Trump's Golf Empire
The big black and red and white and gold helicopter comes roaring over the Whitestone Bridge in New York City, touching down on one of the most unlikely golf courses on the planet, a project 30 years in the making, a project that sat idle for a decade. Then Donald Trump came along.
When the doors to the private chopper open, Trump bursts out. And make no mistake, Donald Trump doesn't just walk onto the scene, he bursts onto it. In fact, he is the scene. That goes for wherever he is—opening a new office building, debuting a lush condominium or, as he was this day in May, introducing his newest golf course to the world.
The man who put the "I" in icon, the "bomb" in bombast and the "go" in ego now is the man who has stormed into the game of golf and has put the "me" in gimme.
The builder, developer, TV reality star and recent presidential candidate, has amassed a portfolio of 16 golf courses across the United States, Scotland and Ireland (and soon Dubai) that makes him the most visible and viable owner in the game.
On this day, Trump was joining Jack Nicklaus for the opening ceremonies at Ferry Point Park, a course with which Trump has a development and operating lease agreement with the city of New York. Nicklaus designed Ferry Point, and he had been at the project for maybe 20 years as the original developer didn't come through. The city of New York, while spending an estimated $127 million to remediate the landfill site, according to the New York Times, flailed around to find someone to finish the project. That would be Donald J. Trump, who got it done and got his name on it—Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point Park.
"I had been thinking that this course would never get done," says Nicklaus, the legendary player and equally accomplished golf course architect. "Some one asked me the other day if Donald Trump was good for golf. Well, he got this done and he's rescued a number of good courses and clubs that were going under. So sure, Donald Trump is good for golf."
"I'm glad he said that," says Trump, never one to turn down a compliment or pay one to himself. "It's been said I've been very good for golf and I think I have. I've built some great places and saved some great places and I've gotten a lot of credit for that from the golf world. The golf world is a nice world. I meet a lot of terrific people in golf. I've made a lot of good deals because of golf. I have this golf empire that while not my major business is a good business and it's a beautiful business. I love the feel and the beauty of golf."
Loves it so much, it turns out, that using his art of the deal (some would say it was the art of the steal) Trump put together an array of courses that can make even him envious. Beginning in the mid '90s with his first Trump National course in Palm Beach, continuing into the gold leaf suburbs of New York City at Trump National Westchester, swallowing up elite properties in Palos Verdes, California, and Potomac, Maryland, Doral, Florida, Turnberry, Scotland and Doonbeg, Ireland, Trump could rightfully boast—and does—that he has the world's best golf collection.
The economic downturn of the last decade was Trump's economic opportunity in the game, and the single-digit handicapper (his index is a 3.0) pressed his bets and made the most of it. He was only interested in the best properties, and at the best possible prices. And the baseline was the real estate, that regardless of the success or failure of the golf facility, he would always have land that could be transformed through his particular brand of alchemy into a moneymaker.
"One of the beauties of the business when I got into it is that it's land," says Trump. "Hundreds of acres of land in great locations, that's something you have regardless of anything else. I have 800 acres on the Potomac River, I have 600 acres on the Pacific Ocean. I have tremendous land, then on top of it I do the golf and in every single instance it's been a success.
"In fairness, most people can't afford great locations. Great locations cost a lot of money. I started building them in Palm Beach where I won the land [in a lawsuit] that's become a tremendous success because the location is so good, it's only five minutes from Palm Beach.
"Then I did one in Westchester likewise, but that was when the market was raging. That was the young Tiger and people were going crazy for golf. I got $450,000 a member at Westchester. You don't have to sell many memberships to have success with that. Then the world collapsed and everything went with it. Then I didn't want to build, I started buying many, many clubs, lots of really good land, and I bought them for a tiny fraction of the construction cost. Then I spent money to make them what they should be and I've had great success."
In terms of success, we have to take Trump's word for it. And recent statements he made in June in regard to Mexican immigrants have cost him dearly on several sides of his business, golf not withstanding. The USGA, PGA Tour, PGA of America and the LPGA issued a joint statement that condemned Trump's remarks, and in July the PGA of America announced that it had reached an agreement with Trump not to hold its Grand Slam of Golf this year at Trump's Los Angeles course.
A statement issued by Trump on this decision said, in part: "Due to the controversy surrounding statements made by Mr. Trump having to do with the illegal immigrants pouring into the United States from Mexico and other parts of the world, Mr. Trump does not want his friends at the PGA of America to suffer any consequences or backlash with respect to the Grand Slam of Golf."
Controversy or not, Trump has attained national and international presence for his courses, both the ones he built from scratch and the ones he took over and renovated. Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, will host the 2017 U.S. Women's Open and the 2022 PGA Championship. Trump bought into the British Open rotation when he took over Turnberry courses and hotel on the West Coast of Scotland. The Ailsa Course, which last hosted the Open Championship in 2009, is undergoing renovations intended to make it even more spectacular. Trump International Golf Links, Scotland, a course he built from scratch in the majestic dunes north of Aberdeen, has gained universal acclaim and could be an Open venue in the future. And he bought into the PGA Tour when he took over the Doral Resort near Miami that had a long-standing PGA event.
When Trump takes over, he makes over. There is nothing about the Trump brand of golf that is wishy-washy, pedestrian or run-of-the mill. There are no shrinking violets in the Trump portfolio, not even in the rough. Trump isn't interested in just a walk in the park, smelling the roses. He's interested solely in challenging championship golf, even for the average member of one of his clubs or greens fee payer at one of his public facilities.
"I put a lot in myself. I do want the courses to be of championship caliber," says Trump. "I think you could take anyone of my clubs and hold a tournament there. Some are to the highest standards of golf. I would almost say that every course I own is virtually tournament ready.
"This whole concept with shorter courses, make them easy and friendly, it's not my thing. All of my courses are of championship caliber, otherwise I'm not buying them, I'm not building them, I'm not fixing them if I'm buying them."
Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, knows firsthand what Trump is capable of doing with a golf course. He and officers of the organization were playing with Trump at the course in Bedminster when it was under consideration for hosting a PGA event that eventually turned out to be the PGA Championship.
"The 17th hole was a terrific hole, a short par 4 over water," says Bevacqua. "We sort of thought it would be a predictable hole for the best players in the world and you would have a lot of players laying up to the same spot and having a little flip wedge to the hole. It was a beautiful hole, but not necessarily one you would want on the finish of a major championship. So a week later he calls and tells us that he's making it into a great 500-yard par 4. That's Donald. He wants to make the good great, the great even better. He's got a real eye for detail."
That eye was trained on Blue Monster golf course at Doral when he took over the massive facility when it had a total of five courses, one that since has been sold. He was standing on the veranda of a villa overlooking the wide expanse of the course's closing holes for the front and back nines. The Blue Monster had always been one of the Tour's toughest courses, but the length of the modern players had lowered the winning score from a few strokes under par to a couple of dozen strokes under par. Trump had an idea and it wasn't a small one.
"He wanted to restore the Blue Monster to the prominence it's had on Tour for a long time," says Gil Hanse, the architect Trump hired to reinvent the course. "It was always known as an iconic test, a difficult test and it sort of mellowed. Rory McIlroy had called it a nice resort course after he played it and I think that rankled Donald a bit. He said we are going to make this the Blue Monster again."
From his veranda, Trump conjured his Blue Monster dream. "I was looking at that whole vista, from the right hand side of the driving range to the 18th hole," says Trump. "I thought if I moved the old par 3 ninth hole 90 yards to the right and shift the lake that is in front of the green to the right, the tenth hole I can shift and move the green way back so now you have a 610-yard par 5. I moved the eighth green to the left, the ninth tees to the right where the eighth green was, moved the tenth tees left that now gives you a driving range with 100 yards of additional width.
"Then at the end of the range there was a lake. We got environmentally approved to fill up the lake. So the driving range now is 350 yards wide and 380 yards long," says Trump. "We took four holes and made them better and created a great driving range. I love that. To me, it's a piece of magic."
"His main contributions at Doral were on a big scale," says Hanse. "He was the one who came up with the concept that if we start the dominos falling, moving the ninth hole over—it used to play with water on the left, now it's on the right—you sort of create this amphitheater stadium with 18 which is great from a spectacle standpoint. That allows you to move No. 10 over, and that allows you to expand the range because the range was one of the worst on tour, way undersized for a facility the size of Doral. When these dominos started toppling it was Donald's ability to see the much bigger picture."
While Hanse has become a hot property in the architecture world, he was looking for more work during the economic downturn. Then he got a call from Trump. "It is exciting, it is interesting, it is gratifying," says Hanse of working with Trump. "As a golf course architect you are always looking for clients who are passionate about golf and have the wherewithal to follow through on plans and also as projects progress and better ideas come up he's not bashful about changing plans mid-stream if something better comes along. From that standpoint he is a dream to work with."
"I'm glad Gil said it," says Trump in response to the accolade, "because I wouldn't want to come across as braggadocios."
Hanse is also doing renovation work on Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles. And one of his projects is to remove what had become a Trump golf trademark: waterfalls.
"When I rebuilt the course I built two waterfalls, one on the first and one on 17," says Trump. "Quite dramatic...I am taking them down and I've hired Gil and Jim Wagner to make it a classic course. They were beautiful looking, but first of all there is a drought in L.A. and they took a lot of water and I'm getting great accolades for taking down waterfalls. And I'm building a brand new course. If there was one knock on the course, it was Trump's waterfalls. They won't be able to say that anymore."
That doesn't mean that Trump has forsaken the waterfall, which he introduced to that first course in Palm Beach (which might have distracted from a view of the county jail in the distance). "That doesn't mean I'm not a believer in waterfalls," he says. "I have one in Westchester that is magnificent, carved out of the side of a mountain which is really incredible. I would never move it. I have one in Palm Beach that is really magnificent and if I ever moved it I would have a riot. Though generally speaking I don't do them, but waterfalls have worked well for me."
What has also worked well for Trump is the ancillary business he can generate at his properties. Trump National Los Angeles, like many of his facilities, hosts weddings and many national television advertising shoots (think Tom Watson and MasterCard). Trump says he loves his ballrooms.
"Anytime you can build a ballroom, do it," he says. "Ballrooms are money machines. I just built a brand new one at Jupiter [Trump National Jupiter Florida]. I bought Ritz-Carlton Jupiter, it's a Jack Nicklaus signature course. Jack and I spent a lot of time rebuilding the course and got it to 7,700 yards. And the ballroom is very large and there are no ballrooms in Jupiter and no one will ever be able to build one like this because there is no land. I have the land."
The land, he says, is the thing. And the 2,000 acres he bought north of Aberdeen, Scotland, is some of the best golf land in the world. It was also designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and his project was strongly opposed by environmental groups who fought him tooth and nail and got his planning permission denied. But the Scottish government overturned the decision and allowed Trump, with Martin Hawtree as architect, to construct a truly magnificent links.
He also took over a project at Doonbeg, Ireland, with a Greg Norman links course and a dazzling clubhouse. He bought it for a song. "Doonbeg, it's sad about that place really," says Trump. "They had one of the best hotels in Europe. They spent $350 million." Trump says his price was $17.5 million. "When you can do that," he says, "you don't have to be so good."
He's blown that course up as well, using Hawtree. Early reports are that while the course's standards have been raised, they may have been raised beyond the ability of average players and even some of the better players. But Trump only cares that his course is championship caliber, and that those traveling golfers who visit his courses can expect the same challenge and level of service everywhere they go. That is the Trump brand, or the Trump scorecard if you will.
"One of the advantages I have, like your magazine has a great name, I have a great name," says Trump, who first put it on his Trump Tower in Manhattan after a friend asked him why, in the first place, he was going to call it Tiffany Tower when his own name had a certain oomph. "I have a great brand. I would buy something that was a terrific course that wasn't doing well in a really good location, I would fix it and put the name Trump National Golf Club on it, say Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., Hudson Valley. Somebody asked me if you did the same thing every place but didn't put your name on it, what would happen? I said many would not be successful or certainly as successful. It's a great help. The people who play my courses have come to expect quality, they expect the best. They expect the best course, the best architecture, the best location."
Nicklaus always demanded the best of himself and his 18 major championships are a testimony to that. He also demands the best of himself when it comes to golf course architecture and he has established a global footprint. He was working for the city of New York when he did the Ferry Point course that bears Trump's name, but in the finishing details Trump wanted to know what was going on.
"Donald is good to work with and he lets me do my own thing," says Nicklaus. "He wants a first class course, he wants a challenge, he wants the aesthetics, all the things that go into making a course a good one and a memorable one. Donald loves the game and is a pretty decent player. He knows what goes into creating a good course and he insists on it, which is certainly all right by me."
Trump will say a lot of things about himself and his courses. He will say this or that course is packed when a phone call can procure a tee time rather easily. He will say he's won a ton of environmental awards when some environmentalists say his record is poor. He will say, as he did in Aberdeen, Scotland, that the people are on his side when there was significant opposition to his project.
But he gets things done, and in the game of golf these days, those in the business can't help but admire him, even when he trumpets himself.
"He's a great fan of the game, a demonstrable proponent of it," says the PGA's Bevacqua. "He takes the message of golf to a very large-scale audience. His portfolio of courses, including his courses in Ireland and Scotland, is outstanding. We need more people like Donald involved in the game."
There really aren't more people like Donald in the game. And if you are taking his word for it, he's aced the game like no one else. But, as only he can say, "I don't want to be braggadocios."
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.