Trump International Golf Links
Aberdeenshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
The dynamics of building a course on great land has changed even more than the game itself over the past two centuries. Enormous hurdles must be overcome so it is a cause for celebration when a great course on great land gets built successfully. Originally, linksland was perceived as having minimal value and held little interest. Farmers showed little interest as it was unfit for growing crops, in part because water drained too quickly through its sandy soil. Proximity to large bodies of water, particularly in Scotland, held little commercial value before WWII as the concept of summer homes and resorts had yet to flourish in scale.
Times have sure changed! Countries like Denmark forbid building near the coast. Anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of Sharp Park in the United States knows the vitriolic hatred that environmental groups can spew, pitting the California Red Legged Frog in the dunes near the Pacific versus golf which has been unjustly cast as elitist. Back in the home of golf, stringent regulations for disturbance of any dune system are in place throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. Such was not always the case. Links popped up with great regularity around the Scottish coast from 1850 to WWI. That pace has now slowed to a trickle. What a terrible shame it would be if no more links are built. Most golf operations enhance the local economy and provide needed employment for their communities. Thousands of golfers travel each year to revel in the beauty of these natural environments. If not for the game, coastal areas like Cruden Bay and Dornoch would be far less known.
Getting people outside also builds up their appreciation of the environment. Be it visiting a magical golf course or a national park, people return home freshly reminded of nature’s glories and the importance of preserving it. Over the past two decades, a minimalist golf architecture movement has enabled the construction of golf courses in dunes with only nominal environmental impact. The use of pesticides/herbicides is also on a marked decline. Despite such steps forward, challenges abound. Most parcels of land large enough for golf have been split and divided and split again over the past century. Small farms dot the landscape, making assembly of large blocs of land an arduous task. The term ‘special interest group’ didn’t exist a century ago and now seems to be everywhere.
Yes sir, the prospect of building something special is so daunting as to be hopelessly demoralizing. Many owner/developers stop trying. Only a very few have the wherewithal and staying power to make something happen under such adverse circumstances. Happily, one man persisted and ultimately gained approval to build in the great dunes north of Aberdeen, Scotland. Formed during the various ice ages, these dunes are among the most spectacular in the world and soar to one hundred and thirty feet in spots (by comparison, the splendid dunes at Royal Aberdeen measure closer to eighty feet). Due to water currents, wind and sand deposits the largest dunes in the northern hemisphere are frequently found on west coasts. Consider Ballybunion, Lahinch, and Inniscrone in Ireland, Royal Hague in the Netherlands and Denmark’s Fano Island. An exception occurred here on Scotland’s east coast with the stretch of dunes from Fraserburgh down to Murcar and Aberdeen. Few if any locales have dunes more magnificent in size and scope than amid this 2,000 acre wild, rugged tract than seemed destined for golf. Why a course had never been built among these great dunes is a mystery. Perhaps it was too removed from a population base before the wide availability of the automobile? It wasn’t like Prestwick or Aberdovey where the train stopped.
To say that the region has a long and distinguished golf history is an understatement. The Society of Aberdeen Golfers was formed in 1780. Golf soon followed at Port Errol near Cruden Bay and at Peterhead in 1841. One hour to the north is Fraserburgh. who claims to be the oldest golf club under its original name. Sheep must have felt a loss of job security with the advent of grass cutting equipment in the 1830s!
With dogged determination and an iron will, the developer of Trump International wouldn’t accept the local council’s rejection as the final verdict. Ultimately, the Scottish parliament granted the right to build golf here. Feelings were hurt and parties who didn’t get what they wanted felt cheated. Sadly, and unnecessarily, the process for golf approvals has become more acrimonious than at any time in the game’s history.
With permitting in place and tight construction parameters required, the onus fell back on the owner to deliver something special. What a horrid waste it would be to spoil such special land with a mediocre product. Hype wouldn’t do – only a world-class facility could suffice. Crucially, the owner hired an architect who had demonstrated a comfort working amid cherished dunes. With Martin Hawtree, the owner got a man whose firm had experience in dunesland from Lahinch to St. Andrews. Construction began in 2010 and the course opened for play July, 2012. The better the land, the less man has to do and the quicker a course can be built. Such was the case here. As orchestrated by Green Keeper John Bambury and his crew, the blend of fescues in the fairway and the bent fescue blend greens have grow-in well despite some unusually harsh weather. As of June, 2013, the greens were already up to a 10 on the stimp, which is a very short time for fescue greens to knit so well.
The give and take between the owner and architect paid off well. The optimal way to critique their work is to go hole by hole as we will below. The course measures 7,430 yards from the championship tees. While this may seem preposterously long, the course was conceived with the expectation of hosting the very best. The second distances noted below are from the 6,600 yard tees which are eminently enjoyable for the man whose handicap is stuck at 8 as he tries to be a good husband and father.
Holes to Note
First hole, 540/490 yards; Given the polarizing nature of the owner’s bombastic public persona, many golfers arrive wanting to love the course but there’s likely a similar number who want to pick it apart. One early criticism that took hold when the course opened was that it was too penal. Thus, the neutral player may be shocked to see this warm, inviting opener.
Second hole, 445/410 yards; The hype surrounding the owner and his high profile projects is enormous. Does he deliver? Golfers have heard and read about the ‘Great Dunes of Scotland’ for many months leading up to the course opening. Can any course live up to such a crescendo of superlatives? Stand on the tee of the second and one gets the distinct impression that this course may be the real deal. Indeed, the unmarred view of the breathtaking landscape below creates a hope that expectations might be even exceeded as the land is that exceptional.
Third hole, 205/165 yards; This is one of the best-situated greens anywhere in golf, as the putting surface is but twenty-five yards from the edge of the North Sea. The sound of the waves helps make the connection to nature particularly intense. The front left to back right angle of the green oriented to the coastline is most appealing. Apart from the natural beauty, we note that the course starts 5-4-3, a perfect flow of pars. It closes 3-4-5, a sure show of how much time Hawtree spent in getting the balance and sequence of holes just right.
Fourth hole, 565/515 yards; This long hole takes the golfer to the southern end of the course where the fifth through ninth then loop back to the clubhouse. Though the winds can come from any direction, the prevailing one here is against the player. Since three of the four par fives play in this same direction, the good player might have to look elsewhere for birdies. It is refreshing to see genuine three shotters still playing a role in links golf. The curse of the fast and firm edict is how to build par 5s that actually play as such and not just as long par 4s. Hawtree’s routing that sends three of the four into the prevailing wind is shrewdly brilliant. No doubt George Crump, the founder of Pine Valley and a strong advocate for genuine three shot holes, would approve. Crump might not approve of the similarity of the cluster bunkers used on those same three holes. There are just too many penal pot bunkers to create strategic pockets. Unless, the player can easily carry them, the lure isn’t there for him to flirt with them. This is a minor flaw and easily fixable with the removal of several bunkers, something that would only take a couple of day’s time. The big bones of the design (routing, general green placements, strategy) are excellent and à la every Open Championship links, minor adjustments will forever be made/required. To that end, it’s a plus that the decision making process at Trump International is – shall we say – streamlined!