Mention “golf in Scotland” to most casual players and they’ll think of one place: St. Andrews. That’s fair, and understandable, as the Old Course is one of the three most famous locales in the game, along with Augusta National and Pebble Beach. And I did spend a wonderful afternoon there at the start of this nine-day jaunt around the island with the good folks from Connoisseurs Scotland and their transport service of choice, Little’s.
But St. Andrews is far from the end of the line for incredible golf on the nation’s northeast coast. In fact, it's only the start. Drive 90 minutes north up and you’ll hit Aberdeen, Scotland’s third-largest city. Built with oil money that’s still circulating to this day — evidenced by the tanker ships lined up to deliver crude pumped from below the North Sea — it’s all gray, imposing granite, one hulking office building blending into the next with the occasional break for a soaring cathedral or a green urban park. Not exactly the kind of place you’d imagine sprouting a solid golf culture, but it’s there. In fact it was one of very first golf cities, though it didn’t get the attention it’s long deserved until Donald Trump opened his course a few more miles up the beach near the village of Balmedie. Connoisseurs would lead us to that much-touted modern links soon enough, but first we had some serious history to absorb.
After a three-hour jaunt from Scotland’s western side we veered into a leafy Aberdeen neighborhood and checked into one of its most sought-after and golfer-friendly hotels, The Marcliffe. It’s really a suburban manor with a golf twist, its 40 suites and rooms branching out from the cozy lobby like doglegged spokes from a clubhouse. Hotelier J. Stewart Spence is life-long crazy for the game, a solid amateur player and a member at several clubs including Royal Aberdeen and Trump International. Virtually every top European and American tour player has laid his head at the Marcliffe over the past four decades, most recently during the Scottish Open in 2014, played for the first time at Royal Aberdeen and won by Justin Rose. All of them have hung out in the basement Golfing Memorabilia/Pool Room, the ultimate hackin’ man cave. We would gather there that evening before dinner in the lovely Conservatory Restaurant next door, knocking around a few snooker balls, sipping single malt and soaking in years and years of photos (including a sweet caricature of The King, Arnold Palmer, who had just passed two days before). For now it was quick lunch in the Drawing Room Bar & Lounge, where high tea is also served most afternoons. A bowl of Rigatoni Bolognese set me up for one of the most memorable late-afternoon rounds I’ve ever played.
After snaking through the city’s stolid gray tunnels, our Little’s driver for the week, Bruce, carried us over the Bridge of Don, through a nattily-clad middle class neighborhood and to the gates of Royal Aberdeen, whose club was established in 1780, making it the sixth-oldest golf club in the world. Its original 25 members — first dubbed “The Society of Golfers at Aberdeen” and finally “Royal Aberdeen Golf Club” in 1815, played on a public spit of land between the Don and Dee rivers, now called the King’s Links Golf Center. In the latter half of the 19th century the club acquired a two-mile stretch of tall dunes, windswept hills and grassy hollows just north of the Don, and the first full-length Balgownie Course came to life. Archie and Robert Simpson of Carnoustie laid out the original links on a classic north-south, out-and-in strip; James Braid re-bunkered it decades later. King Edward VII made it a “Royal” course in 1909 and it stood the test of time into the 21st century when, despite the objection of a few vocal members, Donald Steel and Martin Hawtree gave it some modern, technology-fighting tweaks and stretching it to nearly 7,000 yards. Hawtree would ride his work here, and that at other Royal & Ancient courses throughout the United Kingdom, to land the Trump International design job.
Like many of the U.K.’s oldest clubs (Royal Porthcawl in Wales comes to mind), Royal Aberdeen eschews grandeur in favor of deep-rooted, formal utility. The clubhouse isn’t huge or ornate, but it’s goosebump-inducing nonetheless, especially when accessed at the end of an early fall day when the members have gone home and you’ve got the old wood-paneled locker room and bay-windowed bar and grill pretty much to yourself but for the presence of an attendant or two. The room is still anchored by the original club captain’s chair dating to 1783, and the ballot box once used to vote in new members is also on display. Then you look out the tall windows and it’s right there, just a few feet away — the first tee. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re called to the box.
The opening straightaway par 4 of 409 yards plays straight toward the North Sea and its ever-present flotilla of tankers; on this day they glimmered under a near-cloudless sky. There’s a big, hidden swale guarding the green and a pair of serious fairway pot bunkers to negotiate, but more distracting (and enticing) is that broad horizon of dunes and water. Next stop, Norway, and if the 30 mph hour south wind had shifted a bit, it could have blown us halfway there. Then the course makes a sharp left turn for several holes hard against a dominant dune ridge, with the crashing surf just beyond, always in earshot. No. 2 is a squeeze-and-fire par 5 — tight off the tee, through a chute and broad but bumpy down the stretch. It begged me for my best bump-and-run magic and I did my best to oblige on the third-shot approach. It would take me few holes to get in any sort of keep-it-on-the-ground groove, and it would come and go through the rest of the trip. No. 3 is the longest of Aberdeen’s four par 3s, 217 from the second set of tees, though with a stiff helping wind it played closer to 190, with only two small bunkers to avoid. Then comes what I consider the meat of the course, holes 4 through 9, a rollicking stretch of elevated tee shots, blind approaches, tricky recoveries from mounds and depressions, and putts ranging from long to mega-long. The greens aren’t huge by, say, Old Course standards, but if the pin is tucked and you’re on the far side, it’s 50 feet minimum. The tee at No. 9, a stout 454-yard par 4, is one of the course’s highest points, serving up an uninterrupted view up the coast toward Trump International and renowned Cruden Bay; it asks for a big forced carry over low dunes and Marram grass, then turns back toward the sea for a slightly uphill approach.
After sneaking a look at underappreciated Murcar, a somewhat shorter 18-hole links just across a berm from where we stood on the 10th tee box, we gathered our grit and turned into the breeze’s teeth, starting with a completely blind drive over a heaving hill to a broad but short fairway. I picked the wrong line, too far right into lost ball territory. The play is more left to skirt a low dune and stop short of a green-fronting burn. It’s one of the tougher short par 4s we’d play all week. From there the inward nine snakes along the property line for several holes. No. 12 is another fine par 5 and 13 serves up another blind drive to begin a stellar quartet of 4-Pars. No. 17 plays about 175 yards into a crosswind, its well-bunkered green nestled in a shallow bowl with the flat sea horizon beyond. The finale plays all of its 433 yards and more, especially on the uphill approach to a green bracketed by the clubhouse and the separate pro shop, with a spacious practice area even further right.
Standing sentry over much of Royal Aberdeen is a single, tall windmill, erected within the past decade or so. It’s a sign of the times for Scotland, which, like many first world countries, slowly transitions to renewable energy. Lord knows there was plenty of wind on this day to keep those blades churning. After enjoying a cocktail in the clubhouse lounge as dusk approached, we headed back to the Marcliffe to relive our rounds over steak, fresh seafood and some fine wine from Mr. Spence’s cellar, as so many golfers, from famous pros to fellow pilgrims, had before us. Royal Aberdeen is a pure, few-frills delight at that top of its game. Now that it has hosted both the Scottish Open and the Walker Cup, can an Open Championship be far behind?
Donald Trump, too, is at the top of his game for obvious, tumultuous reasons, but his stunning electoral victory back in the States was more than a month away as we drove down the narrow lane from A91 to his first foray into Scottish golf. It’s a monumental design achievement no matter where you are on the political spectrum. In the six years since it opened to great fanfare (and, yes, great controversy, stemming from Trump’s well-documented battles with local residents — including building berms to block their views of the sea — and his ongoing legal challenges to Scotland’s decision to build wind turbines in view of the course), Trump International Golf Links has found a spot on most world top 100 lists. It’s not a classic links in that each nine goes in opposite directions from the clubhouse, and its setting among some of Scotland’s largest Marram-covered dunes (another source of friction with the environmental protection community) has more in common with some of Ireland’s most famous courses, such as Ballybunion or Royal County Down. In contrast, Trump Turnberry on Scotland’s west coast, which we’d play later in the week, is much more Scottish in personality, with its broader panorama of surrounding landmarks.
Swedish-born Jonas Hedberg, Trump International’s Golf Operations Manager, spelled out those differences as we lunched on Scottish appetizers — zucchini fritters, haggis bon bons, ham hocks and cheese and haddock goujons — following our morning round under leaden skies. “Here on the North Sea, we’ve got 12 miles of uninterrupted beach, at least,” he said. “You’re amazed at the course itself, every hole, whereas at Turnberry, you’ve got the Ailsa Craig, the Lighthouse, the backdrop of the Isle of Arran and Scotland in general. It’s really what type of [experience] you prefer.”
Hedberg joined us for the round; I played 10 holes with him, then he jumped back to join the other half of our crew. As a solid player who grew up playing with the likes current Open Champion Henrik Stenson and has been working here from day one, he described how the course has matured, and how the two nines continue to stir his soul in different ways.
“On the back nine there are clusters of dunes, whereas on the front nine, there’s a dune ridge, and then another one, and you play in between. Like on holes 4 and 5, out and back. From a golfer’s perspective, I like the back nine. It is a bit of a longer walk, perhaps three-quarters of a mile. It’s about five miles to walk the entire course.”
And what a walk it is. In layout out Trump International, Hawtree brought every natural advantage to bear, building drama in windblown, hulking waves of sand, turf and water; he’s not shy with the pot bunkering (I had to blast out backwards on No 4, a ribbon-like par 5 and the No. 1 stroke hole, scarring my card with a triple bogey), and he loves to ensconce green complexes in the most visually arresting natural amphitheaters possible. Hedberg is right: each hole is a portrait unto itself, rendered in bold strokes of bright, manicured green against the wild gold and dun hues of the natural dunes. The sea is always there, visible on perhaps half the holes, with the closest brush with the beach coming early, on the par-3 third green, one of the finest one-shotters in the region. The tee box at No. 6, the second par 3, affords one of the course’s three best on-high views, along with the tee at No. 14 (a truly great par 4, asking for a drive silhouetted against the sea and sky before falling between towering dunes for the narrow uphill trip to the green) and No. 16, the final par 3, where Hawtree conjures a broad, heart-pounding view before dropping you back into some of the tallest sand drifts for a solid finale. On the home hole, a 651-yard, into-the-wind beast, there are 16 bunkers to negotiate (I got the feeling that Trump himself had some say in that, judging from I’d seen at some of his stateside courses), plus two ponds up the left side. Escape with par there and you’ve earned the right to drop twenty bucks on that burger in the clubhouse restaurant, The Brasserie.
If you’d like to stay onsite during the course’s operating season of April through October, there’s the 17-room McLeod House, where we spent one night, finding it a good choice for groups in terms of convenience (though rooms are on the smaller side compared to, say, The Marcliffe, and some Old World issues do pop up, including dodgy water pressure) and The Estate, a former baronial mansion. Both were meant to be temporary accommodations in anticipation of a much larger onsite resort that’s now indefinitely on hold, as is a second course on a more bowl-like swath of dunescape to the south of the original links. But they were good enough for several tour stars to stay there during the 2014 Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen, including Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, who both raved about the links, according to Hedberg.
“Phil was here a lot and was a true gentleman. He’d practice a lot on the short game area and was here most evenings quite late. One evening was funny. It was 7 o’clock and he wanted to play the front nine on his own. There was nobody out there. He came back a couple hours later, at 9 o’clock, and told me, ‘That was unbelievable.’
“Rickie Fowler was a great story, too. He couldn’t wait to play here. I was watching the tournament at Royal Aberdeen on TV as groups came in on Friday afternoon. Rickie was in one of the final groups. A half hour later he was here — he hadn’t had any food or anything. ‘Any chance I can get a tee time here, right now? I’m staying here but I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.’ So he walked it with his caddie, his manager and one of his friends, played 18 holes and came off the course half-eight at night. ‘I couldn’t concentrate on the last few holes [at Royal Aberdeen], I was thinking about this course. It’s amazing.’
“That was pretty cool,” Hedberg concluded. Who can argue?
So, Trump clearly made his intended headlines with this course, and unintended ones, too. Empirically, it’s spectacular and challenging — and, yes, among the most expensive rounds in Scotland — though I’d contend that individual holes don’t stand out as much in the memory as those at some other courses we’d play, Turnberry included. And given that the Trump name is everywhere here and at all his golf courses around the world — the family shield on every flag, for instance — will the inevitable political bleedover prove a help or hindrance over the next few years? I suspect it’ll be some of both.
Royal Aberdeen: www.royalaberdeengolf.com
Trump International: www.trumpgolfscotland.com
The Marcliffe: www.marcliffe.com
Connoisseurs Scotland: www.luxuryscotland.co.uk
Scotland Part 2: Loch Lomond