TURNBERRY, Scotland | Like a femme fatale reclining along the Scottish coastline, the sexy beast otherwise known as Turnberry’s Ailsa Course beckons this week’s British Open field toward disaster.
Sprawling between its grand hotel and signature lighthouse and featuring breathtaking views of the Firth of Clyde and Ailsa Craig, Turnberry’s 7,204-yard, par-70 links is clearly the aesthetic queen of the courses on the Open rota. But courtesy of an exceedingly wet spring and summer growing season, she might also be the cruelest mistress in recent Open history.
“The rough might be as penal as I’ve ever seen at an Open,” 1985 Open champion Sandy Lyle said after his second loop around the Ayrshire links. “The fairways are reasonably generous, so I don’t see it devolving into a Carnoustie situation [from 1999]. But if the wind blows, it will be a near-terror.”
Reports of the layout’s difficulty began leaking out when Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie toured the course last week and reported that none of the 150 members who played in a recent preview managed to break 80, though they did manage to lose a total of 480 golf balls in the wickedly thick, deep rough.
Monday’s practice rounds provided continual confirmation of that difficulty as player after player walked off the course marveling at the demonic rough. Lyle lost seven balls during his first practice round. American Briny Baird shook his head and pronounced it “worse” than expected. And Australian Stuart Appleby predicted a level-par winner.
“If it blows, I don’t see anybody finishing under par,” said Appleby, an excellent wind player who lost to Ernie Els in a playoff at the 2002 Open at Muirfield. “If you’re just a little wild off the tee, it will be tough sailing. If you miss just 15 to 20 yards off the fairway, you’re going to be struggling to find it, much less play it.”
Of course, there is a major mitigating factor that should keep scores from soaring out of control like they did at Carnoustie in 1999, when 8-inch rough and pinched fairways turned the event into a virtual lottery.
Turnberry might be the most straightforward links in the rota. Most links are notorious for hidden bunkers, blind shots and quirky, canted fairways. These features, revered by most Britons, leave far more of the game to chance than most American courses. While still unquestionably a links course, Turnberry might be the most equitable of its breed. Why? Because unlike it’s ancient brethren, Turnberry is a relatively modern layout.
Though the original track was designed by 1883 Open champion Willie Fernie in 1906, much of the course was covered in concrete during World War II, when the Royal Air Force used the Ailsa Course as a runway for its training facility. Architect Ross Mackenzie was called in to pull up the concrete and restore the course in 1951, but he had the type of modern machinery at his disposal that left far fewer bumps and hollows than are typical of most links on the rota.
“It is straight out in front of you, which is a little different from most links courses,” Appleby said. “It’s not as tricky as places like St. Andrews and Sandwich [Royal St. George’s], where you have hidden pot bunkers or fairways which deflect balls into the rough. It’s fast and firm as a links should be. But if you hit it in the fairway with the right shape here, it’s not likely to carom off into oblivion.”
Given the severity of the rough, that added measure of player control is almost a competitive necessity.
The result should be a course that both demands and rewards accuracy off the tee. The last time the British Open was played on such a course, Tiger Woods triumphed at Hoylake in 2006 by using a remarkable strategy off the tee. Determined to avoid the devastating cross-bunkers at Royal Liverpool, Woods used just one driver a round at Hoylake, laying up short of the bunkers with irons off virtually every tee and relying on a succession of pinpoint mid-iron approaches. Though Woods is driving the ball far more accurately this season than he was in 2006, don’t be surprised if the world No. 1 and prohibitive favorite employs the same strategy this week.
“I could definitely see that,” 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis said. “You can’t play this course from the rough. That’s obvious.”
The other obvious characteristic of Turnberry is its exquisite taste in champions. From Tom Watson’s triumph over Jack Nicklaus in the Duel in the Sun (1977) to Greg Norman’s conquest (1986) and Nick Price’s uprising (1994), Turnberry has identified the best player in the world in each of its three previous Opens. That bodes well for Woods, whose ultraconservative approach makes him an ideal major match for Mistress Ailsa.