It is not easy, given all the strong opinions that surround Donald Trump’s new course near Aberdeen, to offer a review that is not prejudiced in one direction or another. Perhaps the most stark assessment has come from (unsurprisingly) the man himself, who describes it as “the greatest course in the world” in the matter-of-fact manner of somebody verifying the number of an approaching bus.
So it is fair to say that the Trump International Golf Links has quite a lot to live up to, especially when teeing off a matter of hours after Trump, Colin Montgomerie, Sandy Jones (of the PGA) and James Finnegan (of the European Tour) have been bagpiped on to the 1st tee and declared one after the other that this is a golfing experience unlike any other.
Also present on the 1st tee was the architect, Martin Hawtree, a much-respected figure with an academic, donnish presence. He could hardly present a greater contrast with his employer on this project, yet here he was in a eulogy every bit as epic as that of Trump’s.
He described the course as five per cent his work and 95 that of Mother Nature. Now try following a build up like that by playing and evaluating the course as you would any other you are experiencing for the first time.
On what the Scots would describe as a ‘dreich’ July afternoon, conditions were grey, moist yet mercifully calm – at least by the standards of this exposed coastline. The course did not play much like a links – but then we had played down the road at Murcar the evening before and neither did that. Normally as traditional a seaside test as you would find, after recent weather Murcar was soft, green and lush.
It is too early to say when, and whether, the Trump course will ever acquire the kind of pale, washed-out sheen that I have previously seen at Murcar and the like, but I can only report that it was a long way from offering a links-style test on the opening day.
All who visit talk about the size and scale of the dunes and they are not exaggerating (much). That combined with the green fairways made me feel like I was playing not on the east coast of Scotland but rather on the west of Ireland, where you expect to see dramatic coastlines and there is so much more rain and consequently growth.
Yet if there was one course that Trump most reminded me of – and there are shades of several at various points – it was The European. Pat Ruddy’s design in County Wicklow on Ireland’s east coast has the same feel to me of golf on a grand scale, pure theatre and a certain ambition of design. The same determination to make each and every hole the best it could possibly be. And the same result of just about every hole being testing, the absence of respite.
Rightly or wrongly, we played off the tips. Partly just because we could; partly because by now we were pretty much the only group on the links; and partly because we knew the most dramatic set of tees would be the Blacks.
At 7,428 yards, it would be tedious and stating the obvious to say that nearly all the holes were long so I won’t. That was our choice and we could just as easily have chosen the Golds at 7,025, the Blues at 6,602, the Whites at 6,329 or even the Greens at 5,845. In short – you can choose the length to suit.
Much has already been said about the difficulty of the course and it is broadly true that if you miss the fairway then your ball is most likely lost. But then again, the same is pretty much the case at most courses in Britain during the height of summer or depths of winter.
I suspect that, in time, when the fescues are established, the penalty for missing will become less severe. But even now, the course is very rarely tight. Especially on the back nine, the fairways are pretty generous, especially if you are content to play conservatively to the widest parts.
Like any championship course, if you are not skilled then you will find it difficult but I am not sure it is any more true here than at many other courses of a similar standing. In terms of routing, there are shades of Western Gailes, in that you play from a clubhouse standing halfway down the links and play to one end before coming back to the clubhouse after nine then continuing to the opposite end all the way until the final turn for home.
On first visit, this gigantic canvas is almost too much to assess, an assault to the senses.
There are many highlights – so many that it can be hard to take in. On first visit, this gigantic canvas is almost too much to assess, an assault to the senses. To name but two, the first of the short holes, the 3rd, is magnificent, the tee shot framed by dunes yet the green open and thrillingly close to the sand and the sea.
I also enjoyed the 15th greatly, a risk-and-reward hole that comes just at the right stage of the round. After arguably the hardest stretch, you have the chance to get a wedge in your hands and play to a relatively open green but only if your tee shot is bold and true, flying some bunkers to cut the corner.
It would be fascinating to know just how much input Trump really had in the design, and how much, if any, pressure he put on Hawtree to be bold with his routing. Largely, it felt to me like Hawtree’s views were respected. Just a couple of holes come close to crossing the line, for me, between being exciting and excessive.
I will be branded a misery for saying so, but I am not a fan of hugely elevated tee shots and especially not on a links where the wind will almost always be blowing to at least some degree. So while the views from the 14th and 18th tees are undeniably stunning, that is not the same thing as saying they are great holes.
And at the former, especially, I simply do not see how any golfer could stand there playing into a strong wind and have any control over where his drive would finish. And while we are being picky, I was surprised to stand on the 16th tee and find it exactly the same length on the day as the 3rd, a hole played in the same direction.
In truth, there is nothing close to a poor hole, and that is where Trump International will certainly score well. Over time, surely, the course will receive nips and tucks, just like all new courses do. This is right and proper – though hopefully always with the architect’s involvement and approval.
The greens will get quicker and truer. The fairways will hopefully get faster and firmer. Is it already the greatest course in the world? Certainly not. In fact, it’s not even close. But then how could it be, in its current embryonic state.
Will it one day become regarded as as the greatest in the world? Possibly, but not for several years. All that can be offered for now is a first impression. If I am lucky enough to play again, then my views will certainly change, as they do at every course.
You just can’t judge a course by playing it once – and this is no exception. What, perhaps, can be agreed on now is that the final judgment will come not from the owner, understandable though his enthusiasm is, but from golfers all over the world.
They will surely come in great numbers to the north east of Scotland to see it for themselves and make up their own minds – and hopefully also call in at the likes of nearby Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay and Murcar while they are here to bring benefit to the region as a whole and not just this billionaire’s playground.