Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump Mismanaged My Golf Club Like He's Mismanaging The Country

This week, the Senior PGA Golf Championship will be played at Trump National Golf Club, Washington, D.C.  I was a member of Trump DC (which is actually 20 miles from Washington, in Sterling, VA) for seven years before moving to Raleigh, NC last summer.  (I was a long-time member of the Lowes Island Club, which Trump purchased for a song in 2009 following the real-estate crash of 2007.  Many members left when he bought the club; I opted to stay.)

Trump's management of the Club revealed in microcosm the problems he is having governing as President, from his constant boasting, self-promotion, thin skin, and child-like tantrums, to his penchant for impetuous decision-making, staff turnover, and even fake news.

After purchasing the Club, Trump held a meeting with members.  There was no effort to seek input from the membership on what the club should be.  There never has been.  There are no advisory committees.  The joke has always been that at Trump National there was "one member and seven hundred guests."

At that first meeting, Trump boasted about what a good deal he got.  He also proclaimed that under him, the new club would be "better than Congressional"--meaning that it would be a better golf club than historic nearby Congressional Country Club, across the Potomac River in Bethesda, Maryland.  Well, it's not, and it never will be, at least as long as Trump is part of the picture.  Congressional has hosted five major golf championships, including including three US Opens, along with a score of other professional tournaments.  Its founders included five former or future US presidents, who set it up as a member managed institution.  It is still run by its members, not by one thin-skinned dictator, and it has four times the number of members as Trump DC.

Every time Trump visited the Club, he would boast, boast, boast about all the great things he had done, or was going to do, there, as well as about himself, about his family, etc.  We're now all familiar with that aspect of his personality.

Trump also filled the Club up with photos of himself.  Near my locker was a framed photo of his Playboy magazine cover from March 1990, and most other photos in the club featured him.  His books were on sale in the golf shop.  We all got newsletters promoting his other properties (yet, as members of his Club, we got almost no discount for using any of his other properties; and just about any non-member could get in to play at our course, without being accompanied by another member, by paying a large fee.)

Trump also sent us an annual letter raising our dues, in which he would talk about all the great things he had done during the past year at the Club, emphasizing that despite the cost of such, there would be no "assessment" of members.  Yet, our membership contracts prohibited assessments, so big deal.  According to the managers at the Club, it was one of his most profitable golf clubs.  While I was there, dues doubled.  When Trump filed his campaign financial disclosures, he valued the Club at more than $50 million, having bought it for $11 million.  (Yet, if Loudoun County, VA, where the Club is located, assessed it at $50 million for property tax purposes, I'm sure he'd hire an army of lawyers to dispute the assessment.)

After Trump took over, the Club experienced years of constant staff turnover.  We had seven head golf professionals over six years.  We had at least five or six Club managers during the same time frame.  Each new change in upper management brought a cascade of changes in lower level managers--chefs, assistant pros, food and beverage directors--it was a constant revolving door.  Many were fired because of slights to Trump.  Members joked that it was useless to learn the names of employees.

Just as at today's White House, management at the Club was always looking over their shoulders.  You could tell when Trump was going to be on the property just by the tension level of the employees.  And you could tell when he wasn't going to be there by the lack of service and attention to detail that makes for a truly great private golf club for members.  Trump National was a nice golf club, but it never reached a standard of excellence (except with respect to one member).

Part of the problem with getting and retaining quality staff there was that Trump insists on micro-managing.  Virtually any significant decision--and many trivial ones--had be run past the powers that be in Trump Tower in NY.  That often meant delays on simple, but time-sensitive, decisions, such as about member tournaments.  Trump also delegated within the family.  In the case of Trump National DC, his son Eric was designated at the point person.  Eric barely plays golf.  (I will say that Eric has a reputation as a pretty decent person, but even he could not make many decisions without going through the Boss.)  Because of the micro-managing, it is difficult for Trump to attract really good managers to the Club.  Similarly, his employees can never contradict him or be seen as disloyal in any way.  We are seeing the same thing in his Cabinet and White House staff.

As for the Club itself, Trump did make some good decisions early on.  He invested a significant sum improving one of the two golf courses; upgrading infrastructure; expanding the pool complex; building a very nice indoor tennis center; and expanding the grill and outdoor patio.  But it all had to be done his way.

For instance, he spent a large sum adding an enormous waterfall to the 18th hole.  Waterfalls are one of the signatures of his golf courses--if he built one on Mars, he'd insist it have a waterfall of some sort.  This particular waterfall, however, didn't have much volume--when it was turned on, it was more like a trickle, with water burbling over the edge.  Members were then instructed that it was not a "waterfall," but a "water sculpture."

Trump also introduced us, early on, to fake news.  When the course renovation was completed, members found a curious addition on the Potomac River at the far east end of the property, between the green for what is now the par-3 thirteenth hole of the Championship course, and the tee box to the fourteenth hole.  There, Trump had erected a huge flagpole for one of his signature ginormous American flags (for the false patriotism of a family that has never had anyone serve in our military).  At the base of the flagpole we found a plaque, titled "River of Blood", which commemorates a Civil War battle so intense that the water in the Potomac River "would turn red" from the casualties.  Trump proclaimed it his "great honor" to have "preserved" this historic section of the Potomac.  (Preserved? By purchasing an existing private golf course with no public access?)

Members were mildly amused.  Unlike most Civil War plaques in history-centric Virginia, this one had no date for the battle and listed no commanding officers of the opposing forces.  Most members knew that no such battle was fought there.  I certainly knew.  One member circulated an email showing that the only Civil War activity anywhere near there was a nighttime cavalry crossing by famed Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart on his way to Gettysburg (for which there is a legitimate plaque in a nearby public park.)

When a member asked Trump about the plaque a couple years later during a tour of the course, he admitted that he had "made it up."  But when the New York Times did a story about the fake monument during his presidential campaign, Trump insisted that "some historian" had told him it was true.  This plaque simply encapsulates the entire ridiculousness of Donald Trump.  Even after the NYT story, the plaque remains.

Trump also added a couple of Rolex clocks, installed an ugly fountain at the club entrance, changed the color scheme to his signature gold and black, and installed granite curbstones along the cart paths.  He installed a stone bridge across a creek, which has a large "T" in the middle its arch.  But he also insisted on putting in a couple other little bridges and waterfalls in the creek;  we rarely had a problem with that creek before, but now, when it rains, these restrictions cause the creek to back up, overflow, flood portions of the course and then severely erode when it finally drains out.  This is another trait typical of Donald Trump--he knows more than the experts ("I know more about ISIS than the generals.")  Any engineer would have told him not to dam up the creek.

He also insisted that a light colored concrete cart path should be replaced with a black asphalt cart path because "it looks better."  But in the summer sun of Washington, that hot black asphalt kills the adjoining grass.  Trust me, a light colored path with green grass looks a lot better than a black path with dead grass.

Trump is also no nature lover.  The Club has approximately a mile of frontage on the Potomac River. When he purchased the Club, the river, while visible, was partially obscured by hundreds of trees on the riverbank.  Well, Trump took care of that.  He had crews come in and take down every tree--well, all but one.  Literally, hundreds of trees were cut down over the course of one winter--I remember seeing the trees disappear as we played occasional winter rounds.  When the Washington Post ran an article about it, he had the then (soon to be fired) Club manager take the fall, saying it was his decision, and that the trees had been removed because they were diseased and hurting the riverbank.  (When the next big Potomac flood comes along, I hope it takes the entire riverbank--minus all those diseased trees--with it, along with about six golf holes.)  He also removed hundreds of other trees around the golf course to open up sightlines.

Nonetheless, for awhile the members had access to two very good golf courses that were well-maintained.  But that wasn't enough for Trump, because he had a vanity project in mind.  His goal, all along, was to get the Club to host a significant professional golf tournament.  After the initial renovation of the one golf course (the "Championship Course") he invited PGA officials to evaluate it for tournament use.  Their conclusion:  the greens were too flat and easy, and the layout was not conducive to the logistics of a big tournament.

So, Trump decided to undertake another renovation.  This one created a superb golf course on the river, and a decidedly mediocre mishmash of a leftover golf course on the interior (affectionately called "Trump Municipal" by members).  As part of the renovation, Trump used portions of both golf courses to create a new 18 hole Championship course along the full riverfront.  He added some new holes, and re-did all the greens to give them more undulation as requested by the PGA.  (They still don't have that much undulation--it will be interesting to see how the pros play it this weekend.)

Along the way, he made an impetuous decision, before finishing the final routing of the new course, to add an island green par-3 hole in place of a short par-4 that he had never liked.  Construction on the new hole started immediately after he made the decision, but guess what?  The new hole did not fit into the final routing of the new course.  Nor did it fit into the leftover course.  Somewhere, he would have to get rid of a hole, because there were now 37, instead of 36.  Ultimately, he combined the new par-3 with an old par-4 to make a new par-5 hole that makes absolutely no sense and is uniformly hated by all members.

(Shortly after the new hole opened, Trump was at the Club and spotted one of the best lady members of the Club on that hole.  He asked her what she thought.  She very diplomatically said something along the lines of well, Mr. Trump, it is a very interesting hole; I just wish there was a larger landing area to the right, along the water, for players who need to lay-up.  Trump turned red and said "if you don't like it, you can join another club, then stormed off.  This was pretty typical of his response to any member who did not lavish praise on his decisions.)

In any event, the new Championship course is indeed, tournament worthy.  It is nearly 8000 yards long, with great views of the Potomac River and some very challenging holes.  It is also about an 8 mile walk, which is quite long, especially in the summer heat with virtually no trees for shade.

But the other course--the Riverview--is, as Trump would say about something for which he wasn't responsible, "a disaster."  The Riverview has three different types of greens.  It has seven holes on one side of the property, with the remaining 11 holes about a quarter mile cart ride away, on the other side of the property.  It is the product of three golf course designers--Tom Fazio for the first seven, Arthur Hills for the 10 of the other 11, and Donald Trump for the infamous par 5.  The starting hole is not near the clubhouse, nor is it close to the practice range.  It is, in a word, the forgotten course.   Trump doesn't play it; it won't host tournaments; he just doesn't care.  Kind of like people who rely on Obamacare to keep themselves alive.

Trump is quite a character.  Members and caddies have plenty of stories about his cheating on the golf course.  He is a good golfer, but not as good as he would have you believe, as he "takes" any decent length putt and has a vanity handicap.  No one wants to cross him, so he is not called out on his conduct.  Once, in the middle of a two-day tournament, he tried to get the format for the second day changed because he did not think it favored him.

If he were just the colorful, quirky, dictatorial owner of a private golf club, Trump's idiosyncrasies would not be a big deal.  But he's not. Now, he is President of the United States, and he is dangerously delusional.

I maintain that there is a reason we generally elect people to public office up a chain, from local to state to national office.  It is because we then get a measure of them as they take on more responsibility.  If Trump were running for local office in a small town, he would never get elected because voters would see his flaws; or, if elected, he would not retain office for long.

Indeed, most of the membership at the Club are Republicans.  But very few supported Trump's candidacy during the primary campaign, and many could not even bear to vote for him in the general election despite their contempt for Hillary Clinton.  That is because they know him, they'd seen him in action, and they knew better.

I'm glad to be out of the Club.  I had many great friendships there, which I miss.  And on the occasion of the Sr. PGA Tournament at the Club, I wish all the best to my friends who are still there, many of whom are selflessly volunteering countless hours to make the tournament a success.  I also hope, that one day very soon, Donald Trump will return to his role as a colorful, quirky private citizen.


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