It was more of a mist than a drizzle that descended on the grand opening of Trump International Golf Links—Scotland on Tuesday. That said, it was pouring all day—with accolades.
Start with Donald Trump himself, who made no bones about declaring it “the greatest golf course in the world” at the ribbon cutting. OK, after you finish rolling your eyes and clearing your throat, consider this comment from Sandy Jones, chief executive of the British PGA, who gushed, “There is no doubt in my mind it will certainly be in the top three in the world, but I don’t know what’s going to be number two and number three.”
Added George O’Grady, the European PGA Tour’s chief executive, “The quality of the golf course is good enough for any tournament.”
A third testimonial emerged from Colin Montgomerie, who concluded, “All I can say is, it’s so far one of the best—if not the best—links courses I’ve ever played.”
I played Trump Scotland during the grand opening as well, and I have my own opinion: Pass me the Kool-Aid, because I’m taking a deep drink. This course lives up to every bit of the hype.
Mind you, I’ve been down this road before with Trump. He’s relentless in his assessment that he has the best course in New York, the best in New Jersey, the best in Florida and the best in California. I tip my hat to each of his efforts. They’re mostly terrific. But I’ll toss back Shinnecock Hills, Pine Valley, Seminole and Cypress Point in rebuttal.
Scotland also has a few courses that folks admire. Try St. Andrews, Turnberry and Muirfield, for starters. The point is, however, that not one of these courses remotely resembles Trump Scotland, in look or playability, nor does fan favorite and Scottish Open host Castle Stuart for that matter. For pure grandeur of setting and as a championship test of golf, Trump Scotland blows away those well-respected elders.
Trump Scotland astonished me, far exceeding my expectations. What I can compare it to? Nothing. This time, Trump is completely believable. His new course is without peer.
Yes, there were political issues in getting this course built—still ongoing—related to the Donald’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to negotiations. But now that it’s done, the focus should center on the golf, period.
So what’s so compelling about this layout? Everything. Trump Scotland boasts bigger dunes than Ballybunion and Bandon, is tougher from the tips than Carnoustie, and offers views that compare with Turnberry and variety that could compete with Muirfield and North Berwick. It is macho golf at its finest, with frilly scenery to soften the sting, yet strategic options abound from start to finish, thanks to a marvelous bunker scheme from architect Martin Hawtree and to fairways much wider than they first appear from many tees. Simply stated, this is bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking golf on the grandest scale in the history of links golf.
Only perhaps Ireland’s Waterville and England’s Royal Birkdale trot out similar set-ups, with 21st century length, framing dunes and water views, but Trump does it bigger and better. More specifically, great courses are comprised of great individual holes, which is why Pine Valley always tops Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World. It has more great individual holes than any other course. Trump Scotland could be the links equivalent. Each of the 18 holes is a stern, scenic and strategic entity.
I’m a huge fan of the par-5 first hole, with its roomier-than-it-looks fairway, shaggy sandhills framing the landing area and backdropping the green, and a series of artfully placed bunkers that come into play no matter what the wind is doing.
The par-3 third serves up a beach and North Sea view through a notch in the dunes, yet the look and shot value can change dramatically depending on which tee box is used. The corridor is wide enough for two holes, but there is only one, with teeing grounds scattered to the far left and far right, and still others etched high in the dunes.
Donald Trump Jr., who managed the project on-site, favors the par-5 fourth, which features an exciting and exacting tee shot, one that if over-faded will splash down in Blairton Burn. The wildly contoured green will linger in memory as well. I asked Hawtree if he had a favorite hole. Most architects avoid direct answers, muttering about how they love all their children equally and that there’s no such thing as a “Signature Hole,” but not Hawtree. “The par-3 sixth,” he said. “It’s got everything: a burn, dunes, the sea view, a demanding shot—it’s got it all.”
I also like the 10th, a 573-yard par 5. I don’t quite understand the split-fairway concept, but the approach, uphill through the tallest dunes in golf, is unforgettable. Still, it’s the par-4 14th that left me speechless. It won’t take long for this 445-yarder to take its place as one of the greatest holes on the planet. It’s the 11th hole at Ballybunion on steroids, without the quirky fairway and semi-blind approach. The highlight is an elevated tee that blasts you with jaw-dropping vistas of the North Sea, the beach and an amphitheater of gigantic dunes. The 14th might be the greatest natural golf hole I’ve ever seen.
So is Trump Scotland the greatest course in the world? No. Well, not yet, anyway. It’s my job to nitpick, and I can tell you that Trump Scotland lacks the smallish, chaotic fairway contours that make many links so enticing. Also, too many green surrounds have a manufactured sameness to them, with scooped out depressions and corresponding ridges that lack the randomness I warm to on classic links.
Most significantly, I’m not sure even after two trips around that this course will be realistically playable in the stiff breezes that typically blow through this area of Aberdeenshire. Yes, the fairways are surprisingly wide—certainly friendlier than they appear at first glance—but virtually the slightest pull or push disappears into impenetrable gunch. The caddies don’t even bother searching. You just drop and play. For me, this eliminates one of the greatest aspects of golf, especially links golf, which is recoverability. Oh well, Pine Valley isn’t high on recoverability either.
Let’s be honest. Trump built his namesake course 180 miles from his mother’s hometown not for the timid, once-a-month resort golfer, but for serious sticks. This is no pop quiz. It’s the bar exam of golf—only much more fun. It’s also surprisingly walkable, despite its vastness and elevation changes. Give it a season or two (and some rare sunshine) for the otherwise perfect fescue fairways and greens to mature and firm up and we’ll see where Trump Scotland winds up in the rankings.
Regardless of where it places in the future, Trump International Golf Links—Scotland is a bucket-list, must-play course right now, on its opening day.