Donald Trump, never known for subtle entrances, arrived at the eighth green of his Trump National Doral golf course on his private Trump helicopter. He walked briskly from landing pad to fairway to lake edge, looking for imperfections in need of fixing before the Cadillac Championship tees off Thursday.
If he could, Trump would examine every blade of grass. Transforming Doral and its famed Blue Monster hasn’t been merely a business proposition but a passion, said Don Thornburgh, director of agronomy for the complex and Trump’s go-to groundskeeper for the past year.
“Mr. Trump is out here in person, on the greens, in the bunkers, telling me how he likes or doesn’t like every detail,” Thornburgh said. “His vision was to make Doral bigger and better but also to pay homage to the original design. Now we get to find out if we did it right.”
The players — including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson — will give the ultimate verdict, starting with the first of four rounds Thursday. Spectators will also encounter a different Doral, altered to offer better views of the action. Trump has spent the past year and $200 million renovating Doral, which he described as “a little tired” when he bought it. He and his team have restored difficulty to the course and grandeur to the resort in record time.
The Trumpification of Doral — founded in 1962 by Doris and Al Kaskel — is nearly complete. The Trump crest has been embossed in gold on everything from golf carts to water bottles. Ornate columns adorn the entrances and balconies of the refurbished villas. A two-story fountain by the putting green features stallions snorting water from their nostrils. A ballroom has been renamed in honor of Trump’s daughter Ivanka. And the 18-hole Blue Monster, tamed too easily by pros in recent years — Woods shot 19-under par in 2013 — has regained its bite.
“Ernie Els called it a masterpiece,” Trump said. “It’s a new course. It is big and it is bold but the players will love it because it is fair.”
The PGA Tour is making its 52nd annual stop at Doral. Trump hired course designer Gil Hanse to make the championship course more challenging. Holes were lengthened, fairways narrowed, water hazards expanded, greens enlarged. For example, No. 1 was a 529-yard, par-5 that surrendered more birdies than pars and bogeys combined last year. It is now 572 yards with new bunkers as impediments.
“It was probably a 7 before and now we are 8 to 9 1/2 difficulty-wise,” Hanse said Wednesday. “As always at Doral, if the wind blows, the scores will be higher.”
Added Trump, a serious golfer: “I think it could be the hardest course on the tour if they wanted to set it up that way.”
Hanse chose not to do a makeover of No. 18.
“Historically it’s one of if not the most difficult finishing hole on tour,” he said. “Let’s just leave it alone. It’s provided year in and year out a dramatic ending.”
Adam Scott played the course and said the greens could present the toughest adjustment.
“The greens are much larger with much more undulation,” he said. “At times we are going to be faced with a lot of lag putting, with a lot of break across the putts. Also, the rough somehow seems to be quite nasty even though it’s new.”
Said McIlroy: “You’re going to have to think a bit more than you did in previous years.”
Woods, seven-time champ at Doral, had to withdraw from the Honda Classic during Sunday’s final round when his back stiffened up “like Cellophane.” On Wednesday, he confirmed he’ll play Doral and was on his way out to scout the course.
“I’m just going to chip and putt and get a feel for how the grass is, green speeds, slopes,” he said. “Certain holes, they are completely different; others are virtually the same. I need to check the forecast, too, where the wind is going to be coming from.”
Thornburgh, who majored in agronomy and turf science at Purdue, is in charge of all 850 acres and five courses at Doral. He and his crew have been working 12-hour days since Woods won the trophy 12 months ago. Nature doesn’t always hew to a deadline.
“It’s been a crazy balance of making old holes feel new and new holes feel old,” he said. “The fairway and rough were not even in the ground until October. You’re trying to grow everything as fast as possible so the players will feel like it’s a five-year-old course.”
A million yards of earth were moved and 5,000 trees planted. Bunkers were carved, greens sculpted. Thornburgh and his crew were like artists shaping the landscape by hand.
“Mr. Trump will buzz down the side of the lake and say he doesn’t want it jagged, so we go in the water with waders and make the grass bank smooth and contoured right into the surface,” he said.
Thornburgh also had to replace turf with bright Crayola green Tif Way 419 Bermuda in the rough, silver-blue Celebration on the fairways, tees and collars, and Tif Eagle on the greens.
“We put it together like a puzzle, but what usually takes 10 years we did in one year,” he said.
Trump called Doral “a treasure trove.”
“It’s a massive piece of land,” he said. “We took out dead areas of forest and it really opened up the vistas. The biggest surprise, it was all sand. It rains and you can be back out there in five minutes.”
The Blue course is more fan-friendly, too. Spectator mounds will improve sight lines. There are more grandstands. Expanded seating at the 18th green allows fans to see the 9th green and 10th tee as well. A set of Adirondack chairs on a mini-beach facing the 15th and 16th holes is part of the Michelob Ultra Beer Garden. Other amenities include the Escalade Lounge, the Moet and Chandon Champagne Lounge and, just in case anyone forgets the name, the Trump Lounge.
Trump, wearing a white cap over his comb-over, walked around the Doral clubhouse with three of his children who have been instrumental in the renovation. He talked about their various real estate projects, which have led to his $3.9 billion net worth and No. 388 ranking on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people.
“I think they are even more passionate about this job,” he said. “There’s just something special about Doral.”