This story originally appeared in the June 7, 2007, issue of Sports Illustrated.
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.
Courtesy of golf.com