x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Donald Trump's golf course tees off in Scotland

After years of hype and hoopla, Trump International Golf Links has opened in Scotland, but will it really be the world's greatest golf course?

Donald Trump's new golf resort in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Brian Morgan.
Donald Trump's new golf resort in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Brian Morgan.

Nature versus nurture - for anyone who favours the latter half of that argument, there can be few greater living examples than Donald Trump.

The billionaire was quick to cite his Scottish mother when announcing plans for his multimillion-pound golf resort in Aberdeenshire in 2006 - he was the right man for the project because he was half Scottish. And yet, while claiming to be a man of the people, Trump could hardly have sounded less like a local from Scotland's often chilly north-east.

In this part of Britain, people tend to reticence rather than bombast. They're more likely to be pessimistic than optimistic. The mining of hard, grey stone by hard, grey people gave Aberdeen its nickname - the Granite City. Save for the occasional shock of strange reddish hair, they're about as far from the polished, smile-bearing tycoon as it's possible to get. Nonetheless, it was up here that the fiery businessman chose to build "the greatest golf course in the world".

No sooner had he picked the site and performed a practice swing for the waiting TV cameras, than he was being met by rancour and discord. First, the environmentalists complained that sea birds would be displaced and delicate sand dunes destroyed. Then the locals began to buck. One disgruntled homeowner resolutely refused to sell his land to the American, mirroring the plot of Bill Forsyth's 1983 film Local Hero, in which a Doric-mumbling villager refuses to give-way to a brash American oil prospector (played by Burt Lancaster).

By 2008, Trump found himself sitting in front of a public inquiry set up to adjudicate on his project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was rather bullish: "I'm going to do the greatest golf course or I'm not," he said. "If you want what we're doing, which will be truly a wonderful thing, let's do it properly. Let's not do it - we've an expression in the United States - half-assed. If you want what we are doing, let's do it properly."

Seemingly unperturbed by being publicly condescended to, the government gave the go-ahead. By late last year, things were progressing well, until plans for a wind-farm, two kilometres offshore from the course were submitted to local authorities. Trump was decidedly unhappy.

"I felt betrayed, because I invested my money based on statements that were made to me," Trump said. "Lots of very smart people with a lot of money are looking to invest in different parts of the world - when they see what happened to me and the way I've been treated, they're not going to be investing in Scotland."

Despite the heated words, the whinging, the protests, the threats and the arguments from both sides, this summer Trump International Golf Links finally opened on the Menie estate, just outside the village of Balmedie, 16 kilometres north of Aberdeen.

Now that it is open, the course has an almost impossible mission to fulfil its owner's aim of being regarded as the best course in Scotland, let alone the rest of the world. From Turnberry and Royal Troon in Ayrshire, to grand Gleneagles and St Andrews, the spiritual home of the game, Trump has fierce Scottish competition. Not to mention Royal Aberdeen, Royal Dornoch and Carnoustie, which are all also found along Scotland's rugged east coast.

Many of the world's oldest golf clubs and courses are in Scotland, and while there are other nations that claim to have played something similar at an earlier date, it's old Caledonia that is widely recognised as having created the sport. The first records date back to the 15th century when King James II tried to ban it, fearing that essential skills such as archery were on the wane as people took to the courses. His descendants Jameses III and IV tried to do the same, before the latter realised he couldn't turn back the tide. Instead, in 1502, he took up the game himself.

Old Prestwick was the home of the first Open competition, while the 500-year-old Old Course in St Andrews is revered globally as the doyen of the game. It is there, just off the back of the 18th green, that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club has its headquarters. Outside of North America, the rest of the world literally plays by its rules.

Hyperbole is a forte of Trump, a man who once claimed that if he were president "it would take me two weeks to get an agreement" between Israel and Arab states.

However, when I went to see whether the Trump International Golf Links could possibly live up to its owner's wild boasts, I wasn't even halfway around before I knew - almost grudgingly - that it was indeed one of the finest courses I had ever played. There are all sorts of compliments to throw in its direction but perhaps the greatest is that, despite it being less than three months old, and with the exception of one or two nascent holes, it looks and plays as though it's been there for decades.

Just as Trump predicted, designer Dr Martin Hawtree has ensured that the natural dunes play an essential role in sculpting the course. Several of the holes are set in valleys with sudden mounds, thick with heavy grass, ready to swallow up stray balls at either side. The opening four holes run along the North Sea coast and look out to the view that Trump fears will be ruined by wind turbines (though he's said nothing about the semi-permanent, ragtag fleet of ugly oil ships and fishing boats that patrol the waters).

As I approach the third, two riders use their horses to chase flocks of sea birds along the golden sand. At the intimidating par-five fourth, a huge grassy ridge separates the beach from the course on the left, while the Blairton Burn forms a huge water hazard on the right.

Scotland's rights to roam mean that people are free to walk anywhere they choose on the course. It's unwise to place oneself directly in the firing line of flying golf balls, so when I step up to the tee, I notice perhaps a dozen people perched along the ridge, there to spectate and, presumably, bathe in Schadenfreude when rich golfers' errant shots result in tantrums.

My drive lands to the right, well away from the people and just short of the stream. As I plod after the ball, I hear no applause from the gallery, though when I feebly trundle the next shot just 100 yards ahead of me, I'm sure I can hear their collected sneers carrying on the wind.

Aberdeen is the home of Britain's oil industry, so perhaps there won't be a shortage of people willing to play the course at £150 (Dh890) per round (£200 [Dh1,187] on weekends), but standing aside and watching, willing people to fail is completely free. Luckily for me, though my ball hasn't travelled far, it has stopped just short of 11 bunkers that guard the green, pockmarking the fairway as though it has endured a meteor shower.

Instead of worrying about what the spectators may or may not be thinking, I try to focus on the course, which is generally in superlative condition. The tees and greens are immaculate, which is remarkable considering the calamitous weather endured by Britain this summer. Dr Sawtree's design is consistently imaginative, cruel and, frankly, marvellous - never more so than at the sweeping 18th, another par five. At a gargantuan 651 yards off the championship tees, it will soon be deciding competitions and breaking hearts. It's a traumatic, gorgeous end to a remarkable experience.

Without a doubt, Trump International Golf Links is a sensational golf course that will only improve with time and will, very quickly, deserve to host major championships.

Now all that needs to happen is for Mr Trump to shut up and let his golf course do the talking - that may be the project's biggest challenge yet.


If you go


The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) offers return flights from Abu Dhabi to Aberdeen, via Manchester, from Dh3,810 return including taxes

The hotel Two nights in a double room at the Malmaison in Aberdeen (www.malmaison.com; 0044 1224 327 370) costs from £209 (Dh1,240) including a dinner and tax

The golf For details, visit www.trumpgolfscotland.com