Turnberry is defined by great vistas and great champions, quite an identity for only being part of the British Open rotation the last 32 years. Move it to America and it might as well be called Pebble Beach.
It curves around the rugged Ayrshire coast, with nearly half of the holes positioned along a section of the Irish Sea known as the Firth of Clyde. The landmark is a 100-foot lighthouse that was built in 1873 and sits off the ninth fairway, not far from what remains of a castle inhabited by Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland in the early 14th century.
Looming out to sea is the Ailsa Craig, an island whose conical summit rises 1,000 feet from the water. Locals are fond of saying that if you can’t see the Ailsa Craig, then it’s raining. And if you can see it, then it’s about to rain.
Enhancing its young reputation are its British Open winners, all of them in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
This is where Tom Watson matched scores with Jack Nicklaus for three rounds in 1977 and beat him with one last birdie, a duel that ranks among the best in golf. Greg Norman won his first major in 1986 behind a 63 in blustery conditions on the second day. Nick Price finished birdie-eagle-par in 1994, the last time the Open was held at Turnberry.
“It’s a tremendous golf course,” Colin Montgomerie said. “It’s a golf course I think we all would agree has the most character of any links course in Britain, especially on our rota. Just a fantastic place to be.”
So what can be expected when the British Open returns to Turnberry for only the fourth time, and the first time in 15 years?
That introduces another element of its identity, for some believe it has shown to be the easiest course for golf’s oldest championship, and those skeptics only have to point to the scores on the par-70 links layout.
l Watson and Price each won at 268, a score beaten only five other times in any major contested over 72 holes.
l The first time anyone shot 63 in the British Open was at Turnberry, in 1977 by Mark Hayes. That was matched in 1986 by Norman, who had a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for a 61 until he three-putted for bogey.
l Turnberry set a British Open record in 1994 when 148 rounds were played under par for the tournament.
Padraig Harrington will go for his third straight claret jug when the 138th British Open gets started Thursday. He played the course the last week in May during a corporate function and didn’t sound overly impressed with its difficulty.
“The two I’ve won are probably two of the toughest courses on the links rota,” Harrington said, referring to Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale. “I don’t think it would be considered as tough as those two. So while it suits me being a links, I wouldn’t look forward to a shootout, that’s for sure. I’d prefer a tough test that week.”
Among the unimpressed is writer and author Dan Jenkins, who recently covered his 200th major championship. Jenkins was at all three British Opens at Turnberry, and offered this in a recent Twitter posting:
“I hear it’s tougher, but I wonder if the real par is still 65.”
And then there are lose like Fred Couples, whose only British Open at Turnberry came in 1986. When asked what he remembered about the test Turnberry presents, Couples didn’t hesitate.
“The hardest British Open course I’ve ever played,” he said.
What about that 268 by Watson for a one-shot victory? Hubert Green finished third, another 10 shots back. No one else broke par.
Weather played a role in 1994. The story goes that some 10 days before the Open began, during an exhibition at Turnberry, the course was so dry that when R&A secretary Sir Michael Bonallack walked onto a green, you could hear the grass crunch below his metal spikes. It started raining the next day, and didn’t let up until Price had won the claret jug.
Not everything about Turnberry is a mystery.
The course is some 300 yards longer than the last time it held the British Open. Whoever shoots the lowest score will have his name engraved on the silver claret jug. And Tiger Woods has a chance to win, if only because he is playing this year.
Woods missed his first major as a professional last year at Royal Birkdale because of season-ending knee surgery. He has never seen Turnberry, which last held the British Open the year before Woods became eligible. The world’s No. 1 player does not hold a major title for the first time since 2004, yet he looks as though that might be about a change the way he won at Congressional last week.
Then again, Woods also won his final tournament before the Masters and U.S. Open, and both times he tied for sixth.
His only recollection of Turnberry comes from highlights, especially the “Duel in the Sun” between Watson and Nicklaus, although he has not seen enough to appreciate what the course is like or how it plays.
It might not matter because of the changes.
Turnberry has been lengthened substantially, typical of most courses this decade at the majors, with some new bunkers in strategic spots along the fairway and the rerouting of the 16th hole to bring the burn into play.
“I don’t go along with the fact it’s one of the easier ones,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “We had a couple of them in benign weather. With the course changes we’ve had, I would put it up there with the best.”
Early scouting reports seem to suggest as much.
Ernie Els played a few practice rounds at Turnberry a week before the British Open and was amazed at how lush the grass was, especially outside the fairways. Britain has gone through a wet spring, allowing grass to grow, and yet the last month has turned dry. That could make for the ultimate test of thick rough and firm fairways.
“That could be quite a beast if the wind comes up,” Els said.