Royal Troon is a course of extremes and contrasts. It famously possesses the longest and shortest holes on the Open rota, at 123 and 601 yards respectively. In what is a relatively benign introduction, none of the opening three holes stretches to 400 yards. On the face of it, they’re drive and pitch par fours to the modern pro. Reach the turn, though, and you’ll find every par four on the relentless back nine to be longer than those going out. At 431 yards, the 12th is the least substantial.
Despite a par of 36, the front nine is some 250 yards shorter than the inward half. Ominously, only one Briton has ever won an Open here – and that was Arthur Havers 96 years ago. The last six champions prior to 2016 were all American, as Todd Hamilton, Justin Leonard, Mark Calcavecchia, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf and Arnold Palmer all returned Stateside with the Claret Jug.
One American however, in Phil Mickelson, was thwarted in his attempt to make that seven straight at Troon in 2016 when he was pipped by Swede Henrik Stenson in quite possibly the greatest head-to-head battle in Open Championship history.
Compared to Ayrshire’s two other Open venues however, despite having hosted in 2016, Troon cannot rival Turnberry’s visual majesty (where does?), nor is it loaded with the eccentricities that beguile some and confound others at Prestwick.
That’s not to say this Open venue is lacking in either beauty or the sublime. Far from it. The new championship tee at the first, newly relocated tight to the beach, offers views of Arran, the heads of Ayr – and even Ailsa Craig on a clear day.
At 123 yards, the Postage Stamp is as cute as they come. In an age when Championship par threes are often twice the length, it is a reminder that subtlety of design is more effective an antidote to modern equipment than building a new tee to make a hole 30 yards longer.
Standing over what should be a simple wedge shot, only your technique, nerve and judgment can save you from golfing disaster. Needless to say, the tiny green is flanked by bunkers whose only function is ruin your scorecard. Just ask Rory McIlroy when he found one of them in 2016. Rory was lucky that his mishap came during a practice round, others have not been so fortunate.
If the vista from the 8th tee doesn’t intimidate you, then try the 11th. So close to the railway it would make an ideal platform to catch the 11:05 to Glasgow, the phrase ‘sea of gorse’ hardly does justice to what lies ahead. From there, it’s an awfully long way back to the clubhouse that sits on top of the final green, especially if you’re trying to protect a score made on the front nine.
As much by skill as by strength – is the club’s motto. Take due note. To do well here you will have to seduce rather than overpower this vintage links.
As you might expect from a club that was awarded its “Royal” prefix on the occasion of its centenary in 1978, Troon occupies a narrow stretch of land. It is hemmed between by the Irish Sea and the ubiquitous links-bordering railway line. The front nine, with the exception of the 8th, broadly travels away from the clubhouse, while all but one hole on the back nine goes in the opposite direction.
So in a strong wind one half plays much, much harder than the other. In 1997, players repeatedly reached the turn in around 30 strokes, only to take another 40 or so to get home. The same was much the case in 2004, and in 2016 when it became practically par for the course.
“Some of the hardest holes are around the turn,” said Jan Chandler, one of Royal Troon’s past secretaries.
“There are only four blind drives and they come consecutively at the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th.
“My own favourite is the 7th, where the fairway seems so inviting but the green is difficult to find.”
By that stage, given a calm day, any pro worth his salt could expect to be a few under par. Following a trio of short par fours come a couple of fives, either side of a short hole. Even at over 600 yards, the 6th is still a good birdie chance with any kind of wind assistance.
From the 10th tee, at the very furthest point from the clubhouse, the challenge is formidable. In front stands a hill of gorse and wild rough. Beyond and as yet unseen tumbles a fairway, bisecting the hillocks and eventually leading to a raised green.
If four is a good score here then it feels like birdie at the next, which undoubtedly throws up more double bogeys and ‘others’ than any other hole. A run of five par fours is only interrupted by the bunker-surrounded short 14th.
Then comes Troon’s 5-3-4 finish that collectively calls for just about every shot in the bag. A ditch crosses the fairway at the par five on driving distance, and the wind usually dictates whether or not it can be attacked from the tee. If not, reaching the green in two is practically impossible.
The final short hole features a raised green that falls away on three sides. That makes saving par after missing the green particularly awkward. Just ask Greg Norman and Ernie Els, who bogeyed it during Open play-offs that they were expected to prevail in.
The last hole measures 453 yards but if it plays downwind, as it frequently does, the biggest problem can be the clubhouse and out-of-bounds path that sit tight to the back of the green.
Tam Arte Quam Marte – as much by skill as by strength – is the club’s motto. Take due note. Winners here have to seduce rather than overpower this vintage links, while regular visitors will have to try their hardest to do the same.