MIAMI – Golfers who quit their memberships at Trump National Doral after the property’s namesake became president were aiming to lose their link to a man they do not support. Turns out they could be waiting for Trump to pay them back for the rest of their lives.
Two longtime golf members who resigned weeks after Trump won the 2016 presidential election said they were no longer willing to write him checks. Another quit last December after he said the club became too political. They spoke to the Miami Herald on the condition of anonymity, saying they fear retaliation. These former members are now on a waiting list to get their deposits back – ranging from $10,500 to $19,000 – that has more than 265 people on it.
To move up the list by one spot, four new golf members need to join the club, according to the membership terms. Deposit amounts vary depending on when members joined.
The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment via call, email and in-person visit to the club about the number of members who have joined and left the club each year under Trump’s ownership, nor how the total number of members has changed over time. The director of membership at Trump Doral, Willy Ruiz, said he could not comment on the membership program.
The sluggish movement of the resigned members’ waiting list shows that fewer new golf members are joining each year.
In December 2017, Trump Organization lawyer Jill Martin told a lawyer for five former golf members – three of whom left after the election – that the club had refunded 24 memberships since Trump bought the property out of bankruptcy in 2012. That means around 96 people joined the club in those six years, or an average of 16 per year.
But in the period from December 2017 to January 2019, one of those former members said he only advanced by one spot, another said he advanced by two, meaning at most eight new members joined in that time period, far fewer than the years prior, suggesting Trump’s new job may be hurting membership. Former members don’t have access to the list in its entirety, but can ask the membership office for an update on their spot in line.
In 2017 The Wall Street Journal reported Trump Doral was offering a 20% discount on its $50,000 joining fee. Monthly membership dues now exceed $1,000. Golf members get discounts on food and spa services and advanced reserved tee times with no green fees. A round of golf at Trump Doral is available to the public for as low as $75 on the website GolfNow.com.
“Sales are better than last year but still pretty slow,” said then-membership director Linda Wasserman in a November 2018 email response to an inquiry from longtime former member Larry Herscher about his spot in line. Herscher, 64, left the club nearly a decade ago, before Trump took over. From November 2017 to November 2018, he moved just three spots.
“Hopefully, we’ll see progress soon,” Wasserman said.
But progress has not come yet. Trump is currently sitting on at least $2.8 million in Doral golf membership deposits, but the number is likely closer to $4 million.
“I have no faith,” said a former member of 18 years who left after the 2016 election. “We’ll never see the money. That’s why I don’t bother worrying about it.”
The person who perhaps worries most about it is a current member and resident of Doral Park, Peter Brooke, 74, a lawyer who joined the club in 1997 when it was owned by KSL Hotel Corporation. Brooke and his wife Lee built their social life at Doral, eating dinner there every Friday night and playing golf regularly with friends. He is so incensed that he wrote the letter on behalf of five former members to Martin, the Trump Organization lawyer.
Brooke said he had a bad feeling about the future of the club as soon as Trump acquired it out of bankruptcy in 2012 for $150 million. Brooke recalled Trump’s public attacks against the five black and Latino teenagers accused and later exonerated of assaulting a white woman in Central Park in 1989.
“I saw a change coming in something that was very important to me,” Brooke said. “He’s not a nice human being.”
Trump agreed to honor the membership and the refund waiting list when he purchased the property. At that time there were nearly 500 active golf members and around 200 on the refund waiting list, according to bankruptcy records.
Shortly after buying the resort, Trump held a meeting with golf members in one of the ballrooms. Brooke remembers Trump promising renovations to the golf courses and saying, “No one ever leaves my clubs.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t strictly true. Now, Brooke said, the club is visibly desolate. He said he rarely runs into anyone in the gym in the morning. During Trump’s first visit to the property as president this past June, hotel occupancy was at just 23 percent. On a recent Wednesday morning during the August dog days, three people sat in the members lounge.
The company has blamed financial trouble at the property on hurricanes and Zika virus in an attempt to distance the resort’s downturn from the president’s image.
But in a review of the property’s taxable value last year, a Trump Organization consultant told the Miami-Dade Value Adjustment Board that the property was “severely under-performing” compared to its competitors and blamed the shortfall on “some negative connotation that is associated with the brand.” As evidence, the consultant showed profits fell nearly 70% from 2015 to 2017. The county agreed to reduce the resort’s assessed value for 2018 from $110.3 million to $105.6 million. Trump reported that he made $76 million from the Doral resort and golf club in 2018, down from $116 million in 2016.
The Brookes, who consider themselves liberals, display in their foyer Peter Souza’s book of photographs commemorating President Barack Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. They’re so unhappy with President Trump that Lee ironed a peace sign patch purchased at a Pompano Beach flea market to cover up the “Trump National Doral” emblem on the sleeve of one of his golfing shirts.
Brooke said he respects the club’s staff but dislikes the in-your-face reminders of their boss. And those reminders abound. An “Apprentice” show poster sits on display in the lobby. Trump’s name is prominently printed in at the bottom of a gold crest on doormats. For now, Brooke said he is able to compartmentalize – to an extent.
Faced with the decision of whether to resign or continue his membership after the election, Brooke said he remembered his aunt who loved Greece and continued to travel there during the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. “She said, ‘I’m only on Earth for a limited number of years,’” he said.
But Trump hasn’t made it easy for him to stay.
In 2014 the Trump Organization planted dozens of bushy areca palm, buttonwood and fishtail palm trees next to homes along the golf course, blocking the views of more than 1,000 residents who say they paid a premium for golf course views. Brooke spoke out against the trees at Doral city council meetings and served as chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Doral that advocated the trees be removed or trimmed. In 2016, Trump sued five residents for trimming the trees themselves. All five lawsuits were dismissed.
Now those trees form a 30-foot wall next to Brooke’s house, where a sole yellow tabebuia tree once stood with the wide golf course behind it. The enormous green barrier serves as a daily reminder of who is in control.
If Trump wins reelection in 2020, Brooke said he doesn’t know what he’ll do about his membership.
“I’m hoping I can outlast him,” he said. “I’m 74, I don’t know if I will.”
Inspired by dozens of former members of Trump’s golf club in Jupiter, Fla., who sued Trump for withholding their membership deposits, Brooke has been looking for a lawyer to take up the case of Doral’s former members. In Jupiter, Trump continued to charge dues to former members on the club’s deposit refund waiting list but barred them from using the club while they waited for their refunds. Trump settled the case for $5.4 million in 2018.
Brooke points to a 2006 letter from the then-director of membership at Doral announcing the deposits would be temporarily refunded to resigned members on a 1:1 basis, down from 4:1, a change Brooke believes constitutes a change in the terms of the membership. “In the future, the list will be maintained so as not to exceed a two-year wait for a deposit refund,” the letter said.
In December 2018, a 19-year member, who asked not to be named, decided to leave because he said the club had become too political. The director of membership operations at the time, Karen Landa, walked him through the process of how to get his deposit back, he said. She has since said the wait for a refund is around 12 years.
“It sounded so bleak,” he said. “I didn’t have the energy. It seemed like it was meant to wear me down.”
At the rate the list is moving now, golf members who left after the 2016 election will be waiting around 85 years to get their money back from Trump.
(Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.)