Scotland Wants to Welcome You Back
Like me, many travelers to Scotland believe that among the joys in life, few are more satisfying than a round of golf on the edge of the sea, perhaps on a blustery afternoon where the silver clouds and the dusky horizon melt into each other, or maybe at the cusp of a bright-sun morning, the grass still dewy and soft. Either way, Scotland and its royal and ancient game are hoping 2009 is the year they welcome us back.
“Next month marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national poet and cultural icon, Robert Burns, whose message of friendship, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, lives on the world over,” said Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister.
Burns is the touchstone for the country’s homecoming celebration, a yearlong series of events and festivities that Scotland hopes will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors with Scottish ancestral roots. A publicity campaign will highlight many of Scotland’s most notable contributions to the world’s culture. I count among them golf and whisky.
Scotland’s 95 working distilleries produce uniquely different styles of uisage breatha, the Gaelic phrase for “water of life.” Scotland has designated the month of May as Whisky Month, which will be feted in style at the Speyside Festival.
Scotland also owes a hefty chunk of its appeal to golf.
“One in 10 visitors from the United States comes here specifically to play golf,” Ewan Colville told me during a recent visit to Scotland. Colville is the international marketing manager for VisitScotland, a government-funded tourism organization charged with promoting all things Scotland. But that number is deceptively low, Colville says, because it only accounts for those Americans who travel to Scotland primarily to play golf and doesn’t include the thousands who include golf as part of a broader itinerary. The bigger surprise? One of every seven American visitors comes from Texas.
So it seems fitting that the 2009 British Open returns next year, during Scotland’s homecoming, to Burns’ hometown of Ayrshire and the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, the grand dame of all Scotland golf courses. So how is the old gal holding up?
To find out, my trip took me 50 miles south of Glasgow on the A77 to Turnberry and its Ailsa golf course, which, to my mind, remains the best course in the west of Scotland and the only golf resort with a spot on the British Open rota. Golf has been played on this piece of seaside Ayrshire land for a hundred years. On the edge of Ailsa’s 12th hole stands a memorial erected to honor those airmen who died during the World War I, the first of two times the government requisitioned Turnberry for use as an airfield. The resort was requisitioned again during World War II, when the hotel was converted into a hospital and the golf courses were used as an airfield. Even today, patches of those concrete runways pockmark the acreage but do not come into play.
Following the war, the resort was reopened in the early 1950s, after golf course architect Mackenzie Ross completed his redesign of Ailsa. In preparation for the 2009 Open Championship in July, Ailsa has been lengthened to 7,200 yards and toughened with additional fairway bunkering, reinstating the shot values that Ross envisioned back in 1951.
Strategic options are what make Ailsa such a kick to play. Golfers don’t usually find much trouble off the tee. Good drives are rewarded with bounds into prime positions for attacking the pins. Poor drives, on the other hand, well, that’s where the magic of Turnberry’s iconic setting comes into play.
The granite dome of Ailsa Craig pokes out from the turbulent Irish Sea that, on a bad day, pummels Turnberry’s cliffside shores. Known as the Patty Stone, the craig splits the 22-mile distance between Turnberry and the coast of Ireland. The famous lighthouse looms over the coast from No. 9, a crisp 9-iron away from 12th Century remains of Robert the Bruce’s castle. If you catch Turnberry when the air is crystalline, you’ll see the Isle of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre in the distance.
Ailsa’s first three holes aren’t much to look at: sand and bunkers at the greens and not much elevation change. But the next eight holes are among the most challenging – and rewarding – in all of golf. They wrap along the coastline like a string of pearls, running up and down, sawing left and right so that you hit your drive with or against a crosswind on alternating tee shots. On No. 9, you must force yourself to hit your drive from the championship tee, a mere plug of grass set atop a narrow cliff on the edge of the sea. The prevailing winds usually help you carry the 200-yard maw of sea and rock that separates you from the fairway, past the white-and-beige lighthouse and the castle detritus on your left.
As Ailsa heads inland with No. 12, you’ll be tempted to spend the rest of the round comparing the last eight holes with Pebble Beach, but one of the remaining seven holes is among the world’s best. Tom Watson, trailing Jack Nicklaus by a single stroke in their 1977 Sunday Open battle, turned the tables at the 16th, a diabolical 377-yard struggle to a tricky green. Near the green, the fairway plunges wildly, funneling into a narrow stream that guards the steep slope of an elevated green. (Watson holed a tricky 60-foot putt from a spot off the green.)
If you want to play the Ailsa or stay at Turnberry prior to the Open, you’re out of luck: Last month, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide sold Turnberry to Leisurecorp, the Dubai company that has become a major sponsor of the European PGA Tour. Leisurecorp immediately closed both the golf courses and the 101-year-old hotel, which will be fully renovated, and will reopen the resort next July, when the Open returns.
“When the eyes of the world fall upon Turnberry next summer at the 138th Open, we are determined that the venue will stand tall with pride, taking its rightful place as one of the top golf courses in the world,” said Leisurecorp’s CEO, Alan Rogers.
My ready answer to the question “What’s your favorite golf course in Scotland?” has long been the Ailsa. I’m hoping its new owners feel the same way.