Sunday, May 14, 2006

Turnberry Ailsa - Scotland's Pebble Beach

The Turnberry Ailsa course (ranked #17 in the world) is worthy of its world ranking. Located on Scotland's Ayrshire coast, Turnberry is one of the most scenic places in the world to play golf. On a clear day you can see the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland across the sea to where Royal Portrush is located.

Parts of the Ailsa course were destroyed during both the First and Second World Wars to make landing fields for the Royal Air Service. There are remains of the air fields still there today if you climb some of the hills around the twelfth and thirteenth holes. Mackenzie Ross was tasked with rebuilding the course after the Second World War. In a combination of both luck and no doubt foresight most of the holes along the water were spared destruction. The original course was built c1906, by Willie Fernie, the professional at Troon, although apparently, the Marquis of Ailsa had a private course on the land prior to 1906.

Turnberry, like many early British resort courses, was initially built by the railway companies to generate traffic; in this instance, with the building of the Glasgow and South Western Railway link and Turnberry station. By 1925, the L.M.S. (London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company) owned the hotel. In Dell Leigh's 1925 book Golf at its best on the LM&S, you can really see how the pre-war Ailsa course was quite different than today's redesigned course. He mentions that there were eight holes where you had to hit blind shots. Ross's redesign eliminated virtually all of these.

Leigh's description of Turnberry is still very much apt today and makes you want to book a trip right now, "The hotel, gay and red roofed, stands square to the sea. Your bedroom window is flung wide to it. The early morning tea; the cigarette; the vision of fluttering red and white flags ; the prodigious breakfast under the sun-splashed windows; the stroll down the seventy-three steps from the hotel to the links ; the smashing drive off the tee. Every hole is an education. The climb up the steps to lunch, prodigious multiplied by two, for the wind and sea spray have ground the sharp edge of appetite upon you. The short stand-easy for coffee in the lounge. The second round, played better or worse than the morning according to your temperament and digestion. Tea thereafter. The brine bath, stinging new vitality into you. The crisp dress shirt; dinner; dance; the ladies; bridge; billiards. Bed, the instant sleep, bred of hard physical exercise, salt-laden breezes, and a great contentment with the life of the moment."

Each hole on the Ailsa Course has a Scottish name, many of which, artfully, plant just that slightest bit of doubt in your mind before playing them:

1. Ailsa Craig (named for the rock in the Firth of Clyde that you look out on)
2. Mak Siccar (Make Sure)
3. Blaw Wearie (Out of Breath)
4. Wo-Be-Tide (Watch Out)
5. Fin Me Oot (Find Me Out)
6. Tappie Toorie (Hit to the Top)
7. Roon the Ben
8. Goat Fell (named for the tallest peak on Arran across the firth)
9. Bruce's Castle (remains of Robert the Bruce's castle are nearby)

10. Dinna Fouter (Don't Mess About)
11. Maidens (The village north of the course)
12. Monument (to the airman lost that were stationed at Turnberry)
13. Tickly Tap (Tricky Little Stroke)
14. Risk-an-Hope
15. Ca' Canny (Take Care)
16. Wee Burn (the little burn that runs in front of the green)
17. Lang Whang (Good Whack)
18. Duel in the Sun (Nicklaus vs. Watson 1977)

As proof that the R & A does add courses in to the Open rota, Turnberry was added in 1977 and has hosted Opens four: 1977, 1986 and 1994, and 2009. In case the R & A are readers of my blog (since they won't take my calls, this is my only channel of communication), my hope is that one day Kingsbarns will also be added to the rota.

Holes one through six are basically back and forth parallel holes which is a good thing because if the wind is blowing it allows you multiple changes in direction to provide some relief. The course really beings at the fifth hole where the next seven are along the ocean, ala Pebble Beach. I especially like the sixth, Tappie Toorie, an uphill par three that plays 231 yards. If the wind is up during the 2009 Open Championship, this is going to make the 240 yard par three fourth at Augusta look like a wee little hole. The hole is well protected on the left side by three small bunkers and from the tee the entire right side of the hole drops away, in shades of the Postage Stamp at Troon.

The blue tee on the ninth hole is arguably the best tee box in the world (Pebble Beach 18th being the 2nd best). You are hanging on the edge of a cliff with the white lighthouse nearby, the craggy rocks below and one of the most scenic views in golf with the course all around you and the majestic hotel on the top of the hill. To once again quote one of my favorite golf writers, Henry Longhurst, "You find yourself lingering on the tee, gazing down on the waves as they break on the rocks and reflecting how good it is to be alive."

The sixteenth Hole, Wee Burn, is one of the best on the course. A 409 yard par four that calls for a straight and long tee shot. The drama comes on your second shot. You will typically be hitting from a slight downhill lie to an oval shaped green that is difficult to hold. If you are a little bit short the green is shaped so your ball will roll down into the burn. The same situation on the right side of the green. The left side is protected by a bunker and being long leaves you in the tall and hilly rough. As an added element of danger the green also has portions sloping that can cause your ball to ricochet in various directions. Also, the drop from the green to the burn is probably close to fifteen feet. Unlike the Swilken Burn at the Old Course which is just a couple of feet below you, you are basically hitting from atop a hill, downhill over a chasm to an elevated green. It is something! The net-net of it is that the effective landing area you have to hit to hold a ball is probably no more than 20 feet by 10 feet. I have yet to find a better side (left or right) to approach the green from, probably because there is none.

Without the drama and grandstands of the Open Championship the seventeenth and eighteenth are anti-climactic, average holes. None-the-less, the overall experience at Turnberry is one of excitement. The end of the round at Turnberry is enhanced by the thought of sitting happily at the hotel after a round listening to a bag-piper as you recount the day's shots at the 19th hole. Touristy? Maybe, but bring it on.

The inevitable question that arises, "Is it better than Pebble Beach?" is a tough call. It depends on the importance you give to different factors. Pebble Beach probably has better golf holes in all (except holes 13, 14 and 15), but I think Turnberry beats it on the scenic beauty front. Turnberry also wins on the speed of play, the caddie experience and overall value for the money.

As golf writer and architect Donald Steel says describing Turnberry. "There is no where lovelier!"

For a fuller description of Turnberry, see the write-up done by my Kiwi friends, which includes some delightful pictures.