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The Donald does golf

Lee Rinker's previous claim to fame was as part of a rare brother act. He and Larry Rinker played on the PGA Tour in the 1990s, joining a select group of golf-playing brothers that included Tom and Curt Byrum and Lanny and Bobby Wadkins, among others. Now, Lee Rinker has a different claim to fame. He is among a small handful of people to whom Donald Trump has said, "You're hired."

Rinker is the head golf professional at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and I bumped into him while covering last week's ADT Championship, the LPGA's season-ending event.

Now that Trump is a big TV star in addition to being a major business mogul, his fame is spilling over to some of his other projects, like golf courses, which also carry his name. So, I asked Rinker what it's like to have The Donald not only as a boss, but as a member.

"You've gotta love him," Rinker said. "He comes down a lot. He'll fly down from New York late Friday afternoon, get here at five, six o'clock, then he'll have dinner or whatever. Then he's out here at 8:30 a.m., hits a few range balls and plays at 9 a.m. He's into aerobic golf. He plays in three hours, he just flies around. Then he goes over to Mar-a-Lago; they've got a beach club and a ballroom now. There's not a lot of people on the course by 9 a.m., but we always have a ranger out in front of him and run the gauntlet for him because he plays so fast. If you had four guys like me, and I play quickly, we still wouldn't stay ahead of him. He moves. When I play with him, you never putt out a three-footer unless it's for birdie or it means something.

"He doesn't miss a day of playing when he comes down here. He'll play every Saturday and Sunday when he's here. You would think a guy as busy as him would say, I'm just going to hang out by the pool today, but he doesn't. He's not a bad golfer. He's good, actually. In our club championship one year, he was even-par through 12 holes from pretty far back on the tees. He struggles with his chipping sometimes. He's a decent putter and he hits the ball fairly well. He's so "go, go, go," that if he gets in rhythm, he may hit the ball well all day but with his personality, it's more likely that he gets going too fast. It's tough for that kind of personality to slow down. When I worked at Muirfield Village, I knew 40 guys just like him, in the sense that they didn't really give a crap about taking lessons and getting better, they just enjoyed going out to play golf, then playing cards afterwards. Half of them didn't even know where the practice range was. Donald laughs about his game. He'll struggle with his chipping and say, 'Well, I guess it would help if I practiced.' He's a big man, pretty athletic, hits a lot of good iron shots and he loves the game."

By popular demand, the golf shop stocks Donald items such as towels, balls and hats with the words "You're fired!" on them. And guests of members like to go home with a souvenir or paraphernalia from Trump's hit TV show, The Apprentice.

Trump International is a fairly exclusive club, with some local members, but many from the Northeast and Europe. If you want to join, by the way, it'll run you $350,000. The club shares one similarity with Augusta National. It is closed during the summer. It is open from mid-October through May.

"It's like guests at Winged Foot want to go home with a Winged Foot shirt," Rinker said. "Guests come here, they want to see Donald or get a shirt with his name on it. Now he's a TV star, people really get to see him up close and personal. He's been good about it, he seems really happy although if the show bombed, I'm sure he would still keep going on right ahead. I played golf with him one day last year and told him, my wife is really upset because you didn't fire so-and-so. He said, 'Well, tell your wife, wait until next week.'

"The amazing thing about The Apprentice, all my nieces and nephews, watch it and they love it. Maybe it's the phrase, 'You're fired.' I never liked Survivor but Donald's show makes sense. Usually the person who starts whimpering first is gone."

None of the series episodes have been filmed at Trump International, but Rinker did watch the first-season episode in which the competitors had to run a charity golf tournament. "I had to laugh because boy, they sure made running a golf tournament look hard," Rinker said. "I think I could've won that episode."

After college golf at Alabama, Rinker played pro golf for four years, one of them on the PGA Tour. After falling back to the mini-tours, he got a job as an assistant pro at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, where he worked for four years. He became head pro at Country Club of the North in Dayton for two years, then earned playing privileges on the Nike Tour (now known as the Nationwide Tour). After nearly a decade, he lost his exempt status at the end of '01 and wasn't even exempt for the second stage of the qualifying tournament. "I had three kids and a wife, so I needed to find a job or do something," he said. "I wasn't going to sit around for a year and wait for the next Q-school, and I was going to try to Monday-qualify for the Nationwide Tour."

In early '02, he heard there was an opening for a pro at Trump International, so he sent a resume to Trump and dropped him a note. It's a long story -- the contact Rinker had at Trump's company got fired during the process -- but several months later, Rinker got the job. It's a far cry from '97, when Rinker almost beat Tiger Woods in the Byron Nelson Classic. "I finished second to Tiger at the Nelson and have shown my kids films of that event," Rinker said. "My kids are young -- my oldest one is 5 now. They think it's pretty cool that I played with Tiger. I tell 'em, you don't know all the places you've been. They were pretty young back then and when they study geography now, I'll tell them, you've been there, it's just too bad you don't remember it."

Rinker remembers his close encounter with Woods. "He beat me by two shots," Rinker said. "I played with him on Saturday and I stepped up on the 16th hole, an uphill par-5, and hit the best drive I could hit. I hit that drive more than 270 yards uphill and into the wind, a big drive at the time for me. I could maybe go for the green with driver off the deck, but I'm leading, so I lay up and hit wedge on. Tiger hit his drive 50 yards past me. He just unloaded on it. He he hit iron up by the green, chipped close and made birdie. Sunday, he birdied that hole again. I couldn't reach the green in two shots. When you've giving up that much yardage to him over 18 holes, it's hard to beat him."

Rinker, 44, also tied for second that year at the B.C. Open. His other career-best finishes were a tied for third at the '96 Honda Classic, a fifth at the '97 Greater Milwaukee Open and a sixth at the '95 GMO. He plays in a few PGA section events and he teed it up in this year's Honda Classic, missing the cut, but he's basically committed to being a club professional now.

"This job requires a lot of time but at least I'm home now," he said. "I practiced more in a week when I was on Tour than I do in six months now, and I haven't worked out in two years, not that I ever worked out like Tiger does. For me to go out and try to beat those guys now wouldn't be realistic. I've got a job that keeps me busy. Look at what Mr. Trump built here. Never mind the prison next door. He moved a lot of dirt, put in a bunch of trees and built a hell of a golf course. It's a hell of a place, really."

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