Will Donald come up trumps with Doonbeg?
Simon Carswell talks to the billionaire developer Donald Trump, who has bought Doonbeg resort in Co Clare for a song at €15 million and will spend “a lot of money” bringing it to “the highest level of luxury”
Donald Trump is best known for his “you’re fired!” catchphrase on the popular US reality TV show The Apprentice. For his new Irish venture, however, “you’re hired!” might be a more appropriate slogan.
The property mogul, who made his fortune building skyscrapers and running casinos, bought the five-star Doonbeg hotel and golf resort in Co Clare for a song at €15 million in February and intends to spend “a lot of money” bringing them to “the highest level of luxury.”
“You know what that means – jobs and income going to Ireland,” he says.
Couldn’t believe his luck
Speaking by phone from his office in New York ahead of his first visit to Doonbeg on Monday, the outspoken businessman says he couldn’t believe his luck. He was so taken with photographs of the resort that four years ago he sent a team of architects to take a look.
He liked the hotel’s stonework and wanted to see if he could recreate something similar at a golf resort he was building in Scotland.
“I said at the time, ‘I wonder if I will be able to buy it’ and I actually tried buying it and I wasn’t able to,” says Trump.
The 67-year-old billionaire, known more popularly in the US as “The Donald”, says Ireland’s economic difficulties enabled him to buy Doonbeg in a cut-price deal. Resort developer Kiawah Partners, Doonbeg’s previous owner and the developer of the Kiawah Island complex on the US east coast, appointed receivers in January to draw a line under Doonbeg’s mounting debts.
They sought a quick sale.
The New York city businessman says buying distressed properties on the cheap and making them better is “what I do for a living” and the following month, he got out his chequebook.
“It was one of those things. I closed that deal in less than five hours. There are not a lot of people who are able to do that,” he says. Modesty is not a club The Donald carries in his golf bag.
Asked where he sees Doonbeg in five years under his ownership, he says: “It will be one of the greatest resorts of the world and I think it will be one of the great courses of the world. I view them somewhat separately because we are spending a tremendous amount on bringing the course to the absolute highest level because of that location.”
Trump has grounds to be confident. He owns 16 resorts and just last week he landed the 2022 PGA Championship for one of his courses, the Old Course at his Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey. It will the youngest course ever to host one of golf’s four majors, he says.
The announcement came soon after the purchase of his 17th resort Turnberry, the iconic links course on the west coast of Scotland that has hosted the British Open four times. He paid €45 million, far less than a reputed €110 million he has spent developing Trump International Resort near Aberdeen. That resort, he says, has helped the local economy, something he believes can be repeated in Co Clare.
“They had an article that came out about six months ago calling it the “Trump Factor” – the hotels, the restaurants, everything – because people are going to Aberdeen because of my course and then they are using other things.
I can see that happening at Doonbeg also,” he says.
Trump has hired British designer Martin Hawtree, consulting architect at the Royal and Ancient, golf’s governing body, to revamp Doonbeg, which was originally designed by former world number one Greg Norman.
Not even Vertigo angustior, the famous microscopic snail that limited plans for the original course, or the environmental groups that put 51 acres of dunes out of bounds to the first developers for conservation purposes, faze Trump on his plans for a course that will become “Trump International Golf Links, Ireland”.
“Over the years I have had a very good relationship with environmental people and the people that set the regulations. I have done very well with it.
I have received many environmental awards. I must tell you that so far the Irish Government has been terrific. They want this to be great,” he says.
“The snail – and Greg Norman is a friend of mine – but he was at a great disadvantage when he wasn’t able to go in certain areas. The snail problem hurt them but we’re doing something that is going to be really spectacular.”
Trump is visiting Doonbeg next week to inspect the plans. He is thinking about building “a beautiful ballroom” at the Co Clare hotel overlooking the Atlantic. Many of his resorts are located next to oceans and lakes.
“If it weren’t on the ocean, I would have no interest,” he says of Doonbeg. “Even in Ireland there are other things that are available, but if you are not on the ocean, you have a big disadvantage.”
Beyond golf, Trump offers simple counsel on the art of failing to many in business in Ireland feeling the pinch since the Irish economic crash. “They only advice I can give is just go forward,” he says. “Ireland is a great country. The people are amazing. I have so many friends from Ireland and Irish friends generally. They are incredible people. They are strong and smart and very optimistic people.”
Trump has changed his tone toward one optimistic Irishman. Dublin property developer Garrett Kelleher launched plans to build the Chicago Spire, which would be the tallest building in the US, in 2008 when Trump was completing another skyscraper, Trump International Hotel and Tower, a few blocks away.
Trump typically didn’t mince his words at the time, saying the rival property would become a target for terrorists and would never be built. It never was, but Kelleher is trying to resurrect his plan.
“Everybody was angry at me because I made that prediction, that I said it would never be built,” says Trump, who had the advantage of developing his skyscraper before the property market crashed.
“Let me tell you about Mr Kelleher. I greatly respect him. I have never met him but he is a man that doesn’t give up. This is also an Irish trait, by the way. Most people in life give up. I have great respect for him because he has fought so hard and so long for that project that I hope he is able to pull it off.” Trump’s ambitions don’t just lie in buying and developing the world’s top golf courses.
His attacks on President Barack Obama, particularly during the 2011 “birther” controversy when he demanded proof the president had been born in the United States, made him a favourite of Republicans and conservatives. (The White House released Obama’s birth certificate in 2011 showing he was born in Hawaii.) Coupled with the celebrity glow from his television career, this makes Trump a big draw at political conferences.
The billionaire still believes in his birther hypothesis, despite Obama famously ridiculing him over the controversy he helped create in a very funny put-down at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2011.
“He never gave his records,” says Trump. “Look, many people agree with it. It’s a subject that will be debated for years. We are going to see what happens. Some days things will come out.”
Asked whether he would like to run for president in 2016, Trump acknowledges his own popularity, saying he polls well and attracts big audiences at conferences. While he likes his day job, he is unhappy with how the US is being run. “This country needs help,” he says. He intends to wait and see what happens in November’s midterm elections first: “After that, at some point, I will make a decision on whether or not I do anything.”
In the meantime, he is concentrating on his business empire, developing resorts and courses, and working on his golf game. He plays off a very respectable five handicap, though his chipping – “a chink in the armour,” as he describes it – could be better for a links course like Doonbeg.
“I am good golfer,” says The Donald with characteristic conceit. “I think that helps my vision – in other words, I see things that a lot of things people don’t.”