At first sight, it appears the billionaire’s new links at Balmedie may just live up to the hype
THEY’RE an odd couple. One is bold and brash, the other quiet and unassuming. Between them, however, Donald Trump and Martin Hawtree have managed to create what looks sure to be a new jewel in Scotland’s golfing crown.
People laughed when Trump, speaking in St Andrews of all places, announced just over five years ago that he was going to create “the greatest golf course in the world”.
It still seems optimistic, and it is difficult to provide a verdict without having played the course. And who knows what effect the elements could visit on the course over the years, with the beautiful courses at Loch Lomond and Castle Stuart both having experienced unpleasant surprises in recent years.
But a visit to Trump International Golf Links near Aberdeen ahead of its opening next summer suggests that there is substance to the grand billing.
On a 2.9-mile stretch of dunes at Menie Estate, Trump and his designer, Englishman Hawtree, have crafted a course that is set to take the golfing world by storm.
Having already pumped £50 million into the project, you could say that was only to be expected but that would be an insult to the ingenuity that has been put into it by both men.
It’s hard to imagine Hawtree, a quietly-spoken individual, not hearing the words “you’re fired” beyond the first episode on Trump’s original US version of The Apprentice but the pair have gelled.
“The chemistry between them is magic,” said Sarah Malone, executive vice president of Trump International Scotland. “Mr Trump’s the visionary, the big thinker and ideas guy. But, when Martin speaks in his quiet way, everybody listens.”
He already had the R&A’s ear, having been commissioned by them to make changes to three Open Championship courses – Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Muirfield – in recent years. It’s unlikely, however, that Hawtree has ever worked for anyone with deeper pockets than Trump, who has given his architect full backing over every tweak he’s wanted to make in order to create something very special indeed near the village of Balmedie.
“This is a project that is really close to Mr Trump’s heart,” added Malone. “He’s passionate about the game and this place. No expense has been spared – it’s clear it’s a labour of love.”
Trump will never be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly in a land where brashness is viewed with suspicion but Malone asked: “Judge us on the basis of what we build.”
So I headed north with an open mind but not imagining the Trump course would come anywhere close to the likes of Muirfield and Royal Birkdale. Perhaps there was scepticism from hearing a self-publicist like Trump have the audacity to breeze into the home of golf and claim he has was going to create the world’s greatest course.
But the “wow factor” is undeniable. It’s the dunes that do it. Other courses in Scotland have been laid out behind magnificent sand hills and part of the front nines at both Royal Aberdeen and Turnberry, to name but two, run through imposing dunes. However, it’s easy to see why Hawtree describes the land as “more like the west coast of Ireland than the east coast of Scotland”.
Ballybunion springs to mind, although the Trump course is probably even more spectacular overall and that’s why it has the potential to become the latest addition to the list of “must-play” courses, not just in Scotland but the world.
It consists of ten par-4, four par-3 and four par-5 holes.
The two short holes on the front nine are gems – don’t be fooled by the fact there’s just one bunker on each of them. The trouble around the green at the third, for example, includes an estuary that isn’t totally visible from the tee, while it’s a full carry at the sixth, where a quarter of the putting surface is masked by one of those dunes.
The par-5 fourth could become one of the most-talked about holes in Scottish golf due to it being so dramatic from tee to green, while the fifth, one of the shortest par-4s on the course, has heather hazards on top of bunkers as well as a full field of heather on the left. The tenth has a double fairway and dramatic entrance to the green, while the back tee at the 11th is the highest on the course at around 120 feet above sea level.
Another excellent par-3 awaits at the 13th before the walk towards the 14th tee and the course’s “signature hole” fuels a feeling of expectancy with every step. From the elevated tee, the North Sea is roaring on your right and, on a good day, you can see Slains Castle, Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula, in the distance.
The hole itself is a par-4 that snakes between dunes and doesn’t require a single bunker to add dramatic effect.
By contrast, the 18th has 18 bunkers, the majority of which are located around the green. It also has natural wetland on the left and is a fitting finale.
It’s no surprise that some of those involved in the construction phase decided to stay on. Irishman John Bambury, for instance, was hired as a consultant grow-in manager but has just accepted a permanent position as links superintendent.
“You get one shot at a site like this,” said Bambury of the attention to detail shown by both Trump and Hawtree. Trump has paid three visits this year and is expected back in the spring.
“I didn’t have a clue just how involved he would be,” added Bambury. “He’s very knowledgable, not just about the game of golf itself but also when it comes to the architectural side.”
It was the developer’s decision, no doubt, to create a 22-acre driving range and a 3,000-square metre putting green, the latter having been dubbed ‘The Andes’ by Hawtree in likening the challenge to the one faced on ‘The Himalayas’ at St Andrews.
The ambition to host a European Tour event such as the Scottish Open is one thing but the Open Championship is a different matter and, ironically, the dramatic nature of some holes may give Trump most trouble convincing the R&A of his course’s suitability for the world’s oldest major. But there are places at Turnberry and Royal St George’s where it’s not exactly comfortable to walk and, having already laid ten acres of pathways, Trump is gearing his course up to move plenty of spectators around.
The course is destined to win a host of design awards and could break into the world’s top 20 courses in record time. And, if first impressions are anything to go by, it may well one day be looked at by the R&A in terms of a new venue for the Open Championship.