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Trump buys Turnberry

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The downturn in the golf economy hasn’t been bad for everyone—particularly if your name is Trump. In an era of sinking golf resort values, Donald Trump’s star is on the rise. In 2012, Trump’s company, Trump Golf, purchased Doral in Miami for a reported $150 million—and sunk another reported $200 million into bringing it up to Trump standards. Last October, Mr. Trump stood alongside then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Bronx as they cut the ribbon on Trump Golf Links Ferry Point, a Jack Nicklaus- designed course which has been characterized as a possible U.S. Open venue. In February, Trump was at it again in County Clare, Ireland, where it purchased Doonbeg and renamed it “Trump International Golf Links, Ireland” (which along with its course in Aberdeen, Scotland, “Trump International Golf Links, Scotland,” produced a nice matching pair). This week, Trump showed that it wasn’t done yet in Europe when it announced its purchase of Turnberry for a reported £35 million (approximately $55 million). Despite statements from The Donald that Trump was going to throttle back further development plans in Scotland and focus on its Doonbeg property because of disagreements over the Scottish wind farm project proposed for a location too-near near its Aberdeen course, this Turnberry opportunity was apparently a deal just too good to pass up.

Good thing the Old Course at St. Andrews isn’t for sale!

Or maybe it’s not such a good thing. In all fairness, wherever Trump Golf has planted its flag, the results have in many ways been good for golfers and, one could argue, good for golf. Yes, the green fees at Doral skyrocketed after Trump hired Gil Hanse to come in and improve the Blue Monster course there. But it’s unquestionably a better course. Trump International in Aberdeen, a Martin Hawtree design, has received similar acclaim—though that project has certainly not been without its public relations issues. And Trump has promised to sink many American dollars into upgrading Doonbeg—if the local environmental watchdogs let him. That could be a boon not just to resort guests but to the local economy, as well.

So is the company’s recently announced purchase of Turnberry a good thing? One fact that’s clear is that Turnberry was in need of some help—otherwise its former owner, Dubai-based Leisurecorp, would not have sold it to Trump for £17 million less than it paid for it in 2008. Despite the famed Ailsa Course’s place in the Open Championship rota, despite the resort’s one-of-a-kind, 5-star hotel, despite its luxurious cottages and world-class spa and golf academy and additional 27 links golf holes, it has been in the position since the Great Recession of having to discount rooms and golf frequently and sometimes heavily. Enter Donald Trump.

What are Trump’s plans for Turnberry? In an interview with Golf.com, he said: "Turnberry is considered one of the greatest courses in the world. It's a special place. It's an important place. This is a fabulous property in a great location. We're going to bring a new level of luxury to the hotel. Our aim is to make it the finest golf hotel in the world."

But what about the resort’s marquee golf course, the famed Ailsa? Will it be getting a Trump makeover, as well? Trump’s answer to that was: "I'm not going to touch a thing unless the Royal & Ancient ask for it or approve it. I have the greatest respect for the R&A and for Peter Dawson. I won't do anything to the golf course at all without their full stamp of approval."

This may assuage the golfing intelligentsia to some degree, but one has to wonder what those tee times on the Ailsa are going to cost once the resort’s name gets “Trump” added to it, as it almost certainly will. American ownership isn’t necessarily a bad thing anywhere in the world, including Scotland. Southworth Development proved at Machrihanish Dunes that the right kind of investment in the right place—when it’s done in a spirit of partnership with the local community—can be a win-win for everyone. But Trump’s approach is typically more the “my-way-or-the-highway” kind, which is unlikely to play any better in Ayshire than it has in Aberdeenshire.

Lovers of links golf—and particularly those fans of the priceless Ailsa course—will just have to wait and see.

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