Trump family values: ‘My father loves this country, loves this hotel’

Eric Trump describes pride at overseeing transformation of Doonbeg golf course

Eric Trump takes to the redesigned greens at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Eric Trump takes to the redesigned greens at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

Not everyone knew that Eric Trump, a son of US president Donald Trump was on a two-night stopover in Doonbeg this week. Certainly not the ESB, who were informed of his presence when they called the golf course to request permission to fly a drone over the beach adjoining the hotel and golf resort on Wednesday.

It was diverting to consider what might have ensued had the courtesy call not been made and a drone appeared without warning at a venue festooned, albeit covertly, with gardaí, Special Branch and US secret service personnel. They’d be picking up fragments in Kerry, Limerick and Galway.

While there was nothing surreptitious about his arrival on board a liveried Trump Organisation helicopter on Tuesday night, a photograph that commandeered space on the front page of several newspapers, the 33-year-old demands little pomp or circumstance.

Tall and athletic, Eric Trump is warm and friendly with a ready smile and impeccable manners. The youngest child of Donald Trump’s first marriage, he has taken over the day-to-day running of the Trump Organisation, along with his older brother Donald jnr, while their father is in office. His sister Ivanka has swapped her role in the family organisation to work in the White House.

Eric Trump squeezed in a number of business meetings before playing 16 holes with Doonbeg professional Brian Shaw and a couple of American colleagues, no doubt to update his father on a project he maintains is close to their hearts.

Eric Trump at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Eric Trump at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward

“My father loves this country, loves this hotel. He loves this place, loves everything this symbolises. I would love him to see this and everything we have accomplished . . . If he is able to make it here, it would be great to have him,” he says. “From a big picture standpoint, Ireland will have no better ally in the world than America, it has always been that way, but even more so.”

He understands that his father polarises opinion but offers his thoughts on the father he knows, and a distinction between the public and private faces.

Eric Trump arrived in west Clare from Trump Turnberry on the Ayreshire coast in Scotland on Tuesday night to evaluate the continued development of Trump International Golf Links, Doonbeg, the golf course and hotel resort bought from American businessman Charles P (Buddy) Darby III for €8.7 million, in 2014.

It is one of a chain of 16 golf resorts worldwide, the latest of which opened earlier this year in Dubai: the Gil Hanse-designed Trump International Golf Club. A further two, the Trump World Golf Club, designed by Tiger Woods, and Trump International in Bali, designed by Ernie Els, are under construction.

Doonbeg, originally designed by Greg Norman, has undergone a complete transformation under renowned golf course architect Martin Hawtree. While the layout largely honours the original routing, every green, fairway and tee box has been renovated or reshaped, and a new range and practice facilities have been built.

The quirky par-three 14th hole, played to a kidney-shaped green 111 yards away, framed by the Atlantic, has been superseded by a more classical beauty. The par three now runs north-south rather than east-west, dropping from an elevated tee box to a well-bunkered green, the difficulty level exacerbated by the prevailing wind that whips in from the ocean.

Spectacular redesign

The redesign, which cost just north of €4 million, is spectacular. The integrity of the links remains but Hawtree’s vision, complemented by the work of course superintendent Scott Marr and his green-keeping staff, has dramatically changed Doonbeg’s golfing landscape.

Gone are the blind shots and mounding that obscured sight lines, while the narrow trails between greens and tee boxes – that crisscrossed and at times double backed on themselves, giving a slightly confused routing – have been replaced by beautifully manicured, lush grass pathways as pristine as fairways.

The bunker in the middle of the 12th green has also been consigned to history. Hawtree has opened up the course visually. Norman’s design was like trying to look out a window through a translucent blind, the shapes and outlines visible but indistinct.

I will not drive past a wrapper on the course. Our attention to detail is spectacular.

Hawtree has removed the blind, so the golfer can see the undulating fairways, the bunkering and mini dunes that frame the greens, which blend visually with their bigger siblings in the distance. He has also given each hole its own privacy. The transformation is remarkable.

It’s been a two-year project from gestation to completion. Trump explains: “We did a tremendous amount of work and are proud of the place. The hotel is doing great. We are going to add some more rooms and other things [a banqueting hall and leisure facilities] on the property.

Attention to detail

“Here we are in early to mid-April and the condition of the course is exceptional. Our super [course superintendent Scott Marr] does a superb job. We are as anal as it comes when it comes to condition. I will not drive past a wrapper on the course. Our attention to detail is spectacular. It has to be; that is what people are paying for,” he said of a resort voted number one in Europe this year by Conde Nast.

“You either have it or you don’t in terms of that level of attention to detail. Scott was our number two in Aberdeen, there throughout the whole construction and grow-in, and worked there for several years. There is no one who is pickier.”

Trump says his regularly travelling to the golf properties shows a level of interest and pride that is reciprocated by staff. He prefers to personally oversee every developmental stage in a project, talk to his employees and meet the guests.

Eric Trump speaking to Irish Times sports journalist John O'Sullivan at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Eric Trump speaking to Irish Times sports journalist John O'Sullivan at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward

“In the high-end world of what we do, where we strive to have the most iconic courses in the world, it’s about being prideful. We are not a company of office warriors. I spend far more time on the road at our individual golf assets and hotels than I ever do behind my desk. You don’t learn anything behind your desk.”

Trump believes high standards must be uniform, down to the smallest detail. He offers an example.

“[I want] somebody who will make sure that every single pin flag is washed every week. They have to be crisp and they have to be perfect. It’s that level that sets us apart.

“Do you need to? No. Is it absolutely the right think to do? Yes. It is no different to if you walk into the back of house space in this hotel. The halls are as clean as the front-of-house space. If you walk into our maintenance facility, the way our machinery is kept, the cleanliness [make a statement].”

The first hole at Trump Doonbeg. 

Asked to choose his favourite hole at Doonbeg, Trump cannot confine himself to one, listing the first, “with its amphitheatre of dunes around the green”, the sixth, the ninth and the new 14th.

Pausing for a moment he then adds: “For an inland hole, one of the few, the second has turned from probably the worst hole on this course to one of the most spectacular because you took out that silly rock.

“We dropped the grade and created tremendous mounding. The fairway has great undulation. We took the green and moved it back and in. One of the interesting things about this course is that you can be on any given hole and you’ll never see someone around you.

It’s something that makes this course very special. There are a lot of links-style courses where you’ll do a 360 and see seven other groups out there. Here you’re with your group.”

The amended planning application for the protection of the course from coastal erosion – the original one was rejected – is going through due process with Clare County Council.

Trump said: “We have had tremendous community support. Doonbeg [the resort] is such a part of this area; we employ 300-400 people, all of whose livelihoods depend on people coming to that golf course,” a fact borne out by a meeting last Monday night in the village, when the locals expressed their unswerving support for the project.

He pointed to Lahinch, Ballybunion and other courses that had been permitted to protect their land and livelihood. There must be an element of frustration from a company who are used to expediting matters within their control.

We love the purity of the game of golf and it is one of the reasons why we love Ireland

Trump estimates that from the time of landing in Ireland to view Doonbeg to the purchase was roughly seven days. Martin Hawtree and the construction team were on site within a matter of weeks. Concern regarding the encroachment of the sea relates to the ninth and 18th tees but Trump admits: “If we take care of those two areas it will be perfect in perpetuity.”

He talks excitedly about the current golf course projects, involving the designs of Tiger Woods (Dubai) and Ernie Els (Indonesia), explaining why Gil Hanse’s creation in Dubai takes the Trump Organisation down a different path.

“We are very into standalone golf courses without housing on them. We have very few traditional housing courses. We love the purity of the game of golf and it is one of the reasons why we love Ireland and Scotland as much as we do and it is why we have invested so heavily in them.

A view of the fifth hole at Trump Doonbeg. 

“Dubai was cool and interesting because you are on the far side of the bell curve. We literally have one of the most spectacular, long, tough courses that winds through a city. You could have any tournament there. It’s not like the city is cramping in on the golf course like you’d see in a bad course in Las Vegas, where you have little houses encroaching.

“In Dubai you have these spectacular structures with the most magnificent houses. They might be 100 yards off the fairway but the fairways are so massive that [the golf course is] literally winding through a brand new metropolis, that’s expanding every so often. It makes for something that is truly one-of-a-kind in the world.”

Ultimate comeuppance

A decision by the PGA Tour to relocate the WGC Cadillac Championship from Trump National Doral to Mexico was seen in some quarters as the ultimate comeuppance on foot of views expressed by Donald Trump in relation Mexican immigrants and the construction of a border wall.

Eric Trump at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Eric Trump at Trump International Doonbeg this week. Photograph by Eamon Ward

The tournament transplant may have had more to do with money than morals. The suggestion is that Mexico outbid Cadilliac, offered a longer contract tie-in, and the optics of moving a World Golf Championship event outside the United States fitted snugly. Trump, while politely declining to discuss the issue directly, accepts that the public perception might consider the tournament switch as a sleight.

Trump, who lived his with mother, her parents and a couple of Irish nannies after her divorce from Donald when Eric was seven, reconnected with his father as a young adult.

If he feels he is being wronged he will speak out and he is happy to do that. He’s got an exceptionally loud microphone.

When asked whether he recognises his father in the headlines he reads and if that public persona differs greatly from the man in private, Trump replies: “He is my best friend, the best father in the world to me. He’s got a heart of gold.

“When you have the most powerful office in the world, you have to be tough and firm. He’s certainly outspoken. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t ever pretend to be PC. One of the great problems with politics is that it has become too PC.

“He’s not bought and paid for by any special interests. If he feels he is being wronged he will speak out and he is happy to do that. He’s got an exceptionally loud microphone.

“I think he has been one of the great champions of golf, maybe not got the credit he deserves. As a company, as a person, as a family we put more into the game of golf than anybody. I think that’s undisputed.

“He probably does get credit for putting a lot into the game, buying so many of these iconic assets including this one, that probably would have been in real trouble; had we not come in and put in millions of dollars to rebuild the course you might not have a property right now [in Doonbeg].

“Turnberry had been given no love for a long time. We came in and put hundreds of millions of dollars in that property. Doral was given no love. Then we come in. These are some of the most iconic properties in golf

“When no one wanted to sponsor some of the LPGA events he was the first one going out there, raising purses and donating his properties free of charge. He’s put billions of dollars into the game of golf. He has a passion for this sport like no other.”

Life changed

Eric Trump’s life has changed too since his father’s presidency. “It’s a little bit more complicated as you can probably imagine. I’m still fortunate that I get to do what I love, which is build the best properties, golf courses, hotels in the world. I’m immensely fortunate.

“Has it changed? Sure, your father is commander-in-chief of the United States of America; it changes. I have secret service everywhere I go; it changes. Your movements are a little bit more calculated than they were.

“I have a son on the way [in September]. That’s my first. You have the biggest microscope on you but that’s fine. So yeah, it’s changed. At the same time it has stayed very consistent and I get to focus on the projects I love, which very much include this one.”

There is a knock at the door. He’s required for some photographs; just enough time for a final question with two parts. Does he envisage a professional tournament being staged in Doonbeg in the future and would he buy another Irish property?

“In a heartbeat and in a heartbeat [to answer both questions]. I think Doonbeg was made for a tournament. You won’t find this combination in many places in the world, an exceptional course and incredible hospitality [facilities].

“If you are trying to position a property as a resort property, you are not spending the money we did out there and building a quality course, spending the budgets on the maintenance that we do, which are astronomical to get a certain level of product [without having an ambition of staging a pro tournament].

‘Would I buy another place in Ireland? I would love another property if the right one came around. It would have to be top 10. It would have to be of this this standard at Doonbeg. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t dilute this [Doonbeg] by doing another one [in Ireland]. It would really have to be one of the big boys.”

“There is such a warm, friendly feeling to the whole place, led by Brian [Shaw] and Joe [Russell] and their teams. I don’t know how you create that. I can’t tell you that putting this here and that there and doing this creates warmth. It’s an exceptional place.”

A couple of minutes later, as he makes his way back from having photographs taken of him sitting in the marram grass, watched closely by the secret service detail, he spots a fourball walking down the 18th fairway.

He walks over, introduces himself, asks the bemused golfers what they thought of the facilities and whether they were enjoying themselves, steps into half a dozen pictures and subsequently apologises for the interruption.

In a moment, it captures Eric Trump the businessman but also the person, one that possesses an easy charm and understands that leadership is driven as much by deed as word.

On Thursday the drone arrived and left unencumbered.

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