For the past few weeks, the men have held sway in the UK, what with the Open Championship being contested at The Old Course and the Senior Open at Sunningdale. This week, the focus switches to the women, as they make their way out to Turnberry for the Ricoh Women’s British Open (yes, that’s the official title – apparently, the Ladies Golf Union is not as finicky as the R&A when it comes to naming its championship). Mo Martin is the defending champion – a fact that would likely win one a lot of bar bets – thanks to what was very likely the shot of the year in all of professional golf 2014 when, on the par-5 18th at Royal Birkdale, she struck the pin from over 200 yards away, resulting in a winning eagle putt.
Turnberry ‘s Ailsa course is also included in the men’s Open rotation, and while it may not be the most challenging venue, it is undoubtedly the most picturesque, sitting hard by the Firth of Clyde and featuring one of golf’s most memorable teeing areas on the 9th hole. Its most distinctive landmarks are 1) the Ailsa Craig, a large inverted saucer-shaped island which vaguely resembles the 15th green at Pinehurst #2, sits boldly in the Firth and 2) the Turnberry
Lighthouse, positioned on a perch between the 9th green and 10th tee on grounds where the remains of Turnberry Castle – alleged to be the birthplace of Robert the Bruce – can be found, along with a miniaturized version of the castle that was used in the film “Braveheart.”
It’s also the newest member of the Open Rota – while golf has been played there since 1902, the Ailsa course (there is another adjacent course called the Kintyre) in its current form was redesigned after World War II by Mackenzie Ross (what a great name for a course architect!). “Redesigned” is a kind word, as the original course was flattened during WWII for use as an RAF base. An old landing strip serves as a reminder of this particular function; it’s visible as one walks from the 10th to the 11th hole.
Nonetheless, it has been the scene of two dramatic Opens, both of which involved Tom Watson. In 1977, he and Jack Nicklaus engaged in what’s now called The Duel in the Sun. Having been deadlocked after the first two rounds, the two were paired over the final 36 holes, with Watson’s 65-65 finish barely enough to edge out the Golden Bear.
Fast forward to 2009, where Watson, now 59 but still a master craftsman on a links course, carried a one-shot lead into the final hole, a relatively innocuous par-4 (if there’s a weakness to the layout on the Ailsa course, it’s the final two holes, neither of which are particularly daunting). After a perfect tee-shot, Watson’s 8-iron was either a yard too long or too short; in either event, it rolled through the green. Tom was unable to get up and down, eventually losing in an anticlimactic four-hole playoff to Stuart Cink and deflating much of golf’s fandom in the process.
A lot of folks compare Turnberry to Pebble Beach, due in large part to their seaside locations and opulent associated resorts. I’ve not had the privilege of playing or staying at Pebble, but have been blessed with a couple of visits to Turnberry. The first time was in 2001, when I was traveling with the former Mrs Golf Nerd; the second in May of 2012 on a guys excursion. The resort is what I would describe as being “comfortably elegant,” with lovely guest rooms that face out towards the links and the Firth of Clyde, dining areas and “sporting pubs” that serve only the finest kind, and a staff that handles every request imaginable.
As for the course – there are spectacular views to be had, particularly on a clear day when one can see all the way across the firth to the Kintyre peninsula coast. And there are some truly spectacular holes. The 5th through the 8th are a fine stretch, as are the 12th through the 16th. The 15th, a par-3, is particularly diabolical when played in a strong wind (which almost always seems to be the case). There is a huge drop-off to the right from which there is no easy escape – a fact I sadly discovered the last time I played there, when, after admonitions to the contrary from my caddie, my tee shot found its way in a deep pile of fescue, upon which all four caddies uttered a collective “oh, fuck.”
But I doubt that I’ll be returning to Turnberry, given that it is now owned by Erstwhile-Presidential Candidate and Full Time Blowhard Donald Trump. From what I’ve witnessed golf-wise, Trump’s goal is to make the already-expensive, unattainable and a perfectly fine golf course unplayable (what he did to Doral was criminal).
Which is a shame. I remember finishing up my first round there back in 2001 – I played pretty well despite playing the final 4 holes in horizontal rain (my caddie, a hulking, good-natured Scot named Hugh, gave me a maniacal grin when the wind started howling on 13; “Aye, we’ve got a fresh breeze, Gary!” he exclaimed). After drying off and enjoying a wee dram, I took a stroll outside (the rain had stopped), a gentle fog had rolled in, and one could hear a piper off in the distance. I was waiting for the then-Mrs. Golf Nerd to return from site-seeing/shopping and happened by the caddie shack.
I struck up a conversation with the caddy master (Mike); he expressed mock surprise when I praised Hugh’s bagging abilities (“You mean he actually read a putt correctly for you? Bugger!”). Then a short fellow entered the stall, which prompted Mike to intone, “And now for your listening enjoyment, ladies and gentlemen – Frank Sinatra!”
Whereupon Shorty (I never got his name) broke into “Fly Me to the Moon,” and if you were standing in another room you would have sworn it was Old Blue Eyes himself. Soon we were swapping other Sinatra songs, and after awhile Mike suggested that we convene at a local pub (not in the resort) for a pint or a dram or whatever was going to suit our fancy once my ride arrived.
Ex-Mrs Golf Nerd was game, so we met up with Mike, Shorty, and another fellow who worked at the resort (Eric was his name, I believe). Much of the talk centered around golf, of course, but we also discussed the relative merits of sports played in our respective countries – Mike felt that American football was somewhat silly, with its gladiator-type dress, huddles, and the like, but that baseball was “rather catchy.” When I brought up cricket, all three of them snorted derisively – “bloody English bafoonery!”
Ex-Mrs Golf Nerd tired of this conversational bent after a while, and not so subtly suggested we head back our luxurious quarters at the resort. I dutifully (if somewhat reluctantly) agreed. But it was a great introduction to the hospitality of the Scots and pub life in general, and whenever I hear “Fly Me To The Moon,” I think back to that day in the caddy shack.
Hell, screw Trump . . . I’ll get back there someday. Not even he can screw that place up.