Trump Stays the Course in Golf

Lord of All He Surveys: Trump on a Course Flyover

Just before nine o’clock on a late-July morning, Donald Trump emerges from his black Rolls-Royce and steps through the front entrance of Trump National Bedminster, a private golf club he founded in 2004 among the equestrian farms of Somerset County, New Jersey.

Trump halts in the doorway, squints down at the latch and summons a nearby employee. Gouges on the strike plate and a scraping sound as the door opened have furrowed his now-famous brow. “This door has never been right,” he whispers. Within moments, three staff members convene. Trump instructs one of them to have the spring mechanism either adjusted or replaced. Questioned later that day about such close attention to a door spring, Trump replies: “I’m detailed-oriented. You have to be.”

The rest of the morning unfolds in a big-picture manner more in keeping with Donald Trump’s status in the worlds of real estate, entertainment—and now golf. He leads a tour through the half-built second 18 at Bedminster, confers with his head of acquisitions and new development, poses for a magazine photographer and reviews maps and photos of his stunning linksland parcel in Aberdeen, Scotland. “We expect to build the No. 1 golf destination in the world there,” says Trump, who weeks ago advanced that effort by securing a key plot of land bordering his proposed golf resort on Aberdeen’s dune-topped Menie estate.

It did not all unfold from a grand plan, this move by Donald Trump into high-end golf. A prized piece of acreage fronting Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach that he acquired in the early ‘90s could have and would have been developed into luxury homes. Then it dawned on Trump, a single-digit handicap at Winged Foot G.C., that he had never merged his love of golf with his lust to build spectacular buildings and landscapes. In 1999 he began his golf-building career with the opening of Trump International G.C., which has since been expanded to 27 holes and has earned national top-100 honors from both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine.

The suddenly burgeoning Trump Golf subsidiary includes a private club in the Westchester County town of Briarcliff Manor, the former Ocean Trails course that is now Trump National Los Angeles, plus Trump International Golf Club at Raffles Resort Canouan Island, The Grenadines, and a linksland treasure-to-be along an 800-acre stretch of dunes in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Carolyn Kepcher, Trump Golf’s former managing director, says the first two properties, Palm Beach and Westchester, were more or less novelty assets within the overall organization. Then came the Bedminster deal, with more opportunities following behind it. “Pretty soon, golf was a significant business,” says Kepcher.

The company’s standing among golf cognoscenti advanced when Trump Bedminster hosted the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships. Merger of the two events on one site had only happened twice previously in the 50-plus years the two championships have existed. “It’s also the first time the USGA has made a site commitment to a golf course not yet built,” says Trump, referring to the Tom Fazio II layout where the youth event was played. The original Bedminster course opened for play in 2004. Designed by Tom Fazio, it traipses through hundreds of acres of elegantly contoured farmland. Lush wetlands and restored farm buildings fill out the surrounding landscape.

For one of the world’s most accomplished residence-builders, foregoing a plan for houses along the gentle upland above the original 18 at Bedminster was a decision without regrets.

“That land was set aside for 18 Bedminster mansions—beautiful estate homes,” Trump says, sliding his outstretched hand along the horizon. “But they would have spoiled the whole look of this place. They would have stopped your eye. When you look down that ridgeline now it’s a wonderful vista, which is how it will stay.”

Competitive as ever, Trump keeps a close eye on other high-profile golf developments in the region, from the newly opened Sebonack Golf Club in the Hamptons to the two trophy projects framing lower Manhattan, Bayonne Golf Club and Liberty National. Media commentaries on how these projects have turned out seldom escape his glance, particularly if they contain criticisms. The positive comments about Bedminster from USGA officials who awarded it the junior championships were a balm to Trump, encouraging visions of other, more illustrious championships in the years to follow.

Trump’s golf-building activities in metropolitan New York may at this point be complete, with future projects to occur in other parts of the globe. Some prime acreage the company owns in Pound Ridge, N.Y. was considered for a course but is now slated for residences. “It’s too close to the Briarcliff course,” Trump says in his staccato Queens baritone. “I’d just be competing with myself.” Indeed it is clear that  geographical separation is requisite, since no golf facility bearing the famous five letters would ever be positioned other than at the extreme high end of the market.

Be that as it may, Trump Golf isn’t into cloning. Kepcher once said of the group: “We’re chameleons. We’re always highest-end, but in a market-specific way.” In the case of Bedminster, that means “retaining the identity of that property, and doing appropriate things like build an equestrian stable and set up riding programs. Our context was the old DeLorean estate, with its English countryside appearance, and we’ve built accordingly.”

Trump at age 60 is an American monument. His style of capitalism comes straight off a Monopoly board and bears more resemblance to Hearst, Flagler and Rockefeller than to latter-day titans like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. During the photo session at Bedminster, Trump’s wife Melania calmly rolls a baby carriage into view. Inside is a tangle of blankets obscuring the tiny physique of Baron Trump, the couple’s four-month-old son. Melania is a former fashion model born in Sevnica, Slovenia in 1970. The two met at a fashion-industry fundraiser. Trump’s appeal to the man in the street, borne out by the consistently high ratings of “The Apprentice,” isn’t so hard to explain. Most average people seem to look at him and think: If I were a global deal-maker with a vast personal fortune, that’s how I’d do things, too.

Trump National Bedminster is a bastion of extreme wealth but a warm and lively environment, as well. Although Trump owns the place, he has it structured like an equity club, with a board, a set of committees and membership screening that requires any new inductee to pass muster with those already on the rolls. In that way Trump cedes power. Meanwhile, his larger-than-life presence ends the who-is-cooler contest before members at his clubs can take the trouble to commence it. Members are freed from having to play the status game—the best anyone can do is finish second—and the result is a decidedly breezy atmosphere.

Trump National Briarcliff is a teardown of what Trump calls “a very good small course” in favor of a bigger, brawnier layout covering the original site plus two other adjacent parcels acquired subsequent to the original purchase. Trump International is one of many fine courses built in the Palm Beach – Jupiter corridor in recent years, but as you will not be shocked to hear, its owner considers his the finest of the group.

The project in Aberdeen, Scotland looms as a cosmic storm of Trump achievement and Trump claim-staking. The property is vast, its dunes mountainous, its coastal frontage long, lambent and timeless. In preparing to build his first course there, Trump queried an R&A acquaintance on whether fescue turf was the only acceptable option, and what the Scots would say if he brought in bentgrass, instead. The answer was a grim look and a shake of the head. “It’s actually cheap to build there,” Trump says of Scotland, almost frowning at the thought that his money’s-no-object attitude won’t be needed in the frugal isle where his maternal bloodlines originate.

If the Aberdeen project comes in far enough under budget, Trump may go shopping for the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, or some other iconic adornment to the property. At Bedminster, not one but two massive Venetian fountains grace the lawns behind and in front of the main clubhouse building. Trump came upon them in his travels and had the sculptures prominently placed, hoping members would like the look. “A couple of people thought it was too much,” he recalls, “but now people love them. If we tried to move them everyone would go nuts.”

To Trump’s left as he describes the fountains is a handsome Rolex courtyard clock mounted atop a 15-foot brick column. “That’s the only clock Rolex has ever provided to a golf course that has not hosted a U.S. Open,” Trump says, nodding his head slowly. His statement has that Donald Trump bluster in it, but a wistful gratitude as well.

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