Opening in the summer of 2012, the Trump International Golf Links Scotland is destined to become one of the most polarizing courses in all of golf. It was developed by high-profile American businessman Donald Trump, who years earlier had identified a stretch of tall sand dunes north of Aberdeen as the ideal place to build a golf resort and integrated housing estate. What followed was a protracted and costly battle first with local landowners and environmentalists, and eventually with the Scottish government itself. Trump prevailed, and in 2009 set about creating his golf course.
The chosen architect for this project was softly spoken Englishman Martin Hawtree, a man with a long career in the golf design business and a personality diametrically different to that of his rather brash employer. While the duo seem an unlikely team, they apparently worked well together on this project and they certainly share a passion for the property. Trump’s early declarations that he had the finest golf site in the world were a little excessive, but talk to Hawtree about what became known as the Menie Estate and it’s clear that he too felt the land was close to perfect for golf.
The site is certainly dramatic, and the dunes are as large as any in Scotland. In many ways this is very much an Irish style links however, with the holes mostly weaving though a series of deep dune valleys and largely out of view of the beach and sea. Aside from a couple of elevated tiger tees on the back nine, the only interaction golfers have with the coastline is the odd glimpse through the beachside dunes.
While the sea doesn’t come into play on the golf course, there is an ever-present coastal feel to the holes and it is an undeniably beautiful property. It is also very steep in areas, and one could easily debate the golfing merit of some of the taller sand structures here as well as the largely north-south orientation of the usable valleys. The only hole to shift noticeably from these north-south corridors is the 13th, which images will confirm is a simply gorgeous long par three. The fact it is the only hole that plays across the prevailing winds is a little disappointing.
In terms of the Hawtree routing, he clearly had a brief to create a spectacular golf course and on a superficial level, at least, he succeeded. Sticking all of the golf into the heaviest dunes was a key part of his plan and ensured that virtually every hole was dramatic. Whether it allowed Hawtree to build the best course possible on the site, however, is debatable. We wonder whether pushing some of the golf out onto the flatter surrounding land might have yielded a more playable course, and enabled the routing to both head in different directions and also feature more variety. Given the client and his early proclamations about this being the world’s best golf course, it might have been difficult for the designer to sacrifice scenery for the sake of routing balance. Whether the decision was the right one depends on patronage and the preparedness of visitors to continually pay to play a course that will likely beat most of them up quite badly.
The main issue with the playability of the Trump International Scotland course, is that fairways are relatively tight given the frequent high winds here and the off fairway areas are quite penal. There is no doubt that over time the maintenance crew will have to soften some of the problem areas, and likely learn to keep the marram grass in the immediate surrounds under control. What will give operators more trouble are the teeing grounds, with golfers able to choose from more than 100 different tee boxes across the property. Virtually every hole has a spectacular back tee, which is often placed high on a bordering dune and completely exposed to the elements. Hawtree has admitted that he is uncomfortable about some of these back tees, and with good reason too as players with poorer techniques are likely to find the narrow fairways even harder to hit from such elevation. The other concern with having so many tees is that the course invariably becomes longer to walk, and therefore longer to play. Even fast fourballs playing solid golf will struggle to keep rounds under four and a half hours. Busy days with high winds could be brutal here.
Despite these concerns, not all golfers will find being stuck on the Trump course in Aberdeen for five hours a chore. The dunes are superb, the views are often beautiful and those who enjoy being pampered will find the grooming a step up from most other links in Scotland. There are also some decent holes on the layout as well, particularly the par threes and a couple of twisting par fours. Of the shorter holes, the 13th takes a beautiful picture with its backdrop of sea and tepee sand dunes. The front nine threes are even more memorable, especially the short 6th, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 14th at Doonbeg for the nature of the target and the manner in which sliced balls tumble down a dune and into oblivion. The 3rd is another lovely hole, although the picture attached confirms that it would have been a lot more impressive aesthetically played from the opposite direction.
While there is obvious quality here and literally dozens of gorgeous vantage points across Trump Scotland, the big issue purists will have with this layout is the lack of truly outstanding design and the number of awkward architectural features. The small revetted bunkers, for example, are well built and formidable as hazards, but they are often placed in formations that lack elegance or genuine strategic merit, particularly on the par fives. The use of 18 scattered traps to defend the 18th hole seems curious, as does the apparently random structure of the diagonal bunkers short of the 4th green. Another unusual par five sure to generate much attention and debate is the 10th, which features a double fairway split by a retained wetland area. What’s odd about the 10th is that hitting down the right-hand side apparently provides the best angle into the immense amphitheatre green, but it adds as much as 70 yards to a hole that would only be reachable to elite golfers anyway. Whether anyone decides to turn an essentially straightaway par five into a longer, sharply turning dogleg remains to be seen.
More worrying than strategic issues with the longer holes, for many will be the absence at Trump Scotland of a fun, sporty short par four. All the great links of Scotland have a tempting drivable two-shotter but the only reachable par four here is the 7th, which features such an extreme pushed-up green that golfers will quickly learn the only sensible way of playing it is to lay-up and approach with a wedge. This is the smallest green on the course, and like most of the others is reasonably flat. Soft ripples tend to be much more prevalent than heaving undulations here, which will suit some and likely upset others who feel the putting contours lack creativity.
What won’t concern golfers is the quality of the greens, which are already blessed with a glorious bent-fescue surface that extends out into the fringe areas as well. The native vegetation across the site is also very impressive, with the mobile dune structures covered in a mature mix of marrram grass, heather, gorse and other native plants. The creation of isolated walkways through the sand and vegetation has been particularly well handled as well, and will greatly enhance the golfer experience.
When Donald Trump first started work on this project, he declared that his intention was to build the greatest golf course in the world. What he really should have been focusing on, was building the best course in the Aberdeenshire area, as ultimately the success of Trump International Scotland will be measured by repeat play, and on how many visiting golfers choose to play here instead of local gems like Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay and Murcar.