Major makeover: Trump has big vision for Doral

Donald Trump is showing a detail-driven style and devotion to a big vision with his re-do of Doral.

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He came, he saw, he charmed and he left nothing unturned in his wake.

One day last month, the perpetual tropical storm that is Donald Trump blew through Miami on a Sunday afternoon to visit his latest acquisition, the eponymous (as always) Trump Doral Golf Club and Resort. In the course of a two-hour tour de force, Trump made a thousand friends and a hundred decisions.

Or so it seemed, as a whirlwind walk-through during unexpectedly windy, rainy weather had him asking for hair spray for a planned photo shoot while he was accommodating well-wishers looking for an autograph, a snapshot, a handshake or a chance to thank him for all he had done since buying the resort in June 2012.

Along the way, he settled on a shade of yellow he wanted for an exterior wall, exchanged ideas with laborers on outdoor tiling, and spent 15 minutes discussing details about bathroom fixtures for the 8,000-square-foot Champions Pavilion just off the first tee at the TPC Blue Monster.

That’s what it takes to overhaul a resort. In the case of 51-year-old Doral, it’s a matter of converting what had been a holdover from the Catskills era into a premier exemplar of trendy Caribbean-Latin American styling.

Trump had flown in on his small plane – not the 25-seat Boeing 757 jetliner he uses for transcontinental and overseas hauls, but a mere Cessna Citation X 10-passenger jet. He was just coming off a long weekend up the coast in the West Palm Beach area, entertaining friends at Mar-a-Lago, his sumptuous 110,000-square-foot, 126-room estate and private club resort. There was golf at Trump International Golf Club West Palm, the initial jewel in the 14-gem crown that comprises his course empire. And in the run-up to that week’s Champions Tour event, the Allianz Championship at The Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Trump managed to play a round with his new BFF, Rocco Mediate.

Apparently, the charm proved transferable, as Mediate won in his Champions Tour debut while sporting a cap with the Trump name.

The socializing aside, this stopover at Doral was all business – a quick inspection of the grounds on the eve of a major renovation of the resort’s famous TPC Blue Monster. And that’s only one of many moving parts in what amounts to a total transformation of the 797-acre resort’s golf amenities, guest rooms, restaurants, lobby, landscape, staffing and, of course, its fountains. Yes, those fountains, especially the four-tier limestone sculpture befitting an Italian piazza that Trump imported from Florence. It now presides between the first tee and the 18th fairway of the Blue Monster.

Just as Trump arrived at the resort, the weather turned, and a clear, sunny morning suddenly morphed into a typical, if fleeting, Miami rain shower.

It was enough to drive lunchgoers on the patio back under a covered veranda – and this at the same time that a huge corporate shotgun tournament on the Blue Monster was ending, so that more than 100 players converged as well. A crowd surged for protective cover just as Trump had completed his lobby walk-through and prepared to head outdoors, pausing at the sight of rain.

Many celebrities would shrink from an oncoming crowd. Trump, by contrast, appeared to welcome it as a moment of personal affirmation and absorbed the approaching mass into his being. He literally got taller, pumped his chest out and took on a whole new public look, one that gushed confidence in his ability to command a stage. “You see?” he told one reporter, who was dutifully scribbling everything down. “No other golf resort owner can draw a crowd like this. It’s why my properties succeed.”

Actually, they succeed because he backs the swagger with hard work, vision and commitment. For all of the joy he takes in the drama of his persona, he goes nowhere without knowing everything about the markets in which he’s dealing.

“My feasibility study is my gut,” he told Golfweek last year, when he was completing complex negotiations with New York City to secure the management contract for Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point. Likewise at Doral, he’s fond of invoking the emotional connection he has with the place – a resort he used to visit in the mid-1960s with his father, Fred Trump, a New York real estate developer who was good friends with Doral’s founders, the late Doris and Al Kaskel.

If the emotional bond is strong, so is the paper trail leading to the $150 million purchase of the resort and subsequent commitment of what will be about $200 million in upgrades. For that, Trump, 66, relies upon a team of street-wise, spreadsheet-smart businesspeople. Chief among them on the golf property side is his son Eric, 29, executive vice president of development and acquisition for The Trump Organization. It’s his job to study financial pro formas as well as the larger golf market. At Doral, the numbers revealed a loyal core of 500 golf members and 300 social members who complemented the resort trade. The Trump Organization’s assessment was that even a considerable investment could pay off in terms of expected revenue given the cachet of the resort and of the Blue Monster.

“Doral’s in one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S.,” said Eric Trump, “with wealth coming from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. When you consider its location, the resort’s reputation, the value of a private club and the stamp of a PGA Tour event, you have just an amazing property.”

Come April 1, three weeks after the last putt drops at the PGA Tour’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, the bulldozers will descend on the half-century-old Dick Wilson design and subject it to a total, six-month makeover. The design work, planned by architect Gil Hanse, will add length, make the par 5s more challenging, widen the practice range, bring water more into play, introduce more risk-reward elements, improve drainage and expand greens to recapture long-lost hole locations.

Hanse, known for his quiet, unassuming ways and hands-on style of design, said he has been impressed with Trump’s vision and knowledge of golf design. While Hanse was studying the nuances of strategy, Trump kept pushing him on the theater of the place. Hanse credits Trump, for example, with coming up with the idea of creating a common viewing area for spectators to take in the action on the panorama provided by the 18th green, ninth green and 10th tee. To do so, it would be necessary to remove a watery ditch, move the 10th tee onto a peninsula adjoining the ninth green and reshape the entire backdrop with a mound. Trump saw all of this at once as a possibility, which impressed Hanse.

But when it came to a proposed island green, Hanse balked. When Trump urged extension of a pond to encircle the otherwise placid, landlocked green on the par-3 15th, Hanse resisted, explaining that it would be out of character with Wilson’s emphasis on diagonal lines of play. So the plan now is to project the relocated green out into a corner of the expanded pond and form a sharp diagonal, with the putting surface flanked by water front left and deep to the rear.

You don’t exactly say “no” to the new boss. But you do have to have a good explanation – and be ready to defend yourself repeatedly if and when he comes back at you again. Which is exactly what Doral head superintendent Don Thornburgh has to do occasionally.

Trump, for example, likes ficus trees as an ornamental border because of their dense growth and their glossy, bright green leaf. His Trump International Golf Club West Palm is surrounded by them. But Thornburgh, who was superintendent there from 2009 to 2012 before coming to Doral last year, advised against ficus as a border for the five courses he oversees.

“That border was well-established,” Thornburgh said. “But down here it would take nearly a decade to grow in, and in this slightly warmer climate they are more susceptible to an infestation of white fly. I told Mr. Trump I didn’t think it paid to spend $30,000 per course just to protect them and advised we use areca palms instead as a border.”

If Trump relented on that, it’s because he trusts Thornburgh and knows they share a vision for what golfers want in a great golf course. The first thing Trump did was expand Doral’s maintenance staff from 65 full-timers to 105. At a property where guests and members like to tee off early, it’s imperative to get daily maintenance done quickly and efficiently.

But daily maintenance is only the start. When you’re asking – and getting – $350 per round for your premier course, you have to deliver high quality. Indeed, you have to deliver anticipation. As Thornburgh said, “You want golfers to be ecstatic before they get to the first tee.”

To achieve that, the plan is not only to upgrade the Blue Monster but also the two adjoining 18-hole courses that golfers see as they walk out of the pro shop onto the immediate grounds – the Red and Gold.

For that, Trump interviewed many leading architects, most of whom were less than enthusiastic about preserving both courses as 18-hole layouts on what is a tight parcel constrained by buildings, roads and property lines. He was smitten, however, with Nick Faldo, who, after tromping around the unheralded courses for a few days, proposed a partial rerouting of some finishing holes that would allow for an expansion of the Gold Course and a substantial upgrade of both layouts. And with that, a deal was done. Work on those two courses is slated to begin in mid-2014, after the Blue Monster reopens.

For the resort’s Jim McLean Signature Course that sits on an outlying parcel, plans for now are limited to a bridge that would span the four-lane road dividing it from the core Doral parcel. And because the land occupied by the Greg Norman-designed Great White Shark Course on a separate parcel to the east is owned by another entity (Trump Doral only manages the golf there), the fate of that real estate will be decided later.

Effusive as always, Trump said his goal for Doral is “to make this the greatest resort in the U.S.” Given the lack of elevation or dramatic natural landscape views, that would seem to be a reach. More important is that by “great” he means a commitment to certain core values that cut across all of his properties: customer expectations, service, exclusivity, access to a premier private resort experience and incomparable standards of maintenance. By those indexes, he’s on the right path at Doral.

It’s exactly that which motivated Mike O’Connell, 55, a businessman from Framingham, Mass., to grab a quick word with Trump that afternoon at Doral.

As Trump was ready to roll out from under Doral’s porte-cochere, he stopped his limo driver just long enough to listen to O’Connell’s heartfelt comment.

“We’ve been coming down to Doral for 16 years,” O’Connell told him. “And what you’ve done in the last year is more impressive than what was done in all that other time.”

And with that, Trump was off, accompanied by a four-man motorcycle brigade provided by the Miami Police Department for the 13-mile ride downtown to AmericanAirlines Arena. There he had a brief meeting with PGA Tour officials before taking his courtside seat with Tour player Justin Rose for the 3:30 p.m. tipoff of Lakers vs. Heat – a nationally televised game, at that.

Why he needed the police motorcade wasn’t exactly clear. But when you’re the new owner in town and your name is Donald Trump, a cavalcade of security fosters an aura around you. For Trump, it’s just part of his routine.

It’s a job he does with more ease, energy and conviction than anybody in golf.

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