The 7,428 yard, par-72 links at Balmedie was designed by Dr. Martin Hawtree and is laid out in two loops of nine holes that return us to the attractive clubhouse at the halfway stage. It’s a tough course for sure but there are multiple tee-options to choose from which could potentially bring it down to a mere 5,845 yards and slightly less from the ladies red tees which makes it more than playable for most.
Located on a Site of Special Scientific Interest it opened its doors for play amid much furore in the summer 2012 but that’s another story entirely.
Regards the actual golf course; gigantic dunes provide the framework for many of the holes on the front-nine where drives from elevated tees are the norm at virtually every hole and heavily contoured raised greens, with a profusion of run-offs, greet you at their culmination. This is pure eye-candy to many golfers and if this is your thing you will love your time and experience here.
The fairways are generous, as they need to be in this windy climate, but noticeably flat (à la Saunton) and should you stray from the straight and narrow you are likely to use up your five minute allocation looking for your ball, indeed the starter advised us there is a local rule where the rough is classed as a lateral water hazard regarding dropping under penalty.
From the tee there is an undeniable fairness to it all and into the greens a very real precision is required with an abundance of sand traps to dodge. It screams present-day professional tournament golf to me and this is perhaps its ambition.
The taxing hump-backed approach to the first hole is one of many highlights during the round when ambitiously going for the green could easily cause you more problems as opposed to cautiously laying up because of the deflecting contours. The adventurous putting surface at the fourth is also very good as is the cunning green complex at the driveable seventh. The second shot into the ninth is a belter too but the best moment on the front side is the par-three sixth which is just a magical hole played across a valley to a partially-sighted green set amongst the dunes with the mother of all bunkers waiting for anything leaked to the right. The other one-shotter, the third, is also a beautifully located hole, close to the beach, and continues the linear march along the rugged coastline from the clubhouse which lasts for one more hole before we turn back slightly inland and retreat to our starting point.
Individually each hole on the front nine is excellent, and can hardly be faulted when considered in isolation, but collectively they don’t quite take you on a rhythmic pilgrimage as the very top courses nearly always seem to have the habit of doing. That said the golf is good; big, brash and bold with an emphasis on the ocular.
In my opinion the back-nine is superior and has a much better flow to it. The terrain for good, strategic golf is significantly better and the holes engage with the golfer to a greater degree.
The tenth has a lot of character with a green nestled in the dunes whilst the next has a more classic, understated appearance curving right around more gentle sandhills. After playing to a wide fairway the approach into the 12th is simply marvellous and the next, a par-three across a valley is sensational - as well as being the only hole that doesn’t run North-to-South or vice-versa. The other one-shotter on the inward half is also magnificent with a slightly angled green, which widens towards the rear, and is protected by deep pits down the left. The 15th is a bit of a sleeper hole which benefits from an angled drive off the blue tees as opposed to the back tee which makes this a dead straight hole.
The 17th may well be the best hole on the entire property with a sweeping drive and dreamy approach to a green set slightly to the left; it’s a hole that looks superb from the tee and gets better every stride of its 466 yards.
Meanwhile, the final hole is noted for its 18 bunkers and although there appears to be a bit of a scattergun approach to their locations (in fact all four of the par fives would benefit from less bunkers) this is undoubtedly a memorable finishing hole and at over 650-yards from the back tees, which you are encouraged to play from, it is a real bruiser.
Because of the many drives from the tops of dunes there are several stunning views during the round at Trump International but there is one truly jaw-dropping panoramic vista and that is when you walk onto the elevated 14th tee and face a hole that ploughs its way through the Great Dunes of Scotland with the North Sea and dramatic coastline to your right and a fairway far below requiring a drive that plunges into a secluded valley. It’s an uplifting moment and for those who have visited Askernish you’ll know this feeling well from the 7th tee there.
Away from the course the service received was of a very high standard and the practice facilities are superb. The chipping and pitching green is amazing and a couple of hours could easily be whiled away here.
It should be said that any critical comments for Trump International come from a very high base line and there’s absolutely no denying that this is the type of golf course many golfers will drool over. However, it’s not a golf course for those seeking an authentic and genuine links golf experience where your ball is predominantly played along the ground and where subtlety and nuances of the land dictate the way you play. The penal nature diminshes the strategic elements to the design. If you are seeking this you would be far better heading up the road to Cruden Bay or a little further south to Royal Aberdeen.
It should also be noted that the course is only a few years old; it is still being nurtured and will clearly develop and improve over time. At the moment there is an obvious newness to it all, a hollowness to the playing surface if you like; the turf is nowhere near as keen and compact as the fabled links courses of the UK that earn their fine distinction and merit crossing an ocean for. Time is a healer as they say and this is exactly what Trump International needs. Unfortunately you cannot buy or manufacture something that takes decades, if not centuries to evolve, mature and mellow.
So for now, let’s just enjoy it for what it is at the moment and that’s an especially fine modern-day championship links course.
The Dunskey course at Portpatrick is one of the most fun and enjoyable I have played in Scotland.
Not many people know but there is also a third course at Turnberry and this is the nine hole Arran course.