RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- The first time I got a message that Donald Trump called, I figured it had to be a prank.
Maybe that hobby-shop owner we bothered all summer with silly gag calls when I was 11 was back to get his revenge, working down a list horror-movie-villain style. (First Chris, that punk with the Darth Vader-mask braces. Then Scott, the ruffian with the pimples ... )
Maybe Trump's office made an honest mistake and meant to call Alec Baldwin instead (it's not likely they kept him on speed dial once "Along Came Polly" came out).
It had to be anything but The Donald actually calling me on purpose.
Billionaire businessmen don't go seeking out golf reporters. It's part of the natural order of the universe, like what goes up must come down. Guys like me chase after guys like Trump, navigating a treacherous, ever-expanding layer of publicists to get five minutes of phone time at 4:30 a.m. on the occasion of the next retro equinox. And please don't ask about the hair. Mr. Trump doesn't like to talk about the hair.
True, this was a Manhattan number. And calling it did lead to a beautifully efficient voice answering, "Trump." Oh, that clever former hobby-shop owner. Who's calling me next week, the Dalai Lama?
Seriously, everyone knows Donald Trump doesn't even return season 2 "Apprentice" winner Kelly's calls. And he's cold-calling me out of the blue?
Only that same afternoon I get a call back, and a different beautifully efficient voice is saying, "Mr. Trump would like to speak to you now. Please hold for Mr. Trump."
Time for the punch line. I waited for the scorned Michelle Wie fan to identify himself.
"Hi, Chris ..."
It's The Donald.
What can I say? Donald Trump reads TravelGolf.com. We're headed to St. Lucia (the Caymans are so 2005) on a mile-long yacht next week, gorgeous model wife Melania optional. That's how I roll - when I'm not driving a 1997 Honda Accord with 115,000 miles and a side shimmy.
Okay, the yacht part was more like a James Frey "essential truth." But the call and TravelGolf.com reading part are legit as Lincoln.
"I was reading your story on golf in Southern California ...," Trump began.
In that piece I wrote, "These are all courses you can play whether Donald Trump returns your phone calls or not. (By the way, The Donald's new Trump National didn't make the cut). It's no doubt the start of great debate, liable to be as cozy warm as most of Southern California."
Trump took up the debate.
"Everyone's pretty much loved it," Trump told me. "Everyone except for you, really."
When you're in a conversation with Donald Trump, you mostly listen. Say what you will about the guy, but his charisma practically leaps through the phone and grabs you.
It's sort of how I imagine talking to Bill Clinton would be. Trump couldn't be friendlier about the whole thing - this isn't some bully-the-reporter call. He's just so confident he's right, it doesn't even seem to be an issue. Come out and experience the course and surely you'll see the light.
Some critics dismiss Trump as a salesman. I've dealt with plenty of salesmen, and Donald Trump is about as far removed from the used-car-dealer norm as Cro-Magnon man is from the one-cell amoeba.
"[Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is out on it playing today," he told me. "He's loving it, having a great time."
Okay, Mr. Trump. You don't say, Mr. Trump?
This is the thing about talking to The Donald. You start calling him Mr. no matter how nonplused and objective you're supposed to be about the whole thing. There's just something about hearing that voice, unmistakable even before twentysomething audiences fell in love with its "Apprentice" bark.
Michael Jordan is just Mike, but The Donald is instantly Mr. Trump. In my experience the only other figure who draws such obvious respect in address from sports journalists is the 21st-century George Steinbrenner.
Other reporters won't tell you that. At TravelGolf.com, we tell you everything. No sense denying it. This is no Regis on the line.
This is Mr. Trump.
Some might say there's something almost desperate about Donald Trump calling a reporter personally to champion his new golf course. You cannot deny the tycoon's passion, though, or his understanding of the Internet's power. With TravelGolf.com, Trump seems to grasp how influential a story on the Web can be.
Trump builds exclusive courses for the moneyed elite. Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles is open to public play largely because strict local-government regulations made the deal work better that way. Still, you get the idea Trump wants anyone and everyone to experience this rebuilt ocean-overlooking course with $7 million waterfalls. At least, anyone and everyone who can afford the green fee.
Trump doesn't build things for his eyes only. He invites the public to come in and at least gawk (or have some ice cream in Trump Tower). I suspect he'd call 2 million people to let them know about Trump National L.A.'s high-priced wonders if he could.
Which makes any trip to a Trump golf course a potential minefield for a golf reporter. How do you know what you're experiencing is the everyday norm when a master showman knows you're coming?
You drive through a largely working-class Long Beach neighborhood to get to Trump National L.A. Then, appearing out of the ocean fog, there's a black stretch Hummer in the driveway, so long its two ends could be stopped at different traffic lights. Straight out of the Trump-life script.
General Manager Mike van der Goes, laughing, insists the Hummer limo isn't there for effect. "A group of about 15 drove up in it this morning," he says.
Still, the Trump name is everywhere here, from the most expensive jacket to the matchbooks and bathroom paper towels. Van der Goes even has a Donald Trump action figure on a shelf in his office. Sadly, that's not for sale.
That name allure undoubtedly brings out a number of golfers.
Waiting to tee off, Boston's Joe Fitzpatrick looks at his buddy, Connor Larkin of Huntington Beach, and laughs when asked why he decided to play Trump National L.A.
"I want to see if he actually spent $64 million on the 18th hole," Fitzpatrick says. "Trump has a way of exaggerating things."
Fitzpatrick can now expect a call from The Donald's delightful assistant, Andi, and the prompt arrival of documents detailing every million spent on No. 18. I'm only half kidding. Trump is that eager to prove, that willing to back things up with evidence. (Side note: All of Trump's assistants sound coolly gorgeous over the phone, sort of like creatures from the Forbidden Model City George infiltrated in that "Seinfeld" episode).
"He has a photographic memory," Van der Goes says of Trump's ability to focus on little details (like a reporter's name). "If Mr. Trump says he wants something done one way on the course, it had better be that exact way when he comes back three months later because he's going to remember it immediately. He's that involved."
No kidding. He's calling me.
So what did I think of the course after answering the Trump challenge?
I loved the over-the-top waterfalls that some critics decry as the end of all taste in golf. I hated ...
Sorry, you'll have to wait for the full course review at GolfCalifornia.com next Monday. Hey, I watch reality TV too. I know it's all about the suspense.
Oh, wait, cell phone's ringing.
You know who.
[Editor's update: To read Chris Baldwin's subsequent review of Trump National L.A., click here.]
February 20, 2006