Turnberry story

The impact of the railway on the Ayrshire coast, and how it propagated the many great golf courses we know today is well documented. It arrived a bit later at Turnberry however being the most southerly pearl in this string. Most Scottish golf courses follow a predictable paradigm. A golf course is established and gradually develops over a time line of anywhere between 100 to 500 years. This is the Turnberry story, and its different and much more colourful

Unlike Troon to the north, the coastline at Turnberry is craggy, it would require a visionary to spot its potential for golf. The first public meeting to develop Turnberry for golf was held in 1892. It wasn’t until 1896 that Lord Ailsa, a keen golfer and an active member of the South-Western Railway board, saw the financial opportunity of building a course at Turnberry and a train line from Ayr to Maidens, Turnberry and Girvan that things began to seriously move ahead however.

On 6 July 1901, the first man-made links, designed by Willie Fernie, were opened for play at Turnberry. The Clubhouse followed soon after, with a match between two teams headed by the Club Captain and Vice Captain to mark the occasion.

The golf club was founded in 1902, and four years later the iconic white plasterwork and red pan tile roof hotel that sits atop the hill that overlooks the links was completed. On 17 May 1906, the resort opened, offering luxury rarely seen on such a scale at the time. With its electric lighting, central heating, hot and cold running water, and saltwater plunge baths, the Station Hotel offered a rare glimpse into a whole new way of living. The hotel was necessarily grand, but intentionally unostentatious. Inside, opulent appointments were specified throughout, and little expense was spared. Fourteen years after the concept was launched, the final piece in this jigsaw was slotted into place, and Turnberry became the world’s first purpose built golf resort

As the longest course in the west of Scotland at 6,248 yards, Turnberry was an immediate hit. After just seven years, it held its first professional tournament and attracted a strong field that included the reigning Open champion, Arnaud Massey. Several other significant tournaments were held at Turnberry during that time, including the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship of 1912.

In 1914 however, Turnberry’s path to golfing greatness was brought to shuddering halt by the first world war. The Firth of Clyde controlled access to Glasgow’s shipyards and Turnberry was a logical observation and defensive point. Turnberry’s rippling greens and dunes were levelled to make way for airstrips, hangers and huts. The newly formed Royal Flying Corps trained pilots in the arts of aerial gunnery and combat. Well the British drew their flyers from the upper strata of the social classes, and the officers had an eye for luxury and location! The hotel was quickly requisitioned and pressed into action as a training establishment and convalescence facility for the wounded.

Turnberry story

Bi-planes and the Stevenson lighthouse

By 1926 the No1 course had been redesigned to remove blind shots, lengthened, and renamed the ‘Ailsa’. Turnberry looked to be on the up, but in 1930 the railway line that had sustained the palatial hotel was partly closed. Only a small connecting spur offered it a life-line.

The Second World War made even bigger demands on the course. With German u-boats wreaking havoc on British Atlantic shipping, Turnberry was requisitioned again by coastal command and used for observation planes and light bombers. The runways still exist today although you wouldn’t know it.

The damage done to the links in the second world war was extensive however. Turnberry’s prospects for regaining her greatness again were dealt a further blow when in 1942 the rail spur closed. The last train steamed out of Turnberry station on February 28th, and has never returned. The whole concept that had underwritten its ambitious development was now shattered within a period of forty years

Turnberry story

Yes, this is Turnberry golf course from the second world war

As a golf course it looked doomed by 1948. With no rail link, and no discernible course even, what future did it realistically have in austere post-war Britain? Turnberry got lucky in some regards though, and was fortunate enough to fall under the control of Frank Hole who restored the famous links in conjunction together with Mackenzie Ross. New holes at the 4th, 9th, and 10th would become defining features as the coastline was put to full dramatic use. Throughout the 1960’s Turnberry would still largely be limited to the ranks of the amateur game however, but this changed in the early 1970’s when the professional ranks began to experience Turnberry, and the R&A began to positively consider recognising Turnberry with the ultimate award. It perhaps needs to be remembered however that adding it to the Open Championship rotation wasn’t without risk. Would the crowds turn up? Would the course stand up? A date was set and against all expectations Turnberry has not only risen from the cinders, but was awarded its first Open championship for 1977. They were to get lucky again.

In the aftermath of a great sporting occasion our media often look to place it in some historical context by way of a default reflex. Because such articles and ‘best ever’ lists are always written in the immediate wake of something, that something, temporarily tends to enjoy an elevated status. It’s perhaps only with the passage of time that a slight rebound towards reality is slowly applied. ‘Great’ events get subtly downgraded to ‘good’, but in very rare cases, they endure temporal horizons without suffering erosion on the memory. When this occurs their status is confirmed, they become ‘legendary’.

It’s been years now since the ‘duel in the sun’ and yet if you ask people (even those who weren’t old enough to see it) to nominate the greatest ever head-to-head witnessed on a golf course, their instantaneous answer is frequently Watson versus Nicklaus, Turnberry, 1977.

For three days Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus traded blows posting identical scores of 68 – 70 and 65 with the consequence that they were paired on the final day. Watson sporting an unfortunate green shirt and checked trousers/ pants combination remains the only stain on the archive. He was lucky not to be arrested for this fashion crime!

Nicklaus struck first and birdied twice. A three-stroke lead had been opened up after four holes. Watson birdied three of the next four to pull even at two-under for the round. However, he bogeyed the signature ninth hole, ‘Bruce’s Castle’ to fall one back at the turn. Nicklaus birdied the 12th hole to go two strokes ahead, and it seemed there was inevitability about his coronation. Watson retaliated straight-away though, and birdied 13. The par-3, fifteenth would provide the next piece of drama. Watson rolled in a monster putt from off the green to even up the round at three-under.

The pair traded at the 16th with pars, and so advanced to the reachable par-5 seventeenth still neck and neck. Nicklaus missed the green to the right but chipped his third to four feet of the cup. Watson missed an eagle putt and tapped in for birdie, but then the decisive moment. Nicklaus two-putted for par to go a stroke down with one hole remaining. On the 18th tee, Watson drove to an ideal position in the fairway, but Nicklaus went right and into the rough. Watson’s 7-iron approach stopped pin-high and a few feet left of the flag, and with Nicklaus in trouble, appeared to seal the victory. It was a master stroke of a man who was ‘in the zone’. Nicklaus refused to lie down though, and slashed his 8-iron recovery onto the front of the green. He needed to hole a 35-foot putt just to give himself a glimmer of hope. Remarkable things had happened throughout that day, and he duly sank it for a birdie, and a bogey-free 66. Now needing a seventh birdie of the round to avoid an 18-hole playoff, Watson stepped up. The regulation two-footer suddenly looked much more daunting than it did a few minutes earlier. Watson held his nerve and secured his second straight 65, second Open, and third major title. With birdies on four of the final six holes, his total of 268 was eight strokes better than the previous best score ever in the Open.

The third place finisher, reigning U.S. Open champion Hubert Green, shot a final round 67 and was a distant ten strokes behind Nicklaus.

In 1986 Greg Norman, and Nick Price in 1994 would add their names to Turnberry’s roll of honour. In October 2008 Leisurecorp, the Dubai World investment company, took ownership of Turnberry in times for the tournament’s return to the Ailsa in 2009. Again, the name Watson would figure in one golfs biggest tragedies. At the venerable age of 59, Tom Watson had emerged as a popular pace-setter who we all expected to fall away. He duly got to the 72nd needing a par to secure his sixth Championship and re-write the history books. His approach shot hit the target but took a capricious bounce leaving him an agonising choice from off the green. Rationalising that his worst putt wasn’t as bad as his worst chip, he elected to putt which ultimately an eight-footer to seal what would have been one of the most remarkable stories in sport. Sadly the ball slipped past and never really threatened the hole. All of Scotland cried. Suffice to say, a clearly fatigued Watson was never a factor in the play-off, and the name of Stewart Cink was carved onto the claret jug.

The next big development for Turnberry wasn’t long in coming. The credit crunch might have curtailed Leisurecorp’s plans, as they tended to book Turnberry as a fixed asset and leave it on the balance sheet. The feeling was that the course was in need of an injection of love. In 2014 Leisurecorp sold Turnberry to the Trump Organisation, and let’s be honest, the golf world held its breath to see what the new owner might do. They needn’t have worried.

Under the direction of Martin Ebert the Ailsa course was reborn. A number of new holes were created, whilst some of the existing holes were subject to significant alterations. The masterpiece is the trio from nine to eleven. The iconic Bruce’s Castle (9th) became a par 3, with a tee shot played over the Atlantic and across coves and crags to the green in the shadow of the lighthouse. If the 9th has claims to be considered the best par 3 in Championship golf, the new 10th now has claims to be the best par 5. The new 11th is a brand-new hole that makes judicious use of small parcels of protruding land in the shoreline that Mackenzie Ross failed to spot. It becomes another tee shot of awe.

No one had really wanted to admit it, but golfers had long realised that the iconic ninth would be better laid out as a par 3 playing over the waves to the lighthouse. Donald Trump just did it. No one complained (too much), people knew it was the right decision and that MacKenzie Ross had probably missed a trick

After it’s first year of play, the reborn Ailsa quickly established itself as a close competitor to Muirfield in the unofficial rankings, over-taking the Lothian links in some surveys and taking the number one slot. In addition to the Ailsa, the hotel, the reworked Arran course (renamed the King Robert the Bruce Course) and the resort pitch and putt course have all been subjected to significant upgrades.

As regards the fate of Turnberry and the Open Championship however, that remains in a position of flux. With the reintroduction of Portrush into the rotation however, and the Muirfield now back in the fold after their temporary suspension, the R&A has a spare course if they’re to retain the structure of eight, plus two St Andrews, every decade. The R&A have always said that they use “the best available”. There can be little doubt that Turnberry qualifies. If quality is the arbitrator, then there are four candidates at the very least that would be seemingly be considered for removal ahead of Turnberry.

Despite some alleged attempts to remove it, Turnberry officially remains on the rotation, and might have overcome its biggest hurdle therefore. If it were going to be stripped of the status, then a bit of us thinks it would have happened by now. There can be little doubt however, that the political position of the owner throws the R&A a curve ball. It would be naïve not to think that the demands of sponsors, and the paying public won’t weigh on their decision. There’s a bit of a dark irony to all of this really. One of the R&A’s biggest concerns about Turnberry was profile. It doesn’t have a significant local population to help feed a crowd, and is their most remote venue. If they needed publicity, then they won’t be short of any if deciding to return to the Ayrshire coast. At this stage however, 2023 looks like the first possible diary date and the world might look very different by then. At Faraway Fairways we’re fairly confident that Turnberry hasn’t hosted it’s last Open Championship, and once the heat in the current climate dies down a bit, we’ll see it grace this magnificent links again.