The Open Championship will return to the much-changed Ailsa course at Turnberry in July 2009, only the fourth time that this famous links has challenged the best in world golf, writes Alistair Beggs. This will come as a surprise to many but it becomes a little more understandable when one reflects that its history is somewhat newer than many of its counterparts.
Golf was first played at Turnberry in the late 1800s and the Turnberry Golf Club was formed in 1906 but it was not a regular venue for championship golf. The links was used as an RAF station during the Second World War and many of the runways, which crisscross the site, can still be seen. They continue to perform an important role in the delivery of the Open helping with car parking and aiding storage and the movement of heavy equipment around the site. For the last few years they have housed head greenkeeper George Brown’s special homemade cocktails for the grass, the primary ingredient being seaweed from Turnberry beach!
Golf architect Philip Mackenzie Ross upgraded the links in 1948. The land was ideal and the sea frontage spectacular. The course was great from the outset and the fortunes of the course and hotel at Turnberry changed in the early 1970s when the R&A decided that Ailsa would host the 1977 Open. It was a decision that would resonate around the world.
There is little need to recount what happened on the burnt turf in July 1977 other than to say that in the opinion of most golfers and commentators it was the best Open ever. The two best players duelled on a great stage in the best of weather and delivered entertainment and excitement beyond the imagination of everybody. Tom Watson triumphed and the Ailsa course at Turnberry was thrust onto the international golfing map. It has stayed there ever since and in more recent years has risen to number one in Golf World and Golf Monthly’s rankings for golf courses in the UK and Ireland.
The success of 1977 led to the Open returning in 1986. The weather could not have been more different with wind and rain prominent as Greg Norman won his first Championship. George Brown had only six months to prepare the links for the Open following the untimely death of his predecessor Russell Brown. Despite this, the links triumphed again.
Nick Price’s snaking putt across the seventeenth green remains the abiding memory of the 1994 championship. His eagle denied Jesper Parnevik, and although he would go close again up the road at Royal Troon in 1997, Parnevik was destined never to win the Open.
It is a long time since 1994 and many are asking where Turnberry has been? The hiatus has had more to do with off course matters, although the links will show a number of changes. The tenth and sixteenth holes have been changed significantly by architect Martin Ebert of Mackenzie & Ebert. The tenth now plays from a new tee (George first noted the site) overlooking the beach and demands a tee shot across the bay. There is a real risk and reward element to the shot with the golfer having a choice of taking a tight line between beach and bunker to a narrow strip of fairway, or playing conservatively to the right, avoiding further bunkers yet leaving a longer shot to the green. As always, the choice will depend on the weather and the wind direction but if nothing else, the new hole is more of a visual feast than its predecessor.
The sixteenth has been lengthened and the fairway moved to the left to create a dogleg from a previously straight hole, add a more challenging angle to approach shots over the burn, and to create room to move the championship tee for the par five seventeenth further back. Each piece of fairway turf was laboriously stripped and re-laid in the winter of 2006/7 to create a surface for play the following spring. Much time and effort has gone into perfecting the surface, which should be comparable with other fairways by the time the Open is played.
George and his team have focused on improving links grass composition on fairways through aggressive overseeding and improving firmness and trueness through plentiful top dressing. The mowing patterns on some green complexes have been adjusted to accommodate extended run offs and work continues to perfect the quality of turf in these areas.
The greens are unique in that many of them are bowls which collect both balls and water. The third, fourth, ninth, eleventh, fourteenth and seventeenth are most prominent in this respect and George is ever vigilant about turf decline. Aeration packages and programmes have been varied and plentiful over the years to get the best from the greens and some progress has been made with bents and fescues, although heavy playing levels at Turnberry mean that annual meadow grass will always have some role to play in the turf. Currently, inputs are focused on minimising this in line with best practice guidelines set out by the Golf Course Committee of the R&A. In the future Leisurecorp, the new Dubai-based owner, is committed to delivering further improvements.
So, Ailsa is ready again, helped by new ownership and a seven month rest. However one thing has not changed and that is the responsibility for delivering agronomic excellence the week of the championship. George Brown has been in charge at Turnberry since 1985 and this will be his last Open before he retires. It would be wrong to call George the greenkeeper. He is Mr Turnberry, and it is difficult to imagine this great links with anyone else at the helm. He’s looked after the grass, he’s looked after the members, he’s looked after golf’s cognoscenti and he’s looked after world leaders when they have come to play. He’s beaten most of us with his clubs, and he’s told others all about it in his own inimitable way; a way no other man can. This is George’s Open and no other custodian of any links the world over deserves a successful outcome more than George. It has been a real privilege to walk these fairways and talk turf and golf in his company and I will help him all I can to add the final chapter to one of the most interesting and successful careers in this industry. George and Ailsa has been a match made in heaven and here to one more hurrah for the golfing and greenkeeping raconteur extraordinaire!
Alistair Beggs is agronomist to the R&A and northern area manager for STRI.