TOP 100 SPOTLIGHT
Reviewing the revived Ailsa at Trump Turnberry.
Sometimes, you just have to admire a man’s balls. There are plenty of golf courses in the world ripe for renovation, revision or even reversion, but for pretty much everyone apart from Donald Trump, Turnberry’s famous and dramatic Ailsa layout wasn’t one of them. Yes, a glut of ownership changes at this Ayrshire resort had left the course a little unloved and rough around the edges; and OK, that was reflected in a plunge to 15th in Golf World’s 2016 ranking. But let us not forget the course had been number one or two for the four rankings before this. The only Open venue where you don’t just see the ocean but actually engage it – that’s if you don’t count Darren Clarke’s shank on to the beach off the first at Troon in 1997 – Turnberry was already, to most observers, magnificent.
For many, the coastline stretch from the 4th tee to the 11th, past the famous lighthouse which sits on the remains of the castle that spawned Robert the Bruce, is unparalleled… not just in the UK but globally.
Prior to the last Open held here, in 2009, golfers queued up to pay their respects. “All in all, it’s just a fabulous golf course,” cooed Tiger Woods. “It’s probably my favourite links course,” said Paul Casey. “It’s one of the finest links we play, and one of the best venues the Open can have,” added Greg Norman.
So when, on completing his purchase of this famous resort in 2014, Trump announced his intentions to make widespread improvements to this hallowed turf, the question was not so much “Why?” but “How?” Well, five new holes, nine new greens and millions of dollars later, we have the answer. Trump and his chosen architect, the R&A’s go-to tweaker Martin Ebert, have found a way to turn a masterpiece into something indubitably superior.
Back to the future
It’s not so easy being both an evolutionist and creationist, but at Turnberry, Martin Ebert pulled it off.
For the reworking of the Ailsa Ebert delved back into the history of a course that had gone through seven previous incarnations, raiding the national archives for aerial photographs of the landscape, the routings, the former strategies long forgotten.
Examining images of Philip Mackenzie Ross’s 1949 course – itself a post-war recreation of Cecil Hutchison’s 1938 design – Ebert discovered shaggy-edged, naturalised bunkers as opposed to 2014’s clipped and almost formal versions. Maybe the best example comes at the new par-5 10th, where a circular and unimaginative doughnut bunker had replaced a beautifully unscripted and superbly angled expanse of sandy waste. Ebert also discovered other lost sandy waste areas, for example to the right of the par-4 13th, whose reintroduction could contribute both aesthetically and tactically. On the par-3 4th recalling the sand area in front of the tee would be more cosmetic... joining a new tee in reminding golfers they are just a firm chip shot from the beach.
As Ebert himself says: “Reinstating lost features shows you have a respect and a regard for the history of the course, as well as looking at how it could be improved for the modern game.” In reworking a traditional course, it was key. It paved the way for acceptance of potentially more controversial elements – the creation of new holes and routings. Trump and Ebert’s Turnberry contains no fewer than five completely new holes and nine new green sites.
Taking all the plaudits is the trio around the turn. The old par-4 9th took you from golf’s best tee, perched over Castle Port Bay, to its worst fairway, an unhittable hogsback. A new green site some 220 yards hence, as close to the cliffs as buildable, keeps your eyes trained along the
‘It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic threesome of holes, anywhere in the world’
coastline and turns this into a breathtaking one-shotter.
This is followed by, what to this observer is the best hole on the course, a downhill par 5 that sweeps left around the rocky shore to a raised area, hitherto used for the 11th tee, but that works so much better as a green perched thrillingly against the chaos of the Irish Sea.
At 192 yards, the all-new 11th is played over a series of inlets and the third hole in a row that asks you to skirt the bay. It’s hard to picture a more dramatic threesome of holes, anywhere in the world.
While these changes have commanded most of the attention, it is perhaps not where the course’s biggest improvements have been made. If there was a criticism of Turnberry, it was aimed at a handful of inferior holes, mostly on the front nine.
“I think the first hole had always been considered a weakness,” says Trump Turnberry’s director of golf Ricky Hall. “At around 360 yards it was really only two shortish irons. But a new back tee and greensite, pushed some 70 yards back and to the right, have turned it into more of a left-to-right dogleg and made the tee shot much more demanding, although the fairway is now wider.”
But even better comes at the new par-3 6th. This was formerly a 230-yard slog to a raised green, complete with dastardly false front; but a wonderful new walkway, along the coast, takes you to a new raised tee that allows a far more engaging short iron to a re-reworked and beautifully crafted green.
While the new par-5 14th (see signature hole) joins the 1st, 6th and 11th as the course’s key improvements, every single hole has received some attention… and walking round, you quickly get the feeling the targets have been selected with unerring accuracy. Bunkers have been cannily moved into the way, or out of it; the new green at the 5th, pushed a little more up into the dune valley, is a great example of how new sites add beauty and challenge. Already excellent holes – consider the marvellous par-4 8th or the famous burn-protected 16th – have been left largely untouched. Sympathy and intelligence characterise the whole process, and perhaps Trump and Ebert’s biggest achievement is to have so many changes blend so seamlessly with what was already here.
Completing the course, the new 18th tee – afforded by the shortened 17th – now allows a grand, straight-in run under the shadow of the hotel and sets up the climax this superb redesign deserves.
If there is a criticism – and it has to be said, it’s a fairly churlish one – it’s in the feeling the quest for ‘fairness’ has underpinned many of these nips and tucks. Harsh run-offs or severe green contours have been softened, bunker bases shaped to throw you back from the lip. Hazards have been repositioned ‘correctly’, offering just penalty for the crime committed. It all feels, well, a bit ‘fair’.
For those who feel an innate quirkiness ought to be part of any authentic links experience, the course set-up might just jar slightly. Trump and Ebert might argue, of course, that there’s more than enough whimsy in the gusts off the Irish Sea to give you all the quirk you desire.
History shows us Trump and Ebert’s reworking is the eighth configuration of a course that opened in 1902. But it is the first that genuinely has experts and architects scratching their heads as to how any better use could have been made of this stunning piece of Ayrshire coastline.
Back in 2015, in the wake of a series of controversial comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the Independent on Sunday published a story that Turnberry had unofficially been axed from the Open rota by the R&A. “Turnberry will be back,” an insider is alleged to have said. “But perhaps not Trump Turnberry.”
For the record, the R&A’s official position is that Turnberry remains on the rota. “They have continued to involve us and we are happy to be so,” says Ricky Hall. “We are committed to doing whatever they need to bring the Open back here.”
That is beyond contestation. When the R&A raised consistency concerns about the Ailsa having nine new greens, Trump authorised the costly reconstruction of all 18. All changes made have been with the full consultation and approval of the R&A, with details such as fibre-optic cabling for media coverage considered. Even the vast and perhaps unsightly runways, a stark reminder of Turnberry’s role as a training centre for WWII pilots, have been left in place as useful hardstanding for Open infrastructure.
However, the fact the Open has not visited Turnberry since 2009 and is not scheduled to, plus the rather evasive idiom coming from R&A chief Martin Slumbers, must strike an ominous note for Trump, and for the legions of golfers who just want to see the world’s best golfers tackle this great course once more.
How welcome it would be to take the apparently simple step of awarding golf’s greatest championship to one of its great courses. But as Slumbers admits, the Turnberry situation is “complex”. As evidenced by the furore over single-sex rota venues, the award of the Open extends beyond golf to a political and symbolic statement of what the game believes in. Association with a world leader regularly accused of racism and sexism has clear implications for a game that has always struggled to shrug off similar charges.
Maybe the R&A will wait to see what, if any, fallout emerges from the 2022 US PGA, to be staged at Trump Bedminster. But for now, if the Independent on Sunday is to be believed, the hopes of the Open returning to Turnberry would appear to be dashed by the very person who has invested so much into turning the Ailsa into what could just be the finest rota venue of them all.
90 Golf World January 2018
Once a plodding par 4 but now a pulsating one-shotter, the 9th symbolises the new Ailsa.
The famous lighthouse is now surely golf’s most spectacular halfway hut.
The dramatic, new par-3 11th is the third consecutive hole where you must play over the coastline.