July 14, 2009

No Man's Land

The ninth hole at Turnberry's Ailsa Course is one of the Open venue's most harrowing spots. It's also a significant part of Turnberry's identity

The ninth hole at Turnberry is at once picturesque and intimidating.

The ninth hole at Turnberry is at once picturesque and intimidating.

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- It is the loneliest place on Turnberry's map. It's the westernmost part of the raised Ayrshire coastline as it juts sharply toward the water. It's where you can see history, right before your eyes.

It's the ninth tee of Turnberry's Ailsa Course, part of its classic hole. There is a 100-foot drop into the water behind you (with only a keen sense of balance and a narrow green metal railing preventing disaster); a drop just as far onto algae-covered jagged rocks on your left; and a series of rock-filled chasms in front of you, pointing toward an unseen fairway.

Just hope the wind doesn't blow really bad, like it did the day Chris O'Connell, who is Matt Kuchar's caddie, carried Peter Jacobsen's bag in the 2006 British Senior Open and they reached the 9th tee.

"Chris said it got so windy and rainy as he was holding the umbrella, he felt like he was going to Mary Poppins away," Kuchar said. "He said he hadn't ever been so scared on the golf course, afraid of being swept away into the water."

And that can be just when you're standing on the tee. You're all alone on a piece of rock with no protection from the wind, the rain or the nerves.

What you see first as you stand on the ninth tee at Turnberry, atop a craggy chunk of igneous rock and perched precariously above the frothy Firth of Clyde, is the lighthouse off to your left. It's a whitewashed stone lighthouse with a brown top and it's called Bruce's Castle, named after Scottish King Robert the Bruce, who once took shelter in a fortress just near the lighthouse. From the ninth tee, there are only a few ruins of the rock foundation visible, which is what happens when you ruled as king more than six centuries ago.

If you turn around at the tee and face the water, you see a huge, volcanic rock, called the Ailsa Craig, named after the Marquess of Ailsa, who bankrolled the construction of Turnberry in 1899 because he had grown weary of traveling to Prestwick to play golf. From the tee, far off in the distance on the left is the Isle of Arran.

The scene at the tee is tranquil, at least on a sunny day like Wednesday, the day before the British Open starts, when the ninth tee will be filled with players whose senses may not be so delicately tuned in to acknowledge its sights and sounds. But there are many. Sea gulls caw, cackle and bark. Grayish brown water washes gently over the rocks, making a subtle, sweeping sound that reverberates over the boulders and the steep rock wall.

If you can keep from thinking about the tee shot you have to hit at this 449-yard par four with the fairway that's the shape of the roof of a barn, you might appreciate all that. Otherwise, you've got your work cut out for you.

Since it's a blind tee shot, the good folks at Turnberry have given the players a visual aid to help you find a target -- a five-foot tall green-painted rock, about 216 yards away, positioned on the right side the elevated fairway. That's your goal, sort of, said Gerald Bacon, the ninth tee marshal from nearby Straiton.

"The idea is to shape it inside of the green marker with a slight draw," he said.

And what kind of visual is that?

"Frightening," he said. "The line is so narrow, you've probably only got a 10-yard line to hit."

The ninth is the only hole at Turnberry with no bunkers, but what it may lack in sand, it makes up for in intrigue.

Think about it this way. If you don't acknowledge the sheer terror of a blind tee shot to a tilted green from a tee that's the size of a pool table stuck on a rocky spit of a precipice with the wind howling and the rain pelting, then you're fine. Or maybe you should just try and have a good time, like Michael Campbell. Campbell launched five or six balls across the water and straight at the lighthouse, about 350 yards away.

"Never hit it," said Chris McGee, a ninth tee marshall from up the road in Ayr. "Closest he got was halfway up the bank."

For anyone doesn't like Turnberry, they may rejoice in the fact that it was flattened by the Royal Air Force and used as a runway during World War II. But just like the ninth hole, the whole of Turnberry is something to cherish, players say.

"It's so hard to hit the ninth fairway, I hope to hit it twice this week, it's a tricky one," Kuchar said. "In Scotland, out here, on links courses, you have a lot of blind shots, but they give you pretty decent places to aim, whether it's a little mountain, a rock, some people.

"The ninth tee itself is very cool."

Hunter Mahan said he aims for a person with a green flag standing on the ninth fairway.

"Just to the right of that," he said. "There's a little gap where you kind of locate. Standing on the tee, it's a great teeing area there. It's a beautiful hole itself, the lighthouse. It's very Pebble Beach-ish. The smells and everything. In the afternoon, when the water starts rolling up there a little bit, it's fun. It's a good hole."