Few places on earth are blessed with more quality courses than the west coast of Scotland. Mark Alexander finds out what makes Ayrshire so special...
Around its lochs and glens and in between its castles and crofts, Scotland is home to arguably the finest collection of golf courses anywhere. At the last count there were 597, each with a story to tell.
There are nine-holers with honesty boxes, remote gems mown by sheep and little-known tracks laid out by bearded men in tweed jackets. And then there are the headline grabbers; the kind of courses you know like the back of your hand because you’ve seen them so many times on television. These trophy courses have become ingrained into our collective consciousness, establishing Scotland as the place where golfing history walks hand in hand with stunning vistas and a brisk breeze.
Ayrshire is home to over 40 of these treasures, three of which are Open Championship venues. No other part of Scotland has so many trophy courses; they litter this westerly stretch of land like confetti outside a church. As a consequence, this is one of my favourite places to photograph golf courses, and not merely because of the number of places to play. On a drawn-out summer’s evening when the sun seems reluctant to call it a day, there is nowhere better to soak up a solar descent than on an Ayrshire golf course.
TURNING HEADS. My first visit to this magical stretch was to the Open Championship venue at Turnberry, with its iconic white hotel and dramatic course. As introductions go, it wasn’t a bad one. After all, this is where the triumphant Tom Watson overcame the gracious Jack Nicklaus in the fabled ‘Duel in the Sun’. And, 32 years later, it was here that the five times Open winner came close to becoming the oldest player ever to lift the Claret Jug. This is where legends are made.
This visit to Turnberry was a few months ahead of Stewart Cink’s 2009 victory. It was the day before the championship grandstands were to be built and there was a potential window of good weather during a dreary April. I arrived in the afternoon, just as the sun broke and enjoyed a 24-hour spell of wondrous light.
I took my last photographs at 9pm, just as the sun began to dip over the horizon and the ripples in the links were appearing like stripes across a tiger’s back. On any given day, Turnberry is spectacular, but on that golden, saturated night, it was simply breath-taking.
Since that first, spectacular visit, I have made numerous trips to Turnberry and on each occasion the resort has impressed me in a new way. To begin with, it was the course that stood out – the dunes, the sweeping approaches and the ragged coastline conspiring to create a round filled with fun, challenge and outstanding beauty.
Later I was impressed with the hotel and its grand entrance lobby, ornate dining room and slick sports bar looking down on to Ailsa Craig. In particular, I remember treating myself in the cool 1906 restaurant to the signature Burns breakfast with haggis and hollandaise sauce. If that doesn’t set you up for the day, nothing will.
PITCH AND PUTT. My latest visit was a week-long family holiday last summer. This introduced me to another feature of the resort, one that I had driven past on numerous occasions and not thought twice about. Now it is unquestionably my favourite piece of the Turnberry jigsaw. In fact, I feel so strongly about it, I believe every five-star rated golf resort should have one: a 12-hole pitch and putt course.
We played this challenging little layout every day and never got bored. My two boys, my wife and her aunt and uncle all happily participated. We embraced the ideals of the game, the challenges it presented and the rewards it offered. A round took less than hour and as we were guests staying in a self-catering apartment, we didn’t pay a penny. Joy. If ever there was a cure for golf’s dwindling participation rates, this is it.
What’s more, Turnberry has received a massive boost under the new ownership of Donald Trump, who seems hell-bent on giving the place a metaphorical new lick of paint. He announced that he intends to lavish £100 million on the resort (which he bought for £35 million) and I see no reason to doubt him – even the pitch and putt course is getting a makeover. I can’t wait to get back.
PRESSING THE POINT. Half an hour’s drive north of Turnberry is one of the cornerstones of the modern game and the birthplace of the Open Championship; Prestwick Golf Club. This is a track every golfer has to play, not simply for the twists and turns that await in the wildly quirky 18-hole layout, and certainly not because of the springy links turf into which the course has been etched. Golfers shouldn’t even make a beeline to Prestwick for the warm welcome they will receive in the clubhouse. The reason why every golfer should add Prestwick to their must-play list is to sample the profound sense of history that wafts through every locker and surrounds every green.
Prestwick is ingrained in the fabric of golf because 57 enthusiastic golfers decided to form a club here more than 160 years ago. They followed up this momentous decision with another cracking idea, which involved persuading Old Tom Morris to uproot his family from St Andrews and move to Scotland’s west coast to lay out a 12-hole routing. They completed the holy trinity of fine decisions by opting to host the first Open Championship in 1860, and by doing so secured Prestwick’s place in golf’s history.
But as much as Prestwick is the place where the Open Championship was born, what’s impressive is the relevance and quality of the course. The funky fairways and undulating greens don’t appear out-of-date or old-fashioned. If anything, they are more exciting than many modern courses. From the first tee to the 18th green, both of which are overlooked by the clubhouse, Prestwick continues to be full of surprises.
STAMP OF APPROVAL. Further up the coast, Troon is preparing for its turn in the spotlight when it hosts the Open Championship in 2016. The course is being adjusted, tweaked and rejigged to meet the R&A’s exacting standards. Elsewhere, the Marine Hotel, which overlooks the 1st and 18th holes, is on sale for £7 million. This will no doubt result in a spring clean by the new owners ahead of the much-anticipated festivities.
The 89-room hotel isn’t the only institution considering change. The club itself is launching a review into its membership policy, which will in all probability see women being invited to join before next year’s fun. Plans, preparations and provisions are being made for the return of the Open Championship to Troon for the first time in 12 years, and it appears the town is going to make the most of it.
One aspect of the Troon experience that won’t change is the 8th hole, which according to the scorecard is the easiest on the course. Slightly downhill and at only 123 yards, you wouldn’t argue with the stroke 18 rating. What the guide doesn’t tell you is that this innocuous par-3 also happens to be one of the most feared in golf.
At least on paper, the Postage Stamp appears to be a cheery knock amid the fiery links of Royal Troon. It is anything but that. This seemingly harmless hole, the shortest on the Open Championship rota, is a card-wrecker on an intimidating scale. In 1997, Tiger Woods arrived at the 8th, during the final round of the Open Championship, biting at the heels of the leaders. At 21, he had recently become the youngest winner of the Masters and had been crowned the world’s Number One. Scotland’s west coast air was thick with anticipation.
When he eventually limped off the 8th, Tiger’s fallibility had been exposed. He came unstuck when he pitched his tee shot into one of five greenside bunkers. Failing to escape from the deep trap on his first attempt, he scrambled an escape and then three-putted from 15 feet. His triple-bogey six was confirmation that despite its length, Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp could tame the fiercest competitors.
When I played it, a stiff on-shore breeze added to the drama of the occasion, and also cut short my ball flight. My shot landed short, right of the green, and a nervy chip then ensued. I followed this up with two putts to escape with a bogey. I had survived, but only just.
Ayrshire is one of those rare places where iconic venues seem to be stacked up like dominoes on a kitchen table. The temptation is to rush through them, chasing on as one domino falls after another. This would be a mistake. Take time to enjoy the clubhouses, the history and the atmosphere that surrounds these famous venues. Indulge yourself in the moment as you walk where legends strode. Ayrshire, after all, is a golfing treasure to be savoured.
Does the thought of gazing out of your window and seeing the 18th green of the most famous golf course in the world, The Old Course, sound like a dream come true? Well, there is no need for a fairy godmother to wave her magic wand; at the Hamilton Grand you can buy your very own piece of history. Who said fairytales can’t come true..?
Good to know
Trump Turnberry Resort
Maidens Road, Turnberry
Ayrshire, KA26 9LT
T: +44 (0)1655 331 000
Prestwick Golf Club
2-4 Links Road, Prestwick
Ayrshire, KA9 1QG
T: +44 (0)1292 477 404
Royal Troon Golf Club
Craigend Road, Troon
Ayrshire, KA10 6EP
T: +44 (0)1292 311 555