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|The clubhouse is in view behind the 18th green at Prestwick Golf Club. (Courtesy of prestwickgc.co.uk)|
From Turnberry to Royal Troon Golf Club to Prestwick Golf Club, Ayrshire, Scotland has a lot to offer.
Lovers of links golf planning to play Turnberry, host of the 2009 Open Championship, should take the opportunity of playing some of the other magnificent courses in the South Ayrshire area, including Royal Troon and Prestwick.
In case your geography is as shaky as my putting, Turnberry is on the west coast of Scotland to the south of Glasgow. It's in Ayrshire, which has a rugged coastline that often appears to be an unbroken string of golf courses (there are more than 100) and is about as close to golf paradise as you are likely to reach on earth.
As well as current Open rota courses such at the Ailsa course at Turnberry, this year's host, and Royal Troon, there is Prestwick, which hasn't hosted the Open since 1925. Despite that, however, it has still witnessed more Open Championships (24) than any other course except the Old Lady herself, St Andrews' Old Course. Indeed, the very first Open was played here back in 1860, and therefore the course can claim to have been the birthplace of professional golf.
Old Tom Morris was prized away from his beloved St. Andrews to design a 12-hole layout at Prestwick Golf Club and be appointed "Keeper to the Green." Much of the original 12-hole course is still identifiable today, even though it was extended to 18 more than 120 years ago. Although at 6,544 yards it's a little short by modern standards, Prestwick is still a breathtakingly beautiful golf course that is a must-play for those with a feel for the game's traditions and historic past. Because there are a number of blind holes, the recommendation is to hire a caddie, but with or without a caddie, you'll love every minute.
Not far from Prestwick is another famous Open venue, Royal Troon Golf Club. The first Open was held here back in 1923 and since then there have been seven more, with such illustrious champions as Bobby Locke and six Americans - Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard and, most recently, Todd Hamilton. Undoubtedly the most spectacular performance was put up by Palmer in 1962. The conditions were so difficult that only six rounds were returned under 70, three of them by Palmer.
The most famous hole on this James Braid-designed course is the eighth, the Postage Stamp. At only 123 yards, it's the shortest on the Open roster, but miss the green and you're in trouble. Herman Tissies, a German amateur who ran up a 15 here in the 1950 Open, will testify to that. And he only needed one putt! Unfortunately, he also had 13 bunker shots from three separate bunkers.
Although all the courses mentioned here welcome visitors, you might struggle to get on the Ailsa at Turnberry because of a certain stroke-play tournament taking place there during the third week of July. Although the course has been closed since the autumn for remedial work and to carry out some significant alterations, I was recently allowed to walk over it.
Before I placed my unworthy feet on its hallowed turf, I asked Head Golf Professional Richard Hall what were the most significant changes.
"The par five 17th used to be a little weak," he said. "It was less than 500 yards off the championship tees. The new tees have added 61 yards, and there are new approaches and greenside bunkers that make it a much tougher hole.
"The other huge alteration is the construction of a spectacular new tee at the 10th. It'll be interesting to see if the guys take on the three new fairway bunkers, which requires a carry not far short of 300 yards."
Standing on the spectacular new 10th tee, which, thankfully, is only used in championships, all you can see are rocks and crashing waves. The thought of trying to hit a ball onto the distant fairway is less than appealing for those of us not on tour.
Intimidating carries and bottomless bunkers apart, the Ailsa course at Turnberry is extraordinarily beautiful with towering dunes, springy turf and heaps of history. Who will lift the claret jug this year? The previous three Turnberry Opens (in 1977, 1986 and 1994) were won by Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Nick Price, each of whom was No. 1 in the world at the time of his triumph. No one needs reminding who is No. 1 now.
Next door to the Ailsa is the less frightening Turnberry Kintyre Course. Far from a pushover, it has hosted the Scottish Amateur Strokeplay Championship and was a final qualifying course for the 2004 Open at Royal Troon.
Although it begins gently with several sheltered holes that have an almost parkland feel, by the eighth it changes dramatically with welcome sea views but tougher terrain. Relief, however, is not far away as you soon drop back downhill and alongside what's left of the wartime airfield for the closing holes that weave through the gorse. Although it sounds a little daft, it will be closed during the Open.
Another Open qualifying venue with its fair share of gorse is Kilmarnock (Barassie) Golf Club. On the other side of the county town of Ayr and amongst a clutch of historic golf courses, it has undergone a major makeover in recent times. Using land bought from the Ministry of Defense that, coincidentally, had previously been a golf course, nine new holes were constructed between 1992 and 1996.
These were then incorporated into the main course - the fourth hole to the 12th - thus squeezing out nine holes, which now comprise a separate challenge. Although a few of the members didn't welcome the upheaval, the new set-up provide more options, allows nine holes to be rested during the winter and offers a speedy alternative for those pressed for time.
Because there's a fair bit of walking between holes, a round on the main course can take a while, but this links/heathland challenge is too enjoyable to rush. A number of trees and a lot of gorse have been removed to improve air circulation. However, plenty of both remain, which together with the riveted bunkers, provide enough problems for those fortunate enough to play this private members' club. After the final putt is sunk, find time to look round the lovely, creaky, old clubhouse with its wonderfully nostalgic photos, prints and paintings.
You don't have to go far to find a completely contrasting clubhouse. But don't make the mistake of going to Dundonald in the hope of finding Dundonald Links, because it's not there. However, it's not all that far away and is well signposted, so there are no excuses for getting lost.
After the imposing entrance, the clubhouse, which resembles a super-stretched Portakabin, is something of letdown until you enter and discover a surprisingly spacious, well-appointed, comfortable facility. Anyway, if the clubhouse is something of an anticlimax, the course most certainly isn't.
From the moment you step onto the first tee and take in the wonderfully wide and welcoming opening fairway, you sense that you're in for a treat. Designed by Kyle Phillips, whose other notable creations include the much heralded Kingsbarns Golf Links, the course is a stunner.
Enjoy that glorious feeling of splendid isolation as the imposing dunes and mounds on either side of the fairways provide both protection and a screen from the rest of mankind. Only occasionally are you reminded that there is a world out there, such as on the elevated 13th tee. The inviting fairways encourage you to take out the driver, but don't take liberties as the course will exact revenge by means of well-placed bunkers.
The real challenge, however, comes at the business end of each hole, where you'll encounter fiendish slopes around the vast undulating greens. Constant changes in direction spin you around, but miraculously you are returned to the clubhouse at the 9th and 18th. The four par fives, all of which are superb, are aligned differently so that the help and hindrance of the seemingly incessant wind balance out.
A nice touch is provided by the scorecards, which have the distance the pins are from the front of the greens printed on them each day. At 7,100 yards from the back tees, it is eminently suitable for serious tournaments. A qualifying venue for the European Tour School for the last four years, in June it will host the prestigious PGA Professional Championship.
Other great links courses in the area that warrant a mention and deserve a visit are Glasgow Gailes Golf Club (Gailes, by the way, has nothing to do with the wind), Western Gailes Golf Club, Lochgreen Course, where Jack Nicklaus qualified in 1962 for his first British Open, Prestwick St. Nicholas Golf Club and West Kilbride.
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