The Donald dials down garish instincts at impressive new Trump International Golf Links Scotland
BALMEDIE, Scotland -- Six days after the July 10, 2012, grand opening of the much-ballyhooed Trump International Golf Links Scotland, the parade of journalists, course architects and dignitaries visiting the newest Scottish links course is taking on the feeling of a pilgrimage.
Interestingly, most of the journalists I spoke with as I made my own way to the massive dunes outside Aberdeen uttered much the same refrain: They were predisposed to not like the course, primarily because they feared that the larger-than-life owner, Mr. Donald Trump himself, would infuse the place with his ego -- they half expected waterfalls, palm trees and dancing girls. And they didn't want to see the singular linksland sullied by hubris.
What they reported after visiting, however, was also consistent: The golf course is everything it has been billed to be -- or nearly so, anyway. It is the dunes that are larger than life, not the namesake owner.
So just six days after The Donald played the inaugural match, I wound my own way through the Scottish Highland countryside from Inverness and the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open to the remote Balmedie on the rugged Aberdeenshire coast. As the GPS informed me that I was nearing my destination, I began to wonder if the reassuring digital voice had led me astray. Surely, I should be seeing the ocean by now, right?
Then, cresting one final rise, there lay the sea, and between the waves and me rose a veritable mountain range of dunes, the likes of which I have never seen before in Scotland. I knew I was in for something special.
History of a course with very little history
In a land where golf history stretches back through dim centuries, how, you may wonder, could the story of the newest links be at all interesting?
The minor saga of how Trump procured the 1,500 acres upon which architect Dr. Martin Hawtree routed the course has been well documented elsewhere. So suffice it to say here that cajoling the locals to sell their parcels of sod and convincing the government that all possible environmental cautions were in place spanned a full seven years.
It was not until July 2010 that actual construction began, and looking at the condition of the course and surrounding environs today, the progress has been remarkable. The track stretches from 5,215 yards from the most forward tees to a hulking 7,428 yards from the tips. The breathtaking dunes -- some of which tower 80-100 feet above fairways and greens -- were stabilized by hand-planting five million sprigs of marram grass.
The combination of the sheer height of the dunes and the extreme shagginess of the grass gives Trump International the appearance of an Irish links course. No one I have spoken with can think of another Scottish links with a similar appearance. In fact, to my eye, the course looked a bit like Whistling Straits in places, a major difference being that the dunes at that Wisconsin layout were created by the hand of Pete Dye, whereas at Trump International all but a few of the dunes were shaped by Mother Nature.
Remember this when teeing off, because you don't want to fool with Mother Nature. The starter will likely tell you straightaway that if you hit a ball into the long grasses on the dunes -- and hit a few into the dunes you will – it will be next to impossible to find and fully impossible to play.
Christopher Campbell, head professional at Trump International, offered some advice for first-time visitors, which pretty much everyone is at this point.
"Pick the correct tees," advised Campbell. Given that there are 120 tee stations on the course -- generally six on each hole -- there is no shortage of options for players of all levels.
"A caddie would be a great help," continued Campbell. "There are a lot of nooks and crannies. Also, the high dunes play with your sense of depth and distance, so it's helpful to have someone familiar with the yardages."
Although there is a fine caddie program at the course (£45 + gratuity), I forewent the luxury and assistance of a caddie; however, a playing partner did have one, a Northern Irish medical student with exceptional eyesight who helped all of us keep an eye on our wayward shots -- and then to pronounce time of death.
The course itself is a visual feast, replete with every shape and size of dune you can imagine. The fairways are plenty generous but still quite missable, and, when missed, very few will allow for recovery shots, as the short grass transitions into just a couple yards of rough before turning into full-fledged jungle.
So far, the biggest knock on the links is that, for average players, it will be unbelievably difficult to play when the wind blows. So many of the holes -- nearly all of them, really -- are exposed at some point to the sea. Because so many tee boxes are elevated, perched atop high dunes, drives will be severely affected by winds (which were relatively mild on my visit). Once down in the fairways, though, if players can keep their ball flight low, wind will be less of an issue, even on blustery days.
For a brand new course, conditions are actually quite good. The huge, flowing greens were frustratingly slow, as they are not yet being mowed daily to allow for better growth. But they were still smooth and true, if befuddlingly grainy.
The main signs of youth were in the fairways, where my ball often came to rest on thinly grassed or even bare-sand lies (when my ball found the fairway, that is). The revetted-wall bunkers are already in top shape (though previous players had done a poor job of raking many of them) and devilish in their positioning and depth.
The almost cornucopial variety of holes is a true pleasure -- the par 3s, especially, are each memorable in their own right (especially for me the 148-229-yard 13th, which I nearly aced). Perhaps the cleverest of the lot is the first one, the 108-205-yard third, where the green peeks from behind a dune on the right and balances just above Aberdeenshire's long, sandy coastline. Choose the wrong club here, and you'll literally end up on the beach.
Visitors should be sure to bring cameras along, as every tee box offers a photo-op. In particular, the vertiginous back tees on the par-4 14th and par-5 18th are so spectacular, you're almost sorry to hit your tee shot and have to leave. The 18th is especially marvelous. It is worthwhile sacrificing a ball to take a shot from the 651-yard tips, teetering some 100 feet above the fairway. From that vantage point, you can see for miles up and down both ends of the Aberdeenshire coast, even on a misty day ... it might just bring a bit of mist to your eye, too.
Trump International Golf Links Scotland: The verdict
It seems that every time a new Scottish links course is built, I hear in the press that "this might be the last great linksland left in Scotland." Clearly, such pronouncements are premature.
Trump International Golf Links are undeniably situated on great linksland -- in fact, the nature of this land is, as far as I know, unparalleled in Scotland. (But who knows what other real estate treasures are still out there?)
I have also started to hear things about this track such as "the greatest course in the world," which is also premature at this point. The course fills your senses with visual magnificence, and, at times, it can inspire unvarnished awe. But it will take some time -- some more growth and some experience in more varied weather -- to fully understand where and how the course holds up, lies down and bats around players of all skill levels. I also question whether a professional tournament could be played here, as the dunes are mostly too steep and gnarly to accommodate spectators.
The six-hole short-game practice area is wonderful, as is the 3,500-square-meter putting green. Either venue would be ideal for some post-round, post-beer contests among friends.
Trump and his management are clearly positioning themselves to cater to Americans (though most play so far has been local, according to the starter). The menu in the temporary clubhouse lists "golf house fries" rather than the typical UK term "chips." And there are copious yardage markers in every fairway -- something that many other links courses could desperately use.
A few aspects of the club are still works in progress, however. The service and food in the temporary clubhouse are not yet to the level of what one would expect from a Trump enterprise. The service I experienced in the clubhouse was numbingly slow, and the sandwich I ordered, which sounded delicious on the menu, was the size of an appetizer and was devoid of flavor. In addition, those "golf house fries" tasted to me identical to another "Donald's" fries -- McDonald's.
All in all, though, Trump International Golf Links (£150-£200) is a raging success. Mr. Trump clearly allowed course architect Hawtree free reign of his considerable talents, and the result is a course that promises to eventually weave itself into the rich tapestry of Scotland golf history.
As yet, however, even though the course sounds like a links course (there's the distinctive hollow "thump" when you tap the sod with your club and when the ball lands) and looks like a links course (Irish links, to be precise), it still doesn’t feel or play quite like a links course. With the wet conditions and yet-to-mature fairways, balls don't roll endlessly, and aerial attacks generally pay off as well or better than ground shots. Maturity and more typical weather should eventually remedy this situation.
Nevertheless, the buzz is mostly justified. Donald Trump has developed a brilliant links course. Whether it will become a "classic," only time will tell. For now, it's a solid addition to the "must-play" list of modern Scottish links.
For a memorable lodging option during your visit, try Malmaison Aberdeen (from £99), the edgiest, sexiest hotel in northern Scotland. While there, arrange a private tasting in the hotel's whisky room or a wine tasting in the cellar or a dinner at the chef's table in the brasserie.