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All Trumped-up

On an unlikely patch of Florida real estate, designers for Donald Trump have concocted a spectacular golf course, building elevated tees, rock formations and waterfalls. The cost? A mere $40-million.

The Burger King sign serves as a handy reference point to aim a drive, the jail an interesting conversation piece. When planes roar overhead, you are reminded that paradise is only within the boundaries of the property.

Yes, Donald Trump attempted to build the best golf course money could buy, the only problem being that all the prime real estate in Palm Beach County was snatched up by some Kennedy or DuPont years ago.

Surely he wouldn't want T's Lounge and a shop called Condoms Galore within a drive and a pitching wedge of his exclusive course.

Nonetheless, the New York real-estate magnate did his best to block out the negatives and turn a piece of property bordered by the 12-story Palm Beach County Jail and Palm Beach International Airport into something special.

For $40-million, it had better be.

"This is one of the most ambitious golf course construction projects ever undertaken," Trump said in promotional material for the course. "And I have spared no expense in making this an unparalleled, world-class facility."

Palm Beach County already is home to some 145 golf courses, more than any county in America. But the man who would be president undoubtedly believes his new course is bigger and better than the rest.

The Trump International Golf Club celebrated its grand opening last month, and in a very short time, the course has become one of the most talked about in the game. Memberships are going for $300,000, with annual dues of $9,000.

Trump International sits on 214 acres just south of the airport. Golf course designer Jim Fazio called the property "average" but turned it into something spectacular by creating elevations up to 55 feet and building numerous rock formations and waterfalls. Trees that surround the course will one day block the outside "elements."

The clubhouse is not completed, but it promises to be special. Would you expect anything less? Trump, 53, estimates his net worth at $5-billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. Forbes magazine puts the figure at $1.6-billion.

Whatever number you put in front of all those zeros, there is no mistaking that a good chunk of change went into Trump's golf course.

From the future site of the clubhouse, you can look down over the 17th and 18th holes and view the royal palms that line the cart path on the driving range.

At the first tee, a rock formation allows a stream to tumble 30 feet to the right side of the fairway. At the back of the 18th tee, you stand higher than on any tee in south Florida, looking down the 15th fairway and seeing the flow of water alongside, then looking back up the 18th toward what will be a huge, Mediterranean-style clubhouse.

Is this really Florida?

Florida golf courses, especially those in the southern part of the state, simply do not have this kind of undulation and elevation. They are typically flat, with numerous bunkers and water hazards added to frame the holes.

"From the day I set foot on the property, you could tell it was going to be something special," said Bruce Zabriski, the director of golf at Trump International. "The amount of sand, the undertaking, the bulldozers it was just overwhelming to see so much going on."

In order to create such a memorable golf course, plenty of dirt had to be moved _ 2-million cubic yards, actually.

Three years ago, Trump decided to build the 7,200-yard, par-72 course, which is located 3 miles from his Mar-a-Lago Club, a private, social club he opened in 1995 that he described as a sister club to Trump International. Trump did so with the vision that it would be "the best golf course anywhere in Florida and beyond."

The project cost some $40-million _ the average cost of construction for a regular golf course is typically in the $5-million range _ and nearly a year was spent clearing 5,000 trees and building rock formations before work began on the layout.

Golf course designer Fazio still marvels at the undertaking.

"Mr. Trump would ask, "What else do we need to do to make it better?' He never once said, "Don't do this, don't do that.' He didn't even make suggestions," said Fazio, who designed El Diablo in Citrus County and whose brother, Tom, has done area courses such as Black Diamond, World Woods, Bayou Club and Hunter's Green. "When he hires a guy who knows what he's doing, he leaves him alone and gets the most out of him he can. He's smart. He wouldn't be where he is without that.

"There are only a couple of things he asked me. He wanted the clubhouse where it is so he could have a straight driveway. He wanted a real majestic look. That's the classiest street there is in the world. You're looking up at the sky when you drive in there. It's one of the best-looking driveways you'll see in your life.

"And he said he wanted a tough starting hole. "I want them to know where they are and what they're in for.' "

Fazio obliged. The first hole is a 467-yard par 4 from the back, with an elevated tee, which drops 20 feet to the landing area. A stream borders the entire right side. The approach shot is to an uphill green and typically will play into the wind.

The course has several notable holes, including what is considered the course's signature, the par-3 17th. Golfers will find six sets of tees, measuring 124 yards to 215, from where they can approach a huge, peninsular green that measures 7,000 square feet. The green, which angles from left to right, is backed by an impressive water and rock feature that spews water from a 30-foot precipice. The two-tiered waterfall makes for a breathtaking view that might serve as a good way to take your mind off the impending tee shot.

Trump also has four pending golf course projects in the New York metro area, but "I didn't get into this for the money," he told the Met Golfer. "Some of my other deals are much bigger in terms of scope, but I get just as much kick out of doing a golf course as I do out of doing the tallest residential building in the world. Golf is never going to be a huge business, but size doesn't necessarily give me more pleasure."

The game apparently does. Trump is a single-digit handicap player whom Zabriski said learned from one of the all-time greats, the late Claude Harmon, long-time pro at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamoroneck, N.Y. Harmon won the 1948 Masters and his four sons became prominent teachers and players. Butch Harmon teaches Tiger Woods.

"He's fun to play with," Zabriski said of Trump. "He is very competitive and he plays quickly, hits a lot of good shots. He's got everything you want in a golf game.

"He doesn't practice at all, and it really doesn't surprise me. Claude Harmon taught him how to grip the club. He'll always have a good swing, and it looks like his hands are made for a golf club. Mr. Trump has this beautiful grip, which is why he'll have a great golf swing without practice. A lot of us have to hit a lot of balls to make up for it."

Zabriski, 42, is an accomplished player himself, having won numerous club pro events. Last summer, he was the only club pro to make the cut at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot, where he met Trump.

"One day he came up to me at the club and said, "You're always winning all these tournaments. I'm going to start building golf courses and you're going to be my pro,' " Zabriski said. "That's how I met Donald Trump. He hired me in the summer of '98. Of all the tournaments I've ever won, this has been the greatest thing that's happened to me in golf."

So you want to join? Better hurry. Memberships will be capped at 250 _ unless you believe one club employee.

"If you show up with a check for $300,000, I don't think they're going to turn you down."