David J Whyte interviewed Donald Trump in 2011 ahead of the opening of his Aberdeen golf course. Here reflects on how his golf acquisitions might reflect on his presidency.
I encountered the Trump team in Scotland when they were building their first golf complex outside of the USA. Ground hadn't been broken on the impressive Balmedie Dunes just north of Aberdeen when ‘The Donald’ was proclaiming it... 'The Greatest Golf Course in the World'. Over his increasingly frequent visits to the Home of Golf, we were to get used to his flip-lid hairstyle and even more flippant remarks.
I was asked by a couple of magazines to write about the new Scottish acquisition and in the course of proceedings, Mr Trump heard of my interest and asked if we could talk. I checked my diary, found a slot to squeeze him in and in due course was patched through to his cell phone somewhere on a golf course in Florida.
“Hang on a second,” he said. The phone went quiet then I heard a thump, the unmistakable sound of clubhead meeting turf. Five seconds later Trump is back. “David, you’ve brought me luck!” Nice to know but not wishing to be held responsible for his entire round I asked if I could call back when he’d finished. The ensuing interview lasted 35 minutes and I have to admit, it was an easy gig. I had 20 questions ready to ask and got to number 3. We chatted casually, him being candid about the Aberdeen project and the connected real estate deal which, in line with the troubled construction industry at the time was taking a hammering. "I'm not going to invest in a hotel and houses until the market comes back again," he confided. "But that golf course will be finished and it will be incredible."
A few years on and now he’s President Trump. Who would have thought it? Certainly at the time not me. So through my very limited insight into his golf real estate business and a 35-minute interview over the phone, let’s reflect on how this contentious presidency might play out.
Before he got distracted with a trifling thing called the American Presidency, Donald Trump had been buying golf properties around Great Britain & Ireland such as the Golf Links & Hotel at Doonbeg, Turnberry Resort on Scotland's Ayrshire coast and the new course, Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen. These are three of the best golf resorts this side of the Atlantic and I know them well.
Let’s start with Aberdeen. In the course of meetings with Trump personnel on the £1 billion project; Martin Hawtree, the course architect, John Bambury, the course’s Irish superintendent and most everyone else in between, one thing became patently clear. Trump chooses his people carefully then gives them their head. “How do you like working for Donald Trump?” I asked John Bambury, the grow-in supervisor back in 2011 as we toured the fledgeling links overlooking the North Sea. “He likes things done a certain way,” John squared with me, “and not necessarily his. He wants you to excel in what you do. The result is that everyone raises their game.”
When I listened to his rhetoric in the run-up to the presidential election, it’s slightly comforting to know he defers responsibility to people who do know what they’re about. And money's no object either! The required capital for a project is put into place at the beginning and seemingly no corner's cut. Profitability might be the objective and some way off but Trump has done it all before and knows if you do it right at the beginning, it will eventually pay out!
That’s a stance that seems to apply to all of the Trump resorts and courses I've visited - not just in the UK & Ireland but the new links at Ferry Point, New York overlooking the Manhattan skyline or The Doral in Miami with its legendary Blue Monster course, a track I was familiar with whilst living in Florida back in the early 90’s. Trump poured $250 million into that ailing leviathan bringing in Gil Hanse to overhaul the Monster and other courses and now… it’s better than it's ever been!
Doonbeg on the West Coast of Ireland is a stunningly positioned property perched on the Atlantic coast with a Greg Norman links course and a setting that is best described as ‘heavenly’. But its direction had gone awry. The Trump squad parachuted in like something out of the A-Team and rescued it, rebuilding the sea-battered links and improving the accommodation to the level to which it deserved. Now all is cosy again in County Claire.
Meanwhile, back on Scotland’s west coast, the upgrade at Turnberry is nothing short of spectacular; the new holes like the 9th and 11th are destined to become two of the most exciting Par 3’s in the entire game and the hotel restored to the opulent palace it once was.
So what’s not to love? Should The Donald and team not stick to rescuing ailing golf resorts? Too late for that I’m afraid! The Donald’s celestial ascension continues! He’s got a grip of the big stick now and he’s about to unleash it! And that my friends - as we all know when we take hold of the big stick with a vengeance, is when things can go directly into the rough.
Let’s look again at Trump International Golf Links Scotland in Aberdeen, the project I am most familiar with to see if there’s indication of where we all might end up in the next few years.
And not all is sweetness and light!
The Trump Team, in an example of sheer, utter, obstinate insensitively and PR Hari-Kiri treated the neighbours on the Menie Estate like ‘illegal immigrants’, blocking off their views, cutting their water and telephone supplies and generally treating families that had lived on the estate for decades like squatters. They went as far as 'building a wall' in front of the property of Susie and John Munro whose cottage once enjoyed a clear view of the coast and Girdle Ness lighthouse along with the massive dunes that were incorporated into the new golf course. Similarly, David Milne's home, formerly a coastguard station with the same expansive outlook was stymied with a high stand of fir trees. It was as if the locals weren’t good enough to be seen by Trump’s wealthy clientele and so obliteration was the only option. If you want to know more about the nasty goings on at Trump Scotland, Google the documentaries, 'Tripping up Trump' and 'You've Been Trumped'. It will make your blood boil just how hard-hearted American developers can be.
Then there’s the most recent refurbishment at Turnberry on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast. There’s no getting away from it, I was hugely impressed by the modifications and improvements to the Ailsa course, one of my all-time favourites. Besides the advancement in quality and presentation of the course, the re-designed holes such as 4th, 6th, 9th and 11th are all simply outstanding. Trump took a personal stand on those holes flying in the face of traditionalists who were against such radical changes to an Open Championship venue. Trump prevailed! The results are world-class and will no doubt entice the Open Championship back to these winsome links at some future point. The Kintyre course, Ailsa’s shorter sibling is due to unveil a total overhaul next summer and after a huge upgrade, it too will no doubt be magnificent.
But there is something about the hotel that led me to dismay. Most Scottish hotels of reasonable stature these days play the ‘Scottish kitsch’ card with doormen decked out in kilts and Tam o’ Shanter bonnets. Turnberry under the direction of Trump has followed suit but to the extreme. Now we have a sort of pantomime created within this once highly regarded, relaxed, Scottish golf hotel. My fellow countrymen, dressed up like cartoon caricatures complete with feather-plumed caps and buffoon britches were to my mind at least, not happy with their lot. These are respectable men and women, keen golfers no doubt now made to look like characters from ‘Brig o Doon’! The atmosphere in the hotel, once lively with a hearty, healthy golf ambience is now, in my humble opinion, asphyxiated! It’s as if Trump himself decided how things are going to look and - oh dear - is there no one in his camp that has a modicum of good taste?
This brings me to the story of 'The Trump Coat of Arms' which might be another signpost as to how things might go during the Trump presidency. Scotland's ancient heraldic laws have existed since the earliest kings and dictate who and what can be put forward as a family crest. This did not deter ‘The Donald’ whose mother was born in Scotland's Western Isles from creating his own crest created and using it throughout his Aberdeen property - even though it was unauthorised! Invoking a law dating back to 1672, the crest was pulled into question by the authorities and what do you know - after four years of wrangling, Trump had his way! The Scottish heraldic establishment folded and now Trump flaunts his very own coat of arms - on just about everything!
Through the course of these events I began to discern something about Trump's approach both to business and indeed prognostically, world politics. "Say what you like, do what you like and at all costs, get your own way, no matter what!" I think it's safe to say that this is what the world witnessed during the race for the White House. Trump's rhetoric, never politically considered and certainly not correct, made most intelligent Americans and the rest of the world cringe at his half-baked, headline-grabbing harangues. “Build a wall, ban and deport Muslims and jail Hillary Clinton!” he raved - clearly appalling in crassness but bizarrely appealing to the majority of American voters. That’s worrying!
What also worries me is the socially-divisive policies that Trump promulgates. Whilst escaping the rigours of a Scots’ winter in Florida these past years, I found the gated-communities and exclusive elitism; the separation of the haves from the have-nots to be one of the most distasteful and dehumanising elements of the USA.
Hss that same attitude has arrived here in Scotland and Ireland. In the Home of Golf, prices have reached an all-time high propelled mostly by Trump and other super-wealthy Americans determined to build their own legacies in the Home of Golf. The rest of Scotland’s top courses now think they'll be seen as inferior if they don’t increase their prices. A round of golf at Trump's Aberdeen course will cost you £235 this year and as much as £350 for a weekend, non-resident round at Turnberry's Ailsa. A high season round on the Old Course at St Andrews will be £175. Others such as Castle Stuart and Kingsbarns, both American built & run are teetering around the £200 mark. Golf in the land to which it was born, once the game of the man on the street - is in danger of becoming exclusive, shut-off and only available to those who can afford it - or who have the right connections.
As you extrapolate this to the Trump administration’s view of the world, both domestic and foreign, will the ‘World According to Trump’ be that of self-aggrandisement, greed and get-what-you-want - no matter what the cost? Will all the bling, buffoonery and downright vulgarity that Trump espoused during his presidential campaign bring out the worst in the American people as they close their borders and renege on international trade deals? Trump won his presidency by appealing to working-class America voters. Having got what he wanted will he now turn his back on them and look towards the indulgences of the already ultra-rich.
Or - on a more positive note, will he bring together some of the best minds available and “give them their heads” as he has done with the above-mentioned golf properties. As he transitions into the presidency, Trump is hiring thousands of people, advisors, administrative officials and key staffers to do the real work of running the country. Trump will be Trump no matter what (which will always be interesting) but let’s hope he lets less controversial minds do the actual thinking and the actual ground work. If that’s the case, the World According to Trump might not be quite as bad as we think!
DAVID J WHYTE