ABERDEEN, Scotland – Trump International Golf Links is a triumph of design – a bold, stirring seaside layout that already is driving more golf tourists to the Scottish Highlands. But it also is a course that will need several years for its turf conditions to mature into a fast-running links.
That is the consensus of a group of U.S. tour operators with whom I played the course to cap a recent 10-day tour across Scotland. Most of the group, all of whom are members of the North American Golf Tour Operators Alliance (www.nagtoa.com), were seeing Trump International for the first time.
“It’s a huge, majestic, big-time, major course,” said Bill Hogan, president of Wide World of Golf. “It’s a tough go for the higher-handicappers, but for the core golfers it’s going to be a home run. It really needs five or six years to grow in. But how do you pick a signature hole? You can’t. There are so many signature holes.”
“I thought the course was fantastic, better than I even thought it would be, and I will 100 percent tell my customers to play it,” said Jason Scarth, president of Britannia Golf. “I think it will end up being one of the best links courses anywhere in the world. I think it probably needs a couple more years to mature, but you knew that going in.”
That was a common theme: The layout is tremendous, but it will get even better as the linksland matures. Debbie Bussey, who runs Absolutely Golf & Travel and chairs NAGTOA, said she “was blown away by the beauty of the course.” At this point, however, she said it is “very much like a parkland course stuck in sand dunes. . . . It will mature in a few years.”
“It’s a special course, and I think it in time it will become a very special place,” said John Gosselink of Fore Seasons Golf Tours. “It will probably not in our lifetime get the true approbation of being a links course in the sense of (Royal) Dornoch and (Royal) Aberdeen, but it’s a wonderful golf course that could host any tournament. . . . The grow-in conditions will take several years, at least, but I think the bones are there. It could host any championship.”
While Trump Links is situated near Royal Aberdeen and Murcar Links, Ed Holofcener, president of Golf Zoo, saw some similarities with courses that are more familiar to Americans.
“It’s a links course, but it reminded me a lot of the southwestern U.S. – Arizona, Las Vegas,” he said. “Instead of the big, massive dunes (Trump) has, it’s the mountains, the rocks, that kind of topography – some of the courses that I would describe as more canyon golf than dunes golf. But I think it’s a great course.”
I played in Holofcener’s group at Trump Links, but didn’t discuss the course with him until after the round. Ironically, though, I separately had made a similar observation to one of our playing partners, John Flannagan of Flannagan’s Golf Tours, after hitting my second shot on the par-5 fourth hole. Looking up the hill toward the green, I was reminded of some of the mountainous desert courses I’ve seen over the years. That might reflect the impressiveness of the dunes – at times, it really does feel as though you’re walking through canyons – or the fact that the rough was so brown coming off of a harsh winter. The fact that the young turf was playing more like a target course than a links underscored that perception.
Bussey and Gosselink shared a concern about pace of play. “The most important thing I’ll tell (clients) is to expect 4 1/2-hour rounds, and it’s a long walk from greens to tees,” Bussey said.
Before playing Trump Links, our group had speculated as to how many golf balls we might lose, having heard some horror stories from others who had played it. That turned out not to be much of a problem, despite a shifting, two-club wind. The rough is penal, but the fairways tend to be quite generous.
“I decreased or eliminated a bias I had about the Trump course,” said Peter Hellman of Classic Golf Tours. “I came into this thinking it was going to be very difficult, impossible to play in many regards, the type of course that you would play once and never again, and possibly something that over the years would not be on anyone’s itinerary. To my surprise and delight, I found the course very playable, a lot of fun, and I’m definitely going to include it in our itineraries.”
On this point, Bill Campbell of Campbell Euro Golf Tours was less sanguine.
“I was really impressed by it, but it’s not ready for my clients, and it won’t be for maybe four or five years,” he said. “It’s a difficult course. I don’t think it’s a course for the average golfer, the 20-handicapper. I thought the layout was fantastic, the views are awesome – probably one of the most scenic golf courses I’ve ever seen or played. But the conditioning is an issue. . . . It’s probably going to be one of the finest golf courses in the world at some stage, but that’s probably five years off.”
Flannagan was among those who speculated that Trump Links might help the Highlands siphon golf tourists away from better-known destinations, such as the Ayrshire Coast.
“People want to go to Trump, and they’re (also) going to play Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay rather than Prestwick, Troon and Turnberry,” he said.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. St. Andrews is far and away Scotland’s biggest draw for golf travelers, with Aberdeen among the regions queuing up to lure those who want to explore more of the country. And the quality of the lodging in the Aberdeen area appears to be catching up with the golf offerings – in part a reflection of the fact that the city is home to Scotland’s oil industry.
“For the (tourism) industry, (Trump is) adding another night for sure onto the Aberdeen area,” Hogan said. “If you spend three or four days in St. Andrews and three or four days in the Highlands, you have to come around here to get in Royal Aberdeen and definitely stay for a day at Trump.”
“For clients, (Trump) wholeheartedly will be endorsed,” said Graham Spears of Sterling Golf Tours. “I’ve already had clients play it. I’ve had more inquiries for that particular area of Scotland than any area other than St. Andrews and maybe Dornoch. It’s a must-play.”