They strongly recommended architect Martin Ebert, who’s been working with Turnberry for years. He’s terrific. Every time Gary Player would play a Championship there, he would say—he would SCREAM—“Why isn’t the ninth hole a par-3?” I mean, it was so obvious that it should be a par-3.
Compare Turnberry to Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, your greatest design achievement so far.
They’re very different. I’m very proud of my Aberdeen course. I have 2,000 acres. I bought the land having been told that you can’t even walk on the dunes, let alone build between the dunes. They’re the largest dunes in the world. It’s a spectacular place that’s doing really well. Everybody’s been journeying to that location because of what I’ve done, which has also been good for Cruden Bay and Royal Aberdeen and other places. First of all, Aberdeen’s a great area. It’s the oil capital of Europe and is a thriving area. I have a rough comparison between the two. Turnberry has very jagged edges, just unbelievable rock formations. You have the tremendous, beautiful lighthouse now under construction. The lighthouse will be the halfway house, with two suites at the top. There will be no halfway house in the world like this! We also have the ruins of the house of [Scottish king] Robert the Bruce, from the 1300s. The local university is helping us unearth more ruins. It’s hard to compare anything to that incredible history. With Aberdeen, it’s much different. It’s magnificent shoreline, sandy beaches, and total protection from the weather and the wind by the dunes, ’cause these dunes are the largest dunes in the world. And it’s pristine. It’s the ultimate links course because you have dune protection on every hole. And at the same time, you have ocean views on every hole. If you asked which will be better when Turnberry is finished, I can’t say. But I can tell you that Turnberry has tremendous pedigree.
Trump Aberdeen opened in 2012, after a brutal Scottish winter. We named it Best New International Course. Six months later, our panelists ranked it no. 50 in the world in its first year of eligibility. This year, it’s ranked no. 48. Are you pleased, disappointed or somewhere in between?
Disappointed, because it’s much better than that. My Aberdeen course, I believe, is the greatest course ever built. If you look at some of the courses—I won’t mention names because I have a lot of respect for some of the guys who do the work—and compare them to Aberdeen, they’re like toys. [PGA of Europe chief executive] Sandy Jones toured the course and said, “I have just walked the greatest golf course ever built.” Jones is a highly respected person. That’s the kind of reviews we got. It’s not 50. It’s no. 1. It blows away any course on your list—it’s not even a contest.
In 2014, you purchased Doonbeg, in Ireland, a stunning but flawed Greg Norman design that always fell short of Top 100 honors. You renamed it Trump International Golf Links Ireland. What have you done there?
We blew it up. I blew up 65 percent of it last year. I bought 500 acres of the best piece of land in Europe. I also have a hotel that is considered one of the best hotels in the world. They [the original developers] spent $350 million. They spent a tremendous amount of money building this project, and then the Irish economy crashed about as bad as any economy did. I went in during a brief moment with literally an hour to close, and I gave them a check and bought the whole thing. And everybody wanted it ’cause Doonbeg is special.
I then retained Martin Hawtree to look at the course ’cause the land was so good, and in all fairness to Greg Norman, they were not able to get the permits, so they couldn’t use some of the best land. They had a snail problem and a tidal problem, and they were unable to get various approvals, so they had to leave some of the best land unused.
I hired Martin Hawtree, and I said to the Irish government, “Look, do you want a truly great course? Or we can make do with what we have?” And it’s very successful either way. But they said, “We want it to be great.” I said, “Then we have to solve the snail problem. We have to solve the other problems and get this thing moving.” I soon had every permit I wanted. The other 35 percent gets blown up on October 1st. The course will be brand new for next season, 100 percent rebuilt, and it’s incredible.
Course rankings like ours reward a few and frustrate many. How important are they to you?
Well, it depends on which list you mean. Some lists are highly political—and they’re false lists. I’ve been treated generally well. I think that [Trump National Golf Club Washington D.C.] should be a top 10 course when it opens. Top ten. Bedminster should be a top 20 course. I honestly think I have 10 courses that should be in the top 100. And I know the best courses.
Talk to our course raters. What Trump courses are most deserving of more love?
My course in Philadelphia is phenomenal. It adjoins Pine Valley. My course in Palm Beach should be a top 25 course, without question. But it’s a highly private course. One problem I have is that I have members, and all my courses are full or close to full. If I let raters go to Palm Beach and play, I’ll have a revolution because I have a full parking lot virtually every morning. I can’t have all these magazines and their raters on these courses. I won’t have openings for my members. Other guys can do that ’cause they have nobody playing. My courses are full. I can’t tell the most successful people in the country, “Sorry, you can’t tee off at 8am ’cause I have raters.”
You do a great job praising your own courses, but let’s spread the love. What are your top five favorite non-Trump tracks?
I’ve been a member of Winged Foot for many years. I love Winged Foot. I love Augusta. I love the beauty. I love the way it’s maintained. And I love the history. The Old Course [at St. Andrews] is very special. Pebble Beach is a place where I just like being there, although I have a course that’s better than Pebble Beach in Los Angeles—
Not to cut you off, but this question is about non-Trump courses.
[Laughs] Okay, but my L.A. course is actually better. I’m redesigning it now with Gil Hanse. But Pebble has always been something. Cypress Point is special. Those are the five courses.
Are you bidding for a Ryder Cup?
I’d love to have a Ryder Cup. Aberdeen is a natural for it, and so is Ferry Point.
You’d have a great Ryder Cup hook at Ferry Point: “The Battle in the Bronx.”
Well, Washington may be the most natural of all, because you’re on the Potomac River. My friends at Congressional come over [to play it] and say, “This place blows us away,” and I say, “You’re missing one thing at Congressional: the Potomac River.”
You’re a 4 handicap, which would make you the best golfer-in-chief we’ve ever had. How much golf is appropriate for a president to play?
I think a president should play golf, but you should only play with people where you can get something done. I don’t think you should play too much with your old friends, just to have a good time.
Oh, come on—what’s wrong with the most powerful man in the world having fun and decompressing on the course?
What I’m saying is, had President Obama played with [House Speaker John] Boehner more and played with all the different people that he couldn’t deal with, it would have helped him, because some of the best deals I’ve ever made were made on the course. You become friends with people on the course much more so than over lunches or dinners. Golf is wonderful for a president to play, but it should be working golf.
Let’s end on a more personal note. Your connection to Doral goes back to rounds you played there with your dad when you were a teenager. What are your golf memories of your father Fred?
He had a really good golf swing. It’s funny, my father didn’t play golf. He played maybe one round a year, and I played with him those rounds. He had a really good golf swing for a man who didn’t play. I was in my teens when we went to Doral. My father just loved the feel of Doral in the 1960s—all these wonderful acres, all that greenness in the middle of Miami. I loved my father. And now he’s looking down and saying, “I can’t believe you bought that place.” ’Cause that was a hot place. Doral was hot from the day it was built.
It’s obvious what Doral means to you. What has golf meant to you?
It’s meant beauty. It’s meant competition. It’s meant fun. I’ve met wonderful people in golf. I just don’t meet bad people in this game. It’s strange. I meet terrible people in real estate. I meet terrible people in show business. I meet terrible people in politics. People in golf are just incredible. And golf has allowed me to build some great courses and save some great courses. I’ve created a lot of jobs, a lot of happiness. So that’s what it’s meant. It’s meant a lot.