By John Huggan
Predicting Open Championship venues became something of an (almost) exact science back in the 1990s. Somewhere around that time, someone in the R&A came to the conclusion that the world's oldest tournament should be held every five years on the world's most famous links, the Old Course at St. Andrews. With eight other courses on the rota, it then became a safe bet each would host the championship once every decade or so. To wit, this week saw the announcement of the Open's return to Royal Birkdale (2017) and Carnoustie (2018), nine and 11 years removed, respectively, from when they last hosted the major.
Yet this cozy little arrangement may be undergoing something of a shake-up. With the R&A's recent extension of an invitation to Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush to host the Open, and the strong likelihood that the club will accept, allowing the event to be played outside Great Britain for only the second time come 2019, at least one nose is liable to be put out of joint. And the proboscis in question -- according to at least one well-informed source -- belongs to Donald Trump, the equally recent purchaser of the now grandly-titled "Trump Turnberry."
It is safe to say "TT" has never been the R&A's favorite place to go. An Open venue only three times since it was first taken there in 1977, the last in 2009, the Scottish resort is located in an out-of-the-way spot just off the almost exclusively single-track A77 road that winds its way circuitously through Ayrshire. As such, it traditionally attracts the smallest crowds of any Open venue. By extension, it also generates the least amount of income for golf's ruling body outside the United States and Mexico.
Although surrounded by some of the most aesthetically-pleasing vistas on the Open rota, the Ailsa course has long been in need of re-working. Specifically, the three-hole run beginning on the iconic ninth tee (below) that juts picturesquely out into the Firth of Clyde.
As many players have pointed out, the hump-backed ninth fairway is all but unhittable, a fact that, in the words of one past Open competitor, makes the hole "bloody stupid." The 10th, by comparison, is merely "OK," but the short 11th is bland in the extreme and comfortably the worst hole on the course.
Happily, The Donald seems aware of the shortcomings. At a press conference Wednesday, Trump announced that course architect Martin Ebert has already conceived a plan for the problem areas.
"We can't share all of the ideas at the moment," Ebert said. "It is all very much a work in progress. We will respect the wishes of the R&A and develop proposals sensitive to the needs of the Open Championship. We are keen to protect the history and heritage of the course, but there are definitely opportunities."
Ebert did reveal that the 10th tee will move back and to the left, creating a 260-yard carry to the fairway -- "right on the limit." The green will also be re-located, back towards what is now the 11th tee. And the 11th will become a much-more attractive par 3, tee shots flying "across the bay" to the green.
What wasn't mentioned is that the aforementioned ninth will surely be transformed from a par 4 into a stunning par 3 from the present tee to a green nestled beneath the lighthouse that is, along with the soon-to-be expensively renovated hotel, the resort's signature landmark.
Significantly, Trump was at pains to emphasize that Ebert was hired on the recommendation of R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson. The obvious implication being that an Open Championship is very much part of TT's future.
That remains to be seen though. No matter Trump's protestations that the re-naming of the latest addition to his golfing portfolio had "nothing to do with ego," for many observers a fifth Turnberry Open would come as something of a surprise. Even the least cynical conspiracy theorist must suspect that the ultra-conservative members of the R&A are unlikely to take their flagship event -- and sole source of revenue -- to something named after such a "loud American."
Even if he is eventually snubbed by the R&A, Trump does have an obvious and attractive alternative. Offering to host the Scottish Open on a permanent basis in the week before the Open would bring with it a stellar field, annual worldwide publicity (instead of once every decade or so) and, no doubt, fill more than a few hotel rooms.
Just a thought.