Donald Trump was never anything like a good enough golfer to play professionally, let alone win major championships. But now Trump, 68, is on a quest for the next-best thing: to host majors at his golf courses.
In April, he purchased Turnberry in Scotland, site of four British Opens; the first available date for a fifth is 2020. Also in April, Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey was named host of the 2022 PGA Championship. Trump has high hopes of landing a U.S. 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 epicenter 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 favorite topics: golf, and Trump. We avoided some of the lesser Trump topics, like his supposed presidential ambitions. And his hair.
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-aggrandizing 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 U.S. 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 percent 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, D.C. (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 this 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.
*Pine Valley is generally regarded as the best golf course in America. According to the latest Golf Digest state rankings, Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia is the 18th-best course in New Jersey.
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.
Trump hands me brochures and press information about Turnberry, then he details his plans for the course, including re-routing holes 9, 10 and 11. (This has been talked about for decades; expect Trump to make it happen.) The ninth will become a par 3 over the water with the green next to the iconic lighthouse—"It could be the greatest par 3 in all of golf," he says. The 10th green will be relocated close to the shore, making for a dramatic dogleg par 5. Then a stunning new par-3 11th will play over the rocks and the sea. The hotel—"one of the great hotel buildings of the world"—will get the Trump treatment, too. "Turnberry is now in the proper hands," Trump says, "and in two years you'll say, 'You know, thank you.' You'll say thank you, because it will be done properly."
__I saw somebody on your Twitter feed (@realDonaldTrump
) said to you, don't mess it up.__
And I said, don't worry about it. I will not make any changes to the course without the strict approval of the Royal & Ancient.
You're rebranding it Trump Turnberry. Could you say a little bit about that?
Right, so my brand is a very hot brand...
What does your brand stand for?
It stands for quality and luxury. If I didn't use my name, Turnberry would not be nearly as successful as it can be. This isn't an ego thing; this is business. I've got the hottest brand in the world.
At this point, a somewhat fractious exchange ensues. One Trump tactic is to cite unnamed sources who agree with him. At a press conference in July, for instance, when asked about renaming Turnberry, Trump said: "I actually asked some people that are very important in Scotland, although I won't get them in trouble by saying their name, but I've spoken to very important and very powerful political people, and I said, 'What do you think of the idea of Trump Turnberry?' Everyone said that they would love it."
I decide to employ a bit of trumpery on Trump by citing unnamed sources who disagree with him. I tell him that I asked people in the golf industry what they think the Trump brand stands for, and offer an example of one that was less than flattering.
Trump bristles. He demands to know the source. He says, "If you put that in, it's no longer a good story, it's not even a fair story" and adds that the unnamed person is "gutless" for not going on the record. Trump says, "There is nobody more aesthetic than me."
I heard a rumor that the Open might not be going back to Turnberry.
Just the opposite, I can't comment on that. But just exactly the opposite. Forget it. One of the biggest politicians in Scotland, he said to me, "It was never even thought of or mentioned, and as soon as you bought it they tried to spread that rumor." That's the story of my life. They did it just to get my goat. Well, they didn't get my goat.
A week later, R&A secretary Peter Dawson was quoted saying it was "unthinkable" that Turnberry would be dropped as an Open venue. Trump called to make sure I'd seen the story, and lambasted the "losers and haters" who spread the rumor.
An R&A spokesman told Golf Digest: "Turnberry is a wonderful Open venue, and we look forward to taking the Championship back there in due course. We are very comfortable with Mr. Trump's plans for Turnberry and will liaise on any changes to the Ailsa course. He has a strong track record of investing in golf, and we know that he will look to make improvements to the course and the facilities."
What's going on with your Trump International project in Aberdeen? You've put building the hotel and a second course on hold because earlier this year you lost your battle to prevent an offshore wind farm from being built.
So, I bought the land, 2,000 acres, on the North Sea. Largest dunes in the world, most spectacular dunes anywhere in the world. Everybody said, "Why did you buy it—you'll never be able to build anything there." I said, "You're probably right, but I'll take a shot."
The dunescape was a legally protected "Site of Special Scientific Interest," and there was strong opposition to Trump's project. All seven environmental groups that were part of a public inquiry opposed the development. Planning permission was denied. Then the Scottish government stepped in and overturned the decision.
Over a four-year period I was able, through litigation, to break the zoning. I got the course approved, got it built. The course is full, by the way, it's doing record business. Rave reviews. I can't get friends of mine on the course.
I called on July 30 posing as a traveling golfer and inquired about playing the course. There were plenty of tee times available from the following day onward.
One of the great courses. So then, even though they promised they wouldn't, they propose they wanna build one of these really stupid wind farms in the North Sea, fairly near my course. And you know they're terrible, they kill all the birds, they're bad environmentally, it's a bad form of energy, it's very inefficient and very costly. They're bad in so many ways.
You're concerned about the effect on your business.
Not the business. Look, I'm an artist. Right now when you look, you see the North Sea, the waves crashing against the shore, you see the magnificence of this body of water. I don't want to be looking at rusty windmills all over the place. Because that's what happens to them—they all turn to rust, and they're disgusting. And I said until such time as that project is killed, I'm not building anymore. I'm not gonna be staring at windmills. And in my opinion, the wind farm will never happen. I think they'll back down. And when that happens, when they announce that they're gonna abandon it, then I'll start the second course.
In August, Trump announced plans for a new $8 million clubhouse, but otherwise, for now, all construction on the mega resort—the five-star, six-story hotel, the 500 houses, the 950 time-share flats—has ceased.
Given the amount of opposition to your development, I'm just wondering if, in hindsight, going in with a more kind of softly-softly approach...
I would have never gotten it approved. I've done this all my life.
Because there was a perception in the UK that you were a little bit of a bull in a china shop...
Well, if, if ...
...you know, the "Ugly American" coming in.
Yeah, look, what people don't know is that a poll came out, 93-percent approval rating in the poll. There have been stories about how incredible this has been for Aberdeen. It's been a huge, huge success for Aberdeen. Everyone's doing well because of my golf course. It's so successful, and the people love me over there. They love me for building it. Aberdeen is booming because of me. You can't get a hotel room because of me. One thing I'll say, whenever I build, the area succeeds.
So the idea of catching more flies with honey than with vinegar doesn't work?
Look, 93 percent of the people in Aberdeen love me.
What is the source of that poll?
I'm gonna find out. It was one of the newspapers that did it. We have great popularity in Aberdeen.
The 2010 BBC documentary "All-American Billionaire" shows several clips of Trump trumpeting this 93-percent approval rating in a series of interviews. The program's producers could not find the source of the figure, nor could a spokesman for the Trump organization. The press officer for the Aberdeen newspapers that Trump directed me to was similarly unable to find any trace of this poll.
What about Michael Forbes—how's he doing?
Forbes is a farmer who lives on 23 acres of land that he owns on the Trump estate. Forbes refused to bow to enormous pressure from Team Trump to sell and move on. He has lived there for 45 years and says he will never sell. In 2012, Forbes was named "Top Scot" at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards.
Look, I don't even know what he looks like. But he fought and lost. I had two people that fought me, really, three people. And they're the only ones that get publicity. The hundreds of people that supported me get no publicity. It's very sad.
But he's a hero to a lot of people, because he stood up to you.
Well, he lost.
He was David to your Goliath. He stood up to the playground bully.
I don't know why he's a hero. He lost. If you met him, you wouldn't think he's a hero.
I wonder if you have a sneaking admiration for him, because he didn't fold.
No, I don't have admiration for ... for what? Look, he is somebody who fought me and lost. And, by the way, his place is nowhere near my golf course. I didn't even need his property. My people made a deal with him twice, to sell, and he broke the deal. He wanted more money. I think I've done a great service for Scotland, and a lot of people are giving me credit for it.
Trump is half Scottish. On the Trump International Golf Links website, he writes: "My mother, Mary MacLeod, was from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. She grew up in a simple croft until she landed in Manhattan at the age of 20, and her first language was Gaelic."
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.
Golf is thought of as a game of honor and decency and respect. Some people thought your derogatory comments about Pinehurst during the U.S. Open weren't in the spirit of the game.
OK, I'm glad you asked the question. I have great respect for Mike Davis [USGA executive director] and the USGA. But I'm an honest person—I'm a very honest person—and I think that Pinehurst on television looked horrible. It was very bad for golf. And many players thought it, but they just don't want to say it. Bubba Watson was the only one that had the courage to speak his mind. First of all, turtleback greens. I am a good golfer—I just won another senior club championship, so I'm fairly happy about that—but turtleback greens are a disgrace, and Pinehurst has many of them. It's very unfair when you hit a perfect shot to the pin and you end up with a 30-yard chip shot. It's ridiculous. That has nothing to do with golf. The television ratings were abysmal.
There were some other factors. Tiger Woods wasn't there. The Stanley Cup was on, the World Cup...
I don't care. The ratings were abysmal. My wife couldn't care less about golf, but she loves watching the Masters. So she comes into the room where I'm watching, and she said, "Oh, darling, that's so sad; oh, darling, what happened to the course? Did they have a fire—what happened? Oh, that's so sad." She felt sorry for the course. You know what it looked like? It made it look like they don't have money to water the grass. I have nothing against Pinehurst, but I think the greens are ridiculous, and the look on television was terrible. Golf is very much about beauty. And they took the beauty away.
Isn't there beauty in natural-looking courses, in the tradition of British and Irish links?
No. There's a difference between a Turnberry, which has a little brown in the fairways and creates a good run on the ball, and a course that looked like it was a burned-out pile of rubbish. You know, I studied with great interest how beautiful Royal Liverpool looked on television. Wasn't that a great Open Championship? And did you notice how green everything was? It was beautiful. With, by the way, tinges of brown. I love the way the course looked. It was magnificent. See, I'm an artist, and to me Pinehurst was very bad for golf. A terrible disservice to golf.
The counterargument is that the USGA is taking a leadership role in water conservation. For environmental reasons we need to move away from the very overly manicured fairways and greens that places like Augusta National represent.
Nobody has received more environmental awards than I have. I have received many, many environmental awards.
*Filmmaker Anthony Baxter examines Trump's environmental record in his blistering documentaries "You've Been Trumped" and the newly released "A Dangerous Game." He tells Golf Digest: "Donald Trump's environmental record when it comes to golf could hardly be worse." *
I think that argument is fine if you're talking about the desert. But water in North Carolina comes pouring from the skies—you don't have to go get it. The rain is unbelievable. So why would they have destroyed that course? It was a horror show. Looking at that burned-out monstrosity on television was one of the saddest things I've ever seen in golf.
The USGA declined to reply to Trump's remarks.
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.
So all those "growing the game" initiatives, The First Tee...
I think it's all fine, it's all good. But they have to keep it at a high level. It should be based on aspiration.
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, D.C. 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.
Trump hands me a computer-generated photo of a hotel room.
That's a room concept for Turnberry. You see, it's an interesting question, your last one. All different types of people. I know a lot of ruthless people that are lousy businessmen. And I know some very nice people that are very good in business. And I know people that are very brilliant, that are very vicious. Those tend to be the toughest.
And what are you?
Um, I would never say; I mean, I don't know. I try to be as nice as possible. Uh, you know, I have great relationships.
*At some point, Trump's oldest child, Don Jr., appears, carrying a toddler in his arms. "We're having a very sophisticated business lunch today," he jokes, "and he just wanted to come up and say hi to Grandpa." *
"Hello, sweetheart!" Trump says. Introductions and small talk are made, then Don Jr. and son take their leave. "A great guy," Trump says. Then he calls after his son: "Don, I'm proud of you." Trump's oldest three children work in the family firm.
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.
I don't know.
What would happen if you did?
I don't know. It might be a disaster. I think it could be a disaster.
Photos: Turnberry: Stephen Szurlej, Doral: The Trump Organization, Ferry Point: Stephen Szurlej; Doonbeg: The Trump Organization