Love him or hate. Trump is a moneyed force in golf.
One doesn't so much interview Donald Trump as hop aboard his train of thought. When I met him Wednesday for a personal tour of his refurbished Trump National Doral resort and its famed Blue Monster course here, we happened to be near some new handrails.
He thumped one. "Look at this railing. You just don't see railing like that," he said, dressed in all-white golf attire and a Trump International golf cap. "That's the real deal. Solid brass. The guy who made these—truly an artist. I spent $2 million just on railings."
The towering, triple-tier fountain near the first tee also seems to be of top quality ("From Florence," Trump said). So are the spacious new outdoor dining terraces on the second floor of the main clubhouse ("They can hold a live load of 2,500 people"), and the four, 70-room lodges, out of 10 at the resort, that have thus far been rebuilt to a high luxury standard and themed around great players. "We gutted them down to the steel," Trump said at the Gary Player villa. "Have you ever seen an elevator like that? It sets a standard."
Trump will always be Trump, of course, but there is actually a new seriousness to his presence in the golf world. His portfolio includes 13 private clubs and resorts in North America and three overseas, including Trump International in Scotland and his latest acquisition announced last month, Doonbeg in Ireland. This weekend, he has a monopoly of sorts: The Puerto Rico Open, which is the PGA Tour tournament for those not invited to the WGC-Cadillac Championship here, is being played at another Trump venue.
Anyone who chortled at his longtime ambition to host a major tournament might want to temper the skepticism. He is hiring golf's top architects and building or acquiring more courses than anyone else. Trump wasted no time on his Doral work. When the final putt dropped at last year's event, bulldozers were poised near the fairways so work could begin.
With flagstick-bending winds on Friday afternoon, the new, beefed-up Monster was acting up. Tiger Woods won last year with a 19-under-par total, and more than half the field finished under par. After the second round this year, four players were tied for the lead at one under: Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and Patrick Reed. Short pitch shots were blowing off the firm, new greens into greenside ponds, more of which are in play with the new design. The elite 68-player field hit more than 100 balls into the water in the second round.
"I think it could be the most difficult course on Tour if they wanted to set it up that way," Trump said. But the PGA Tour was deeply involved in the overhaul, too, and their watchword is "fair."
"What players want is a course that is right in front of them. They want to be able to see from the tee what kind of shots they need to hit and to be fairly rewarded for hitting good shots," said Stephen Wenzloff, the Tour's chief course design executive. Tour pros practice obsessively to hit precision shots—that is how they earn their living—and more than anything they dislike surprises, quirky holes and capricious bounces.
The architect Trump hired for the job, Gil Hanse, is a hands-on, tractor-driving minimalist known for his thoughtful, strategic designs at TPC Boston, site of the Deutsche Bank Championship, and Castle Stuart, site of the past three Scottish Opens. He is also building the new 2016 Olympic Games course in Rio de Janeiro.
The challenges of Hanse's revise at Doral may be plain to see from the tee, but they're tricky. "We were interested to see if angles could become relevant again," he said. Working with ideas that were drawn up but never executed by the course's original designer, Dick Wilson, Hanse built many of the new fairway bunkers on diagonals that require players to shape their tee shots to achieve maximum distance.
"It's a lost art, I think, but we're trying to see if we can challenge today's professional to get to certain sides or places in the fairways with the best angles into the greens," Hanse said. "If they don't shape their shots, they may have to use an iron or a three-wood off the tee to stay short." Hanse and his partner, Jim Wagner, elevated parts of many fairways by several feet, tilting a few, to give new looks to some holes and add wrinkles to the tactics players have to devise on each tee.
The greens are new, rebuilt from scratch with more undulation. Most are a bit larger, but many, such as the eighth, have small greens within the greens, set off by ridges, that provide smaller target areas for approach shots, depending on the pin location. The greens are firmer this year than they will ever be again, due to the lack of buildup from thatch and other materials that will soften them.
Through two rounds, that firmness was giving fits to the pros, accustomed as they are to stopping balls like fighter jets on a carrier deck. And veterans suddenly have no experience of how the putts break.
The Blue Monster's routing is essentially the same. The famously difficult 18th hole is almost entirely unchanged. But the formerly nondescript par-three 15th hole now has a nail-biting peninsula green (Hanse talked Trump out of turning it into an island green) and the short par-four 16th, formerly drivable over trees, now requires a scary carry over water.
My tour with Trump ended a few minutes before Woods, who would finish Friday at five over par, showed up at his namesake villa for the formal ribbon cutting. "Do you know who else Tiger would do something like this for?" Trump asked. He held up his thumb and forefinger to form a zero.