Yesterday morning on the Aberdeenshire coast, Donald Trump took off his hat, cut a ribbon and struck a tee-shot to mark the opening of, what he believes may be, the greatest golf course in the world.
When I first heard of Mr Trump’s mission to create the finest course on earth over the dunes north of Balmedie, I must confess I scoffed at the hyperbole. Just a supreme display of confidence from a very confident man I thought.
I was aware what an incredible stretch of coastal land he had chosen, having visited the beaches there for the odd walk/picnic when I was a youngster. But I couldn’t see how a brand-new course would suddenly eclipse those exceptional and historic links we’re blessed with across UK and Ireland. I’m extremely fond and proud of many of those grand old tracks and I felt somewhat protective when I heard Mr Trump’s bold claims that he could surpass them in a relative trice.
I saw the pictures, read and heard the reports on the course as it developed and these were, undoubtedly, glowing. But I couldn’t help wondering if the whole thing was merely a big PR campaign: Make enough people believe this might be the greatest course in the world and it might just become it. I was interested to see for myself.
Now before going any further, I should point out my acknowledgement that the Trump project has been a controversial one. There have been environmental objections and disputes with local residents. Mr Trump has also complained about a potential offshore wind farm that would be visible from the course and has riled Alex Salmond with his criticism of the Scottish government’s renewable energy policy. I’m not going to begin to debate those issues here, I’ll leave that to the national press who continue to have a field day with it all.
No, when I received an invitation to the opening of the course, I wanted to approach it from a purely golfing perspective. To try and ignore the media furore and assess the place sensibly using my experience as a (reasonably) decent golfer who has played, and reviewed a, frankly embarrassing, number of top-ranked courses.
I tried to be impartial, I really did. But after the grandiose opening ceremony it was rather hard not to believe what the owner and his illustrious allies were saying.
Martin Hawtree spoke eloquently about how proud he felt to have been involved in the project. This, a man who has been responsible for the design and remodelling of many of the UK’s finest courses and is respected as one of the very foremost golf course architects in the world.
Then Colin Montgomerie stood up to represent professional golfers. He wasn’t shy in singing the layout’s praises using words like, “fantastic,” “wonderful,” “a marvel…” Ok, ok, this is Monty we’re talking about, I recognise he can sometimes get carried away. But he did make it clear he felt this was a course that would be welcoming a significant pro event in the near future.
That was a sentiment echoed by George O’Grady of the European Tour who said, “Great courses should have great tournaments and we, the European Tour, together with Mr Trump, will work to bring the right event to Trump International Links.”
The course has clearly been built with this in mind. For a start, it can stretch to almost 7,500 yards. In the Aberdeenshire winds, this would be a monumental test. Then, fibre optic cables have been laid across the course to facilitate media coverage. Also, the course is 15 minutes drive from an international airport and there’s obviously space to fit thousands of people, hospitality and media facilities around the place without too many problems.
The Ryder Cup in 2022 was being bandied about as a possible, but George O’Grady said he felt it might be too soon after 2014 for the event to return to Scotland. All arrows then, point towards the Scottish Open.
OK, so propaganda over, I had to get back down to earth before I went out to experience the course for myself. Fortunately I had to wait a little while after Mr Trump and Monty teed off, so I was able to do so while checking out the practice facilities. An inside source had told me these were fantastic, and they are.
There’s an amazing, all turf, range with pyramids of gleaming TaylorMade balls as far as the eye can see. A huge expanse stretches in front of you off towards Aberdeen – into the prevailing wind it should be said. For practice fanatics, this is about as good as it gets.
There’s also a superb short-game area and the putting green is just ridiculous. It’s an 18 holer over about 2 acres that makes the Himalayas at St Andrews look like a walk in the park. After multiple three-putts around there, it was time to take on the course itself.
The 1st hole, a par 5, provides a relatively benign opening. Although it appears narrow from the tee, the landing area is reasonably generous. This is a feature on a number of the holes. The rolling dunes obscure sections of fairway meaning many drives are more visually intimidating than they are difficult.
It became clear very quickly that leaving the prepared surfaces was not a good idea. My drive found the right semi but my second was blocked slightly, finishing a couple of yards into the thicker stuff – lost. The wet weather has been a contributory factor and they are also keen to protect the areas recently planted with stabilising fescues. This means the rough around the course is absolutely brutal. If you stray into it, the policy must be to simply abandon it.
I quite enjoyed adopting this philosophy. For the average player, the objective around this course must be to enjoy the golfing experience rather than to try and break par. The standard scratch off the back pegs has already been set at 77 against a par of 72.
But this is OK, because the golfing experience is a phenomenal one. On almost every tee you are given that, terribly clichéd, “wow factor.” I only use the phrase because I did find myself repeatedly saying it as I made my way round.
I’ll summarise the loudest wows:
– On the par-3 3rd when I approached the green and the dunes opened out to reveal the beach, right there, just yards from the putting surface. It stretches out towards the sea and, as I stood admiring the vista, a woman on a horse rode into view and on into the distance. The proximity of beach to green here is one of the most stunning features I’ve ever seen on a golf hole.
– On the tee of the par-5 4th. Blairton Burn runs all up the right side with dunes down the left, the green raises above a swarm of angry looking bunkers with fall away areas short and right. A great hole.
– On the tee of the par-3 6th. An elevated tee to an elevated green, set in a scoop between the dunes. A grassy path (these weave their way elegantly throughout the course) leads up to the putting surface with one cavernous bunker to the right and then a drop down towards the Blairton Burn beyond it. It’s an attractive yet daunting prospect.
– Standing in the fairway on the par-5 10th looking up towards the distant target framed by towering sand dunes. Then, after completing that hole, climbing to the top of one of those dunes to tee off the 11th where there’s a great view up the coast.
– I think, though, the most spectacular section of the course is the teeing complex for the 14th and 18th holes. These are set at either end of an incredible looking moonscape of dunes. The 14th forges north from a hugely elevated tee into a valley lined by towering sand hills. The 18th heads back to the (very) distant clubhouse with views of rolling dunes as far as the eye can see.
Forgive me if I mention my finest golfing moment of the day that occurred on the 18th. It’s 651 yards from the tips and I played it from there. I managed to get on with three good shots and lipped out for a birdie from six feet. A four and a half my playing partner generously said.
Given construction began only two years ago, and given the fact the weather has been monsoon-like for the last few weeks, the condition of the course was pretty impressive. There were only a very few areas where the grass was thin and all of the greens had excellent coverage. They were a little slow yesterday because of the wet weather, but certainly very true. Obviously this is a links, but it’s not playing like one at the moment owing to the recent weather. The ball was stopping pretty quickly yesterday and it will be interesting to see how differently the layout plays after a dry spell.
Something that was obvious despite the unusually wet conditions was how naturally the layout runs through the terrain. Martin Hawtree was keen that this should be the case and that minimal earth should be moved. This seems to have been achieved effectively and there are very few points where anything appears artificial.
There are a great variety of green complexes, each reflecting the difficulty of the hole it’s on. For example: the short par-4 7th is driveable with the wind behind and the green is small with run off areas on three sides. Then, the next hole is a monster par-4 of 500 yards, slightly uphill. The green here is sprawling and forgiving.
The front nine is the more challenging of the two, although the wind was opposite from prevailing yesterday so: into on the run out when it will normally be with. But the back nine is more forgiving I think, with wider fairways and less ominously encroaching sections of rough. This was something of a relief as, by the time I made it to the final stretch of holes, my bag was considerably lighter than when I set out. At one stage I feared there could be a “Tin-Cup,” “one ball left,” scenario.
In summary, I would say this is a spectacular and highly challenging golf course with a wonderfully eclectic section of holes set within dune land that is unlike anything else in the UK. The views across the links and the beach from the towering sand hills are fabulous and there’s suitable “wow factor” to satisfy the most thrill seeking golfers.
Is it the greatest golf course in the world? I couldn’t possibly say at this stage. It does need to bed in a little and I’d like to see how it plays when the ground is firm and the wind is blowing a touch harder. There’s no questioning the quality of the design or the terrain over which it travels and, taking that as the starting point, there’s enormous potential.