Weekly Column: Tee Time at Turnberry
pblackwell, Mon, July 13th, 2009
Hard by the Irish Sea and the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast, the property known as Turnberry’s Ailsa Course has seen activity far more important than a golf tournament – even the Open Championship, played for the fourth time there this week.
In both of the world wars (10 years in all), the flat and treeless land of Turnberry served as a strip for the Royal Air Force’s planes to take off and land on their dangerous missions. Many never came back.
Many golf courses take pains to honor famous occurrences with plaques- great players, or great shots. But Turnberry takes it further. On a hill above the 12th green, a monument sits, tall and proud, in honor of those lost airmen. Puts golf in the correct perspective, doesn’t it?
Only four times has the British Open come to Turnberry, and never once before 1977, partially because of those war years. Yet it might be the truest of all “links” courses on the Open rota, both in geography and in the way the course plays.
From the 4th hole through the 11th, a golfer hugs the Firth of Clyde, a seaside stretch of golf that matches anything seen on California’s Monterey Peninsula. On a good day, one can look out 11 miles and see Ailsa Craig, an island-size piece of granite, and the 9th green and 10th tee sit by the remains of a 14th-century castle and Turnberry’s lighthouse.
On a beautiful day, it’s beautiful stuff. Then again, the weather could turn. And therein lies Turnberry’s golfing appeal, for the difference between docile and hostile weather is two vastly different courses.
Both in 1977 and ’94, warm summertime sun blanketed this corner of Scotland. Turnberry proved toothless, at least to the leaders, as it took double digits under par to win – rare for a major on a par-70 layout.
In between, in 1986, you got the flip side – screaming winds and large chunks of the field unable to break 80. Given that, Greg Norman’s obscene 63 in the second round looks even greater. Norman won, all right, by five shots – at even par.
What to expect now? It’s complete conjecture, at least the weather part of it. The last three years of the Open Championship have provided baked-out Hoylake, wet and cold Carnoustie and a Birkdale course where a fearsome wind never stopped churning.
It took a while to return to Turnberry – 15 years, to be precise. Time enough to get more roads built so that people not staying in that grand hotel that overlooks the entire course can partake in the fun.
In that same time, golf turned over, too, and in the Era of Tiger the Ailsa course had to be lengthened and strengthened. It now runs 7,204 yards, with real length added to the final three holes. Still, they’ll shoot red numbers if the winds don’t pick up.
They certainly did so in ’77, or at least Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus did. That “Duel in the Sun” immortalized Turnberry for good, as Watson shot 65-65 the last two days to beat Jack’s 65-66 total. And when Nick Price rallied past Jesper Parnevik in ’94, he, too, reached 12 under for 72 holes.
Again, the chances of an assault on par are good if it stays calm. That would force the eternally favored Mr. Woods to repeat his Hoylake strategy of leaving the driver in the bag, a masterpiece of discipline that led to his ’06 triumph.
Of course, Tiger, fresh off his own conquest of his own tournament at Congressional, should win. Then again, he won two weeks prior to the other two majors, was all but given the top prize – and when the putts didn’t drop at Augusta or Bethpage, it allowed Angel Cabrera and Lucas Glover to prevail.
Padraig Harrington prevailed in the last two of these instances, and no one since Peter Thomson in the mid-1950s (when most of the top American pros stayed home) has kept the Claret Jug for three years. Thomson may be safe, for Harrington has been nowhere near good this year, and it’s tough, though not impossible, to imagine a 180 this week.
Just as the conditions will dictate the scoring, so it might also determine what kind of player wins at Turnberry. Calm, warm weather gives Americans and Aussies a great chance, but a turn to the chill would give the all-weather Europeans a much better shot.
Honestly, each year at the Open Championship I root for the nasty stuff, for a simple reason. Any professional golfer can be great with sun and little wind. But what do they do when the flags stick straight out, the tents buckle, putts break double what they should and some par-4s into the wind get out of reach in two?
Get those conditions, and champions emerge. True, they are nowhere near as heroic as those brave pilots who never returned to Turnberry from their wartime flights, but they make their own conquests, with a precious Claret Jug as the ultimate reward.