Surveying his land: Donald Trump looks out over the land that will become his Aberdeenshire golf course
It’s a little before six in the evening on a chilly autumn day in Aberdeen and Donald Trump is in a very good mood. Little wonder, too. Having flown in to the North East of Scotland from New York City overnight, the American businessman has spent most of the day checking progress on his much talked-about Scottish golf course.
The wrangles over planning consent having finally been resolved, construction work is now well underway on the billion-dollar development. And, having made his first visit since the diggers moved in, it’s fair to say Trump is both delighted and excited by what he has seen.
“We’re currently four months into construction and, already, the course is turning out to be beyond our wildest expectations,” he explains. “We always knew it was going to be good but we never thought it would be this good.”
He’s right, he has always said it will be good. In fact, on numerous occasions since he announced plans to build his first course in Europe, Trump has remarked that the finished layout will be “the greatest golf course the world has ever seen”. It’s a claim he stands by.
“I don’t believe that there’s any piece of land anywhere in the world that is comparable to what we have,” he says of the site at the Menie Estate near Balmedie, just a short drive from Aberdeen city centre. “We have the largest dunes in the world, which I have re-named the ‘Great Dunes of Scotland’, and it really is shaping up to be incredible.
“Take the 14th, for example. Some people have said it’s going to be the toughest golf hole in the world. Is it as tough as some of the others? I’m not sure. I think it’s certainly one of the most unique. The dunes almost go straight up. I’ve never seen anything like them. It’s an incredible looking hole. It was designed by God, it’s so natural, so beautiful. The whole thing is spectacular.”
For a developer to talk with such ebullience about their own project is nothing new. If you can’t get enthused about your own work, after all, how is anybody else meant to?
However, there is something about the way that Trump describes the land that will eventually become the Trump International Golf Links Scotland that is more sincere, more ‘involved’ than others are capable of.
Perhaps that’s no surprise. This project does have a sentimental meaning to him, after all, his late mother Mary MacLeod having been born in Scotland – in Stornoway, in fact, in 1912.
One suspects that she as much as anyone or anything else was behind Trump’s motivation for building this particular course.
“Coming here is not easy. It’s a long way from New York,” he acknowledges. “But my mother left Scotland at 19 and still came back every year. She was married to my father for 62 years, and they had a great marriage, but she just had such a great feeling for Scotland.
“She loved the Queen, too. She had great respect for her and the Royal family. She loved her heritage and was immensely proud of her background. So, I guess that helps me like this land even more. But beyond the emotion and sentiment, the land is still special. As I say, there’s nothing else like it in the world.”
Trump also reserves a special mention for the people of Aberdeen, whom he says have been ‘fantastic’ to him since he announced the project back in 2006.
“It’s been a long process to get to this point,” he says, referring to the protracted planning issues which, at one point, threatened to scupper his plans. “However, it has been more than worth it. The professionalism and support of the Aberdeen people has been superb. We’re very happy with the way the course is shaping up and hope they will be, too.”
Keen to repay this support, Trump says the staff he will employ at Menie will have a strong Scottish influence.
“At this moment, it’s hard to put an exact number on how many jobs the development will create,” he says.
“But we’re going to employ many, many people and they’ll be from Scotland.”
This process has begun with Peterhead-raised Sarah Malone being appointed executive vice-president of the development.
“I call her ‘Miss Sarah Malone’,” smiles Trump. “The way I found her was interesting, actually. A newspaper had written a profile of me and on the page opposite there was a story about Sarah and how she had taken a Scottish war museum and made it a huge success. She did an unbelievable job there. I read the piece and I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ So, I called her and I said: ‘Do you know anything about golf?’ She said: ‘No.’ So, I said: ‘Good, you’re hired.’”
He also ruled out placing the club in the hands of a specialist management company. “We run our own business,” he says. “I have thousands of employees. I get the best people, I pay them a lot of money and I say: ‘Okay, run it.’
“I have 12 golf clubs and they’re all owned and run by me. But this one’s very special, I don’t have any debt on this course, despite all the money I spent. No mortgage, no loans, nothing.”
As well as owning 12 clubs, Trump, a two-handicapper, has also won no fewer than 17 club championships.
There’s no denying, therefore, that he’s a bone fide golf aficionado and, as such, he can’t wait to play his Scottish course for the first time – though he’s not expecting it to be easy.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “We’ve cut the land, created mini fairways and installed the main pipeline for the sprinkler system, so it’s coming along.
“I walked the whole back nine with the designer Martin Hawtree, who has done an excellent job, and it’s shaping up to be something incredible. But, you know, I’m a good golfer and there are some holes that even I’ve looked at on our course and thought, ‘How am I going to make par here?’ It’s going to be a great test.”
He and the wider golfing public in general will be able to play it when it opens in June/July 2012. And Trump already has someone lined-up to hit the first official tee shot.
“I’d love it to be Sean Connery,” he says. “I love Sean. I used to watch 007 when I was a young guy and there was nobody like him. He also came to my defence about this course long before I even knew him and when no-one else was willing to do so. He spoke out when it wasn’t ‘en vogue’, I guess, to be supportive. It took a great deal of courage to do that.”
Trump also received support from Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning captain, Colin Montgomerie and that, too, is something he has not forgotten.
“Colin Montgomerie is a great person,” he says. “I’ve met him a couple of times. He is a great guy and a great champion. I have so much respect for him.”
At the mention of the Ryder Cup, Trump’s eyes light up. It is, he says, one of his favourite sporting events.
“I love the Ryder Cup and it was too bad about the weather at Celtic Manor. It’s maybe my favourite sporting event and this year was amazing.”
He refuses to rule out bidding to host the Ryder Cup at his Scottish course at some point in the future, either.
“We’ve designed the course to the highest standards of golf, so whether it’s the Ryder Cup or the Open or any other event, we’re going to be ready for it,” he says. “Here’s the thing: we’ve got roughly 2,000 acres of land [at the Menie Estate]. Now, to have a great course you need 200 acres. We’re giving ours 500. That shows how seriously we’re taking it.”
Given all of his family and business commitments – a typical day starts with the alarm going off at 5am – Trump admits that setting time aside for a round of golf often isn’t easy.
“I play on weekends, mainly. Obviously, I try to play as much as I can but, yeah, it tends to be restricted to weekends,” he says. “It’s hard finding time to play, for sure, but the nice part is, when you’re on a course, you’re kind of working. I do – and, over the years, have done – a lot of business on the course.”
With that, it’s time to go. After a long day both in the air and on the course, Trump could be forgiven for wanting an early night. Instead, he’s off to a dinner at Aberdeen’s swanky Malmaison restaurant with around 20 guests.
However, as he heads out of the door, he stops and turns, points to the latest issue of bunkered that he has taken away with him, and says: “This is a great magazine, by the way. You guys do a great job. I hope we’ll see you back here again soon.”
He can count on it.