TRUMP: More Pars Than Politics
by Jeff Thoreson
In March of 2009, shortly after Donald Trump completed the purchase of the Lowes Island Club and immediately renamed it Trump National Golf Club Washington D.C., he invited members to a meet-and-greet session. Hundreds showed up to the expansive clubhouse that sits on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River in Sterling, Virginia, to hear Trump outline his plans for the club.
At one point, Trump asked who the best golfer in the club was and members all turned and pointed to Michael Muehr.
“Yeah, well, I’ll kick your butt,” Trump said to Muehr, not knowing Muehr had been a journeyman on the PGA Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but had regained his amateur status after beating skin cancer.
Trump came back in the spring for his first round at the course and asked the head pro to make sure Muehr would be in the foursome. On the first tee, as Trump was selecting his partner for a four-ball match, he asked the other three to tell him their handicaps. Pete Robison said he was a three. Ro Dhanda a nine. When Trump pointed to Muehr, he responded that he was a plus-five.
“No one is a plus-five,” Trump scoffed and picked Robison as his partner.
Says Muehr: “I birdied the first six holes and he said ‘OK, you’re my partner for the rest of the way and we’re going to the back tees.’ We kind of hit it off that day.”
The two have been great golf buddies ever since.
A look inside Donald Trump’s foursome through the eyes of Muehr and other Trump D.C. members who have played with him reveals the unexpected. On the golf course he is not the churlish neophyte politician in the White House that critics so easily lampoon. As a golfer and the club’s owner, the guy is gregarious, convivial, generous and a downright pleasure as a playing partner.
Through interviews with several members, we built an inside look at what it is like to play golf with the President of the United States, a glimpse inside a foursome few get to experience. But we were interested only in golf and made politics off limits in the interviews. So build a wall or don’t build the wall. Get along with the Russians or don’t. Repeal Obamacare or just fix it. For the purpose of this article, we simply don’t care.
Though no one at the club has played with Trump since he became POTUS, they expect it won’t be much different, other than being surrounded by a security detail and calling him Mr. President instead of Mr. Trump. All members call him Mr. Trump. Muehr says he’s seen very few people call him Donald, usually just other billionaires from his impressive portfolio of clubs.
“It’s just like playing with a college buddy,” Muehr says. “It might be different now that he’s president of the United States, but he is just like anybody else.”
Certainly no one would mistake Trump for a walk-up single filling out a foursome, because he does have a huge personality and a massive ego. But underneath the bluster, Trump, members say, wants to be like every other golfer. He wants to be better than he is. He gets down when he’s not playing well. He gets nervous at big moments, and, most of all, he enjoys the camaraderie of the foursome.
“From a guy standpoint, he wants to be one of the boys,” Robison says. “When you’re playing golf with him, he’s a back-slapper and he’ll heckle. He enjoys all that.”
As for his game, members agree that it is solid, way more so than most 70-year olds. He hits the driver well, and while he may have been able at one time to hit it 285 yards like he claimed in the exchange about the size of his hands with Sen. Marco Rubio during the campaign, members say now he’s closer to 230 or 240 yards. His irons are crisp, reasonably straight and reliable, and he’s a very good putter. His stroke is no work of beauty, but it is effective. Muehr says he grips the putter like he’s “trying to squeeze the last drop out of a wet towel. There isn’t a whole lot of feel or finesse in his stroke.” Still, Muehr says, Trump makes a lot of five- to 15-foot putts. The president’s greatest weakness on the course is chipping.
Like the rest of us, age is catching up with the president. He may well have been a three handicap at one point, but now there’s some vanity in that index, and he’s probably closer to a six or seven. Trump keeps a handicap at six of his clubs in America and at Winged Foot, and to his credit, each is exactly the same, as it should be. In the GHIN system, his index is 2.8, but he posted only one score last year and just two in 2015.
“He’s a really nice player for a 70- year-old,” says Muehr. “But he also knows that I could give him five or six a side. One of his favorite lines, he’s probably told me this 20 times when we’re playing, he says, ‘Mike, you’re a plus-five in golf, but I’m a plus-10 in real estate.’”
Before the heat of the campaign, Trump used to call Muehr every few weeks just to “shoot the shit and talk about golf and the club.” He says he hasn’t spoken to Trump in about nine months, but he has nothing but fond memories of their many rounds.
“We really have a good time on the golf course together, and he’s very complimentary of my game,” says Muehr. “One reason I think we get along so well is because I don’t just simply kiss his ass like so many others do. Maybe he just appreciates that at some level.”
Inside a Trump foursome, the now president is usually a little blustery for the first hour or so – closer to his television persona – but when everything settles in, he’s just another guy, and that’s what endears him to members. He takes an interest in others, engages in small talk and the witty banter of any foursome as the bad shots and lucky shots unfold. He isn’t shy with the expletives. “We bust each others’ chops pretty good. Nothing that you could quote because we both have a pretty foul mouth,” Muehr says.
But rarely does politics come up on the course.
“I remember a round in early 2012,” says Muehr. “We were waiting on a tee box. I said, ‘So, you going to run for president?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m leading in the polls.’ I don’t think he was even in the polls at the time. I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ He said ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to do it.’ That was the only time we ever talked politics. I thought, well that’s kind of a pipe dream. Then four years later he pulls it off.”
Like all of us, Trump can get down on himself when he’s playing poorly and nervous in the face of big moments. Muehr recalls playing in the member-member tournament a couple years ago and in the first round Trump was struggling. “The first day he was pretty down and he was distracted with some important phone calls to New York. The next day we were kicking ass and he was having so much fun. He played fantastic and we ended up winning our flight.” The tournament ends with a horse race between flight winners. “He was nervous at the start. We lost on the first or second hole and 10 minutes later he was in his helicopter doing a loop above the course and then he was off.”
Members say it is not unusual for Trump to circle the course or have the pilot descend as he’s leaving, as if to say goodbye to the foursomes still on the course.
“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” says Robison.
With Donald Trump and golf, the topic of cheating almost always comes up, and Trump has been accused of playing fast and loose with the rules by past celebrity and business playing partners. But no one at Trump D.C. sees it that way. Yes, in a casual round Trump will bump a ball out of a divot or give himself a four-foot putt, but he’ll also bump your ball out of a divot and give you a four-foot putt.
“There’s no malicious intent in the way he bends the rules,” says Muehr. “He’s not trying to beat you when he does something like rake a putt or roll the ball. He just wants to be better maybe than he is.”
And, members say, in a Trump foursome no one really keeps an accurate score, so who cares if he gives putts and rolls the ball. “We have literally never kept score,” Muehr says.
One member who asked not to be identified said it is usually his caddies who cheat for him. Once, the member said, Trump’s forecaddie admitted to the others in the foursome that he had kicked Trump’s ball up the fairway so that his would be the longest drive in the group.
And Muehr recalls a round where a caddie found a particularly poor tee shot by Trump in a small open patch of grass amid much heavier rough. “He said, ‘Huh, look at that. How do you suppose that ball ended up there?’ It was very tongue-in-cheek.”
And, it’s not like Trump’s caddies are the only ones who find ways to surreptitiously help their player. It is almost an unwritten code among caddies that they find ways for their players to score well, reasoning that the better their guy plays, the bigger the tip.
“I think that might be just what the caddies thought they were supposed to do,” Muehr says, adding that the one time he played with Trump in a tournament, everything was above board, both with Trump and his caddies.
Members liken Trump’s style of play to the “cart polo” of George H.W. Bush and say it rarely takes more than three hours to finish a round with Trump, and sometimes not even that long. The professional staff at the club always makes sure the way is clear for the owner, asking slower groups – and even groups playing at a normal pace – to let Trump’s group play through as he blisters around the course.
“I think he does those things more for speed of play,” says Dhanda. “He’s a busy guy and likes to get his round done.”
Members bring up President Clinton’s liberal use of mulligans to improve his score, and say they don’t see any difference in that and how Trump plays the game. “In fact, I think it’s less egregious,” says Muehr. “It’s not like he’s trying to cheat you or cheat the game. He’s just out there to have fun.”
And if Trump the politician comes across as lacking a sense of humor or that he doesn’t take an interest in others, that’s not Trump the golfer.
“On the course, it’s like you’ve known him forever, and he acts like he’s known you forever,” says Robison. “He’s very congenial, very interactive. He’ll ask you a ton of questions, both personal and about golf.”
Nor is Trump trying to win money from others in the foursome with his liberal brand of golf. While Trump’s foursomes almost always have a bet, it’s usually just a small wager and regardless of the outcome, Trump rarely collects.
And then he’ll likely invite the group into the clubhouse for lunch and pick up the tab. Despite providing five-star food at his clubs, Trump is not a foodie. His standard aprés-golf order: cheeseburger. “I think he eats cheeseburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Muehr jokes. Trump doesn’t drink alcohol, so he orders Coke – but it has to be in a bottle, not a can.
Dhanda says after that first round with Trump, he invited the three into the clubhouse and showed them blueprints of some of the changes he was planning. “He was really interested in our opinion,” Dhanda says. “We had some laughs, joked around. It was a very fond memory. Still is.”
All but three presidents (Carter, Truman and Hoover) during the golf era have played the game to one extent or another – most to a very low level or with significant lack of enthusiasm for the game. Neither applies to Trump.
He may be the most pure of all presidential golfers. He loves the game, respects its history and is a very good player. For all the relentless energy Trump spent Tweeting about why it was so wrong for Obama to play golf during his eight years, Trump so far has not been shy about pegging it. But that’s the way politics is when the golf shoe is on the other foot.
Obama left the White House earlier this year with 333 rounds under his belt as president, far fewer than what is the unofficial record of about 800 by Dwight D. Eisenhower during his two terms. If Trump surpasses Obama’s total, none of the members at Trump D.C. will be surprised. But they also don’t expect Trump to motorcade out to Joint Base Andrews as Obama often did. He’ll most likely land at Trump National on Marine One.
“He loves the game. He loves to be around the game,” Dhanda says.
On the course and after a round, Trump is gracious with his time and generous. Muehr’s bout with skin cancer knocked him off the Tour, but he started the charity Golf Pros Beating Cancer and holds an annual event with about two dozen PGA Tour pros at Trump D.C. One of the silent auction items was for a twosome to play with Trump and Muehr at Trump National West Palm Beach. One year it sold for $25,000. The foursome played the morning of the scheduled round and then Trump invited them in for lunch. He had a meeting but told the other three to enjoy the meal and then go play another nine if they wanted.
“So we’re on the second tee box and he comes motoring up in a golf cart and says, ‘All right, let’s play some more golf.’ He spent another two hours with us and then he invited us over to Mar-a-Lago for dinner. There was a huge Red Cross charity event going on. He’s in his tux, the three of us were over at a little outdoor bar and he comes walking over and starts chatting. He stood there for 30 minutes talking about golf and how much fun we had that day.”
Say what you will about his politics or his business life, at Trump D.C. you won’t hear many complaints about how the club is run, and members both appreciate and are impressed by his hands-on style.
On his visits, Trump does more than play golf with the boys. Members say he’s a bit of a control freak, and it’s not unusual to see him walking around the clubhouse with his top managers taking notes on what the boss wants done. “He’ll say, ‘You know, those pictures should not be there. They should be over there. Or that brass hasn’t been polished in three months,” says one member. “His attention to detail is shocking.”
Trump D.C. isn’t an old-line, blueblood club like those closer to the Beltway or nearby River Bend Country Club, but it is every bit as luxurious and dedicated to pampering members with five-star amenities. Trump D.C., however, isn’t the typical Trump model club with a small membership of people willing to pay whatever it costs. Trump D.C. is more of a volume operation with about 850 members (up from about 570 when Trump took over).
The initiation fee to get into the club is somewhere around $30,000 to $40,000, considerably less than the other upper echelon Washington-area clubs like Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Creighton Farms, Congressional, Columbia, Chevy Chase, Woodmont and Burning Tree. Dues are $830 a month, which puts Trump D.C. about in the middle of those high-end clubs.
So when dues went up about $30 a month this year, one member said no one was really complaining. “It’s the first time dues have gone up in the three years since I joined,” said the member. Since Trump took over, now eight years ago, dues have climbed from $470, due both to the natural increase associated with rising expenses and the improved service, and amenities that are now on par with most of the nation’s tony clubs.
What’s more, several members say, Trump fulfilled all the promises he made when he bought the club, most importantly the promise to not assess members for his improvements. So while members at member-owned clubs often pay additional assessments, at Trump D.C. members pay only dues. Trump may not be the “only one” who can fix America, but he may well be the only businessman who would buy a club at the height of a recession and invest tens of millions of dollars and not recoup any of it from members.
When Trump bought the club from Chevy Chase Bank, which was selling it as a precursor to the bank’s assets being sold to Capital One, there wasn’t a lot of expectation that Trump’s rebranding could improve a club already considered one of the best in the Washington area. But he threw millions at it, building a $10 million tennis center, remodeling the clubhouse and taking the Tom Fazio-designed Island Course that had been named one of the 10 best new courses of America in 1994 and making it better – much better.
Initially, one member says, Trump was going to spend $5 million on a tennis center. As it was nearing completion he felt it wasn’t good enough so he poured another $5 million into making it even better. For the grand opening in March 2015, Trump brought in Serena Williams, winner of 23 individual Grand Slam titles, who said: “I’ve been in a lot of tennis facilities. This one is the best one I’ve ever seen.”
Under Trump, the golf course has gone through two major improvement projects. Shortly after he purchased Lowes Island, he deepened bunkers, built new tee boxes to lengthen the layout, re-contoured some greens, changed the routing and cleared trees to open up expansive views of the bordering Potomac River.
And then a few years later, Trump himself led a redesign that merged holes from the club’s second course, then called the River Course, to incorporate all the holes along the Potomac River into the Championship Course. The result is a massive and difficult course that would stand up against the world’s best – 7,546 yards long against a par of just 71 and with three par 4s over 500 yards. It goes without saying that Trump D.C. is a golf challenge, perhaps equaled only by Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course in the national capital area. But it is also a visual feast with sculpted white sand bunkers contrasting against the plush green fairways and greens and more than one mile of golf along the Potomac. Aside from Congressional and Burning Tree, there now may be no invitation more coveted than a tee time at Trump D.C.
Save Trump’s ubiquitous 18th-green waterfall, which at Trump D.C. looks about as natural as a rusting Chevrolet on a driving range, there is little fault to be found on the Donald J. Trump Signature Championship Course.
Inside the clubhouse at Trump D.C. members enjoy the luxuries of a five-star resort with an upper floor view of the Potomac River. Every aspect of Trump D.C. – swimming, indoor and outdoor tennis, fitness facilities, casual and formal dining – is all intended to be the best member experience possible.
Members like to point out the clubhouse chandeliers and tell guests the story they’ve heard – that Trump had them made, they believe in Hungary, for Ivanka’s wedding at Trump National Bedminster (New Jersey). Members say they are worth more than $10,000 each, so when Trump closed on the Lowes Island deal just five months after Ivanka’s wedding, he had them moved into the clubhouse at Trump D.C.
“I’d say everything he’s done with the exception of maybe the waterfall has been fantastic,” says Muehr.
But even the cylindrical waterfall, ugly and lacking harmony with its surrounds, shows Trump’s genius. It was to be concave and wrap around behind the 18th green. But the company that built it took the measurements around the putting green, which sits next to the clubhouse. The 18th green sits below the bluff the clubhouse and practice green sit on. The project was too far along to change by the time Trump came down to inspect it. So a year after it was finished, Trump had a deck built on top of it, and now it’s one of the top wedding venues in the area.
For whatever reason, Trump has a magic touch on his business ventures. Part of it is his incredible attention to detail, and, the way he treats not only members, but employees.
On one of Trump’s first trips to the club, he walked around with a bankroll of one hundred dollar bills. He walked up to employees asked them how long they had been working there, then peeled off a bill for each year and handed it to them.
Sometimes his generosity is spontaneous. A couple years ago during the member-member tournament there was a skills challenge and one of the events was a closest-to-the-pin contest where members hit from the back lawn of the clubhouse to a pin placed in one of the lower tees of the first hole about 90 yards away. Members put in $20 each and the winner takes all.
“I think the pot had grown to around $800, and I told him to jump in there and take a shot,” says Muehr. “He gets up there and hits the pin, leaving it a foot from the hole. Winner. He takes all the cash and proceeds to pass it around to the staff working that night. The place was going nuts.”
It’s almost, members say, like Trump has two personalities these days – the petulant politician and the fun-loving club owner who loves his members and couldn’t be more accommodating. Members say when he visits he always has time to hang out on the patio, take pictures, talk to the kids who are around.
“Despite Trump’s flaws,” says one member, “he remains one-of-a-kind with the hugest of personalities that has produced an incredible brand, company and now presidency. So in the spirit of the incredible irony that defines Donald Trump, we need to give the devil his due, and God love him.” [END]