Trump’s lust for golf majors lands Turnberry – but there could be rough ahead

Turnberry hotel and golf resort – Trump’s new place. Brianac37, CC BY-SA

When Donald Trump announced that he would not be making any further investment in Scotland and would instead focus on his new acquisition of Doonbeg golf course in County Clare, Ireland, many people no doubt thought they might have heard the last of this self-styled outspoken business maverick in the UK.

This was in light of a court judgment refusing his legal challenge against the offshore windfarm near his Menie Estate golf complex in Aberdeenshire. But within less than a month he hinted to the Telegraph that he was working on a major Scottish golf acquisition.

Sure enough, we have now learned that for the sum of around £35 million he has acquired the iconic Turnberry golf course and hotel complex perched on the Ayrshire coast in south west Scotland. So what caused him to apparently change his mind so quickly?

Chasing majors

The answer is no doubt the opportunity to own a golf course that will almost certainly host the Open Championship in the next five years and thereafter probably every decade or so. This event, played each July, is one of men’s golf’s four majors and possesses a rich heritage stretching back to 1860 when it was first played at nearby Prestwick.

Since that time it has always been played on a “links” (a coastal course characterised by dunes, undulating and bumpy fairways and fast running greens) as dictated by the governing body, the Royal & Ancient.

Currently there are nine courses on the rota – St Andrews in Fife (where it is played every five years); Carnoustie in Angus; Muirfield in East Lothian; Royal Troon and Turnberry in Ayrshire; Royal Liverpool in Cheshire; Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St Annes, both in Lancashire; and Royal St Georges at Sandwich in Kent.

In the US one of Trump’s 12 courses has already been selected to host one of the other two rotating men’s majors –- the US Professional Golf Association has confirmed that it will use his Bedminster course in New Jersey to host the 2022 USPGA. He is confident that he will also land the even more prestigious US Open soon because as he says, “I have the best courses in the best locations”.

The UK conundrum

But in the UK, Donald Trump has discovered to his cost that having the best course in the best location is no guarantee to landing the Open Championship. His recently opened course in north-east Scotland at the Menie estate on the outskirts of Aberdeen is, according to him, “the greatest golf course in the world”.

It was presented as being a suitable venue for the Open. But while the Royal & Ancient welcomed the creation of an acclaimed new course within Scotland, it conspicuously refused early overtures to endorse it as a possible Open venue.

For a number of very good reasons this is hardly surprising. First, on the not unreasonable basis of geographical inclusivity, there are other areas of the UK –- notably the whole of Wales and Northern Ireland –- which would have a much stronger claim to being included on the rota.

The Royal & Ancient has stated that it has been in discussions with Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim (because of the troubles the Open has not been held in Northern Ireland since 1951). No course in Wales has ever hosted the Open –- although there are strong claims for Royal Porthcawl in Mid Glamorgan.

Second, and connected to the above, no “new” venue has been added to the rota for many decades. Some have had lengthy “sabbaticals” –- Carnoustie was taken off the rota after 1975 and was not allowed back until 1999 by which time a much-needed hotel had been built.

Royal St Georges and Royal Liverpool didn’t see Opens for 32 years and 39 years respectively. Even Trump’s newly acquired Turnberry was left off the rota for 15 years due to the need for major road infrastructure improvements in the area.

Menie problems

Third, as many readers will be aware, the development of the Menie Estate had been hugely controversial. This would cause the Royal & Ancient some discomfort and possible embarrassment (I gave evidence at the public inquiry on behalf of local objectors).

The layout of the back nine holes required sacrificing part of the Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest -– one of the largest mobile sand dunes in the UK. It was described by Glasgow University’s Dr Jim Hansom, an expert witness for Scottish Natural Heritage, as “one of the jewels in the crown of our national identity”.

The project wasn’t just a golf course. It included a 450-bedroom hotel, 950 time share units and 500 houses. Approval was eventually granted, but only after Trump had threatened to walk away from the project and the Scottish parliament had investigated the conduct of the first minister in determining the application.

So if you can’t create a new Open venue it is probably easier to buy an existing one. Of the current nine, Turnberry was the only one that realistically could be bought. The others are private members clubs or owned by trusts.

To those that have played golf there –- or like myself just walked across it –- it has near unparalleled credentials both as a test of golf and as a visual setting. It is surrounded on three sides by the ocean with magnificent views over to the awe-inspiring Ailsa Craig.

An island called Ailsa. Outlaw_Pete, CC BY-SA

There might still be clouds on Trump’s horizon, though. Any attempt to adopt his normal policy of naming the course after himself –- Menie is now called Trump International Golf Links (Scotland) – would almost certainly cause conflict with the Royal & Ancient. And when the Open was played at Turnberry in 2009 the aggregate attendance fell from around 200,000 to 120,000, causing the Royal & Ancient to lose around £1m in revenue.

While the governing body does not readily accept new venues to the rota it is unlikely to permanently remove an established one; but if attendances at this venue are poor again next time –- due to poor access or inadequate local accommodation – there remains the possibility that Turnberry might not feature roughly every 10 years on golf’s major calendar in the future.