Golf Courses

Trump World

From Scotland to Florida to California and beyond, The Donald imprints his image on golf

July 2012

In April, I traveled to northeastern Scotland to visit Donald Trump's newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, which was nearing completion. (It's scheduled to open a week before the Open Championship, on July 10.) The site is a 2½-hour drive north from the Old Course at St. Andrews and about 10 miles beyond the port city of Aberdeen. From the A90--a two-lane road that roughly parallels the North Sea coast between Carnoustie and Fraserburgh--I could see marram-grass-covered dunes in approximately the right location, just past the village of Balmedie, but I couldn't figure out how to get to them from the highway. In the end, I followed an enormous truck, which was carrying a load of crushed stone, down a muddy one-lane "works" road--the sort of road you wouldn't go near unless you were driving a stone-filled truck or a rental car. I spun my tires in axle-deep ruts, backed up near a long trench that was being excavated for water pipes, and, finally, spotted three other cars, which had been parked near a construction fence. On the far side of the fence, two workmen were carrying a ladder around the corner of an old stone building--which turned out to be the Scotland headquarters of the Trump Organization.

Donald Trump

The project began in 2006, when Trump paid a little more than $11 million for most of the Menie Estate, a baronial property dating to the 14th century, and, with characteristic bravado, announced his intention to build "the greatest golf course anywhere in the world." The proposed site was in the middle of a mini-mountain range of coastal dunes, on linksland that was protected by a highly restrictive conservation designation. A local planning council turned down Trump's application, by one vote, but the Scottish government intervened, citing likely economic benefits, and Trump won permission to build two courses, a clubhouse, a 450-room hotel, 950 vacation houses and 500 residences, among other amenities. Construction of the (first) course began in 2010. At its peak, it involved more than 200 workers, some of whom labored through the night, under lights.

As has often been the case recently, Trump's name and picture were all over the news at the time of my visit. He had lashed out at Alex Salmond, the head of the Scottish government--a surprising target, because Salmond, whose title is First Minister, was largely responsible for the reversal of Trump's initial planning denial. Trump was furious at him now, however, because Salmond's government wanted to erect 11 offshore wind turbines in Aberdeen Bay, and in clear weather the turbines would be visible from parts of the Menie Estate. A Trump spokesman, the day before, had accused Salmond of "putting Scotland in dangerous territory by destroying some of its most pristine natural assets"--pretty much the same argument that Trump's antagonists had been making against him.

The parameters of Trump's outrage on almost any subject are impossible to measure precisely. He thinks renewable energy is left-wing baloney, of course, and he is sensitive, as a real-estate man, to the value of unimpeded water views. But he also clearly shares P.T. Barnum's conviction that any publicity is good publicity. During his project's early stages, he pursued a bitterly vituperative public battle with an adjacent property owner, and in 2011 that battle provided the narrative spine of a scathing Scottish documentary, titled "You've Been Trumped," which, if its subject had been you, might have turned your mother against you. Yet the confrontation, perversely, has probably helped him, by increasing awareness of his project among golfers all over the world: brand-building, Trump-style.

People who have had less long-term exposure to Trump than most Americans don't necessarily know what to make of him. His mother was born in Tong, on the northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides, but he strikes most Scots as purely American, and not in the good way. The ones I talked to--on golf courses, in pubs and elsewhere--seemed to think of him as a standard-issue greed-driven mega-mogul, rather than seeing him the way I think most of his countrymen do, as the only conceivable member of whatever category he actually belongs in. The Scots do, however, share our baffled fascination with his hair--a subject about which they might, by now, know more than we do, because Scottish coastal winds can make it do tricks we've never seen at home.

When it was time for Trump to choose an architect for his course, he followed the advice of Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and hired the English links-course specialist Martin Hawtree. Hawtree is taciturn and professorial--qualities that have never been attributed, even by accident, to his client--yet by all accounts he and Trump get along extremely well. One of many Trumpian mysteries, to those who know him only from television and Scottish documentaries, is that people who work closely with him tend to like him, and often to like him a lot.

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