Trump's Scotland course among best

Donald Trump's golf course at Menie near Aberdeen in Scotland.

Donald Trump's golf course at Menie near Aberdeen in Scotland.

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• For Bradley Klein's rater's notebook on Trump International Golf Links Scotland, click here

ABERDEEN, Scotland - Sometimes it takes several holes to realize how good a course is.

With Trump International Golf Links Scotland, the light went on in the middle of the fourth fairway, as I surveyed my second shot on a dramatic par 5 and realized I had several options – all of them with meaningful consequences for the ultimate path to the green.

That’s when I had to acknowledge that despite all the blaring horns and blithering hype about the place, this actually is a very sound layout.

But goodness, was there an awful lot of clutter and hype to sort through on the way to the first tee. Don’t these owners (and their advisers) know that when you tout a place as “the world’s greatest golf course,” it creates ridiculous expectations that no place can meet? Apparently, that’s what Donald Trump figured he needed to get the Scottish people to back him during five years of political wheeling and dealing in one of the most controversial course-development projects that Scotland – or for that matter, the entire golf industry – has ever seen.

For all the grandeur of the towering sand dunes that make the coast north of Aberdeen so inspiring, it’s a shame that an environmentally sensitive swath of it that had been declared by the government as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest,” was partially regraded and entirely grassed over with native marram plants to stabilize it. That’s what Trump insisted upon to get his course onto the most dramatic part of the 1,400 acres that sits along a three-mile stretch of the North Sea. It was all part of an ambitious plan involving 1,450 homesites and a 500-room hotel and conference center – all of which fit into an economic-revival plan for northeast Scotland.

It took the genius of Martin Hawtree, a veteran British course architect, to make the routing work. The worry all along was that the towering dunes would prove too much to play or to walk. Hawtree’s scheme was to locate the fairway corridors in the lower, more open terrain and step the tee boxes up into the framing dunes, with each successive set of markers on the par-72 layout from 5,215 yards to 7,428 yards more demanding and more breathtaking.

The scheme works. Much of the play takes place in areas below the dunes line, effectively limiting the impact of wind. There are some exposed shots across broken ground that make your heart flutter, most dramatically at the par-3 sixth hole, 183 yards over wild, untamed ground to a green nestled into a pocket of dunes. From the tee at the par-4 14th hole, 445 yards, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sight of the fairway below as it climbs up the back of a dune along the North Sea. And even if you’re smart enough not to play the championship tees, it’s worth the hike up to the back of the par-5 18th hole, all 651 yards, where, from 100 feet up, you gaze out across the entire width of the property.

Unlike traditional links courses, the connect-the-dots feel between green and next tee is not quite there. It’s the price you pay for going, Sherpa-like, on a trek to the next teeing ground. They are small platforms, scattered on different lines, though at least the walk forward to the fairway once you’ve hit is facilitated by well-defined, well-maintained turfgrass paths – 10 acres in all, unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.

There’s a lot to be impressed with, not the least being the sheer chutzpah of Trump having pulled off this project.

It’s a bracing experience, rugged and demanding but also with all sorts of little rewards along the way for having placed a tee shot properly or waltzed your approach around some other greenside hillock. And if you select the right tees and keep the ball in play, it’s also a lot of fun.

The corridors of these holes provide for adequate fairway widths, but there’s not much forgiving ground outside the normal bounds of play. And with at least half of the greens perched on modest tables, natural or otherwise, there’s also more aerial golf than is the custom with links play, and that gets messy in winds above 30 mph.

Visually and in terms of shotmaking demands, this is a spectacular course. The natural beauty and the precision required are almost enough to make you overlook the emplacement of the Trump family crest on each tee.

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