Adam Lawrence reports from Aberdeen on the opening of Donald Trump's much-heralded Scottish links.
When the owner, from the start of a project, trumpets his intent to build the world's greatest golf course, the course itself has a lot to live up to.
Donald Trump has promised the earth of his Scottish project so many times – and, to be fair, the property is so dramatic – that a very good, even great course might still be seen as a disappointment.
After playing the course twice, and spending two days there, just before Trump International Golf Links Scotland (a mouthful to be sure) started taking green fees, I can confidently make two assertions. Firstly, it's not the greatest golf course in the world; but secondly, anyone who is disappointed in it has either themselves or the owner's PR machine to blame.
I played my first round in the company of one of the course's key creators, Casper Grauballe, who served as architect of record Martin Hawtree's principal lieutenant on the project (though the entire Hawtree team contributed at some point). We began the shotgun event on the twelfth tee, and, walking back from the eleventh green after we finished, Grauballe asked me my initial reaction. “It looks,” I said, “like an Open Championship course.”
Some days, and much reflection, later, I stick to that view. This shouldn't be too surprising. Trump has been very open about his desire to attract golf's greatest championship, or failing that, other high-profile events, and thus the course has been designed from the start as a championship venue. The razor-sharp revetting of the Trump bunkers can't help but echo the look of Open courses, and there are few of the linksy quirks that professionals often find irritating. The result is a course that hardcore links aficionados might find a little lacking in wildness, but which the professionals, if and when they get to compete over the course, are sure to rave about.
This isn't meant to mean that the course is short of either interest or quality. Around the greens in particular, the humps and hollows are dramatic, no more so than at the excellent short par four seventh, which has some wild contours as part of its surrounds. The fairway landing areas though, tend to be smoother.
It may be that this impression is accentuated by the fact that the greens and surrounds were turfed rather than sown, and thus the sward is of a phenomenally high quality, highlighting every little rumple in the surface, while the fairways are younger – still a bit raw, in fact – and perhaps this hides the slopes to some extent. Nonetheless, I feel confident in asserting that those whose favourite links are Birkdale or Muirfield will fall head over heels in love with Trump International, while if your Scottish dreams centre on Machrihanish or North Berwick, your reaction is likely to be respect rather than affection.
Me, I am somewhere in the middle (I guess I'm a rarity; my two favourite courses in Scotland are Machrihanish and Muirfield). There are some great, great holes out there. I loved the simple strategy of the second, especially with the flag tucked behind a pot bunker and a vicious swale on the right side of the green; take on the burn that crosses the fairway for the best view of the green, otherwise accept that getting anywhere near the hole in two will be almost impossible.
The much-photographed par three third, with the green right at the point a burn empties into the North Sea is lovely, but a wide range of teeing grounds enable the course managers to alter the angle of play dramatically, so it's not just eye candy. Casper Grauballe's take on MacKenzie's Sitwell Park green, on the par five fourth is perhaps a little less dramatic than Tom Doak's version at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, but it's still a great green. Hawtree's favourite hole, the par three sixth, is one of the best pieces of deception on the course: the dune protecting the left half of the green fools golfers into thinking the hole – which has a huge dropoff to front right – is death or glory, but there is actually a fair amount of bailout the player can't see from the tee. And I could go on, about almost every hole.
Criticisms? The state of the rough has been much commented on, but it has always seemed foolish to me to judge courses on temporary conditioning issues. Yes, the marram grass is lethal, and yes, in places it is too close to the line of play, but I trust the greenkeeping team will fix this in time.
There are areas that should be waving fescue, but because of the wet conditions (and, I suspect, irrigation throw during grow-in) are at the moment ball-eating broadleaved grasses. Again, this will be managed over the next couple of years. It is, though, fair to ask whether the mass planting of marram, necessary to stabilise the mobile dune system (at this point, one should note and praise the quality of the construction - contractor SOL Golf can never have worked under more pressure, on a more challenging site, and has done a remarkable job) has compromised playability. But only time will tell on this.
The huge dunes of the Balmedie site have been used to define the holes – many, perhaps even most, play down valleys – and to provide teeing grounds with spectacular views. In places, the results are phenomenal – the top tee of the eleventh, pretty much the highest point of the property, is amazing, and well worth the climb. In others, though, the sheer degree of elevation harms the scale of the holes themselves. It's hard to imagine how a 650 yard par five with eighteen bunkers could lack visual scale, but for me, the home hole looks much better, and more epic, from the lower tees (although there is a high tee right out on the seawall dune that must be one of the great views in golf).
The final question, for me, is the practicality of the course for the purpose it was created. There are areas of the golf course – around the tenth and eighteenth in particular – where it's very easy to imagine huge crowds lining the holes, cheering at the feats of the players. But there are others – the steep dune walls of the fourteenth is perhaps the best example – where one just asks 'How are spectators going to get round here?' I am confident the designers and developers have considered this question in detail, so the proof of the pudding, I guess, can only be in the eating.
A longer review of Trump International will appear in the next issue of Golf Course Architecture, to be published in October. Subscribe to the magazine.