June 30, 2009

Turnberry's Ever-Changing Moods

This most beautiful of Open venues can also be a beast

Land meets sea in a rugged, beautiful setting at Turnberry.

There should be no need to defend Turnberry's Ailsa Course anymore, no need to apologize for its perceived shortcomings as a quintessential resort course pressed into service as an Open venue once a decade since the 1970s.

The Turnberry that will be the site of the 138th British Open July 16-19 is a noticeably different layout than it was when it last hosted the Open 15 years ago -- and yielded 148 rounds in the 60s. ("The real par is about 67," Nick Faldo sneered at the time.)

It's radically different from its first Open, in 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus ran away from the field, but not from one another. Back then, Turnberry had been emasculated by such means as removal of all shaggy marram grasses around the edges of its bunkers. (The bunkers these days are deeper and have vertical, riveted faces.)

This area was ground zero in Scotland's war for independence, the crumbling foundation of Robert the Bruce's family castle still in evidence. The Turnberry of the 21st century remains a feast for the eyes. There are few spots in golfdom more breathtaking than Turnberry's setting, overlooking the Irish Sea with the mountains of Arran to the north, the slumbering Kintyre peninsula due west, the monolithic Ailsa Craig to the south. On rare clear days, even Northern Ireland is in view, at least from the upper floors of the magnificent Turnberry Hotel, high on a hill above the course.

It's a smorgasbord of landscapes, moving from gentle meadowlands to tumultuous sand dunes to terrifying coastline and back again, the entire mix warmed by occasional bursts of sunlight and tossed by frequent fronts of storm clouds and swirling winds.

But the Ailsa has always been considered easy for professional golfers, the place where players went for personal bests and championship records. In the sunshine of '77, Mark Hayes shot a second-round seven-under-par 63, an Open record that stands today. In miserable conditions in '86, Greg Norman matched that score, in the second round, and won by five. Course manager George Brown (who, at 71, will retire as superintendent after this year's Open) had ankle-deep rough and fairways narrowed to 28 yards for that Open, to no avail.

"If the weather hadn't been so horrible," Brown said of Norman's round, "I'm pretty sure he would have shot under 60 that day, such was the quality of his golf."

In the past, even gracious conquerors gave Turnberry faint praise. Watson, who edged Nicklaus by a shot to win his second Open in 1977 with a then-record 268, told reporters, "There's a lot more guesswork involved in playing most links courses than there is at Turnberry."

Nick Price, who won the 1994 Open at Turnberry, matching Watson's 72-hole score, added this: "When the wind doesn't blow, the course is really not that difficult," and the leader board backed him up.

That was then. Today, Turnberry has some bite, particularly in its closing holes, thanks to course manager Brown and course architect Martin Ebert, of the British design firm Mackenzie & Ebert. Lengthened to 7,204 yards, par 70, up from 6,957 yards in '94, the Ailsa has new bunkers, new hollows, new strategies and greatly improved turf.

Only the four par 3s have been left virtually untouched. All other holes have improvements. A new back tee and two new fairway bunkers make the 474-yard fifth, framed by Turnberry's boldest dunes, a particularly rugged par 4. A new championship tee on a rock outcropping beneath Turnberry's lighthouse doesn't really lengthen the dogleg-left, par-4 10th to any great degree (it's now 456 yards instead of 452), but it substantially alters the angle of attack. Players must now carry a jagged ocean cove off the tee. Ebert also added two bunkers in the center of the fairway and expanded the landing area so it extends to the edge of the coastline. That creates alternate avenues, a risky but rewarding left-hand route and a much safer but far-longer play to the right.

TOUGHENING THE FINISH

The most dramatic changes have occurred on the final three holes, quite fittingly perhaps, because that's where most of the drama has occurred in past Opens. In '77, Watson finally took the lead on the 71st hole by two-putting the par-5 17th for a birdie after reaching the green with an iron, then watched Nicklaus miss a four-footer for a matching birdie. On 18, Watson split the fairway off the tee with an iron, then hit a 7-iron within two feet. Meanwhile, Nicklaus drove it under a gorse bush, muscled it onto the front-right fringe and made a 35-footer for one last birdie. But Watson didn't flinch, briskly knocking in his birdie for the win.

In Norman's record round in 1986, he birdied the 16th and 17th and was looking for a birdie on 18 for a 61. Instead he three-putted from 28 feet for his 63.

In 1994, leader Jesper Parnevik birdied the 16th and 17th, but -- thinking he was behind and foolishly ignoring the leader board -- fired at the flag on 18, came up short and made a bogey. He lost by one to Price, who, one group behind, birdied 16 before carrying the 17th in two with an iron and rolling in a 50-foot putt for an eagle 3.

If such crowd-pleasing histrionics occur again at this year's Open, it won't be by players with short irons in their hands. Sixteen through 18 have been lengthened considerably.

It was Brown's idea to shift the 16th fairway 40 yards to the left to create room to lengthen the 17th. Ebert embraced the idea and made 16 into a dogleg right of 455 yards (up from 410 yards) with man-made dunes and craters shielding players on the new back tee of 17. The 16th green remains unchanged, its front tongue still repelling balls back down into a burn in front, but if anything, the axis of the green seems to fit the new angle of approach better than before. The burn is far more daunting than the moats at, say, St. Andrews and Carnoustie. This one's a deep channel with steep banks, intended to be carried with iron second shots, but in a qualifying round for the 2008 British Amateur, the wind was so strong that some players couldn't reach the green with fairway woods.

The new back tee on 17 adds 60 yards to what had been an easy-birdie par 5. It's still reachable at just 559 yards, playing up a saddle fairway, but again, with a gale in their face, some players in the British Amateur couldn't reach the fairway off the tee. (The new 17th tees offer flexibility, so tee markers can be moved up if need be.) Three new bunkers near the 17th green will gobble up balls that previously bounced and rolled 50 yards onto the putting surface.

Today's Ailsa can hold its own even when the sun is shining. Turnberry no longer has to rely solely on wind as its defense.'

The 18th, much maligned as a push-over par 4, even after it was converted into a dogleg left in 1977 by utilizing a tee from the Arran Course, is now a worthy finishing hole. It has its own back tee, stretching the hole to 461 yards, with a cluster of bunkers inside the dogleg and new traps short-right and front-left of the green.

An unwritten rule of golf architecture states that if a course is too tough in calm days, then it's unplayable in high winds. Which explains why Turnberry's Ailsa Course has long represented the opposite tact. It was forever a sweetheart in benign conditions, so it could do no more than snarl in inclement weather. But today's Ailsa can hold its own even when the sun is shining. Windsocks will inevitably flap frantically sometime during the Open week, but with its latest changes, Turnberry no longer has to rely solely on that defense.

Of course, not everyone agrees. On a cold, blustery April day at Turnberry, Michael Brown, chairman of the R&A Championship Committee, looked out the clubhouse window and told the assembled media, "I think we're well satisfied that on a day like today, this is a serious test of golf."

Old attitudes die hard.