By Spencer Anderson
BALMEDIE Scotland (Reuters) - Just about everyone, including people who don't care about golf, knows that American mogul Donald Trump, sometimes known as "The Donald" as if there were no other, owns a course in Scotland.
But how many people know what it is like to play it?
Before visiting with a golfing buddy, I knew of the controversies - environmentalists had opposed it when Trump bought the land in 2006, some landowners refused to sell. More recently, Trump scrapped plans to invest more at his site near Aberdeen, because he opposed plans for a wind farm nearby.
But I was curious to see for myself, and anything that has caused such a ruckus in one of the world’s quiet corners is probably worth seeing. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be opulent, tacky and over the top with delusions of grandeur? Or was it well run and enjoyable? The answer was all of the above.
Let’s start with the entrance.
The gateway is a little sign along the A90. The driveway feels like an entrance to an American golf resort - long, single lane, empty fields, quiet, clear that you are headed somewhere secluded and nice. The first thing you see is MacLeod House, a "historic" mansion dating back to the last decade, where higher rollers than myself can stay. I’m sure it’s nice, but at more than 300 pounds ($510) per night, I passed.
The drive continues down a steep hill where the clubhouse, practice area, course and sea all come into view. Impressive, but unlike the opulent hotel, the clubhouse is small, wooden and simple. A young porter collected our golf bags. Did he expect a tip? Were we suddenly in American territory? I played it safe and tipped him. He looked at me knowingly - another American.
The clubhouse’s interior is tasteful, but there is more Trump merchandise on sale than can be believed. Trump hats, Trump shirts, Trump T-shirts, Trump ball markers, Trump, Trump, Trump. My favorite was the bottle of Trump whisky that had somehow been aged for 26 years - for a course a few years old.
A picture in the bar showed Trump and Michael Jackson smiling together. After we laughed, the bartender offered to take our photo in front of it. We said no, perhaps mistakenly.
A young, formally dressed Scottish girl at the register gave us our goody bag, which was complementary with the 190-pound greens fee. Inside was a gleaming Trump International Golf Links tag, and a course guide, which deserves a mention all to itself.
Most such guides which are spiral-bound, on ordinary paper. This felt like a book. Its cover was black, with a large gold Trump logo embossed on the center. The logo is a shield with what looks like patches from a soldier’s uniform on it and two squabbling eagles below. Above that is a roaring lion holding a flag. Written in Latin around the lion are the words “Numquam Concedere”, which means “Never Give Up” - a summation of Trump's philosophy if ever there was one.
And there he is, on page one, smiling and with his arms spread wide. Beneath him is a letter detailing his passion for golf and Scotland, and calling his course the greatest in the world. Eat your heart out, St. Andrews and Augusta National.
Yet counterbalancing touches abound. The driving range, where practice balls were free, was on grass, not mats. The pitch-and-putt area was perfectly manicured. A four-sided clock ensured you knew how close tee-time was. There are seven tee boxes at every hole, making the course playable for almost all levels. Attention to detail and service were second to none.
We headed out to the first tee and our experience from then on was a mix of highs and lows. Were we loving this place or hating it? Could this be the world's greatest golf course, or was it a monument to power and money? How could we not be having a good time playing golf in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, in rare sunshine? Great shot, pity it’s on a course with a checkered history. Awful shot - blame it on Trump.
After nine pleasant and unhurried holes, the course took us back to the clubhouse, full of families enjoying a Father’s Day lunch together. Could we get a beer and bring it out to the course? No problem, sir. Could we order food and have it brought to us on the course? Absolutely. At the 10th hole I was brought a bacon sandwich with at least 10 perfectly cooked pieces in it, wrapped in paper with countless Trump logos littered across it.
For the most part, I was loving it. This was a true links course, with not a single weak hole - each was more fun than the last, posing new challenges we had never had to contemplate before in years of golf. All against a backdrop of bitterly divided locals and a man whose improbable head of hair has been compared to a red fox.
We finally arrived at the 18th tee and our caddy asked if we’d like to see the view from the professional tee box, which turned a 500-yard shot into a 651-yard behemoth. From the tee we could see the sweeping entirety of what we had just done, as well as the majesty of what had been built. Trump likes to give his interviews from this spot. Our caddy gave us a chance to drive from the box. My friend sliced hopelessly into the water. I barely reached the front edge of the fairway.
After missing a three-foot putt to cap off my round of 91, my head was all over the place. I’d had a blast on a course made by a man whose style I dislike. But I suppose the confusion was part of the experience. Playing Trump is development vs. conservation; urban vs. rural; USA vs. Europe; rich vs. poor; private equity vs. community activism; ancient vs. modern.
My advice would be this: Go. Play some golf, not just at Trump but at the dozens of beautiful (and substantially cheaper) courses in the area. Talk to as many people as possible, and find out for yourself.
(Spencer Anderson is a Senior Reporter for the People & Markets section of IFR, a capital markets publication from Thomson Reuters. His handicap is around 18.)
($1 = 0.5833 British Pounds)
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)