Royal treat lies ahead as Open kicks off at Troon
The oldest Major starts in Royal Troon on Thursday and the pressure will be intense
The 18th at Royal Troon is a relatively straightforward par four but there’s nothing ordinary about it after the R&A berthed their two cruise liners either side of the fairway with 7,000 spectators staring down at you
Break it down and the game is the same for everyone. Irrespective of age or ability we are all just trying to put bat on ball around a large area of manicured turf with the aim of getting that wee, dimpled object into the hole in the fewest shots possible.
That is easier said than done, though, and putting aside the variables of technique and ability, it’s the mental arm wrestle of golf that counts for most. The elegantly powerful action of Rory McIlroy should never be compared with the workmanlike, paint-by-numbers style of a Jim Furyk or “The Mechanic” Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
That’s the thing with golf: the pageantry is not in the action but the outcome. Winning is the only thing that counts. It’s the ticket that allows our mannequins of the fairways to strut their heavily branded selves in front of the masses – and there is no greater catwalk than the closing scene of an Open Championship.
The amphitheatre of the 18th hole at an Open Championship has become legendary. It’s the cauldron of pressure (think Jean van de Velde’s tragically comical actions at Carnoustie in 1999) or a victory procession where doffing your cap gracefully like Tom Watson to acknowledge the crowds on high must be one of the most satisfying walks in golf.
However, there’s a whole world of pain to get through before the closing act unfolds at Royal Troon next Sunday evening. And for some reason, the powers that be in this parish have afforded yours truly free rein to highlight some of the perils and pitfalls that await the 156 hopefuls who will tee it up in the 145th Open Championship.
My original stable is Royal County Down, playing out of Mourne Golf Club in Newcastle, but I am becoming more of a nomadic golfer with each passing year. As a resident of Troon for the last five years, I currently pay for the privilege of hacking it around Prestwick St Nicholas Golf Club, while accepting each and every Royal Troon invite that comes my way.
The opening tee shot of any Major championship is one of the most intimidating in golf. It’s not necessarily what lies ahead, but the ability to keep yourself in check and coping with the situation that count. Huge pressure. Simply placing a ball on a tee with a shaky hand can be an onerous task, never mind trying to pull the trigger and make a decent swing.
This is where the professional’s pre-shot routine and autopilot setting kick in, which is something we amateurs struggle to repeat. All too often we shuffle about with our Riverdance impressions, while trying to process the umpteen swing thoughts cluttering our minds.
The start at Royal Troon is difficult because the first tee is virtually on the beach, tucked into the most northern part of the property. The underbelly of the 18th grandstand left and out of bounds right means the opening salvo is like firing down a tunnel with little margin for error. The plus side is the hole is not long, so rescue clubs and irons will likely feature off the tee.
If you’ve fallen out of the right side of the bed and the body does what it’s told, then the first 90 minutes on the Troon links could be the place to make hay. This is where Greg Norman opened with six straight birdies in a final round 64 in 1989 to force his way into a play-off.
It could also be the calm before the storm because it takes players to a part of the course where the real fun begins. Although the par four seventh is not long at 401 yards, it’s a testing tee shot if played into the wind, especially from the championship tee pushed back and a new, cavernous fairway bunker restored on the right.
But this is still only the preamble ahead of negotiating the shortest hole on the Open rota. The Postage Stamp par three eighth measures just 123 yards on the card and as Kieron Stevenson, head professional at Royal Troon, says: “There is only one way to play the hole: aim for the middle of the green no matter where the pin is.”
I have played this hole a dozen times and it has ranged from a five iron to a flick of a gap wedg; I only need one hand to count the number of pars made. The Coffin bunker left of the green is hellish because it’s so narrow. Unless you’re happy swinging in a phone box, then avoid it at all costs.
There are whispers that the R&A has the ability to place the hole further forward after the green was extended at the front and to make the hole measure less than 100 yards. Don’t worry: any treachery on Troon’s most famous hole will be captured by new host broadcaster Sky, who have brought their full bag of tricks to the party. A fly-cam will run the length of the hole and mini-cams have been placed in the faces of every bunker.
New mounding behind the ninth green at the farthest part of the course greatly helps the aesthetic and topography of the hole. Some say it was to block out the line of sight to the adjacent static homes on the other side of the fence. Time will tell.
One unavoidable sight the players must confront is the tee shot through the sandhills from the new back tee at the 10th. This and the eye-of-a-needle tee shot required at 11 will be enough to get all heart rates pumping, even the Spieths and McIlroys who seemingly have it on a string with driver in hand.
Blind landing area
It doesn’t get any easier at 11 with another blind tee shot over fields of gorse and the railway line prominent all down the right side. On line with the flag it’s almost 280 yards to carry to the fairway, so work that one out if your balata insert driver only takes you 240 with your Sunday best.
Arnold Palmer said the 482-yard par four 11th was the hardest hole on the Open rota and Jack Nicklaus backed it up saying it was the toughest hole in the UK. In 2004 the 10th, 11th and 12th were ranked the three toughest holes. To get through Ayrshire’s Amen Corner unscathed on all four days will be a feat in itself.
Royal Troon is not long by today’s standards and will measure 7,190 yards, just 15-yards longer than when American Todd Hamilton enjoyed his finest hour in 2004. Course architects and Open specialists Mackenzie & Ebert carried out upgrade work with changes made on every hole.
The biggest change was at the 15th where the first part of the fairway was rerouted to the left and four new fairway bunkers were added to the 499-yard par four. It definitely enhances the hole and begins the closing stretch where mental fortitude and clarity of thought will be essential.
One of Troon’s defences is the relatively small greens. This can be a double-edged sword for although it places a premium on accuracy for approach shots, if you find the putting surface then you are generally in the vicinity of the cup. Recent downpours and humidity have meant straying offline should also come with a health warning. Prepare to see a bit of wedge slashing as players attempt to return to the sanctuary of the short stuff.
Then we arrive at the 18th. A relatively straightforward par four but there’s nothing ordinary about it after the R&A berthed their two cruise liners either side of the fairway with 7,000 spectators staring down at you.
It doesn’t matter how we dress it up: the oldest Major of them all will come down to the person who holds their nerve best. Driving accuracy and a smooth stroke with blade in hand will be key components but I’ve spoken to enough top players to understand they too feel the pressure, the same pressure we experience when teeing it up for the monthly medal.
The difference between these fairway gladiators and us mere mortals is they have coping mechanisms which are so ingrained in the professional psyche they become second nature. It’s instinctive. However, sometimes even the tried and tested coping mechanisms strain under the most intensive tests – and there are none greater than the Open Championship.
Royal Troon: the details
Playing the Postage Stamp
The players will have only one thing on their minds: get in and get out as quickly as possible without inflicting any damage to the scorecard. This short hole has produced triumph and tragedy in equal measure over the years. In 2004 Ernie Els made a hole-in-one at the Postage Stamp, a feat Gene Sarazen also achieved when he holed out in the first round in 1973 when playing his 50th Open Championship. Tiger Woods had played himself into contention in 1997 but in the final round he ran up a triple-bogey six after finding the bunker right, then failed to get out before finding the green and taking three putts.
Food for thought . . .
Might be something, could be nothing but the last time I played an Open venue just days before the Open Championship with all the infrastructure in place was a game with Ronan Rafferty at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and we know what happened that year. Could it be time for an Irishman to be named Champion Golfer of the Year once again?
Card of the course and adjustments*
1: 367 yards (par 4) Championship tee made larger
2: 390 (4) Green extended at right rear
3: 377 (4) Green surrounds extended at rear
4: 555 (5) Fairway bunkers moved left; approach bunker and dunes added left; green extended left rear; artificial mound reshaped at the rear of the green
5: 209 (3) Tee reconfigured; bushes cleared to right of hole and area restored to bare sand
6: 601 (5) Tees enlarged; green surrounds reshaped to right and rear
7: 401 (4) Fairway bunker restored to right of hole
8: 123 (3) Green extended at front; green slope from coffin bunker softened
9: 422 (4) Tee enlarged; gorse cleared to left of carry and area restored to bare sand; green surrounds reshaped; tree behind green replaced with dunes (Out: 3,445)
10: 451 (4) Back tee added; wetland created in carry; sandhills bunker in carry restored
11: 482 (4) Tees enlarged; gorse replaced with heather to the right of fairway
12: 430 (4) Tees enlarged; green surrounds mown tighter to the left
13: 473 (4) Tee enlarged; gorse cleared to right of carry and area restored to bare sand; area in rough to right reshaped; green extended at left rear
14: 178 (3) Green extended at right rear
15: 499 (4) Tees moved to left side of 14th green; first part of fairway moved well left and four fairway bunkers added
16: 554 (5) Back tee added; dunes added right of fairway on both sides of burn and beyond burn on left; green extended rear left and right
17: 220 (3) Green extended at front
18: 458 (4) Greenside bunkers right made deeper (In: 3,745; Total: 7,190)
(* Information courtesy of Royal Troon Golf Club)
Open champions/Leading Irish player at Royal Troon
2004 – Todd Hamilton (USA) 274; Top Irishman tied 11th: Darren Clarke 293
1997 – Justin Leonard (USA) 272; T2 Darren Clarke 282
1989 – Mark Calcavecchia (USA) 275; T6 David Feherty 279
1982 – Tom Watson (USA) 284; T4 Des Smyth 286
1973 – Tom Weiskopf (USA) 276; T7 Christy O’Connor snr 288
1962 –Arnold Palmer (USA) 276 ; T16 Christy O’Connor snr 297
1923 – Arthur Havers (Eng) 296; No Irish