What’s not to like about attending the opening of a new golf course? There’s usually the anticipation of playing somewhere new, usually with some nice hospitality thrown in.
Sometimes it’s a bit special; at one opening some years back I enjoyed a few holes and later shared a dinner table with Retief Goosen, a lovely man with a beautiful swing. So it was no hardship to roll up to Turnberry for the formal opening of the new King Robert the Bruce course.
As anticipated, the affair was certainly not low-key; over croissants and coffee in the palatial Turnberry Hotel Ballroom, we were greeted by an effervescent Eric Trump, now the man in charge given that his dad has other things on his plate.
There is no doubting Eric’s enthusiasm for Turnberry and his genuine appreciation for everyone involved in the development of the resort, particularly Martin Ebert with whom he has worked closely over the eighteen months’ development of the new course.
Introductions made, Martin then gave an impressive, hole-by-hole account of how he had fashioned a virtually new course on the footprint of the previous Kintyre course. Particularly impressive were the drone fly-overs of the four new holes on Bains Hill where the views, if anything, trump, (pun intended), those from the Ailsa course.
Our anticipation heightened, we repaired to the eighth green, where before a backdrop of the lighthouse and Ailsa Craig, the Trump entourage came over the horizon, surrounded by pipers and with “King Robert the Bruce” to cut a tape with a ceremonial sword. All very OTT and American, but actually quite fun, and the press photographers loved it, as the following day’s papers confirmed. Which, I suppose, was the object of the exercise.
Having, on the green, introduced myself to Eric and his wife, Lara, and arranged an interview later, it was back to the hotel for a couple of glasses of bubbly and then out on the course.
In truth, it wasn’t the first time; some two months’’ earlier, in preparing a preview, (Played by NCG), I had traversed the course by buggy with Martin Ebert, so I knew what changes he had made and his philosophy behind his design moves. However, a half hour buggy ride and a four-hour round are very different things, so I was really looking forward to seeing how the new course played and the shots required.
In truth I never much liked the old Kintyre; I didn’t like the way that the acres of gorse and thick rough guarded each side of the fairway, and the sameness of so many holes.
Even the most popular hole, the old eighth, was flawed by its blind approach. Martin Ebert’s approach, whilst retaining the skeleton of the old layout on the lower holes, has been to cut back and open up the gorse, widen the fairways for the drives and reduce the rough whilst increasing protection to the greens.
He has also introduced more variety, with wetland created and areas of sandy wasteland opened up for both ecological and visual improvement. The Baines Hill holes are, of course entirely new, and, with the views opened up, a revelation.
The difference is apparent on the first hole, where the brook crossing the fairway at a point where it merely served to punish the good drive has been culverted, the gorse cut back and interest brought to the second shot by a challenging bunker in the centre of the fairway. As throughout the course, the green has been re-built and re-contoured and new beautifully revetted bunkers introduced.
The hole has been absolutely transformed from being off-puttingly intimidating to enjoyably challenging. As has the par three second, where the hole has been opened up and extensive areas of gorse have been removed and replaced by sandy waste as a more interesting hazard.
Similarly, the dog-leg third and fourth play quite differently than before with more space from the tee, but the well-placed drive required to avoid the “eye-brow” bunkers which add interest to the fairways and provide a testing second shot.
At the fifth, a major change is introduced; an ecological wetland between the 5th and 13th fairways which has already has the effect of transforming the course, but in a short time will be further enhanced by new vegetation and by the diversity of birds that will be attracted. It’s not a bad hazard either.
The character of the previous sixth and seventh has also been transformed by reshaping of previously flat areas of rough into more interesting links undulations and the removal of the belt of trees which lined the background ridge, but it is the four completely new holes that Martin has introduced atop Bain’s Hill that underline the claim that this is an entirely different course.
In an astonishing sequence where, by reversing the direction of the previous layout, he has exploited views to the iconic lighthouse, to Ailsa rock and to the Isle of Arran, and has created a sequence of holes which make this course a “must do” destination.
The new par 5 eighth, high above the ocean, with 360 degree views of Arran, Ailsa and the Ailsa course below, quickens the blood in preparation for the vertiginous new cliff-edge ninth, which, for its drama, its challenge and strategy, (do you go for the green across the Cliffside chasm, or lay up further along the fairway and wedge one in to the green sitting high above the waves crashing on the rocks below?), is the match of any on the Ailsa course.
The tenth is as an attractive a par 3 as you could want, requiring a great shot across the valley waste and, from the green, splendid views back to the tee and the ocean beyond.
The eleventh, which now has the Turnberry lighthouse as its focus, also like the eighth, now enjoys open views across the final holes to the hotel and clubhouse, thanks to the removal of parts of the tree belt that formerly lined the ridge,
There is still much to savour, particularly the thirteenth, now bounded on the left by the new wetland which, apart from its visual attractiveness offers a strategic challenge. Finally, there is the eighteenth, from the tee of which there are perhaps the best views of the Ailsa course. This is an outstanding par 5, demanding the utmost accuracy of approach between myriad bunkers to a completely reshaped green. It provides a classic finish, located below the windows of the welcoming club house ”Duel in the Sun” restaurant.
Anyone who has played, or even read the praise for, Martin Ebert’s brilliant makeover of the Ailsa course at Turnberry, will be avid to sample his transformation of the former Kintyre course.
It is, in truth, is more of a new creation than an upgrade and certainly more evidence of Martin’s exceptional creativity, (helped, it must be acknowledged by Mr Trump’s willingness to spend fortunes on achieving his vision).
Whether it can match the Ailsa course, (most recently judged by Gary Player, no less, as by far the best on the Open rota), was a matter of great debate by those who played it on the opening day.
I regard such comparisons as irrelevant, the King Robert the Bruce stands on its own merits as a ”must-play” destination. That the question is even asked, speaks of its quality, but I simply think of that extraordinary ninth and I just want to go back immediately.