Donald Trump is turning more than a few heads these days with his golf operation.
The Trump National brand now owns 17 golf courses, most of them exclusively private with the “white glove” touch the billionaire real estate developer and his team deem appropriate.
With a good share of private clubs across the United States searching for ways to stay afloat, Trump is charging down green fairways, racing past any and all hazards in his way.
Eric Trump, Donald’s son and executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Co., is the main cog behind the Trump golf machine. Eric has been very much “hands on” at Trump National Charlotte, where a pretty penny was spent to restore a Greg Norman layout nestled along the banks of massive Lake Norman that was opened in 1999, and needed a facelift.
In the most recent Golf Digest rankings for North Carolina, Trump National Charlotte went from unranked to 21st in the state.
“That’s a pretty big leap,” said Gavin Arsenault, who worked at Rock Barn in Conover prior to joining the Trump team 30 months ago as general manager at Trump National Charlotte. “From tee-to-green the Trumps left nothing untouched. They were interested in making sure in the Carolinas that we would be recognized as having a top-rated course. They continue to tweak.”
When Eric Trump arrived at the Charlotte layout four years ago he was greeted with a central village he described as having a “Nantucket” feel. The course was also in bankruptcy and ripe for a $3 million bargain.
“It was something I was blown away with,” Trump said. “There are cobblestone streets, gas lanterns burning at night; it had an ambiance. You have a corner bakery, and a meeting house right in the middle; it just resembles a great little village. It is very inviting and homey. Between what we saw on the golf course and the amenities; I saw the potential it had. This (dining) room did not look like this, the ceiling was falling down and the chairs were out of the 1980s. To take something that was structurally beautiful and bring it to this point was something we’ve had a lot of fun doing.”
When word of the Trump purchase leaked, close to 300 new members joined the club.
“It was the most unbelievable thing,” Trump said. “There was a reality that it was going to get much harder to get in to and it was going to get much more expensive given our ownership.”
The Trumps don’t hide behind the fact their clubs are exclusive, likely aimed at the 1 percent of the population that can afford them. And there is a method to the madness. Notice the purchases are in major cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, which has a strong banking reputation and located in a state with a receptive business climate.
“We’re catering to somebody who is very, very affluent. Where do you typically have those people? In metropolitan areas,” Trump said. “I think the future looks incredible for golf. We wouldn’t be expanding the way we’re expanding if we weren’t very bullish on it. During the boom everybody was building golf courses and doing them in crazy locations. Some amazing golf courses got built, but they happen to be in the middle of “you name the place” and weren’t near any metropolitan city, not near any highway; you had to take a prop plane and then a helicopter to get there. The notion that those would be successful was a little fictitious. There has just been a rebalancing.”
On the course in Charlotte, Trump called on friend and PGA Tour player Martin Laird, a resident of the community, to help with the expansion to 7,500 yards. Laird teed it up at various proposed tee boxes and let it rip to help secure proper landing areas.
Water comes into play on a dozen holes at Trump National Charlotte, which fits nicely into one of Trump’s main preferences when it comes to selecting prime golf locations around the world.
“I’m partial to water and one of those things that I really focus on,” Trump said. “Our course in L.A. is three miles on the Pacific overlooking Catalina Island in the distance. It is the most incredible thing you have ever seen. It’s an amazing place and a place where you could never replicate land again. And our Washington, D.C., course is literally 2 ½ miles on the Potomac River … and Ferry Point is right on the entrance to the Long Island Sound.”
While the Trumps have built some of the tallest high rises in the world, Eric says he favors golf renovations over starting from scratch.
“I love taking something that somebody else put their fingers in and at some point maybe they got it wrong or it got old or they didn’t think of something and making it better than what it is,” Trump said. “Renovations are much harder in a certain, crazy way. It’s a lot easier to take a piece of land and build something. It can be a big puzzle a lot of times and it is fun to solve.
“It is what makes us good at what we do,” he added. “We’ve set higher expectations of what people ever set of us. I can’t tell you how many times we come into a facility and a few members will tell my dad they don’t think something is a good idea and think it is great the way it is. We do it and they come back a year later and say ‘that was the most unbelievable thing’ and we totally surpass their expectations.”
Eric Trump estimates the value of the company’s golf assets in the billions. And don’t think for one minute the Trumps are trying to reinvent the “snobbish” country club scene from the 1960s or ‘70s. Engage in a 10-minute conversation with Eric and it becomes evident immediately he’s always on top of his game, down to every last detail he can rattle off about all the courses he oversees.
For example, Trump National Charlotte has “an army” of 2,000 under the age of 21 in a massive development that Trump knows is the future of the game. So are the wives and girlfriends who are now teeing it up as much or more as their male counterparts.
“The game of golf is going to survive off of one thing and that is getting the next generation out there,” he said. “That’s no different than anything — like football or baseball.
“Country clubs by definition are places where people go and enjoy the time when they are not working. It’s kind of somebody’s home away from home, or like this place in Charlotte, your home. There is a lineage that gets passed down through a country club along with so many memories. These places are ingrained in their soul. That’s so important in the business model as well. For the game of golf you have to get kids, but the most successful clubs are the ones that nurture those kids and really make it their home as well.”
So, what’s next for Trump Golf? How many courses will be added to the Trump portfolio in the next five, 10 years?
“We have 100 courses that come to us every week,” Trump said. “It is a pretty amazing thing. I can’t tell you how many failing courses come to us and say, ‘Listen, we’ll give you our course, we’re a member-owned club, just take our course and fix it and make it beautiful.’ We’re lucky in that we’re a private company. We don’t have to appease some kind of shareholder. We do what we want to do. It means we can do a great job guarding the golden egg … and that’s ultimately our brand. So, for us, it’s getting the best and making sure we never compromise the standard. We can’t dilute the portfolio.
“It depends what comes open over the next 10 years, maybe we’ll have 25, 30 or 40, but if we never did another golf course again because the perfect one didn’t come up we would be OK with that. If we did another 20 because 20 incredible courses came up we would be OK with that, too.
“If there is one element that ties our company together is we work on the high set. We have to be the best hotel in every market we go in to, and we have to be the best golf course.”
Arsenault, the club’s GM, was well aware of the Trump’s reputation for paying close attention to detail, but he still was surprised by the level of dedication.
“I didn’t take into play that they have been in the hotel business for decades, which is all about guests and guest services,” he said. “You can’t have top occupancy hotels around the world without having great guest services. So, it is the same for the Trumps in the club business. They understand that memberships are the lifeline of the club. They are not building the club for their own personal use. They are building it to attract and sustain members of high quality for decades.”
It’s called the Trump Touch.