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.
It was clear that Trump loved his Westchester course, in the vicinity of Westchester Country Club, site of an annual Tour event, and Winged Foot, where Trump is a member. He talked about an underground pumping system, the millions he spent on a waterfall, how much Clinton enjoyed playing there, how the Tour would like to move the Barclays Classic from Westchester Country Club to his course. He described in detail how he defeated Rinaldi one year in the final to win the club championship, which is amazing because Trump looked like a golfer who could maybe break 80 and Rinaldi looked as if he could break par anywhere, but strange things happen in golf, especially on your home course, and most especially when you’ve built it yourself. The design is credited to Jim Fazio, but Trump, by his accounting, had done a lot to shape every hole. It was obvious Trump believed the course also belonged on the Golf Digest list. (Golf Magazine, which also ranks golf courses, is a member of the SI Golf Group.) “I have people coming up to me all the time saying my New Jersey course is the best course they’ve ever played, but I think this one is every bit as good and maybe better,” Trump said.
At the turn he slipped into the clubhouse for a few minutes where a foot-high stack of tax documents awaited him. He signed a few of them with his distinctive, thick up-and-down signature and said, “Golf is a small part of my business. One, two percent. But you know why I spend so much time on it? Because I do what I want and I like it.”
Before I go on, I ask you to accept a blanket apology…
This whole expanding business of playing fancy golf courses and comparing them with other fancy golf courses, there’s something appalling about it, and it yields some of the most pretentious writing and conversation you’ll ever come across. It’s an embarrassment of riches, just being able to play courses where you can putt on the tee boxes and a man stands there waiting to rake the bunker you’ve just sullied. Everybody enjoys the old grillroom question, “If you could play only one course for the rest of your life, which would it be?” You de-fend your choice and have a good time doing it. But when the tone is definitive, as if there are correct and incorrect opinions, that makes my skin crawl. I see golf courses not only as great playing fields but also as large-scale works of art. It was obvious after only nine holes with Trump that he does too — he likes to say that he finally gets gardening — which is why he likes to build them. All I’m doing is offering my own reaction to the places I went on my Trump tour, as your proxy.
O.K., then. I found the Trump course in Westchester to be cramped and too difficult, with too much water in play and too much out-of-bounds. My overall impression was that there were too many things that could go wrong, on almost every hole. Having Trump as my tour guide may have made the course feel even more cramped. I’m sure it didn’t help that I picked up on nearly half the holes, spending five hours getting on and off the triple bogey train. It also didn’t help that Trump gave me a splitting headache, with his laborious analysis of what his course had done for local real estate values.
Later, when it was just Mike and myself, I asked him what he thought. Now Mike Donald, you should know, is pathologically honest. He’s insightful about golfers and courses, and he’s exceedingly direct. Ask any Tour caddie, player or official, circa 1980-98. Mike’s an independent. He thinks for himself.
“It’s excellent,” Mike said. He praised the expert placement of the bunkers and the many good hole positions on each green. “How about that number 9, straight up the hill? That’s a beautiful hole. And then that downhill tee shot on 10? That’s beautiful.” He went through the whole thing. “A lot of Tour courses, you can’t even compare them with this Trump course. I was blown away.”
I said, “Wasn’t it too hard? Not for you, but for the likes of me?” I’m a 90-shooter, usually.
Mike was dismissive. “What does ‘too hard’ mean? Is Winged Foot too hard? You thought it was too hard because you hit it all over the place. You’re playing with Donald Trump; you felt as if you embarrassed yourself with the way you were playing; and now you want to say it’s too hard.” That sounded painfully accurate. I asked Mike, “Did it feel cramped to you?”
“Cramped?” Mike asked. “Is Merion cramped? Merion’s on a smaller piece of land than this course. You would never call Merion cramped, would you? No, I didn’t find it cramped.”
“What’d you think of Trump?” (I had found aspirin in the locker room as soon as our round had ended.)
“I thought he was magical,” Mike said. “He’s so positive about himself and everything he’s doing, it’s unbelievable. He’s intoxicating. You listen to him and you feel as if anything’s possible. I could listen to him all day.”
We had played the same course, with the same man, and our reactions couldn’t have been more different. There’s something about Trump — I don’t know. In any event, the story had changed after a day.
The next day, on a summery Saturday last September…
Mike and I went to Bedminster, N.J., to play Trump’s course there. The New Jersey course was designed by Jim Fazio’s better-known younger brother, Tom, and is called Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster. Trump’s name is on all his courses. Some people find that tacky, but Trump’s German name has served him well. Not only is it solid-sounding, because of the four heavy consonants in it, but his surname is also a meaty verb in business and bridge. She trumped him. If Trump’s last name were Finkelstein or O’Shaughnessy, excellent names both, it’d be a tougher fit for a budding golf empire. Trump’s gone to town with his name. At Bedminster, inside the club’s baronial clubhouse, there were bottles of water labeled Trump ice. You could buy Trump cologne and Trump ties and Trump books, and the bar served Trump vodka. You could pick up a copy of Trump magazine. Trump, Trump, Trump. It was actually funny.
At Westchester, Trump had said he wouldn’t be joining Mike and me for our afternoon game because he was playing in the morning. But by the time Mike and I were on the 1st tee, we were a fivesome again: Mike and me; Cooper, Trump’s golf guy; Jim Herman, a young pro from Bedminster; and the bossman himself, 60 and ready to go another 18.
Trump picked right up where he had left off the previous day. This time I adopted Mike’s approach to Trump. The way to experience Trump is not to fight him but to turn yourself over to him. No, I had never before seen a driving range that had real fairways and bunkers and greens, simulating actual holes, mowed into the landing area. Yes, the condition of the course was as spectacular as anything I had ever seen, anywhere. Yes, the course would strike fear into the greatest golfers in the world.
Trump had made the teams and set the stakes. He can’t play golf without some action. He said, “I’m playing with this big Wall Street banker, worth hundreds of millions. He says, ‘Let’s play for a dollar.’ And I say, ‘One dollar? How ’bout we play for 10 bucks?’ He won’t do it. He’ll only play for a dollar.” At Bedminster we were playing for $10, and Trump’s golf was very good, especially when his ball counted. He has a lunging, looping, repeating swing, and he drove it pretty long and consistently in play and putted well. I could see him playing legit and breaking 80. He talked before and after every shot.
“You know we had Vijay here,” Trump said. “What a great guy. He absolutely loved the course.”
The USGA headquarters in Far Hills is only a few miles from Trump’s Bedminster course…
and Trump talked about the first USGA championship that the club would be holding, the joint (boys and girls) 2009 U.S. Junior. It would be played, Trump explained, on two Trump Bedminster courses, the Tom Fazio course we were playing and a second one, now under construction, designed by Tommy Fazio, Tom Fazio’s nephew and Jim Fazio’s son.
In the men’s locker room, on darkly stained doors with gold hinges, there were lockers bearing the names of several USGA executives. Working at the USGA is about like working in a university, in terms of salary and benefits, and the initiation fee at Bedminster is $350,000, with annual dues of around $18,000. The club’s not meant for those living in the genteel poverty of golf administration.
“Do you have corporate memberships here?” I asked Trump.
“No,” he quickly answered.
“What about for the USGA guys?” I asked.
“For them I do.” It meant this: The top USGA executives were welcome at the club as honorary members. Certain USGA executives have enjoyed such privileges at various nearby oldline clubs, clubs owned by their memberships. But Trump’s a new kind of personality for the USGA, and his course is a new kind of course.
Later Trump talked about the changes he’d make to the course to prepare it for a U.S. Open. In Trump’s company it was easy to get swept up in his vision. He described how he could make the course as long and as tight and as difficult as the USGA wanted, and he pointed to the club’s vast fields that could be used for parking and corporate tents.
Trump was enjoying the company of Mike Donald, who had once been a shot away from winning a U.S. Open, in 1990. Not only did Trump know, from his unusually good memory, some of the details of that Open, he also understood what Mike had endured, emotionally and physically, in nearly winning the national championship. Mike is blue-collar down to his cleats, and smart, in regard to numbers and people. Trump, I was starting to realize, despite the trappings of his private-jet life and his consuming need to have the greatest everything, was really the same way. He’s blue-collar, and he’s smart.
In his reality-TV life Trump plays a character in a tailored suit stuffed with ego. He’s all bluster. You’re fired! But after two days with him you could see he had other tools: memory, insight, vision, energy. (Thirty-six in a day? No problem.) What he had accomplished in his first 60 years — the many Trump buildings, the five Trump golf courses, plus the beautiful model wife (he’s on his third marriage) and the mansions and the wealth and the fame — aren’t enough for him. He’s an American original, and I was starting to get his odd charisma. What he wants to do in golf, to become a big-time player in the game, is interesting. But it’s much more interesting because the person trying to do it is Trump.
As for my take on the Bedminster course, here goes: It’s very nice, in a lovely setting. Playing it is a thoroughly pleasant experience. But the course never made my heart race. A U.S. Open course should make your heart race, don’t you think? Mike Donald liked it, but not as much as the Westchester course. Trump, though, was obviously proud of it. He showed off Bedminster pretty much as he had shown off Westchester, although with slightly less zeal. Maybe he felt more secure about it. After all, Garden State Golf magazine had called it “a pure gem.”
After our round Trump, Mike and I sat on a veranda and ate sandwiches. Trump does not drink; he’s never tasted the vodka that bears his name and has never sipped a postround beer. Trump had a brother — Fred Trump Jr., 11 years older and named for their father — who was a free spirit, a pilot, a good athlete and a bad drinker. Trump worshipped him and still carries the sorrow of his death, induced by booze, at age 43.
Trump was in no rush. He talked about various pro golfers, male and female, plus various football and baseball players, tennis stars and boxers and TV wrestlers. He knew, or thought he did, who was gay or adulterous or broke. The detail with which he described their private lives made you hang on every word, but it was his insight into how these people went about their business — both as athletic heroes and as ordinary, failed human beings — that was truly mesmerizing. He described the advice he gave to Natalie Gulbis, the pert LPGA player still looking for her first win. She had been saying in public that Ben Roethlisberger, the Super Bowl quarterback, had dumped her. “I never want to read that again,” Trump said he had told her. “From now on I want to read that you dumped him.” You could call it lying. Trump would call it marketing. He told her, “You don’t get dumped.”
After finishing his hamburger, Trump ordered another one to go. He went on a little riff about French fries and where they were best, at his Bedminster club or at his Westchester club. He seemed fascinated that I preferred the Westchester fries, which were thin and crisp, to the thick Bedminster fries. Steak fries, I noted, didn’t travel well in those white Styrofoam to-go containers, in which they get all soggy in their own steam. I asked if the box had far to travel.
“Just a little ways,” Trump said. “I’m bringing this home for Donnie.” You may know Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s 29-year-old son and oldest child, from The Apprentice.
A few minutes later Trump’s Rolls-Royce was brought up to the club’s front door. He put the container with the hamburger on the backseat, got behind the wheel and drove off.
Before he left, he said to Mike, “I want you to make sure that your man here writes a good story about me. But whether he does or he doesn’t, I’m still worth six billion dollars.”
Mike and I tried, but Trump wouldn’t let us pay for a thing.
Over the next eight months I talked to Trump dozens of times and saw him a bunch too…
I saw him in his office at Trump Tower and at his clubs. I watched him play with Annika Sorenstam. I talked to many people about Trump, including some who had negative experiences with him or knew somebody who did. There were people who had relationships with Trump that ended poorly, and there were people who would take their relationship with Trump to their graves. The response was often extreme.
Trump’s funny. I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s intentional or not. At Mar-a-Lago, a mansion he owns in Palm Beach, Fla., there’s a portrait of Trump wearing one of those preppy white V-neck tennis sweaters, with the stripes at the neck. Underneath it are the words THE VISIONARY. That has to be a joke, right?
It’s hard to tell with him. One day he was talking about an exhibition he had played in, Trump and Tom Watson against Annika and Natalie Gulbis, on a makeshift course on Governors Island, off Manhattan. The course was dirt interspersed with loose sod and rough greens. “It wasn’t, as they say, in Trump National condition,” he said, as if that’s a phrase in common use.
On another day he called George W. Bush a “moron,” but he didn’t sound angry. Mike Tyson’s name came up, and I asked Trump if Tyson was smart.
“Let me answer your question this way,” Trump said. “Is he street smart? Absolutely. Is he smart for money? Mike Tyson has fought for $500 million in purses. He owes $50 million. Now you tell me.”
Trump plays in a lot of pro-ams. One morning, when I was about to leave home to play in a three-day pro-am on the Champions tour, I asked him what he did to combat nervousness.
“You’ve got to remember, it does not matter,” Trump said.
“Your pro is watching, fans are watching, but nobody cares what you do to the ball. It does not matter.”
I asked him, “What does matter to you?”
“Family. Health things. Some things in business.” He was silent for a half second. “That’s about it.”
Regarding the Trump course in West Palm Beach…
I’ve had a complete turnaround about it. All the holes are good, many are risk-reward, and it’s easy to enjoy the entire experience, once you turn yourself over to the Trump way of doing things. That means you valet park and some kid who is probably a scratch golfer carries your bag to the starter and you’re probably going to have a caddie and a cart. The course remains a complete fabrication and crazy expensive to maintain. But you know what? At some point the fun of the course takes over, if you can learn to bury your inner snob. Maybe I’ve been corrupted.
The course in the Caribbean — Trump International, Raffles Resort, on tiny Canoaun Island — is a thing of beauty, dramatic and hilly, with really good grass, which is unusual in the Caribbean. The place is sun-drenched day after day, or it was when I was there. If you win the lottery and go, make sure you pack plenty of balls. You can’t find many shots off the fairways, which are about as slender as the contestants in another Trump property, the Miss Universe pageant.
There was only one Trump course that I could play without any introduction from Trump or his golf guy Cooper, and that was the public course near Long Beach, Calif., called Trump National, Los Angeles. I parked my own car and went into the clubhouse and ordered breakfast, which never arrived. (Somehow the order got lost.) When I went to warm up on the driving range, I was moved off the real grass and onto the plastic mats. In the locker room I couldn’t find a towel for a post-round shower. I didn’t receive, as they say, the Trump National treatment. The course is spectacular, with its views of the Pacific and its elevated tees and its swooping greens, and the land is crisscrossed with public ways. You watch surfers traversing the course on their way to the beach. A nice scene. But a lot of the holes look like complicated engineering feats, which is not a good thing. Trump likes to compare his Los Angeles course with Pebble Beach. The similarities are that they are both in California, both on the Pacific, both slow and both expensive. You might consider saving up and playing Trump L.A. I don’t feel any need to play it again. Maybe you’ll feel differently.
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.
Dustup Number 2: D. Trump vs. the USGA (Governing Bodies Division)…
On Jan. 21, USA Today published a front-page story that outlined Trump’s golfing ambitions, most particularly his desire to have a U.S. Open at Bedminster, his New Jersey course. But there was one paragraph in the story that caused problems. In the story Trump describes David Fay, the executive director of the USGA, as a member of the club who plays the course frequently and has a locker near Trump’s.
Fay read the story, seething. He told me later that he was only an honorary member and that he had played the course as an honorary member exactly once, and that if he had a locker there, he knew nothing about it. He said he had called Trump and resigned his honorary membership. According to Fay, Trump said to him, “I think you just fired me.”
As an incident it wasn’t much. But it revealed the disconnect between Trump and the organization he most wants to woo. Courses for the U.S. Open have been assigned through 2013. All sorts of clubs, from all over the country — most of them member-owned and old — are trying to get themselves in position to be selected by the USGA for U.S. Opens for 2014 and beyond. But none of the representatives of those clubs would ever court the USGA as Trump has, so publicly and so immodestly. To the volunteers on the USGA’s executive committee, who make the organization’s biggest decisions, Trump raises questions of style, right down to how he names his courses. These are not people who respond to bombast or egotism. They dress British and think British.
There are USGA executives and committeemen who think Bedminster is very good — Mike Davis, who runs all the USGA championships, loves it — but that it needs time to settle in and grow. It needs refinements. It’s not yet the course it can be. It needs to host the U.S. Junior and other national championships before it could even be talked about as a U.S. Open site. More to the point, the USGA is already overwhelmed by the number of places in metropolitan New York where it wants to hold U.S. Opens. There is Shinnecock Hills, Bethpage Black, Winged Foot and Baltusrol. “The dance card is full,” Fay told me. Trump thinks the Open will someday get to Trump National, Bedminster. “I might be an old man, being wheeled around, or even dead, but it’ll happen,” he said.
Dustup Number 3: D. Trump vs. Golf Digest (Industry Press Division). . . .
A few weeks before the May 2007 Golf Digest came out — the one with the ’07-08 list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, As Ranked by Golf Digest — Trump received distressing news: His West Palm Beach course, the one that had been No. 84 on the ’05-06 list, had fallen out of the Top 100. Trump was stunned. It made no sense to him that the course, which he obsessively tries to improve, would drop 17 or more spots. Such dramatic drops don’t often happen.
Remember how certain things in business are on the short list of things that actually matter to Trump? Getting dropped from the Golf Digest Top 100 qualifies. The list has had broad credibility in golf, and it’s the kind of seal of approval Trump craves. Trump is a sucker for the word greatest. He knows that almost every course chosen for a major championship is on the 100 Greatest list.
And then something happened that got Trump even more upset. A reporter from the New York Post called and said that a p.r. person from Golf Digest, a Condé Nast magazine, was pitching the paper on a story about the Trump course falling off the list. “I suspect Mr. Trump will be extremely displeased when he learns of this,” the Golf Digest director of public relations, Andrew Katcher, wrote in an e-mail to the paper. “Depending on what he says, we thought this could be a fun — and potentially biting — piece.”
The Post reporter read the e-mail to Trump, and Trump responded with this: “It’s despicable they send out a release to announce Trump is not on their list. For shame!”
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 Condé 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 No. 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, Whitten and 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 course rating 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.”
I asked Trump what he thought the letter would accomplish and what he might get out of a lawsuit, if one ever happened. Eleven years ago, in a settlement with the city of West Palm Beach concerning air traffic over Mar-a-Lago, he was awarded the land where the West Palm Beach course sits today. He’s all lawyered up, all the time.
In answering, Trump was unusually circumspect. “At the end of the day,” Trump said, “I think you’ll find I will get not just one course in the Golf Digest top 100, but several. On merit.”
Trump knew that I love golf in Scotland…
He pays attention — and one day he showed me pictures of the 1,500 acres of linksland, in Aberdeen, that he had purchased. He described his plan to build an enormous seaside golf resort there, with at least one course and possibly three. The pictures looked luscious, and I knew my Trump tour would be incomplete if I didn’t see the land. Last September, I got myself to Aberdeen, and the manager of the Scottish project — called Trump International Golf Links — picked me up at the airport, and we made the off-road drive to Trump’s land. It was astonishing.
I’d never seen duneland like it, so windswept and untamed and vast. In places there were rows and rows of towering dunes, lined up like knotty limbs on an ancient Sequoia. The dunes there are bigger than the biggest dunes at Ballybunion in Ireland or at Bandon Dunes in Oregon or at Cruden Bay in Scotland. To create holes in your head, all you had to do was look around. You’d hike up a hill with sand in your shoes and the wind in your face, and you felt as if you were home, or in golf’s home, anyway.
Trump’s late mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, was born in Scotland, and the Scotland project is dear to him. Ashley Cooper, a guilded Wall Streeter before he joined Trump, wanted a piece of the action on the Scottish project, but Trump refused to give it to him, and recently he and Cooper went their separate ways. Trump doesn’t like to share, not outside the family. One of the reasons he’s so deep into golf is that he thinks the courses and clubs will be good businesses for his children. (Trump has five; the youngest, Barron William, is one.) He also thinks they will be good places to conduct business, good places to meet useful people and good places for an enjoyable, competitive game.
Whatever he builds in Scotland, I don’t imagine it’s ever getting a British Open. The men at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, curators of the Open Championship, aren’t interested in new and don’t care about the best this and the biggest that. They’re still sane, thank God. The very idea of Trump won’t fly with them, at least not for the world’s oldest golf championship. Taking a page from their book might be a good thing for him, and maybe he will.
But could Trump build a course there that would get a European Ryder Cup? We’re getting way ahead of ourselves — the course is not even permitted yet — but sure he could. For starters, if you’re really hell-bent on hosting a Ryder Cup, you can buy your way in. Last year the Ryder Cup was held outside Dublin at the K Club, owned by a rich man named Michael Smurfit, who reached deep into his pocket to get the event.
Trump is a talented and ambitious and restless man, and he can probably fulfill his golfing dreams. All he has to do is build a course that matches his exalted description of it. Really, with five courses, he’s only starting. After I had visited all the Trump courses and got off the final plane, Trump called me. For a while there, he was calling me often. A joke in our house became, “It’s Donald again.” But I like him. I can see why others don’t, but I do.
“Well,” Trump said, “Michael, you have now completed your Trump golf tour. Tell me: Of all the Trump courses, which one would you say you like most?”
I blurted out my answer.
“Scotland,” I said.
Trump did not miss a beat.
“That is a very interesting answer,” he said. At times his speech is amazingly deliberate. “You did not say a course, but a property. What you are saying is that my land in Scotland has the potential to be the site of the greatest seaside golf course in the world.”
Of course, I had said nothing like that. The funny thing is, though, he was reading my mind, the way a career .400 salesman does. What he said, it’s exactly what I think.