Trump Is Pouring Millions Into Money-Losing Scottish Golf Course
From the 300-plus crystal chandeliers to the gold-plated taps in the bathrooms, Donald Trump has transformed a hotel overlooking one of the world’s most legendary golf courses into an eponymous glittering palace. Members gathering for their tee times on a recent cloudy Wednesday say they love many of the changes at the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, but they doubt the president will ever make his money back.
“It’s a personal investment in aggrandizement,” says Mervyn Caplan, a member for the past 17 years, sipping tea in the clubhouse. “He’ll never get a return on the capital he’s invested.”
So far, that looks like a sound prediction. Financial reports made public in the U.K. over the weekend show Trump last year faced mounting losses at Turnberry and his other Scottish golf resort, forcing him to inject more cash to cover shortfalls. Losses at Trump Turnberry, his biggest investment outside of the U.S., more than doubled to 17.6 million pounds ($23 million) in 2016, while revenue fell 21 percent to 9 million pounds. Trump’s other course north of Aberdeen also posted widening losses of 1.4 million pounds, an increase of 28 percent, while revenue fell 12 percent.
Beyond last year’s losses, however, the latest disclosures show Trump has now poured a combined 152 million pounds, or nearly $200 million, into the ventures without either one turning a profit under his ownership. The results, among the few made public anywhere in the world for Trump’s private businesses, may add to questions about whether his brand of divisive politics is starting to take some of the luster off of his businesses.
Turnberry offers a test. Perched on the windswept west coast of Scotland, the British Open Championship course was among the world’s most famous and top-rated courses for decades before Trump purchased it in 2014 and put his name above the door. He has called the 800-acre resort his “baby,” setting it apart from the 14 other courses he owns in the U.S., U.K., and Ireland. It remains one of the top-rated golf courses in the world.
Turnberry’s 103-room hotel is a building from a grander era, erected as part of the British Railway’s extension into rural Scotland at the turn of the 20th century. As he renovated the hotel and reconfigured the championship course last year, Trump increased a personal loan to the resort’s operating company, boosting it to 112 million pounds, up from 63 million pounds. His company has continued pouring money in since, completing a second, 18-hole layout that opened in June 2017.
Directors for the company that runs Trump Turnberry attributed the loss primarily to the resort’s closing for just under six months during renovations, although it was reopened in time to catch most of the 2016 golf season.
While Turnberry’s flagship Ailsa golf course was busy during a recent mid-week visit, and fully booked for weekends in September, hotel occupancy is down, according to a person familiar with the business. The prices — a deluxe ocean view room in October was listed on the website for 569 pounds a night, or about $744 — may play a role.
Eric Trump, who has taken over Scottish operations for his father since he took office, declined to comment through a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, Amanda Miller. Although Miller invited questions by email, she did not reply to emails or return phone calls.
In addition to the prices, Trump’s divisiveness does appear to be keeping some visitors away. Sam Baker, founder of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Haversham & Baker, which organizes tours for Americans to play golf in Britain and Ireland, says about 20 clients since the election volunteered that they wanted to avoid Trump’s courses. “There’s been a smattering of people saying they didn’t vote for him and won’t go to his properties,” Baker says, adding he’s also heard people say, “‘I really don’t like him, but I love what he’s done for Turnberry.’ There’s a grudging respect.”
Even among those who play, Trump-branded gear looks to be a tough sell. Fiona Hunter, a long-time Turnberry member, said the pro-shop tried to get rid of the Trump gear by offering two-for-one deals, because visitors weren’t buying. “They started selling more things with just ‘Turnberry,’” she said.
Still, politics can cut two ways. On a recent evening, two visitors from Mississippi walked into the bar and ordered beer, professing their support for Trump and marveling at the décor. “I played Doral in June but this is much more exclusive,” said Ben Dehart, a dentist who voted for Trump and says he’s doing a good job. “They have towel warmers in the bathroom!”
Perhaps the greatest short-term threat to Turnberry is the possibility that Trump’s ownership could delay consideration of the British Open’s return; it is golf’s oldest and most prestigious tournament. Even without political controversy, a course owned by any U.S. president would bring security risks and potential protests. “We are in uncharted territory here with the president’s family owning golf courses,” Martin Slumbers, the chief of The Royal and Ancient, which runs the tournament, told reporters in February.
The earliest Turnberry would be considered is 2022, he said, when Trump may, or may not, be out of office. Slumbers told Bloomberg News: “Turnberry remains one of the Open venues and will be considered in future years.”
Trump’s other Scottish course, although less costly, has been more politically troublesome, long before the campaign. Set on 1,400 acres just north of Aberdeen, it opened in 2012 after years of clashes with locals over planning and environmental concerns. It has never made a profit. Trump was forced to loan an additional 1.2 million pounds to the resort last year, bringing his total loans there to 40.6 million pounds. The directors blamed last year’s losses on weather and declining oil prices; the local economy is dependent on the North Sea energy business.
Hopes to bring big events into Aberdeen appear directly imperiled by Trump’s politics. Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, a Scottish Open sponsor, said the controversies surrounding the president would make it difficult to stage the tournament at his course. “Politics aside, Trump would be an ideal venue – but you can’t put politics aside,” he told reporters in July.
The resorts’ debts, among the few that public records show are personally shouldered by Trump for any of his business interests, raised questions, even before the latest results showed they were growing.
Earlier this year, golf writer James Dodson, co-author of Arnold Palmer’s autobiography, said Eric Trump told him in 2014 that the family had “all the funding we need out of Russia” for golf. “We don’t rely on American banks,” Dodson quoted him as saying, in response to a question prompted by the fact that many banks were steering clear of golf. “We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs.”
Eric Trump later tweeted a denial, calling the author’s comments “completely fabricated.”