Trump National L.A. brings waterfall wonders, but no Pebble Beach aura
Editor's note: This is TravelGolf.com's first billionaire-challenge review. Donald Trump called Chris Baldwin unprompted to ask why Trump National L.A. did not make our list of the top 10 southern California golf courses. Trump urged Baldwin to come out, experience the course and deliver a verdict.
RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- Donald Trump throws the money at you from the first hole on his golf course. There's no mistaking the sheer cash-register power on no. 1 at Trump National Golf Club L.A. You can see, hear and even taste the cool, crisp bills that make this hole undeniably Trump.
You're shooting your approach shot from a low-lying fairway up over a rushing waterfall onto a raised plateau green that has an even larger, louder waterfall behind it. The visual makes you stop and take at a second look, and maybe a third. The noise of the falls requires you to raise your voice to be heard by your playing partners. The mist lightly spraying your hat and getting on your tongue is liable to trigger a big grin or a bemused, offended head shake.
Yes, Trump National L.A. confronts right from the start with the choice whether to love it or hate it. What, you thought The Donald was going to ease you in, invite tentative fence-sitting on his first signature design?
Please. That doesn't compute in a world where apartment buildings become tourist attractions with gold bathroom fixtures and a man's scowl walking off a plane with his name all over it is the signature opening moment of one of TV's most successful reality shows.
This course overlooking the ocean about 30 minutes outside of Los Angeles is located in Donald Trump's own parallel universe. Of course it's going to be in your face.
Almost as soon as Trump plunked down the purchase price for the old Pete Dye-designed Ocean Trails Golf Club -- the one that spent its last years operating as a 15-hole course because of that pesky problem of a hole falling into the Pacific -- he determinedly set out to obliterate any sign of the old no. 1.
"When we got to hole no. 1, Mr. Trump said, 'What is this?'" said Mike van der Goes, the general manager and one of the few Ocean Trails staffers to survive the Trump makeover. "I said, 'Well, it's hole no. 1.' He said, 'This is an abortion of a hole. There's no way I'm going to have my golf course start out with this hole.
"'I'm just telling you now, Pro. We're going to take this whole golf hole apart and we're going to redo it.'"
Van der Goes paused in the retelling.
"'OK,'" he quoted himself replying, "'not a problem."
What else are you going to say when Donald Trump strolls in as your new boss?
So take it apart they did.
The reaction among golf critics has been decidedly mixed. Golf Digest's king reviewer, Ron Whitten, name-checked the Magic Kingdom. Prominent golf author Geoff Shackelford branded no. 1 Maid of the Mist.
The descriptive term they forgot is "cool." Standing on the green, hearing the rush of the waterfall, getting mist blown in your face is an undeniably unique playing experience. Call me a golf bumpkin if you want, but sometimes over-the-top drama captivates like all the subtle contouring in the world never could.
Who has ever taken the Maid of the Mist boat ride by Niagara Falls and not enjoyed it? Driving the tunnel under The Donald Falls in your golf cart is similarly (if less majestically) cool. Don't be surprised if you find yourself stopping the cart and taking a picture of the rushing falls through the large opening. You can be sophisticated some other time.
"Love the waterfalls," San Diego golfer Keith Leavandosky said. "You think it's going to be too crazy, but you just get into it."
I ended up on Trump National L.A. because Donald Trump called me out of the blue, wondering why his new-look ocean course did not make TravelGolf.com's southern California top 10. Trump urged me to come out and play Trump National L.A., essentially issuing a billionaire's challenge. If anything, this predisposed me to look at the course with an even more skeptical eye than usual, to ensure there was no star-power advantage.
Yet even with the cynic radar on overdrive, Trump National L.A. delivered wonder early. Did it stay that way? That's the other side of the story.
Trump closed Ocean Trails for more than two years as he redid Dye's design into something he could stick his name all over. The statistics behind the makeover - and we're talking a Joan Rivers-complete makeover - are staggering. The bravado is 100 percent Trump.
The course went from 6,400 yards to 7,311, from "an executive-type golf course to a championship-caliber golf course" in van der Goes's rather harsh and not entirely fair assessment. All 137 bunkers on the course were changed. Trump wasn't a big fan of Dye's pot bunkers, or even the type of sand in them.
The traps were made bigger and flatter, much more obvious and well-defined from the tees. What van der Goes called "a very rustic, dirty-looking sand" was shoveled aside in favor of Augusta White Sand (yes, the type used at that Augusta).
"The standard sand for golf courses is about $27 per ton," van der Goes said. "Augusta White Sand is a little bit over $85 per ton."
PB Stone extracted during the construction of a brand-new 18th (this is the hole that literally fell into the ocean) was used to frame the theatrical waterfall on the par-3 17th). Everyone in the Trump universe wants to make sure you don't forget that stone's name.
"Using the PB Stone added a little more flair and character to the facility," van der Goes said.
No worries on the flair thing. Trump National LA is in as much danger of being accused of lacking flair as one of the guys on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Even the practice range becomes a tale of the power of Trump's pocketbook. He vastly expanded Ocean Trails' dinky range into one stretches as far as the eye can see. Seventeen potential house lots were eaten up by this new range, lots worth $5 million to $8 million each, according to van der Goes.
Eventually everything at Trump National L.A. seems to come down to the price tag, and to Donald Trump's commitment to not let dollar signs dissuade his vision (and making sure you know whose vision it is). In other words, it's like any other Trump property.
This definitely brings out the curious, the star-struck and the stars themselves. NBA star Jason Kidd and some of his New Jersey Nets' teammates played out here (before losing to the Clippers by 13 on the trip). Tom Brady licked the wounds of his first playoff loss here.
How this translates to regular golfers is another matter.
Is the new practice range impressive? Certainly. Does the Augusta White Sand pop out from the fairways much more dramatically than regular sand? Absolutely. Is it easier to hit out of, as course officials claim? This golfer found little difference.
And that's the thing. Money-is-no-object touches notwithstanding, it really comes down to how the course plays. One of Trump's most striking changes is the building of big, raised mound tees. These give you great views of everything in front of you on the hole and, reportedly, better looks at the Pacific too (a thick layer of marine fog made it hard to tell on the day of this play). They also take away almost any subtlety from the course.
It's like swinging from a stage. You're never going to be surprised by a tucked-away bunker or be forced to negotiate a blind bend at Trump National L.A. It's all in your face. The widening of the fairways puts a driver in your hand on almost every par 4, making it more a grip-it-and-rip-it track than a shot-maker's challenge.
By the end of the round, I found myself hating those huge mound tees, some of which look like they've been dropped into the landscape by aliens.
That shouldn't stop you from enjoying the course overall. When you're playing on cliffs above the ocean, particularly on closing stretch, any quibbles tend to drift away into the fog. Shooting into the stiff breeze on the par-4, 512-yard 18th, trying to get far enough out onto the rolling fairway to avoid huge trouble, with ocean waves crashing below all the while, is its own waterfall-worthy thrill.
"I've been out here on days when you can see all the way to Catalina," Huntington Beach golfer Connor Larkin said.
That view remains more impressive than all the dollar signs in the world. Something priceless on a Donald Trump course? Go figure.
There's no question Trump National L.A. is a vast improvement over the 15-hole shell that Ocean Trails had become. I'd even venture that it's one of the best public courses in Los Angeles, and an arguably reasonable splurge at $195 weekdays, considering how many courses are gated country clubs in this town.
The problem comes with the Trump's insistence on declaring it the best of the best. His push to hold up Trump National L.A. as the equal or better of Pebble Beach does not hold up. Pebble Beach may actually be on Carmel Bay, not on the ocean, as Trump has said, but its waterfront holes are much more dramatic than anything Trump National throws at you. This isn't Pebble Beach or Spyglass Hill.
What it is should be plenty satisfying enough for golfers. Trump National L.A. is a fun, theatrical course in great condition with good service. You're not going to forget a day here. Whether it's the waterfalls' roar, the whirl of helicopters overhead seemingly en route to those ocean-cliff homes, or the bunkers as outsize as Trump's personality on no. 7, you leave this course with a surplus of images.
You don't have to hear van der Goes' stories about Trump getting regular photo updates on the course's progress and halting construction on holes until he could come out and make sure they were exactly what he wanted to see that a lot of obsessive care went into Trump National L.A. If this were the maiden design of some no-name, up-and-coming architect, it would get recognized and draw a more than fair share of praise. But in Trump's world, that doesn't seem quite enough.
He's The Donald, after all.
So is Trump National L.A. a contender for the 2007 SoCal Top 10? Definitely. A shoo-in? Not even close.
February 27, 2006