Donald Trump and I were knocking Titleists around his course in Westchester County, New York, when the film crew appeared. "Never mind those guys," Trump said. "They're from The Apprentice." The camera crew followed us to the next hole, a tough par-3 over a pond, with a man-made waterfall behind the green.
Trump teed up a ball and smacked it into the water. He teed up a second ball and swung harder. Splash. He tossed aside his iron, reached for a 5-wood, teed up a third ball, and knocked it on the green.
"And that," he said, "is reality television!"
Of course, The Apprentice didn't show his first two swings. He made a 7 on the hole, but on TV, it would look like a 3.
That was in 2004, long before anyone imagined that Donald Trump could become the 45th president of the United States. Plenty of presidents, of course, have spent time on the greens. But none has been as closely associated with the sport as Trump. He has 16 courses to his name — 12 in the U.S., two in Scotland, one in Ireland, and one in Dubai — with more in the works. And while his son Eric now runs the Trump Golf empire on a day-to-day basis, the president seems determined to keep firing away as Golfer-in-Chief. Of his first 81 days in office, 16 were spent at his two courses in South Florida, with partners including Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, as well as PGA Tour stars Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els. If Trump continues to play at this rate, he'll wind up logging nearly 300 rounds over his four-year term.
I first landed on Trump's radar when I became editor of Golf Magazine in 2003. He phoned me. "Kevin, let's play my courses," he said. "You're gonna love them." Over the next few years, I played half a dozen rounds with Trump, and he was never less than great company. (Disclosure: He blurbed a book of mine in 2008.) It's tempting to think that golfing with Trump might reveal hidden insights into his psyche or an otherwise unseen side of his personality. In fact, the thing to know about Trump the golfer is that he is the exact same guy as Trump the president. Loud, driven, entertaining, spiteful, leering, instinctive, unstoppable. He'll needle you, waiting till you've started your backswing to say, "You choked on this hole yesterday, but don't worry about that!" Yet he's just as quick to praise a good shot, calling you the next best thing to his buddy Tiger Woods.
At Trump National Westchester, the day the Apprentice crew followed us around, I discovered the pleasures of Trumpian golf. For one thing, it's the fastest golf you'll ever play. Rather than wait for the foursome ahead, you barrel past them in Trump's electric cart, while they step aside, waving and saluting. At one tee, he thumped a drive about 270 yards and dared me to beat it. I swung as hard as I could. When my ball got a good bounce and rolled a few yards past his, he high-fived me and called it "a hell of a hit. But I don't want to see your underwear after that swing!"
Lots of people ask me if Trump cheats. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of cheat is. Clinton, in fact, has been a longtime member at Trump's Westchester course, and both men — like millions of weekend duffers who reload after a bad drive or take gimmes on the green — are known to enjoy a mulligan or three. Trump's official U.S. Golf Association handicap is 2.8, which means that he usually shoots around 75, two or three shots over par. Trump is good, but he isn't that good.
The golf insiders — players, course professionals, journalists — I spoke to for this story agreed that he's more of a 7 or 8 handicap, a guy who shoots around 80 who probably keeps his handicap low by reporting only his best scores. That official 2.8 is what's known as a vanity handicap — or, in today's political parlance, an "alternative fact" — that suits his self-image.
What I found more troubling about Trump is how two-faced he could be. He spent weeks buttering up Golf Digest writer Ron Whitten, currying favor with him, introducing him to cronies as a "legend" and "the most important person in golf." All the while he mocked the man behind his back, telling several journalists, including me, that Whitten was a horrible golfer. (Through a spokesperson, Trump denied saying this.)
His treatment of LPGA pro Natalie Gulbis was worse. An attractive blonde better known for her looks than her performance on the course, Gulbis was a Celebrity Apprentice contestant in 2009. Last year, she praised candidate Trump as an inspiration, saying, "I have always found political rhetoric about Trump's misogynistic 'war on women' to be inconsistent with the Trump I know."
She was one of the minor celebrities singing his praises at the Republican Convention, unaware that she had been a focus of his locker-room talk. He gleefully told male golfers that his pal Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, had dumped her because she had "no tits." Trump was gentlemanly with Gulbis in public, yet he told the story again and again. I expect Gulbis will still play in the 2017 U.S. Women's Open at Trump's course in Bedminster, New Jersey, in July. But as happens with so many other people who cross his path, he's playing her for a sucker. (A Trump spokesperson also denied this, adding that the president "has tremendous respect for Natalie as an athlete and an ardent supporter.")
Trump got serious about golf while studying business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, scrapping with hustlers at a ratty public course in Philadelphia. As he built his fortune, he joined the historic Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. One of his first golf properties, Trump National Westchester, in Briarcliff Manor, New York, turned out as tacky as the 100-foot man-made waterfall on the back nine. But Trump became a better course builder as his empire expanded. He transformed a troubled property in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, into a world-class layout. He did something similar in Miami, buying the famed Doral Country Club out of bankruptcy and turning its outdated Blue Monster course into a new monster that gave PGA Tour pros all the fight they could handle as the site of the annual World Golf Championship–Cadillac event. Last year at Doral, I asked pro Rickie Fowler about Trump. "He's one of a kind," Fowler said, laughing. "He likes seeing us get beat up by his golf course."
July's U.S. Women's Open on the Old Course at Trump National, in Bedminster, will be the first postelection test of a Trump venue. Trump acquired the property in typical Trumpian fashion, buying it cheap from the estate of disgraced automaker John DeLorean in 2002. He hired top-ticket golf architect Tom Fazio to build a course on its 600 acres, then bossed Fazio around as if he, Trump, were a world-class course designer.
"I want a pond here," he'd bark at his minions. "These trees? All wrong!"
Often as not, he was right. Trump quickly mastered the basics of agronomy and course design, learning about grasses, fungicides, and tree varieties. Before long, he was demanding that some holes be shortened or lengthened. "He made some calls that seemed ridiculous at first," says Ryan Batz, who spent five years as superintendent of the Trump courses at Bedminster and Westchester. "But about 90 percent of them turned out great."
Of course, not all of his decisions made sense. He loved the 270 mature maple trees he transplanted to the mile-long driveway at Bedminster, but they overgrew the drive. "He wouldn't let us prune them," says a former greenkeeper. "He didn't understand that you prune a tree for its health. He'd say, 'Would you be healthier if I cut your arm off?' So we pruned them in secret, but we couldn't keep up. The maples grew, and delivery trucks started hitting them, knocking off branches. He blamed me. 'Quit trimming those trees!' Humiliating me in front of the club members."
Another greenkeeper recalled how Trump pitted his workers against each other: "He'd say, 'Man, the greens at my other course are perfect.' Just to make you nervous. What he didn't know is we stuck together. We'd phone and text each other, comparing notes, for our own protection."
However unpleasant for the grounds crew, that management style got results: Over the past decade, Trump has bought or built as many first-rate courses as anyone. Still, being Trump, he has spurred controversy at every turn.
In 2006, he bought a parcel of coastal land in Balmedie, Scotland, and announced plans to build "the greatest golf course in the world." Boasting that his project would bring $1.25 billion to the local economy, he lowballed landowners whose adjacent properties he would need to expand his own. When they refused, Trump declared war. His most outspoken foe was farmer Michael Forbes, who painted no more trump lies on his barn. (That prompted Trump to respond on Twitter: "Michael Forbes lives in a pigsty.") But in the end, the Scots fought off the invader. "I stood my ground," Forbes says. "He'll never get my land." As for the billion-plus dollars Trump vowed to invest in the community, it shrank to less than $50 million.
He did better at Turnberry, a historic resort on Scotland's west coast that hosts the annual Open Championship, the game's oldest major. "For the longest time, it was a beautiful place with a slightly better-than-average course. It's far better now," says Scottish golf writer John Huggan. "Of course, he renamed it after himself," Huggan hastens to add. "Golfers want to buy a hat or shirt that says 'Turnberry.' Now everything says 'Trump.' "
After we'd golfed together a few times, Trump invited me to Florida to play his course in West Palm Beach. "You'll stay at Mar-a-Lago. Bring the family!" His offer presented a conflict of interest: He wanted my magazine to praise him and his courses. I rationalized it by telling myself that I could remain objective and by telling him that I didn't choose the courses my magazine reviewed. A couple of weeks later, I drove through the gate at his gilded estate, where parking attendants zipped my rented minivan to an unseen spot far from the Bentleys and Rollses parked near the front door.
The next morning, Trump met us for breakfast. He was a generous host, as lively and full of fun stealing bacon off your plate as he had been outdriving you on the golf course. He was charming with my wife and friendly with our kids.
He drove me to Trump International West Palm Beach in the $350,000 Maybach he called his "fabulous boat." Along the way, he boasted about the new $30 million exit off Interstate 95: He'd demanded the exit to make it easier for golfers to reach his course, so the state of Florida built him one. "And I paid nothing," he said. He also made a point of saying he wasn't looking for special treatment from Golf Magazine. "All I want is a fair shake for my courses," he said.
Later, barreling through the front nine, he reached the green at his par-5 ninth hole with a 300-yard drive and a 4-iron. That put him in a fine mood. Waving his arms as if to embrace the sky, the emerald turf of his course, and the eagle putt that awaited him, he said, "Isn't this the best?"
On the back nine, he flubbed a chip shot and said, "I suck!" A second later, however, he brightened. "I suck," he said, "but isn't this a hell of a hole?"