Donald Trump was never anything like a good enough golfer to play professionally, let alone win Major championships. But now Trump, 69, is on a quest for the next-best thing: to host Majors at his golf courses – and become President of the United States.
Trump has high hopes of landing a US Open at the Ferry Point course he’s developing by the Whitestone Bridge in New York City, and he declares that some of his other courses will be anointed someday. With 17 elite golf clubs in his portfolio, the star of “The Apprentice” is now a major player in golf.
Trump’s father, Fred, was a wealthy property developer in Brooklyn and Queens. The young Donald was determined to do even better: He took Manhattan. Trump today is the 389th-richest person in the world with a net worth of $4 billion, according to Forbes, though he claims the real figure is much higher.
I interviewed Trump in the epicentre of his real-estate empire, his vast office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, high above New York’s Fifth Avenue. What follows is an edited and condensed version of this encounter and a follow-up phone call.
With his relentless, unique brand of trumpological hyperbole, Trump spoke largely about his two favourite topics: golf, and Trump. We avoided some of the lesser Trump topics, like his presidential ambitions. And his hair.
Australian Golf Digest: So to warm up, could you say a little about how you first got into golf?
Trump: I was going to the Wharton School of finance, at the University of Pennsylvania, and I had friends that were golfers. I’d never played golf – I always played baseball and football and stuff. And so I’d go out to Cobbs Creak, in Philadelphia, yeah, a public course, a rough course, no grass on the tees, no nothing, but it was good, and great people. All hustlers out there. I mean, more hustlers than any place I’ve seen to this day. I played golf with my friends, and then I started to play with the hustlers. And I learned a lot. I learned about golf, I learned about gambling. I learned about everything.
Were you self-taught?
Very self-taught. Pretty much a natural golfer. I’ve won a lot of club championships. Anytime I win a club championship, I’m proud of those rounds. Club championships are like our Majors.
Note: Trump elaborates here about how well he performs under pressure while lesser men wither away, followed by a bit of trademark trumposity: He says, “This is off the record,” then tells me a self-aggrandising anecdote.
Your lowest round?
Well, I’ve shot numerous times in the 60s, but I have the club record for an amateur at my course in Palm Beach, which is a world-class course, with a rating of 155.
What’s the score?
Er, 66. From the blues. That’s from not all the way back, but it’s from the blues, so that’s pretty good.
How did you get into the business of golf?
I sorta got into the business by accident. I started off in Palm Beach. It’s complicated, but essentially I won that land in a lawsuit, 600 acres, and I said, What am I gonna do now? And I said, I’m gonna build a great golf course. And that’s what I did. Then I went to Westchester, during the down market, and I bought it out of foreclosure from a bank, 215 acres, and I built the course there. It’s beautiful. Those were the first two. I built them from scratch. And they are very successful.
“Hey, Kelli? Jackie?” he calls out. “Can you get me some pictures of the Palm Beach and Westchester courses, please?” The photographs promptly arrive.
And then as time went by I started buying courses that were already built and rebuilt them, which I actually like better. Only great ones. And I’d buy ’em for 10, 15 cents on the dollar. I mean, one guy, I bought a course, it cost $58 million to build, and I bought it for $3 million.
Wow. Which one was that?
No, that I can’t say. It’s … it’s too nasty. I bought it for 3, now I put 7 into it, I rebuilt it and everything, but it cost $58 million, I bought it for 3.
If you drew a pie chart of your business empire, what percentage of the pie would be golf-related?
Well, it’s an interesting question. It’s a relatively small part of it. You know, I own buildings. I’m a builder; I know how to build. Nobody can build like I can build. Nobody. And the builders in New York will tell you that. I build the best product. And my name helps a lot.
What’s the percentage?
It’s a small percentage, but it’s a very valuable percentage.
Last year was the eighth year in a row that the number of courses in the US fell. Participation is flat, maybe down. Is golf a good investment for you?
It’s good if you have great locations and great courses. I’m not a believer in these guys that go out to the middle of nowhere and build a beautiful course, and nobody comes. I believe in location, and I believe in great courses. Look, somebody made the statement that Donald Trump has built or owns the greatest collection of golf courses, ever, in the history of golf. And I believe that is 100 per cent true.
Are you planning to expand your portfolio?
No, not at all, I don’t expect to. It’s not my main business. And I’m not looking anymore. I don’t wanna buy any more golf clubs.
Could this be a negotiating ploy to help lay the table for his next deal? Trump hands me photos of Ferry Point. (He won the bid to develop and operate the course for New York City in 2012.) Then he provides photos of another project in Washington, DC (He bought what was the Lowes Island Club in 2009.)
This is the greatest piece of land in America. Phenomenal. Nobody knows about it. I’ve totally rebuilt it, two courses, all on the Potomac River. It will be one of the great gems of golf. It’ll be one of the great tournament venues of the world. There is no better piece of land in my opinion in the United States.
So your business ventures in golf, are those decisions made with your head or your heart?
They’re made with both. It’s a great question.
Trump shows me photos of his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland.
This is Aberdeen, which in all fairness, nothing is going to compete with that. One of the greatest courses ever built in the world. These are the largest dunes in the world, and it’s a big success. It’s a very good question.
So Trump has a heart?
Donald Trump has a heart?
Well, that’s an interesting point. But I love the creation of beautiful things. I love, as an example, Doonbeg in Ireland, which I bought last year. Doonbeg is going to be incredible. One of the great pieces of property in the world. Doral is a great thing, 800 acres in the middle of Miami. I bought that [in 2012]. Miami is on fire, you know it’s doing so well. Doral is great. Spectacular. I only buy great ones. Like I bought a place called Pine Hill that’s right next to Pine Valley, a place called Pine Hill. It’s now called Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia. It is as good as Pine Valley, if not better.
Do you really believe that?
Yes, I really believe it. And if you went there, you would say it, too. And everybody that goes there says it.
If I hooked you up to a lie detector and I asked you if you think it’s as good as Pine Valley, would you pass the test?
I think it’s as good as Pine Valley, OK? People from Pine Valley are playing it all the time, and some say it’s just as good, and some say it’s better. It was built by an aficionado who went bust. I bought it out of receivership. And I brought it to the highest standard, you know, because when I buy them, I spend a lot of money. It’s fantastic. Sold out. A tremendous success. And then Turnberry came up. You know, it’s a super trophy. I mean, that’s one of the great pieces of art. I view these things as artwork. I’ll put a lot of money into Turnberry.
How about your course in Dubai?
The course in Dubai is gonna be amazing.
Trump takes a quick call. “Let’s use our other stuff; do you agree?” Trump says. He is crisp, decisive, engaging. “OK. Absolutely. I liked it; I didn’t like the overlap, that’s the thing. There’s a little bit of an overlap. But you work on that with him. Make something incredible there, OK?”
There was some talk about it being a Ryder Cup venue?
There are a lot of people that think that. It’s what I do. It’s being built to the absolute highest standards of tournament golf.
What about the inconvenient fact that Dubai isn’t in Europe? Would it make sense to have a Ryder Cup there?
Well, they want to have it, because you have the European Tour’s “Race to Dubai.” In all fairness, that’s their big tournament. I don’t know that they’re going to have a Ryder Cup there, but if they do, that would be the course they’d wanna use because it’s the best course. I just got back from Dubai, actually, and it’s really fantastic.
Any strategies for golf in China? Or other parts of the world?
No. I have a lot of people that would like to do courses, but you know, unless I own ’em, it’s not of interest to me. And honestly, it’s such a long trip and, you know, I really like doing courses that I will play.
Let’s say you wake up in the morning to discover that you’re in charge of all of golf. What do you do?
First of all, golf should be an aspirational game. And I think that bringing golf down to the lowest common denominator by trying to make courses ugly because they want to save water, in a state that has more water …
OK, but Pinehurst aside, what would you do?
I would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf, people that are never gonna be able to be there anyway. You know, they’re working so hard to make golf, as they say, a game of the people. And I think golf should be a game that the people want to aspire to through success.
So you’d like it to be an elitist activity.
It was always meant to be, and people get there through success. The great athletes, they all are golfers. They all want to play golf.
Golf in Scotland, when it started, was a game of the people. It’s meant to be a game of the people.
It can still be. But they cheapen the game with what they’re doing, in my opinion. Golf should be an aspirational game, and they’re taking aspiration out of it. And it’s also a game of great beauty. There was nothing beautiful about Pinehurst. I will tell you, as somebody that understands selling, courses like that will kill golf. Because nobody wants to play it.
In your book Think Big you write: “The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we’re civilized. In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you.” Do you really feel that?
Sure, it’s proven to be true, now more than at any time. Look, just turn on the news.
Is there a sense that you kind of reap what you sow? You approach the world in that way and the world responds in kind.
Well, no. My statement is certainly true.
Trump hands me a photo of a building.
See, here’s a building I’m just starting construction on next week, that’s in Washington, DC. That’s the old post office, an 1890 building. Right next to the White House, one of the great buildings, tallest building in Washington, D.C. That I own, you know. It’s great.
Is that kind of a lonely place to be, to think of everybody in that way?
Well, not all people. But it’s a vicious place. The world is a vicious place. You know, the lions and tigers, they hunt for food, we hunt for sport. So, it can be a very vicious place. You turn on the television and you look at what’s happening…
Is it better to be feared or loved?
Well, for business, probably the word fear would be better. To be honest, it’s better to be knowledgeable, in terms of business. You have to be smart.
One thing people say about you is that you have tremendous energy.
I do. I think energy is genetic, if you want to know the truth.
Trump certainly has a knack for getting things done. He doesn’t sit around pondering the whys and the wherefores. He gets on with it. If you think about a good idea for long enough, it’s possible to turn it into a bad idea.
And you’re always on the go. You’re always selling, always promoting yourself. You’ve been doing that throughout this interview.
You know, I’ll tell you what, I do great work, and I know people that do great work and they’re not acknowledged. Frank Sinatra was a good friend of mine, and I know people that sing better than Frank Sinatra, but nobody knows who they are. With me, they know who I am. So I believe you can do great things, but if people don’t know about it, what difference does it make?
Does it ever stop? Do you ever switch off?
Um, probably, but… not too often.
Trump looks puzzled, as if this notion had never occurred to him. He laughs.
What would happen if you did?
I don’t know. It might be a disaster. I think it could be a disaster.