Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on March 8, 2012.
To pass through the ornately gilded gate of the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach is to enter a playground for the 1-percenters.
Ferraris, Jaguars and Porsches wait patiently for their owners on the driveway.
On the course, members who pay a $150,000 initiation fee and $25,000 annual dues thwack dimpled white balls down garden-like fairways between chuckles and pulls on their cigars.
Inside the opulent clubhouse, Donald Trump has just finished his usual Saturday round on his flagship golf course, the first of 11 in his collection, which now includes Doral Resort and Spa in Miami, site of the WGC-Cadillac Championship that tees off Thursday. The author of The Art of the Deal bought bankrupt Doral last month for the bargain price of $150 million. He intends to remake the Blue Monster and surroundings, as scuffed as an old pair of shoes, into “the finest golf resort in the country.”
Trump, wearing his favorite red golf cap atop his famous comb-over, is having lunch with an assortment of tycoons, titans, magnates and millionaires. They are the Andrew Carnegies of their day.
Trump, gracious and welcoming, is in a jocular mood. He hit a towering 240-yard hook shot from an uphill lie behind a tree to within six feet of the 15th hole to beat the other players in his foursome.
“A lot of people are losers,” he said. “I like to win.”
He certainly does. The man at No. 401 on Forbes’ List of the World’s Billionaires, with a net worth of $2.9 billion (he insists he's worth double that), the man who bought much of Manhattan and put his name on it, the man who copyrighted the phrase “You’re fired!” from his hit show The Apprentice, is also an excellent golfer.
He has a 3.7 handicap, can drive the ball 280 yards and putts with the same unerring hand he uses to sign contracts.
He’s not humble about his game, and why should he be?
“I’ve won many club championships — many,” Trump said. “Frankly, if I had time to play more often my handicap would be lower. I enjoy the competition. And if I hit a bad shot, I don’t get upset. I’m not a club thrower.”
Trump, 65, is a habitual hyperbolizer. His properties and projects are “the best,” “the most spectacular,” “rated the highest” and “measured by impeccable standards.” But, in person, he doesn’t speak with the bombast of The Donald, the persona he cultivates for public consumption. His lower lip doesn’t protrude with that trumped-up air of superiority. His face is open, ruddy, not painted with the waxworks tan you see on TV. He’s friendly, funny. He’s tall with a sturdy build, and was a good football and baseball player in his youth.
“He’s surprisingly a lot better golfer than you would think,” said Phil Mickelson, former Doral champion who joins Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and the world’s top golfers this week at the 50-year-old tournament. “He understands the game. He has a lot of speed and can hit the ball reasonably hard. And he always has some interesting stories.”
Trump has played with everybody who is anybody, from President Bill Clinton to quarterback Tom Brady, from Rush Limbaugh to Garth Brooks, from Annika Sorenstam to Nick Faldo.
Most weekends, he flies to Palm Beach from New York and plays the course at a rapid pace, golf cart flying down the pathways. Groups in front let him play through; nobody wants to keep Mr. Trump waiting.
He stops to compliment groundskeepers and give them a tip. But he’ll also point out if a croton needs to be trimmed or a rock moved. Trump spent $40 million converting flat pineland into a lush oasis, moving three million cubic yards of dirt to sculpt rolling hills and the highest point in Palm Beach County at the No. 18 tee box. One thousand royal palms were planted. Trump adores waterfalls; there is a six-story one at No. 17. Jim Fazio designed the course, ranked No. 1 in Florida. Gil Hanse will redesign Doral.
“He spends a fortune on these courses,” said Gil Dezer, Trump’s business partner on his Sunny Isles Beach buildings. “He’s got an eight-inch bullnose on the clubhouse bar. I’ve seen him select marbles and woods for his properties. He makes sure his vision is realized.”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka — from his first marriage to Ivana, the Czech native who referred to him as The Donald in an interview — will spearhead the “Trumpification” of Doral, which Trump describes as “tired.” Trump’s three adult children work for him and all play golf. Ivanka and Trump used to play father-daughter games with Raymond Floyd and his daughter.
“Everything will be upgraded, all 700 rooms, the spa, four courses,” she said. “People are excited to be part of something glamorous. Our brand has a track record. We’ve got big ideas. My father calls me at 11:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. He’s always thinking.”
John Stark, chairman of Stark Carpet and Trump’s regular playing partner, said Trump doesn’t take many mulligans or other scoring liberties, and if they bet, it’s $5 or $10. One member who put $2,000 cash in his pocket for his first game with Trump was surprised that no money was at stake.
“We play straight and he’s not a gambler,” Stark said. “I don’t know about the boardroom but on the course he’s fair and a pleasure to play with.
“And the PGA pros who have played with us say Donald is as good a putter as any on tour.”
If putting is a reflection of confidence, Trump is not a man wracked by self-doubt.
“Good putting is trust in yourself and your line,” said club pro John Nieporte. “Mr. Trump relishes coming from behind. He plays for bragging rights.”
Trump also plays for practical reasons. He’s made many deals wearing that red cap.
“You learn a lot about people on the golf course — whether they’re honest, sincere,” Trump said. “You take someone out to lunch and you don’t really get to know them. Playing golf, you build camaraderie. It’s a great place to do business.”
After lunch, Trump exchanges back slaps with friends, their faces bronzed and hair tousled after their rounds. One tells him about an upcoming golf trip to Tasmania. Another, what it was like to play with Lee Trevino that morning. He greets developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (No. 367 on Forbes’ list of billionaires).
He walks down a hall adorned with framed magazine covers of himself and photos of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, two players he’d put in his “dream foursome.”
He points to where his new helicopter will land; it can whisk him and guests to Doral in 11 minutes.
Then he drives me and one of his playing partners in his Rolls Royce Phantom across the Intracoastal to Mar-a-Lago, the extravagantly lavish mansion built in 1927 by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post that had been boarded-up for 12 years before he restored it. This is his seaside castle, where he lives with third wife Melania and their young son Barron when they’re in Florida. When he decided it was too big as a home in 1995, he made it into a private club, where membership costs $150,000 (reduced from $200,000 due to the recession and Bernie Madoff scandal).
Among the 36,000 antique tiles are those inscribed in Latin with “Plus Ultra,” which perfectly captures Trump’s philosophy. Here again you see his attention to luxurious detail, from the towels in the spa to the fresh fruit at the beachfront pool.
The gift shop is filled with Trump products emblazoned with the Trump crest — Trump bottled water, Trump cufflinks, Trump polo shirts, Trump’s books and Melania’s jewelry line.
As he walks through the foyer, he greets everyone — valets, receptionists — by name. His employees seem fond of him. He’s demanding but rewards loyalty.
Shawn McCabe was a maintenance worker at Mar-a-Lago, Trump noticed his diligence; now he’s vice president and general manager of the golf club. Nieporte, ex-journeyman on the pro golf circuit, was a caddy for Trump; now he’s the head pro. Giavona Pirolo was a waitress in West Palm when one of Trump’s executives eating at the restaurant asked Pirolo if she could help her find shoes for Trump’s wedding; now Pirolo is membership and marketing director for Trump Florida Properties.
Trump admits he likes to take credit — he claims he was the first to suggest Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan; he discovered Lady Gaga when she sang at one of his beauty pageants, and he forced President Barack Obama to produce a long-form birth certificate.
He has a ruthless side. While building his $1.2 billion coastal golf course in Scotland, in tribute to his mother who was born on the Isle of Lewis, he has angered environmentalists and townspeople. He called one man’s house “a pigsty.” He’s fighting the construction of wind turbines nearby.
“He’s extremely kind to his friends and vicious to his enemies,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradford Cohen, who was “fired” from The Apprentice. “It’s because he strives for perfection. You can see it on his courses and I’ve played almost every one.”
Trump says his passion for golf, his meticulous standards and yes, his pride, make him the ideal new owner of Doral. He’ll devote his imagination to it, as he did his courses in Westchester, N.Y., Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Puerto Rico.
“People have made money on Doral over the years, but they didn’t take care of it,” he said. “I’ll spend more than a Wall Street guy. To have 800 acres in a city like Miami — that opportunity will never arise again. We’re going to make it the top tournament course on the tour.”
The Queens, N.Y., accent is soft. Those imperious lips are parted in a wide smile. He’s still wearing his red cap and golf spikes. Will he keep the Doral name, originated in 1962 by Doris and Al Kaskel ...or will he put his name on it? He’s not sure yet.
As he goes off to inspect preparations for the Make-A-Wish charity event taking place the next day, picking up a stray cup on the way, he’s asked about the source of his energy.
“Some is genetic, from my hard-working parents,” he says.
“Most of it is loving what I do. Golf combines everything I love.”