Ailsa Course, Turnberry

Sean Dudley
By Toby Ingleton

When Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus shook hands on the Ailsa's eighteenth green after the Open of 1977, members of the R&A must have been rubbing theirs in glee.

For the first time in 23 years they had added a new course to the Open rota, and the resulting 'duel in the sun' was one of the most dramatic finishes the Championship has seen.

And the two Opens that Turnberry has hosted since have had equally satisfactory results. Course manager George Brown takes pleasure in recounting the names of former champions at Turnberry: five times Open winner Tom Watson in that famous battle of 1977, and the world's dominant players of 1986 and 1994 respectively, Greg Norman and Nick Price. So with a new access road built, and the Turnberry resort's owner – US hotel group Starwood – eager for the Ailsa to retain its place on the Open rota, it is no surprise to see Turnberry hosting a championship after a 15 year absence. But to seal this deal, the R&A had to be convinced the course could cope with the demands of the modern game – and asked Open specialists Donald Steel & Company to undertake a comprehensive study of the links.

With the reasonably safe assumption that Tiger Woods will be the dominant player of 2009, Turnberry will be hoping that its subsequent decision to ask Steel to prepare the course for the Open Championship will reap a similar result as at Hoylake – delivering an Open where tactical acumen succeeds over brute force.

With Donald Steel now focused on his role as the president of the English Golf Union, the responsibility of refining and executing the proposed changes falls with Mackenzie & Ebert, the firm established by Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert, the senior architects who worked with Steel.

Ebert was involved with the original course review, but confesses to some trepidation when working on courses with such historical significance: "It certainly focuses the mind, as you know that every change will be subject to debate and scrutiny. But there's also the great privilege of being able to work on some of the game's most important links." There is no sign of trepidation in the nature of the changes being undertaken. Indeed, one of the most significant alterations – and another proposed (see What next?) – is aimed at heightening the drama of the course by bringing its rugged coastline closer to the line of play.

Topographically speaking, Turnberry is already regarded by many as the most dramatic course on the rota. Unlike many Open courses, the coastline changes in nature, from the beachside location of the par three fourth to the clifftops of the ninth and craggy rocks of the tenth.

Some liken it to Pebble Beach, and the holes that hug the coast are similarly photogenic.

When devising the original 1901 layout, it would have been easier and cheaper for Willie Fernie of Troon to have avoided these coastline areas, as an abundance of good smooth ground with fine golfing turf was available elsewhere on the property. But the lure of the picturesque shoreline was too strong, and holes two to eight were positioned along the coast.

When AN Weir redesigned the course in 1909 another coastline hole was added, and Philip Mackenzie Ross preserved this coastline stretch in holes four to eleven of the layout, although the individual holes (with the possible exception of the eighth) have completely changed. In Ross's case, this followed the near destruction of the previous course for the construction of a military airfield during the Second World War.

The highlight of Ross's design is generally accepted to be the famous ninth hole. With the championship tee set on a rocky outcrop and demanding a drive across the corner of a bay, with the lighthouse and ruins of Bruce's Castle providing a picture-postcard detraction, it is a hard act to follow. But the par four tenth hole has undergone a redesign that could elevate it to the same status as the preceding hole. A greater degree of strategy has been added to the tee shot, with the extension of the fairway left to the edge of the coastline and the addition of two pot bunkers in the centre, with a third to follow on the right edge. Ebert says: "The central bunkering creates a double fairway, with players having to take a choice between flirting with the coastline down the left, which is likely to kick the ball forward and leave a modest approach shot, or playing a safer tee shot down the right, but needing a longer iron to the green. A third option is to bail out short of the bunkers, leaving a very long approach." While St Andrews is well known for its double fairways, it is otherwise quite a rare phenomenon for an Open links. And Turnberry's double fairway is very different to those at St Andrews, as it belongs to a single hole, rather than being shared by another played in the opposite direction. Ebert wasn't sure that the R&A would approve such a departure from the norm. "I was concerned that upon visiting the completed hole they would prefer to fill in the right hand bunker and grow the rough back in, but they were pleased with the impact on the way the hole plays. It turns an otherwise one-dimensional tee shot into one filled with choice," he says.

More dramatically, the tenth also gets a new championship tee, tucked back and left from the current teeing areas, closer to the lighthouse and the ruins of Bruce's Castle. This completely transforms the visual set-up of the hole, with the tee shot now needing to carry a bay at an angle to the fairway, further deepening the strategic element to the shot. The new tee perhaps isn't as precarious as the ninth, and the landing area is visible, but the carry is more daunting. Golfers can expect to walk away from these two holes with frazzled nerves and great memories.

The other considerable change to Turnberry's layout involves the closing holes. It was perhaps shortly after Eduardo Romero hit what he described as the longest drive of his career that Turnberry and the R&A realised that the decision to lengthen the seventeenth hole was a very good one. Romero's 379-yard monster during the 2006 Senior Open left him with just a sand wedge for his second shot to the green of this par five hole. Ebert explains: "Repositioning the green was an option, but the hole would still be exposed to the possibility of a long drive catching the downslope of a ridge in the fairway and bouncing on and on. By moving the tees back, even the longest hitting players will have an upslope for the landing area, and a wellplaced fairway bunker means that a shorter tee shot is a sensible option." But moving the tees back wasn't a simple proposition, as the small matter of the sixteenth fairway presented something of an obstruction.

Mackenzie & Ebert's style is one of collaboration though, and discussions with course manager George Brown's greenkeeping staff provided an answer. By re-routing the sixteenth fairway, previously arrow straight, as a dogleg, space was created for a new set of tees. In addition to addressing the first requirement to lengthen the seventeenth, the knock-on improvements to the sixteenth hole are substantial. Contractor J&E Ely has excavated a magnificent crater on the joint of the dogleg. Ebert says he took inspiration from a large natural crater and dunescape to the right of the eighth hole, with the result that the old sixteenth fairway has been shaped with intricate natural-looking undulations. Aggressive tee shots that land in the new crater could be severely punished, but might also leave the player with a dilemma of whether to take on a high-risk approach to the well protected green.

That protection comes primarily in the shape of the Wee Burn that gives the sixteenth its name and primary feature.

The new line of the hole uses the burn to much greater effect. Ebert explains: "The new fairway creates an angle of approach that gives the burn a more lateral character than it had with the previous hole. Players don't simply have to get over the burn, as a pushed approach might carry it at the front of the green but kick into it at the right hand side. This also allows for some incredibly testing flag positions, with placement on the right side of the green enticing players to flirt with the water's edge. Those who play too safe could be faced with a chip or long putt with an intimidating steep drop down to the water just a few feet behind the pin." The repositioning of the sixteenth fairway has allowed for the addition of 60 yards to the length of the seventeenth, which all but removes the possibility of getting a kick off the downslope and lots of extra roll. Even Romero will struggle to hit a tee shot 379 yards on the new hole.

At 558 yards, and with new bunkers 50- 60 yards short of the green, the second shot is sure to get the player thinking.

Bunkers have also been added on the eighteenth, aimed at encouraging much more strategic play of the manner that brought Tiger Woods success at Hoylake.

Many other holes have also seen the addition or repositioning of bunkers, notably in the landing areas at the first, third, fifth, eighth, twelfth and fourteenth.

A rugged ridge is used to similar effect on the thirteenth, again benefiting from the shaping skills of the Ely team.

Turnberry was never running the risk of losing its 'dramatic' label, and its recent elevation to the top slot of two UK magazines' course ranking tables is a reflection of the variety and beauty that accompanies the drama. Thanks to the thoughtfulness and flair of Mackenzie & Ebert, the contractors and course staff, it may well be putting some distance between itself and the chasing pack.