For those visiting Scotland with golf as the central focus - whether first time or return - the usual emphasis points to places such as St. Andrews, the greater Edinburgh / East Lothian area, the Scottish Highlands and the southwestern coastal area from Glasgow. No question, each possesses attributes worth exploring.
But, there is another location - always appreciated by the Scots, but now drawing more attention and rightly so from those within the UK, North America and on the European continent.
The northeast area of Scotland is anchored by the third largest city in Scotland, Aberdeen. Perched on the coast next to the always unpredictable North Sea, it is here in concert with the broader Aberdeenshire area that superior golf offerings are now being better appreciated, although the spark for that renaissance is tied to an individual who has long engendered strong feelings - pro and con.
Say the name of American real estate developer Donald Trump and you can be sure the mixture of comments will range the full gambit. Trump is also a major golf enthusiast and when the golf market was tanking in a big time way during the last severe worldwide recession, Trump moved aggressively forward, branding his name inexorably to the twin elements of top tier golf layouts, linked with superior customer service and - at various locations - stunning for what they give the human eye.
Trump’s landing in Scotland in 2006 was not exactly met with the same excitement shown when The Beatles came to America. Many Scots were rightly taken aback by the braggadocio billionaire, bursting into their backyards, and announcing the boldest of plans to fully develop a sensitive tract of major dunes land, roughly 12 miles north of Aberdeen.
Timing worked with Trump’s arrival and plans. The Aberdeen area was more noted with the exploration of energy sources such as oil in the North Sea and when prices started to decline the need for diversity in tourist offerings was central to the greater area. Golf, while always a part of the overall area and local interest, was more in the shadows for international awareness. Getting attention is something Trump has specialised in, but ultimately it is the combination of golf offerings that is now driving attention for an area that many need to place on their golf agenda.
Courses in order of preference ...
Trump International Golf Links
Less than 30 minutes from Aberdeen centre is Trump’s course in Balmedie. Opened in July of 2012, the most striking feature, more than anything else, is the awesome mounds dotting the landscape. I saw photographs before coming to the property, but frankly no photo can truly do justice to what the human eye beholds. Truly spectacular and massive, the dunes frame many of the holes slotted between with high grasses, blowing like wheat against the manicured areas. The clichéd expression - seeing is believing - is apt here. What is frankly amazing is such land was devoid of golf for so long, since the facility is not far from the core Aberdeen area.
For many people, the thought of Donald Trump as a USA presidential candidate may be hard to swallow and his bombastic temperament did not sit well with a number of local officials and area people, given his strident views on why golf was needed on the site. Trump even took legal action to stop the placement of 11 turbines to generate wind power just off the coast and within eye-view of Trump’s facility. That fight failed and the resulting war of words only added verbal gasoline between various parties.
Nonetheless, Trump selected wisely in hiring longtime UK architect Martin Hawktree, given his previous expertise in updating such timeless links courses with the likes of Lahinch and The Old Course at St. Andrews. From the tips, the course maxes out to 7,428 yards. Only the best of the best will do battle from those distances - given the healthy 77.4 course rating and 149 slope.
There is sufficient tee-box elasticity for those of different skill levels, but be advised the weather along the coastal area here can turn quite stormy at times. The intensity of the wind can make playing more than a chore - utter survival at times is not out of the question. The rough areas are also quite thick and for any shot that ventures off the manicured areas it will take a herculean effort to reclaim your ball. I overheard a caddie tell a golfer on a nearby hole on whether his wayward shot might be found - the response was succinct and to the point. “Lad, you can wrap that ball with bacon and even Lassie could not find it.” Priceless Scottish candour.
Can the course host a future Open? Hard to say, but it would appear doubtful. Not because of hole quality, but being able to weave massive galleries through the land would be a tremendous chore and environmental nightmare. However, hosting a future Ryder Cup is a different matter, and given Trump’s success in turning “no” into “yes” it is not something so easily dismissed. There have been plans for a second course, on adjoining land, and it is likely that Hawktree will be the man responsible for that effort as well. But the mercurial Trump has a campaign to run and whether that should take place remains to be seen. www.trumpgolfscotland.com
Cruden Bay Golf Club
Roughly 30-35 minutes north of Trump’s golf offerings is Cruden Bay. The course is the handiwork of Tom Simpson - the man responsible for The Old Course at Ballybunion. Cruden Bay has rightly developed its own cult of worshipers and for good reason. The course starts slowly with the first three holes - enough time to get the joints in working order. The par-3 4th is utterly spellbinding. Playing uphill to a green framed by mounds and to your immediate left a fishing village that tugs tight to the water. There are a select number of holes in golf providing either incredible scenery or superior shotmaking challenges. Few do both equally. The 4th at Cruden Bay fits into that rare merger.
The 5th through the 7th are tour de force holes. The 5th is brutish long par-4 with a green ably contoured with a rear half that falls away. The 6th may be one of Scotland’s finest risk-and-reward par-5 holes. After a well-placed tee ball you face a big time decision - go for the green in two shots or opt to play safely for a short pitch? There is a devilish burn that runs just in front of the green and pity the player just one inch short - their ball sliding back to a sure drowning. The 7th tee has been extended, from a previous 380-yard dog-leg left hole to a more physical straightaway 449 yards. The green is sandwiched between two massive mounds, like great danes protecting the target from any half-hearted attempt.
Cruden Bay suffers a tad from a mid-section of holes that have quality land, but less in terms of architectural heft. There has been as recent desire to improve the likes of the 9th, 10th and 16th holes from architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert in order to bolster the qualities when held against the others at Cruden Bay. The planned improvements will clearly add to the overall spirit of what so much of the course provides.
The par-5 13th - with its serpentine fairway - puts pressure on the tee game and the green is angled just enough to exact any vengeance. The 14th is relatively mild when played at 389 yards, but when stretched to 415 yards the tee shot is daunting, as the hole suggests more room left when there is more room to the right. The green sits way below the fairway and you must rely upon instincts and the Almighty’s blessing to secure the right line for one’s approach. Just when you think the course cannot out-do what you have already played, you encounter a blind - no misprint - a blind par-3, topping out at 242 yards! The rear tee has players coming over a portion of the preceding hole, the green angled behind a stout hill with only a directional marker present for alignment. The key is maintaining the focus, with the North Sea crashing to your right and the hole sporting a rather narrow passage it is quite easy to lose one’s focus. When you step off the 18th green at Cruden Bay you will feel the urge to go out and try it again. The true measurement of greatness - Cruden Bay has it in spades. www.crudenbaygolfclub.co.uk
Royal Aberdeen Golf Club
Heading 15 minutes south of Trump’s palace are two golf options, located literally side-by-side. Royal Aberdeen tested the finest seniors in ‘05 and was won by Tom Watson and in 2014 with The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open won by Englishman Justin Rose.
The club dates back to 1780, when formed as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen and became the Aberdeen Golf Club in 1815. Until 1888, members played on the Queen’s Links close to the city, before moving across the River Don to the links at Balgownie which constitutes the present course. The club’s “Royal” designation was awarded by Edward VII in 1903. Recent architectural refinements by architect Martin Hawktree have clearly helped the course.
The qualities of Royal Aberdeen start at the first tee: an opening par-4, long enough to stretch the muscles, but not overly demanding. The intensity meter picks up considerably for the remaining outward half. Straight driving is an absolute must to sustain your round here - Royal Aberdeen is quite particular in this regard and no compromises will be granted. The inner half of holes drops a bit in terms of the rigours encountered earlier, but the home hole - 440 yards - makes Royal Aberdeen especially memorable. The drive seems fairly benign, but only after you see where the green is located does it become truly evident that only two back-to-back first class shots can tame this lion of a hole. www.royalaberdeengolf.com
Fraserburgh Golf Club
I had not heard much previously about Fraserburgh, but upon arriving I was informed the club is the fifth oldest in Scotland and seventh oldest in the world. Golf goes back to 1777, one year after American formally declared independence from the UK. James Braid, the champion golfer and later course designer, is the man responsible for the existing design - dating back to roughly 1920 - although a few holes were added to the mix with others deleted in 1951 and later in the 1970’s.
Like many olden links, Fraserburgh runs out and back with just one hole playing against type and it is a dandy indeed - the par-4 13th - with its multitude of playing options. Choose wisely when playing “The Hillocks” and execute, as the locals say, “smartly.”
Sadly, the opening and closing holes at Fraserburgh are mere bystanders to the key design elements that follow between holes #2 through #17. They are both on dead flat land and devoid of anything remotely consequential or memorable. A pity.
The second begins its slow ascent over Corbie Hill - which incidentally is the official name of the championship 18 - and you begin to wonder what lies beyond the hilltop. As you climb the third tee the full vistas of Fraserburgh awaits.
The third is short par-4 with a cliff-top tee and elevated green at the end of the journey - be mindful of the artful false front to the putting surface. The fourth returns in the exact opposite direction and is one of the real highlights of any round here. The hole is listed as a short par-4 but the uphill climb on the approach shot makes any play a rather dicey one, combining both nerve and precision. Just grand stuff - one of the best short holes I have played in all of Scotland.
Fraserburgh is not long - just over 6,300 yards from the tips - but winds can easily whip in either direction off Fraserburgh Bay. Course conditioning is spotty in certain locations and a bit of “fresh paint” would bring to life the qualities the course possesses. Still - for the adventurous golfer who does not need all the extra trimmings - Fraserburgh is well worth the time and the hospitality received is second to none. www.fraserburghgolfclub.com
Murcar Golf Club
Murcar is immediately adjacent to Royal Aberdeen and the atmosphere there is a good bit less formal. Murcar opened in 1909 and the layout plays just over 6,500 yards. The opening two holes are quite routine - just getting the golf muscles limbered. The one fascinating element about Murcar is that the demands just grow with each shot and hole played. It is not especially noticeable at first, but by the time you reach the par-3 5th - a longer version of the postage stamp hole found at Royal Troon – you will begin to realise the design is raising the ante with each swing.
Murcar’s finest hole comes with the par-4 7th - called Serpentine because of the way the fairways slithers from tee to green. Wind, whether into or behind, dictates careful deliberations at the tee. The strategic elements in tandem with the utter beauty of the terrain work in total unison here. Murcar is similar to Royal Aberdeen in that the opening half of holes is the better of the two sides. www.murcarlinks.com
Meldrum House Country Hotel & Golf Course
Playing links courses can be plenty of fun, but when the wind is howling the rigours can be daunting to say the least. Roughly 15 minutes from Aberdeen’s airport is Meldrum House Country Hotel & Golf Course.
Meldrum is a true hideaway from the incessant pace of daily life. It provides a welcome tonic to 24/7 manic stress. Just pulling into the grounds starts the process in reconnecting with your inner self.
Golf is part of the package and the par-70 7,000+ yard course is not brutish or a slog in anyway. Meldrum has a number of holes which feature “choke points” - areas where the fairway narrows down and the player must decide just how aggressive or conservative your line of attack will be. Turf quality is quite good and the intersection of stately trees and frequent water hazards makes for an interesting array of challenges to overcome. Be sure to check out the original house - Meldrum is a walk back in time but one that ably provides all the 21st century creature comforts. www.meldrumhouse.com
Banchory Golf Club
Banchory Golf Club is a parksland layout - adjoining the River Dee and roughly 30 minutes southwest of Aberdeen. The course is not long or overly demanding. The par-3 16th is just 88-yards but requires a deft touch to hit the small target and escape with a par. With six par-3 holes the course is just under 6,000 yards with a 69-par. Banchory is not overly demanding, simply an enjoyable walk in the woods with basic golf provided. www.banchorygolfclub.co.uk
Overall golf assessment - outstanding.
Northeast Scotland gets far too little attention given the fanfare paid to other areas in the country. Aberdeen’s recent rise as a city of note has certainly helped stoke attention and visits to the area. The quality of the golf is well done and the close proximity driving wise makes getting to all of the aforementioned courses quite easy. Whatever one’s opinion of Trump may be, he clearly has added to the golf portfolio and made many people realise how solid the long time classic designs such as Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay, to name just two, are. The key for the area will be in executing visitor awareness in a similar manner as done with those facilities in and around St. Andrews, East Lothian, the Ayrshire region near Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands.
Places to stay
MacLeod House & Lodge offers luxury accommodation and dining. Dinner, Bed & Breakfast and Stay & Play packages are available. Donald J. Trump’s historic Scottish mansion and lodge is set amid mature woodland in the heart of the magnificent Trump International estate. This opulent boutique house hotel provides exquisite superior and grand deluxe guestrooms, intimate bar and dining facilities, and is the ultimate setting for dinner, bed and breakfast, private parties or exclusive use.
Heath Hill Hotel - A hearty Scot welcome comes to those staying at the Heath Hill Hotel. The converted farmhouse has ample privacy away from the downtown area of Fraserburgh, but still close enough to all key locations - including Fraserburgh Golf Club.
Kilmarnock Arms - Within a short wedge shot of Cruden Bay Golf Club. You can literally walk from the course to Kilmarnock Arms. Just a grand lodging experience, plenty of creature comforts with a bar area fully prepared to handle all of your lost opportunities when playing golf that day. None other than Bram Stoker - the famed Dracula author - stayed at Kilmarnock in 1894 with nearby Slains Castle just a short stroll away.
Meldrum House Country Hotel & Golf Course - Conveniently located near to Aberdeen Airport and a very short ride from the core center of Aberdeen. Meldrum provides the total package - solid service and quality rooms. Great for intimate settings or ever larger groups.
Raemoir House Hotel - Located just 15 miles southwest of Aberdeen - a stay at Raemoir House is regal luxury to the max - complete distancing from the daily commotion of ordinary life. Just 20 rooms in two different buildings the overall ambiance is simply grand stuff. Experience royalty without the necessary peerage in tow.
Things to see and do
Slains Castle - A ruined castle just east of Cruden Bay - was the inspiration for the Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel in 1897. Plans have been on hold since 2009 to restore the castle which was erected in 1597 on the same site as Óanother pre-existing castle - worth visiting when in the area and on a glorious sunny day provides a tremendous view of the coastline and surrounding area.
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses - Located in Fraserburgh is the location of the first mainland lighthouse built in Scotland and has an accompanying Museum providing overall info on the historic connection of lighthouses within the country. Well worth visiting when the weather turns inclement - not an unlikely happening in Scotland.
Macduff Marine Aquarium - Located on the Firth of Moray in Macduff - roughly one hour away from Aberdeen - the Aquarium gives a solid understanding of the various marine life in the region. Perfect venue for all, kids young and old.
Dunnottar Castle - Roughly 30 minutes south of Aberdeen is Dunnottar Castle. The castle today is in ruins and is perched 160 feet above the North Sea - connected by a tiny strip of land to the former fortress, which played a leading role in Scottish history through many centuries.
Loch Muick - Needing a bit of connection to the outdoors? Head to Loch Muick - scenic views guaranteed via hiking paths accentuating all the elements Mother Nature impressively provides.