My Close Personal Friend Donald Trump

Donald T. and David O. in front of the waterfall at Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida, March, 2012.

For the July issue of Golf Digest, I wrote an article about Donald Trump and his newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, near Aberdeen, Scotland. Back in March, Trump and I played  a round at his course in Palm Beach (photo above), and I spent one night at Mar-a-Lago, which Trump saved from demolition in the 1980s and now operates as a private club (photo of in-room amenities below).

Mar-a-Lago: only the best.

Trump is unimpressed by golf courses he doesn’t own, especially when he compares them with his Scottish course (which will open next week). “I know Bandon Dunes,” he told me over lunch. “The biggest dune there is like one tenth the size of our smallest dune. It’s a toy. And they get such great reviews. Every one of my courses is, like, amazing.”

Trump’s courses really are amazing; the one in Bedminster, New Jersey, was recently chosen by the U.S.G.A. to host the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open, and the others are stand-outs, too, although they aren’t necessarily as great as he says they are. A few years ago, he bought a bankrupt course in southern New Jersey, called Pine Hill, and turned it into Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia (it’s just over the state line from Pennsylvania). According to him, it should probably be considered the best course in the world (other than his course in Scotland).

“It’s a better course than Pine Valley,” he told me, “because it has much better elevation. And I love Pine Valley, but this course is better. Now, it will never be judged better, because nobody will ever give me the fair shake of doing that. But that’s OK. It’s a better course than Pine Valley—and the Pine Valley people say that, too, although they won’t say it publicly. Two of them came over to me and said, ‘Mr. Trump, this is better than Pine Valley, but please don’t ever quote me.'”

Trump’s courses, wherever they are, do often have cool cars parked in front of them:

Three Ferraris plus my rented maroon Kia, Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach.

Automobile arrangements like that don’t happen by accident. When I told the parking attendant I didn’t think I’d ever seen three Ferraris in a row, he said the boss had told him to be sure I noticed.

Trump is a very good golfer, even though he says he is.

In the photo above, Trump’s hair is hidden by his hat, which he didn’t take off during golf or at lunch, but I got to study it over dinner that night, at Mar-a-Lago. From straight on—which is presumably how he sees it in a mirror—it looks almost normal, but if you get any kind of an angle on it you can tell how structurally complex it is. And he must do it himself, because his wife wasn’t with him and I don’t think he was traveling with a hairdresser. I was impressed.

D.T. and John Nieporte, the head pro.

Off the record, I had a swell time hanging around with Trump. (Trump uses “off the record” not to protect confidences but to give emphasis to public knowledge he hopes you’ll quote—as in, “Off the record, I took down the trees and made the front page of the Washington Post four days in a row”—and I’m going to start doing that, too.) He’s a little exhausting to be with, because his only real topic of conversation is himself, but he doesn’t make you feel nervous or inferior, the way so many billionaires seem to do nowadays.

He’s also accessible. A decade ago, I wrote a long article for The New Yorker about concrete, and in it I quoted him at some length, since he built the first concrete office building in New York and knows a lot about the subject—although he was sometimes hard to understand because during our entire telephone conversation he was eating an apple. But he took my call, and he had interesting things to say.

Back-Roads Scotland: Fraserburgh

Fifteenth green, Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland. Photo by Ian Stephen.

For the July issue of Golf Digest, which is on sale now, I wrote an article about Donald Trump and his newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, in Scotland. The course is on the North Sea coast, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from the Old Course at St. Andrews and about ten miles beyond the port city of Aberdeen. You should definitely play it if you have a chance—it will open July 10—and after you’ve done that you should get back on the A90 and drive another hour north, to the town of Fraserburgh, at the easternmost end of the Moray Firth. It’s the home not only of the Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, but also of Fraserburgh Golf Club, the seventh oldest in the world.

Fraserburgh foghorn, April, 2012. It was built in 1902. It's not still in use, but the museum keeps it painted.

I played Fraserburgh with two older members: Bill Maitland, who owns a furniture store in town, and Andrew Tait, a member of family of extremely successful fishermen. The morning was cold and the wind was blowing hard, and I wore two pairs of rain gloves, one on top of the other, in the hope of maintaining feeling in my fingers. Tait, in contrast, didn’t wear even one glove, and the explanation was what I guessed: after you’ve spent  a few decades fishing in the North Sea, it takes more than wind to make your hands feel cold on land.

Town of Fraserburgh, viewed from the golf course. April, 2012.

Fraserburgh’s first and eighteenth holes are flat and forgettable, but nearly everything in between is brilliant, beginning with the second, a par 4 that plays up what looks like the surface of the moon, on the flank of a mountainous dune called Corbie Hill:

Second Hole, Fraserburgh Golf Club. Photo by Ian Stephen.

Golf in the region goes back a long way. Local church records show that a parishioner named John Burnett was sent to the “maisters stool” for “playing gouff” on the links of Fraserburgh in 1613. The club was founded a century and a half later, in 1777, and it has the documents to prove it. At lunch after our round, Maitland showed me a copy of the original membership register. “These names are still well known to us,” he said—and by that point they were well known to me, too, because I had seen them on plaques and trophies in clubhouses along the coast:

"These names are still well known to us," Bill Maitland told me.

Fraserburgh’s original members got together for lunch after they played, just as they do nowadays, and they were required to pay their share of the bill whether they showed up or not—an excellent rule that my own gang ought to adopt. After we’d eaten, Tait took me to the wharf to see his family’s three fishing boats. He lives on a farm a few miles down the road and has his own five-hole golf course, which he plays when he’s too busy to get to the club.

Andrew Tait, Fraserburgh wharf, April, 2012. The boat is named for his parents.

Fraserburgh’s eighteenth hole is called Bridge, after a footbridge over some railroad tracks along the western edge of the course. The rail line connected Fraserburgh with Aberdeen and the villages and golf courses in between—a sort of Linksland Express. It closed in 1965, though, and the footbridge was demolished, so Fraserburgh’s eighteenth is now a golf hole with a ghost name. The course is still there, though, and it’s one of many worthy destinations along the coast for links-golf pilgrims who can be persuaded not to turn around after playing Carnoustie.