Gil Hanse’s latest creation is a contemporary take on ancient links lands shaped by sand and time – much like his acclaimed design philosophy
Blind dates of the golfing kind are invariably awkward.
The nervous suitor arrives snappily dressed and fashionably early as golfers are want to do. They’ll still need to size up a clever opening line on the fly but won’t know if their game is compatible until well beyond the first tee.
The object of all this affection is a course so new, it transpires, that it’s still fussing over an alluring picture and description for golf’s equivalent of an online dating profile, the club website. It’s just as eager to make a favourable first impression but equally doesn’t want to come across as too forward for fear it might be perceived as ostentatious or difficult, unsuitable for any sort of meaningful long term relationship.
There will be no such awkwardness when you stride onto the flowing first tee at Trump International Golf Club, Dubai. Indeed, visitors will be charmed the moment they roll up to bag drop at the foot of a majestic 30,000 sq ft clubhouse, a sweeping crescent-shaped statement that stands architectural compare to anything in Middle East golf (no easy feat) and promises to plate gourmet delights and dish-up service to a white-gloved standard.
Making golf great (fun) again
Wander through the massive open-air atrium after check-in and Gil Hanse’s creation begins to reveal its character. You’ll happen upon the neighbouring 9th and 18th greens and the man-made lake that guards them both, a promise of the strategic challenge and slippery run off areas to come. Your gaze will also catch the towering clock that is a trademark at all of the U.S. President’s courses worldwide. A silent observer of history, it’s positioned to the right of the rumpled 1st and 9th fairways which are stitched together by just a peep of the sandy baranca areas which snake and weave through this rustic, links-style layout.
ON THE TEE
The first design subtly you notice at Trump Dubai is the long, undulating tee box which melds seamlessly into the first fairway. There’s no discernible rough either which brings the opening hole on the Old Course at St Andrews to mind; its no coincidence that Hanse spent half of a year’s scholarship studying course architecture at the home of golf. More distinctive links quirkiness is to be discovered on the 7th and 12th, but more on those magic par 4s later.
The generous fairways are all part of Hanse’s mission to make Trump Dubai playable for golfers of all abilities, although the relatively comfortable departure on the 1st gives way a challenging approach that spotlights the strategic delight of the design.
Miss a green at Trump Dubai and it’s just as well you are a short game wizard as well as a golfing Casanova. Neither? At least there’s plenty of un-used lead in the pencils they hand out with the scorecard because you’ll be scribbling down some sizeable numbers.
The premium Hanse places on approach shots and short game creativity is ratcheted up on the second. The par 5, presuming you negotiate the tee shot and second to a narrowing and eventually water-fringed fairway (only the strongest hitters or foolhardy will dare a dart at this green in two), accentuates the tightly clipped Tifgrand Bermuda grasses used on the green surrounds.
With water left, it will be easy to bail out right with your third shot but this will see your ball separated from the Tifeagle Bermuda-carpeted green by a steep little dune, presenting a test of your wedging nerve with the wet stuff ready to swallow any skulled flop shot. Many will be tempted to use a putter from such a tight lie which is just what Hanse envisaged when he helped sculpt this course into life from the controls of a bulldozer.
The American has designed the surrounds to make even the lowest of handicappers think. It’s not impossible – the higher marker or short game challenged can revert to the Texas wedge – but it’s no cinch either, providing length is not the only defence to the march of modern club and ball technology.
“That’s the most fun part of the game from my standpoint,” Hanse enthuses. “Not being a great golfer myself, I loved having imagination in recovery because everyone thinks of golf architecture from the standpoint of you tee it here, you hit it there and you are suppose to get it on the green in regulation. But that never really happens for 96 percent of us. From that perspective, the short grass around the greens really gives you the opportunity to feel hopeful, feel like you are going to hit a fun shot.
“Conversely, for the better player, that is a more difficult proposition. Put a really good player in the rough or in a bunker, it’s all muscle memory, they know the shot, they just hit it, boom, it’s done.
“But you put them in a situation where they’ve got to think, ’do I want to putt it, do I want to chip, do I want to flop it?’ then you get these cornels of doubt going in their head…maybe that’s not the right shot, maybe it is?
“It’s one of those perfect scenarios where it is playable for everybody and interesting, yet the level of precision to pull off that shot to get it close for a good player is probably more challenging than being in a bunker because they can hit that shot pretty simple.”
It would be easy to wax lyrical about every hole at Trump Dubai, let alone all the clever little nuances around the greens. Instead we’ll leave a little suspense by emphasising a few early favourites.
Beyond the par 3 3rd where any tee shot left will be wet, and the eye-catching (albeit intimidating) tee shot on the 4th, you swoop down into what feels like an amphitheater framed by apartment blocks for a memorable three-hole stretch.
The 5th is another aesthetically pleasing par 3 to a massive green (don’t miss left) while the 6th requires strategic thinking rather than a driver off the tee. You’ll need a solidly struck short iron approach as well to avoid the baranac that runs at near right angles to the green; the waste areas house five types of native grasses which are not to be tangled with or you could well require a sharpener for that pencil.
The 7th is Trump Dubai’s No.1 stroke hole and undisputedly so, triggered from a mammoth teeing ground that bends banana like towards a fairway bordered by apartment buildings to the right and a craggy-edged drop-off to baranac left. You’ll be thankful you chose to tee it forward on the 1st (hint, hint) as this beastly par 4 looks like a par 5 from the tee and only becomes more intimidating the closer you get to the green.
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The day we tested Trump Dubai the author and the club’s head pro, Sven Nielsen, were both punished for hooked tee shots into the baranac. Nielson’s second found one of three gnarly little, hard-packed pimples Hanse has (sadistically) left in the big bunker guarding the front of the green, presenting an almost impossible shot the big-hitting South African duly air-mailed over the green. It’s a green that gives new meaning to undulation too with a massive crease running through the middle, not unlike the famed 16th green at the quirky North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland. The editor, needing three to get on the green, needed three more to get off it after having to putt through the crevasse. Your flat stick will likely see plenty of overtime on this course.
The short par 4 8th is a driver and a flicked wedge to a green atop a dune. It’s framed by a peep of the clubhouse in the distance, a backdrop that is magnified in a fitting finale to the outward nine.
A decent drive on the 9th may tempt you to have a pop at the par 5 in two but with bunkers and a near-nude run off to the right of the green, any mis-struck shot will feed down into that greedy lake. A three shot strategy may prove more prudent and your reward for a layup will be a close-up of the miniature rupture in the fairway just shy of the green. It looks like it’s been created by a small earthquake rather than an earthmover – and absolutely lovely with a touch of late afternoon shadow to enhance its linksy-ness.
The homeward half shapes as the easier of the two nines but only by a whisker. Accuracy with approaches to the 10th (short-side yourself on the right at your peril as you’ll be chipping to an uphill green from a downhill lie) and 11th will be required for pars before you arrive at the aforementioned 12th.
All great courses have a drivable par 4 and this is Hanse’s memorable version at Trump Dubai. The biggest hitters may even get home here with a three wood or hybrid but holding the green will be a different story, either with a tee shot or your short second.
At its most anorexic, the 12th green is just seven paces wide. A pin cut here will be mightily tough to get at and with tightly clipped drop-offs at just about every turn, don’t be surprised if your third shot is also from off the green but further away. It’s a risk and reward gem sure to be a joyful source of conversation in The Ninth, the clubhouse bar, after most rounds.
Then you get these cornels of doubt going in their head… – Gil Hanse
The strategic-approach, short-game combo continues on the stretch of holes from the 13th to the 15th (make sure to take a peek at the awesome par 3 Academy Course on the way): a strong, dog leg par 5 to a well-bunkered, hanging green; a testy par 4 with a big slopey putting surface and a par 3 over the same interconnected baranac.
The closing three holes are gems all, the sweeping left-handed par 4 16th to an enticing but well-protected green proceeding what many consider Trump Dubai’s signature hole. Hanse secretly despises the term as he gives each hole equal design love and attention but it’s easy to see why this little par 3 is so cherished, although you mightn’t be so enamoured if you miss the terraced green short and end up in the baranac.
No round is over until the very last shot and there promises to be quite a few of them on the 18th, a par 4 that hugs that pesky lake all the way down the left. The approach here is over a bank of bunkers that challenge your depth perception. The obvious bail out is right but this means a deft downhill chip onto a green that seems to slide into the water, ensuring any matches that survive until the last hole will go to the wire.
Some will bypass Trump Dubai based solely on the openly divisive politics and personality of the man now sitting in the Oval Office. Given his past statements on Muslims alone, that’s entirely understandable, not least in this part of the world.
But conveniently ignoring Trump’s increasingly unavoidable geopolitical influence, it is hard to deny the impact the 45th U.S. President is having on modern golf globally. Nielsen witnessed it first hand with Trump’s acclaimed redevelopment of the Alisa course at Turnberry before he was headhunted from the Open Championship venue to head the academy at Trump Dubai.
A doff of our cap to the leader of the “free world” for selecting one of the golfing world’s best to sculpt what is a magnificent addition to the Middle East golfing landscape. This despite the aesthetic limitations Hanse faced building inside the corridors of a major real estate project. We love that the distances between green and tee box makes the course walkable in the winter while superintendent Ben Griffiths deserves much kudos for the immaculate surfaces, a glorious, grassy final coat on Hanse’s handiwork.
Not unlike the American architect’s Olympic Games course in Rio, Trump Dubai is an eminently playable layout without being easily score-able, striking just the right balance between the advances of technology and the still generally unreliable swings of the vast majority of weekend warriors.
While the high handicapper will revel in finding fairways, to score well the low marker will still need to position their drives for decent looks at pins. Regardless of ability, bring your short game with you as nerveless wedge play and plenty of bump and run artistry are a perquisite to seeking out a good score.
“I think with all of our courses we’re trying to hit the sweet spot where they are wide enough to play – sure you are going to get in trouble if you are hitting it errant, but it’s plenty wide to hit shots – but then the level of precision required to score on the golf course is much, much higher,” Hanse said.
“What we tried to do here is just to get it to a point where it is fun to play and if there is ever a tournament or we need to really ramp it up, I think we can set it up pretty difficult and especially if the wind blows out there which it seems to do quite a bit.”
Like a memorable first date, Trump Dubai does exactly what Hanse hoped it would…it leaves you wanting more. We’re already looking forward to a second rendezvous but maybe not before a little short game guidance from Nielson. The first date was awkward enough.
This feature first appeared in the February issue of Golf Digest Middle East.