The news, reported last spring in the Palm Beach Daily News (among, presumably, other media outlets) was surprising, even a bit shocking. Mar-a-Lago—Donald Trump’s private club and vacation home—had been selected “unanimously” by an organization named Professional Tennis Registry as “the private facility of the year.” The report cited tennis director Rob Goetz, his visiting pros John Lloyd and Vince Spadea, and the quality of the courts, the setting and the tennis program.
Mar-a-Lago: the main house, on arrival
It seemed worth a visit, and—in mid-January—my wife and I made our way there.
If you don’t already know where Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is, you might not see it as you drive south on on South Ocean Boulevard, the Atlantic on your left and, on the right, massive hedges and shrubberies that curtain some of America’s most valuable residences from the public eye.
There’s no flashing neon, like you might see at a Trump casino, or ten-foot high gold leaf, typical of a Trump skyscraper, just a kind of faut-Byzantine arch between two of the tallest hedges in the neighborhood. Through it, and you’re on the 20-plus acre estate of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the childhood home of actress/socialite Dina Merrill and—since 1985—The Donald’s South Florida retreat and private club for his friends and neighbors looking for a little pampered beach time, a fancy meal, a venue for a family wedding or charity event and, yes, a set or two of tennis.
In the pro shop: evidence The Donald had a weapon.
Back in the day, Trump was apparently a pretty fair competitor. In the well-appointed pro shop, a framed color photo shows him unloading what appears to be a more-than-decent serve. There’s a big trophy, too, with his name on it, though no particular indication of the level of competition it rewarded. Now, however, he’s much more focused on golf (he owns two major courses and clubs within 20 minutes of Mar-a-Lago, and shuttles between them in a Trump-sized helicopter with his name emblazoned on its side in Trump-sized letters).
Mar-a-Lago tennis clubhouse and courts.
Trump’s lack of court time hasn’t, however, affected his ability to create a pretty nice, perhaps even special, tennis experience. After driving through the virtually unmarked entrance, you arrive at the main house, where burly valets look you over. If you’re not a member, it’s assumed you have a guest pass waiting inside. We did, because the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Jupiter had, a few weeks earlier, been taken over by Trump (see my previous post). The Ritz had been running the Club in connection with its fractional-ownership (the Ritz version of time-share) property that surrounds the golf course and clubhouse. And, as fractional owners, we had also obtained five-week-per-year memberships at the golf club. We continued those memberships with Trump and, unexpectedly, discovered we now had reciprocity at Mar-a-Lago, for $50 per day (for our group, not per person). After a call and a credit card number, we were more than welcome.
Not in the Mar-a-Lago main house dining room, however. A sportscoat-for-men dress code meant I could look, but not enter, wearing my tennis togs. Which was fine, since there was also a beach club with a poolside grill, private beach, and tunnel access under Ocean Drive. We’d play, we’d eat, we’d swim … life would hopefully be sweet.
Perfect courts, ready and empty
The Club’s five red-clay courts are nestled into a far corner of the property, bordered by a narrow parking lot, the Intercoastal Waterway, and an expanse of lawn that served as a pitch-and-putt mini-course for desperate golfers, a grass tennis court (when the staff painted some lines), and additional parking for events. We were the only players stepping onto a court at noon, but several groups had just been finishing when we arrived, and tennis director Goetz was available to chat.
But first we played for an hour and, yes, the courts were absolutely beautiful—playing like velvet with just the right amount of loose topping, and what I imagined to be a state-of-the-art irrigation system below ground. Windscreens sheltered us from the breezes coming off the Intracoastal, and on the changeovers, we could sip from bottles of Trump’s own branded spring water. Amazingly, Rob Goetz said the court fees were $15 an hour, perhaps Palm Beach’s bargain of the century. Yet we were by ourselves.
Mar-a-Lago tennis director Rob Goetz, on the tennis patio next to the Intracoastal Waterway.
“On Saturdays and Sundays, it can get quite busy” Goetz explained, “especially in the mornings, when we put out a continental breakfast for our players. Our events and club tournaments bring a lot of activity too. But Mr. Trump is playing more golf now, so we don’t see him on the court much.”
Goetz, 47, grew up in Delaware and played at the University of Georgia—he modestly noted he was at the bottom of the team ladder, more of a practice partner for his teammates—and after graduation went into tennis program management. He was recruited out of Ocean Pines Country Club in 2008 by a Mar-a-Lago member, and been with the Trump operation—which closes from June to September—ever since.
Tunneling out to the beach club
He then showed us the way to the Beach Club, through a discreet tunnel hidden from view by plantings about 100 yards from the tennis courts, then up a short flight of steps to a broad patio with a large pool flanked by a pair of attractive buildings housing the grill, changing rooms and overnight guest rooms. If there was ever a better argument for the Registry’s award, it might be to have a private beach just on the other side of the patio fence. Which the Club does.
A perfect burger, a couple of glasses of wine, a quick swim, and it was time to go. But we’ll be back.
Beach Club and the Atlantic
Although, as the Club’s Managing Director warned us, probably not on a Saturday or Sunday.
“We have only so many chairs around the pool,” he told us somewhat apologetically, as we sipped our rose. “We must be sure to have enough for our members over the weekends. So we would probably not have a guest pass for you then.”
In other words, book your two tickets to Paradise outside prime time.