Golf and Cheeseburgers With Donald Trump

Two years ago, as another summer waned, a friend who promotes golf in North Carolina phoned to ask if I would have lunch and play golf with Donald Trump at his new club, Trump National Charlotte.

I was unaware that Donald Trump had a course in North Carolina. My friend explained that Trump had recently taken over a distressed private club on Lake Norman called The Point and remade it in his image.

I thanked him for the invitation but pointed out that the day after the day in question my wife and I were scheduled to drive up to Latrobe to see Arnold Palmer and his wife Kit for supper then head off for 10 days of chasing a small white ball around Scotland. It was my wife’s first trip to the game’s Holy Land and she was more excited than Marla Maples on the eve of her brief Broadway debut.

A few weeks later my friend called back to say my former golf industry colleagues Jaime Diaz and Ron Green Jr. would be attending the event too, and that Mr. Trump would be happy if I agreed to come.

“He knows your work and would like to meet you,” said my friend.

I had my doubts about this last bit — I’d been out of the working golf world for a decade — but decided to go see what all the fuss was about. Trump after all, not without his usual accompanying controversy, has become a major force in the golf industry of late, building courses and buying distressed properties he refurbishes and upon which he then places his eponymous surname.

Also, I wanted to see his hair.

To review briefly, I arrived late and found a nice crowd listening as Trump and Jaime Diaz chatted pleasantly on the practice tee about how pleased Donald Trump was with his latest creation. I spotted Greg Norman and moseyed over to say hello because we’ve enjoyed a cordial relationship dating back to my early days at Golf Magazine. He didn’t seem terribly happy, though. I later learned from someone who knows him well that The Great White was unhappy about the alterations Trump’s team had made to his course.

The plan was that I would play the first nine with Trump’s son Eric and a local Tea Party politician whose name I can’t recall and a muscular dude who might have been part of the Trump security detail. The groups would switch for the back nine and I would play with Donald and Norman.

But the golf gods had other plans in mind.

Eric Trump was a friendly young man. He runs his father’s golf operations. He kept apologizing for his wayward drives, but his passion for running Trump golf clubs was quickly apparent. He filled me in on the organization’s ultimate ambition to soon host both a U.S. and British open championship on a Trump golf course — and maybe a Ryder Cup or two, too.

Unfortunately, on the eighth hole the winds came up and the rains came down with a Biblical intensity. Ahead, I saw Greg Norman speed off in a golf cart, followed by Donald and friends. Tea Party guy and I made a dash for the parking lot too. As I was putting my clubs in the trunk, however, a kid jogged out and said, “Mr. Dodson, Mr. Trump would like you to join him for a cheeseburger inside.”

I really needed to go but wandered in to say goodbye, dripping all over the new dining room carpet. Trump, Diaz, Green and two other people I didn’t know were seated around a large table eating cheeseburgers while our host animatedly explained how he was sparing no expense to transform Miami’s elderly Doral Golf and Country Club into “the finest club on the PGA Tour, unlike anything anyone’s ever seen, truly unbelievable. Wait until you see it. The pros can’t stop talking about it.”

Jaime Diaz did most of the talking from the writers’ side of the table, prompting Trump to describe how he’s made a career out of buying distressed golf properties for peanuts and artfully using the nation’s tax and bankruptcy laws to revise them to his own luxury standards, turning big profits in the process while becoming an ever-growing force in golf.

For the most part, Ron Green and I listened with interest and ate our cheeseburgers in polite silence. For the record, they were very good cheeseburgers. You have to give him that.

Truthfully, I kind of liked Donald Trump at that moment. He’s a big guy who lives big, talks big, smiles big and makes you feel like really the only thing wrong with America is we’re all not rich enough.

As modern celebrities go, he is clearly the real deal, the king of the deal and natural showman, a world-class salesman who could probably convince the Saudis to buy their own desert. Even his hair looked surprisingly real, mussed by rain and golf, not anything like the highly styled Trumpadour-do he seems to favor on the presidential hustings these days.

Maybe like the planet Pluto or modern art, I decided, the closer you get, the more natural Donald Trump looked.

In any case, I finally had to go. I stood up and thanked him.

Trump hopped up and followed me out, actually taking my arm. It was a nice gesture, though a tad worrying.

“You’re the guy who writes golf books,” he said, confidentially adding, “I don’t get to read many books these days, but I write books. Have you read mine?”

I admitted that I hadn’t, but said I probably would now that I’d met him.

“Sorry we didn’t get to play,” Trump said. “I understand you’re on your way to see Arnold Palmer and going to Scotland. Tell him hello for me. We’re very close, you know. And I’ll set you up at my club in Aberdeen. It’s an amazing place. People are already calling it the best course in Britain. We’ll have a British Open or Ryder Cup be played there someday. Mark my word.“

I congratulated him.

“Ask me a question,” he said.

“Beg pardon?”

Trump smiled. “You haven’t asked me any questions. Every reporter wants to ask me questions. Ask me something and I’ll give you a straight answer. That’s what I do.”

For a second or two I was Trump-stumped. Then I thought of something close to home.

“Fair enough. Are you planning to buy the Dormie Club in Pinehurst?” I tried to picture Trump National Pinehurst blooming in the scruffy oaks and lonesome pines north of Taylortown.

Trump’s big smile widened. “I can’t tell you yet. We’re looking at it. I can tell you this much, though. If that place ever makes money, it will be because it has a Trump name on it.”

He insisted I ask another question. A pretty lame one came to mind.

“Are you going to run for president again?”

Trump looked serious. “You never know. We’ll see. I can tell you this much — people really want me to run. Everywhere I go, people tell me I should be president of the United States. There’s no leadership in this country. People love me. They really do. It’s amazing. Frankly, nobody understands this country better than I do.”

“Cool,” I said, half believing him. I thanked him for the cheeseburger.

He offered me his hand.

“Anything else you’d like to ask me? Seriously. Ask me anything you’d like. I’ll tell you exactly what I think. ”

I didn’t doubt this for a New York minute. Was Donald Trump having me on, testing my journalistic nerve in the face of gourmet cheeseburgers and his brash uncombed charm? My brain went briefly blank.

But then a crazy question formed in my own soggy head, so rude and silly — and potentially explosive — I almost didn’t ask it.

But then I did, figuring I might never see Donald Trump again except on TV playing Donald Trump.

“Okay,” I said. “Are you really as a big an a-----e as you appear to be or do you just play one on TV?”

Donald Trump dropped my hand like a stone and stepped back. He look disgusted, making the familiar contorted, lip-pursed face of fury he’s famous for just before he lowers the boom on some dimwitted chump who’s screwed up a no-brain deal and declares, “You’re fired!”

To my surprise, though, Trump let go a huge laugh and slapped me gently on the shoulder like I’d told him the funniest joke since the one about Sarah Palin, the Pope and a trained Russian bear on a unicycle.

“Yeah!” he bellowed, “it’s fun, isn’t it!”

Indeed it is.

And you wonder why Donald Trump is running for president?

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