Turnberry (Ailsa) Golf Club
- Par 70
- 6967 Yds
Unlike some Open Championship venues, Turnberry is loved the world over.
Ask the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Greg Norman about the Ailsa and prepare for fulsome praise.
Apart from the visual splendour, they like it quite simply because it invariably rewards good shots.
The crumpled fairways of Royal St George’s, for example, were not to the liking of everyone back in July. Some find Royal Lytham & St Annes, walled in on three sides, visually underwhelming. And Carnoustie, while its class is not in question, was almost unplayable when the Claret Jug was last competed for there.
But Turnberry seems to inspire nothing but affection from all who visit – from Open champions to thrill-seeking holidaymakers.
The reasons – while multitudinous – are generally obvious.
The views are magnificent throughout, with Ailsa Craig offering a constant brooding presence. This huge, granite rock has a haunting, captivating quality. Sometimes brilliantly clear, and sometimes shrouded by cloud. Often its outline blurs and then fades from view completely.
The locals say that, if you can see it, rain is on the way. If not, it has already arrived.
Like all links courses, the weather is a major factor but at Turnberry it influences more than your chances of a good score. The experience is simply incomplete without seeing the sun illuminate the famous lighthouse or, later in the day, melt into the Atlantic Ocean.
The third instantly recognisable landmark is the white hotel which stands proudly above the links. It is easy to see why it has become so popular with international tourists.
The fact that the Ailsa hosted what many believe to be the greatest ever Open Championship is also in its favour.
When the game’s most prestigious tournament came to Turnberry for the first time in 1977, no-one could have predicted what would unfold.
The finest two players of the day, Nicklaus and Watson, found themselves head-to-head at the very top of their form for the final 36 holes.
Later Hubert Green, who eventually finished a distant third, would declare that he considered himself the real champion since his two fellow Americans were playing a different game to the rest of the field.
Starting the weekend level, both fired rounds of 65 to set up the final-day showdown.
Watson’s stunning finish – including an approach to within inches of the hole on the last green – gave him another 65 and a one-shot victory over his rival.
Turnberry’s profile was instantly elevated and the championship has since returned twice.
With the winners in 1986 and 1994 Greg Norman and Nick Price respectively, it has a record of producing great champions.
Sadly, on account of its modest transport links, the links that matters will not be hosting the event for a fourth time in the foreseeable future.
Three-time Open champion Player is just one of the game’s most authoritative voices calling for its return to the rota.
Although the R&A denies such a rota exists, it can be safely assumed that if a venue goes a decade without a championship and has not been confirmed for one in the next couple of years that something is wrong.
“It would be a tragedy if The Open never went back there,” Player said. “This is a great course with great hotel accommodation. The practice range is excellent and the enthusiasm of the people in this area is fantastic.”
High praise, but the R&A is still concerned by the problems of moving tens of thousands of spectators in and out of this remote corner of south-west Ayrshire in the Tiger Woods era of huge crowds.
The likelihood of it coming back into the fold for The Open, possibly in 2007, remains as elusive as the new road scheme, currently going through the planning stage.
“We’re still waiting for final confirmation on the road situation,” said Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R&A. “As soon as we have that then Turnberry is back in active consideration. The last I heard there were a couple of the usual objections to the planning process, which they are trying to deal with. That just delays confirmation. But we’ll be back at Turnberry, I’m sure of that.”
To the visitor, part of the delight is the journey. Located within an hour of Glasgow, it can hardly be considered remote but with only one, winding, coastal road to service it, transport is clearly a problem.
And because Turnberry is the sort of village you would miss if you were driving through and so much as blinked, very few spectators would be able to stay within 10 miles.
The nearest town with any amount of accommodation is Ayr and an efficient park and ride scheme – that worked without any major headaches at Sandwich this year – would be the most basic prerequisite.
Needless to say, there are no such concerns over the quality of the course, although its century-long history has been chequered to say the least. Originally owned by a railway company, the land was used in both World Wars as an airfield.
Fortunately, the stretch of holes along the coast – now the 4th to the 11th – were largely unscathed and Mackenzie Ross was able to restore the links using this land as the centrepiece.
Spectacular, photogenic and demanding, if there were ever a couple of hours for which you would like to save your very best shots, this is it.
Like Muirfield, the Ailsa is a particularly fair examination where all the hazards are visible – something the pros always approve of.
Indeed the only blind tee shot comes on the signature 9th hole, when the drive must be aimed across the sea and the rocks and over the brow of the hill to the fairway beyond.
As one of the most famous holes in all of golf, it hardly seems credible to call it blind.
The large, fast greens are generally receptive to a truly struck approach and the fairways are sufficiently flat to preclude a straight drive screwing off towards the rough or worse.
Which is not to say it is easy. Menacing bunkers decorate most fairways and tend to suck in a running shot. And needless to say, missed fairways tend to result in lost balls.
Unlike most championship courses, the Ailsa is set up sympathetically for the average player outside of tournaments. The fairways are generous for the most part and the semi-rough is manageable, so you will not go through too much ammunition unless you are having a particularly wild day.
It means a round there on a decent day is a real pleasure and you should go home with some warm memories of heroic pars – and maybe even the occasional birdie.
If it has a weakness, it lies in the comparatively unremarkable nature of the opening three holes. The 1st, in particular, is a bland opening hole for a course of its stature.
After these three medium-length par fours comes the first of the short holes.
Suddenly, you find yourself on a tee tight to the beach, playing to an elevated green protected by a huge bunker short and right and no room to play with left. It is difficult to see how anywhere but the green is an acceptable destination for a shot that will usually be played with no more than a short iron. Woe-be-tide is an apt name for such a dangerous hole.
From here, the following four holes travel parallel to the beach towards the lighthouse and Bruce’s Castle in the distance.
With a line of dunes between it and the fairway, the dog-leg 5th represents the first of Turnberry’s clutch of truly outstanding par fours. With the green tucked away amid the dunes to the left, the drive must skirt the inevitable bunker on the angle of the dog-leg or a long second shot to a small target awaits.
After the short 6th, a particularly tough hole for the shorter hitter because a shot of around 200 yards is played over a valley and must carry every inch of the way, comes Roon the Ben – a name that requires little translation.
A par five from the back tees, the uphill approach plays every inch of the way, although for championship purposes an extra 30 yards would not go amiss to make finding the green in two the exception rather than the norm for the pros.
There are no such problems at the 8th, an incredibly demanding long par four where the uphill approach to the cliff top green is complicated by the prevailing crosswind.
And if it was not hard enough, it can be difficult to maintain concentration as the 9th tee hoves into view.
The outlines of the island of Arran can now be discerned, and even the tip of Argyll.
This, of course, is Turnberry at its very best. Like crossing the Swilken Bridge, to stand on the championship tee is to walk in the footsteps of the game’s greatest players.
It almost ceases to matter that the tee shot is practically impossible. Not because of the carry, but on account of the domed fairway set at an angle to the tee that tends to reject even the straightest of drives.
The fun doesn’t end there. The 10th, bearing another self-explanatory title, Dinna Fouter, sweeps downhill towards the beach and then the short 11th demands a cute approach to carry the front bunker and hold the green.
A climb to the 12th tee represents a startling change of elevation and offers views across the Ailsa, but focus must quickly be regained to tackle a tee-shot usually played into the wind and which must avoid a cluster of bunkers dotted on and around the fairway.
Finding position while avoiding bunkers from the tee is key to the medium-length 13th before the altogether sterner challenges of the 14th, a hole that yielded only 12 birdies in the duration of the 1986 Open.
It is easy to see why; its challenges are not subtle. Quite simply, it is 449 yards in length, uphill and into the prevailing wind. Cruelly, two bunkers protect the front of the green, capturing true blows not quite lusty enough to find their target.
The final par three features a generous green that simply must be hit while the second shot is key to the 16th. The eponymous Wee Burn sucks in anything short or right and can provide a heartbreaking end to a fine round.
The second and final par five, scene of Price’s unforgettable and decisive eagle in 1994, is played down a valley with thick rough sprouting from the hills on either side.
Wonderful hole that it is, for championship purposes, like the 7th, it could do with being a few yards longer.
From the forward tees, the last hole is something of an anticlimax. A reasonable drive leaves no more than a short iron into a green unprotected by sand. From the back markers, set some 60 yards further back and offering a totally different angle, it is a different proposition with the drive transformed and a pair of bunkers barely in play from the front tees need to be carried to set up the second.
With the arrival of the Kintyre, which Donald Steel designed using the land which once comprised the Arran Course and a whole lot more, Turnberry now has not one but two world-class sets of 18 holes.
While he was lucky indeed to have such an exceptional piece of land to work on, he has done a remarkable job.
Despite only opening in 2001, the Kintyre blends seamlessly into the environment.
That it will host final qualifying for next year’s Open at Royal Troon tells you everything you need to know about its pedigree.
Mercifully not tricked up, the gorse-lined fairways make for intimidating driving while the downland-style holes on the cliff tops overlooking the Ailsa are as surprising as they are enjoyable – especially the exquisite short par-four 8th.
Nobody would pretend that playing at Turnberry comes cheap, but in the knowledge that the experience will match – if not exceed – expectations it is a treat that every golfer should enjoy.
Top Holes, Dan Murphy, Editor:
5th 479 yards, par 4
Named Fin Me Oot, and no wonder, because locating the green in the right number of shots is some challenge. You want to be playing your approach from as far to the right as possible because the green is set at an angle to the fairway and protected by a pair of evil bunkers. But doing so involves taking on a pair of fairway hazards and making the hole even longer than its 479 yards.
8th 454 yards, par 4
This long par 4 played towards the lighthouse with the sea on your left is as strong a two-shotter as you are ever likely to encounter. The fairway cambers from left to right and three bunkers await anything even fractionally leaked. The massive green is set above the level of the fairway and will sympathetically accept a solid, straight shot in but nothing else will get as far as the front edge.
10th 457 yards, par 4
Another long par 4 but this one does not necessarily play it, especially if you manage to take the inside line to sneak past the two bunkers in the middle of the fairway. Then you can get a forward bounce down the hill and enjoy the approach to a large green with the sea behind it. Watching a sweetly struck iron shot soaring towards this green is a special sight indeed.