Royal Troon: Behind the Architectural Curtain
This week marks the 145th Open Championship—the third jewel among golf’s four major championships. For the ninth time Royal Troon—located on the west coast of Scotland—serves as host site. As in past majors, four distinguished practicing architects weigh in on their thoughts on what makes The Open Championship one of the highlights in the golfing calendar.
MATT WARD: What makes The Open special when compared to the other three majors?
JEFF BAUER: It has history—it boggles the mind that the first Open was played when the US was just starting the Civil War. It also has unique golf compared to other tournaments.
TIM LOBB: The Open is the truest test of golf for the elite golfers as the courses are set up for precision shots whether they be in the air or along the ground. Additionally as the courses are all located on the coast they are most vulnerable to weather conditions which heightens the drama of the championship.
DOUG CARRICK: All four majors are set up to not only test the shot making skills of the best players in the world, but also to challenge their course management skills, mental fortitude and patience. In my opinion, the Open Championship does that best of all the majors. The unpredictability of links golf adds another dimension to the game that isn’t experienced in the other three majors. Changing weather conditions, strong winds, fast & firm fairways and greens, unpredictable bounces, bunkers that penalize rather than reward errant shots all add an element of intrigue and a supreme test of character.
PAUL KINDER: The clue is in the name of both the tournament and the winner, simply “The Open” and “The Champion Golfer of the Year”. The event is the first one I watched as a boy getting into the game. I grew up loving links golf and as the only major played over links venues where the shot making skills, extra judgment, creative vision and strategic thinking required normally delivers a worthy champion.
MW: A few years back the R&A opted to make several changes to The Old Course at St. Andrews in order to keep the course competitive. The Road Hole back tee was actually moved even further back to nearly 500 yards. Were you in agreement with the specifics carried out in that particular case? Even Royal Portrush—which will stage the event in 2019—experienced major changes to its storied layout. Is tinkering needed in order to handle the nature of modern professional golf or are the links layouts used out-of-bounds in doing such things?
PK: Golf Courses, like the game itself, are constantly evolving and The Old Course is no different, it is healthy to review any course and see where improvements can be made or redundant hazards brought back into play. However extending courses isn’t always the solution. Specifically, extending the Road Hole only plays into the hands of the bigger hitters and actually makes the tee shot easier. Part of the unique thrill of hitting over the corner on the Road Hole is aiming at a wall only a few yards in front of you, hoping you strike it well enough to get the ball up and over the (ex) railway sheds. For me having the tee further back reduces the intimidation factor and the psychological impact making it easier to hit a good shot.
DC: The combination of continual improvement to the golf ball and golf clubs along with the superb conditioning and training of elite players, has necessitated the lengthening of championship venues in order to provide a challenge worthy of championship golf. This is not a new trend as championship venues have been continually lengthened over numerous decades in response to improvements made to equipment and players hitting the ball greater distances. Unfortunately this trend is not sustainable as limits to expansion are finite. Tighter restrictions and perhaps “roll backs” on equipment & distance are needed to keep the historic venues relevant and also to curb the rising cost of maintenance, if the playing field is continually expanded. The changes made to The Road Hole for the last Open at St. Andrews is a classic example of the limits faced in expanding older golf courses. If the R&A didn’t already own the property adjacent to 16th green and 17th tee, the lengthening of the Road Hole would not have been possible.
TL: The set up and lengthening of the Championship venues has been a reaction to the enormous distances in which the elite players are hitting the golf ball. For example the Road Hole back tee extension would be a terrifying experience for the average or better golfer but it was required to ensure the challenge remain intact for this unique and wonderful hole. Tinkering of championship venues is a well debated topic. If the golf ball keeps going further and further, tinkering will be considered the norm to these historically important golf courses—which may not always be a good thing.
JB: I have only seen the changes to the Old Course via TV and photos, so it’s hard to comment, but the uproar seemed out of proportion to the actual changes. I understand the “never touch a classic” mentality, and that the original form is lost forever for future generations to study. But, in reality, even the Old Course has been altered constantly, probably to a similar uproar every time it’s done. Philosophically, the fact the Old Course has survived for centuries makes it a great course. The changes don’t alter that — and adaptability over time is a strong — and somewhat overlooked golf course quality.
MW: Your favorite Links course used in the rota is what and why?
TL: The Old Course and St Andrews town is my favourite Open venue as it is the complete package in terms of a golfing venue to enjoy golf and being in the middle of a wonderful town.
JB: The Old Course, for its history and unique “not really designed” character. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Muirfield struck me as the first modern style course—the 1890 version—where everything sort of had a reason and makes some sense.
PK: For The Open the tough finish at Carnoustie always brings drama, but I still find the variety of strategic options The Old Course delivers on every level, the whole ambience of the event makes this my favorite. I may however have a new favorite in 2019!
DC: Royal St. George`s. Has some of the most interesting fairway undulations, green complexes and dune formations compared to any of the other Open Championship venues. My favorite Open Venue to watch the Open Championship on is St. Andrew’s. It’s hard to beat the history and the atmosphere of the Old Course. It`s also interesting to see how the players handle the extremely long putts that they sometimes get on the huge double greens.
MW: Your least favorite Links course used in the rota is what and why?
DC: Royal Liverpool. In my opinion the golf course lacks the character and undulations found on most of the other Open venues, especially on the starting and finishing holes.
JB: Probably Troon. I saw it as sort of boring, and not really unique in any way, compared to the other courses. The re-routed Turnberry, would be that on the list. While not against tee extensions and minor changes—such as the Old Course—I don’t care for major re-routing on those courses—even knowing Turnberry was changed for WWII, a unique situation. When I play in Scotland, I go to experience the courses over there as close as possible to their old days conditions for the nostalgia and understanding of where golf came from.
TL: I guess I would say Carnoustie—somewhat stark in terms of its visual appeal.
PK: Royal Lytham St Annes for two reasons: visually I think it is the least impressive and it is also the one I find hardest to remember all the holes.
MW: If you had the unilateral power to add a links course not used for The Open—which course would you include?
TL: Love to see Royal County Down host an Open Championship as it is a beautiful course and would help to further promote British golf to the world.
PK: For me Royal County Down and Royal Aberdeen are probably the best courses not on the rota, however, such powers are not to be used lightly so I will opt for Machrihanish Golf Club just for the overall benefit hosting The Open would bring to the area.
DC: Western Gailes. While the length of the course and the size of the property might not meet the requirements of the Open Championship today, it is a superb links course with tremendous character and presents a great variety of interesting shots and risk & reward options. Kingsbarns is a close second as it has the length and space to host a major Championship.
JB: Hard not to pick Royal Dornoch. When the ASGCA made their first trip over there in 1980, it was largely unknown, but nearly all of the architects on the trip picked that as their favorite, which has to tell you something.
MW: This year’s Open Championship will feature the shortest hole used in the rota—The Postage Stamp 8th hole—playing at max 123 yards. How meaningful does such a short hole still play in architectural terms regarding the world’s best players?
PK: Very short holes are still very meaningful—particularly when the target is so small. Even for the best players in the world it is all about control, not just of distance but of flight and spin. A recent study asked some top national level amateur players to hit wedges and to “take the spin off” their efforts were measured and only one in twelve could actually do it. It also plays a psychological role, bogey a hole you feel you should birdie and it can destroy your momentum. I will be watching the scores here with interest.
DC: Short holes whether par threes, par fours or par fives, play a very meaningful role in championship golf. Providing there is enough challenge or risk associated with the design of a short hole, it provides players with the opportunity to make up one or two shots with a bold shot, while still bringing a double bogey or worse into play. It is important for a Championship venue to also test a player`s finesse & control as well as their power. The Postage Stamp at Troon is perhaps the most brilliant hole in golf. The tiny green, treacherous roll offs and punishing pot bunkers that surround the green make recovery shots extremely delicate and challenging. When the wind is blowing controlling the trajectory and distance of tee shot can be extremely challenging.
JB: They have never caught on as an architectural trend because golfers intuitively think a half wedge should be a second or third shot, and tee shots, even on par 3 holes, should be longer. Good players say that half club holes are actually pretty hard, but made easier by carrying multiple wedges to play full shots for any distance. That kind of hole probably works better in Scotland, where guessing the wind and hard surfaces renders true distance meaningless.
TL: The Postage Stamp is a wonderful example of how length is not always required to create interest and challenge. Some of the great holes in golf are short and continue to have a major significance to championships around the world.
MW: When people are watching this year’s telecast—what would you tell them concerning the nature of what links golf is about?
TL: Links golf is the original and still the purest form of golf. The landscape and evolution of the links courses have the lowest impact in the golfing environment and the fine green-keeping practices should be adored around the world for the brownish, firm and fast playing conditions.
JB: I am always surprised by Americans who say they won’t go to Scotland because it’s not green enough or there are too many unlucky bounces. I tell someone who hasn’t experienced links golf that links golf is the most fun I’ve ever had. I also had the “ah hah” moment from my first round there, really understanding for the first time why golf became so popular worldwide. You just aren’t a golfer until you have played there.
PK: Don’t try to hole every shot. Links golf is golf in its purest form—you the ball and the elements. You need to read the elements, the wind and the ground conditions—both firmness and undulations—and make a judgement as to how you can get the ball into the best position to make your next shot as easy as possible. Playing down wind is just as hard as playing into the wind if you can’t control the ball, the flight and the spin. Above all use your imagination and creativity to have fun, because you probably won’t score well if your not accustomed to it!
DC: Pay attention to the bounce and roll of the ball—how unpredictable it can be. How shots that appear to be safe roll great distances take an unplanned turn and roll into a bunker. Watch where players aim or land their approach shots to the green, especially when the wind is blowing or how they play recovery shots from tight lies around the green. Viewers can expect to see a much greater variety of creative shot making at an Open Championship than at any other major championship.
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Jeffrey D. Brauer is an Arlington, TX-based golf course architect, where he started his firm—Jeffrey D. Brauer / GolfScapes, Inc.—in 1984, after a seven-year apprenticeship with Killian and Nugent near Chicago. A past president of ASGCA, he’s designed over 50 courses and renovated many more. Courses of note include the Quarry and Legend at Giant’s Ridge, The Wilderness at Fortune Bay—both in Minnesota—and the top three public courses in Kansas—Firekeeper, Colbert Hills and Sand Creek Station. He can reached via jeffreydbrauer.com
Tim Lobb started his golf course design career in his native country of Australia in 1995, then quickly moving to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and later to Surrey in the United Kingdom to work with European Golf Design. In 2004, Tim teamed up with 5 times Open Champion Peter Thomson and Ross Perrett to form Thomson Perrett & Lobb based in the UK. Tim’s career spans 21 years and has worked in more than twenty countries worldwide. The firms Carya Golf Club in Turkey is to host the European Tours’ Turkish Airlines Open later this year and forms part of the prestigious Race to Dubai series. He can be reached via tpl.eu.com.
Douglas Carrick, is President of Carrick Design Inc.—based in North York, Ontario, Canada. Began his career in golf course design in 1981 under the tutelage of the late C.E. “Robbie” Robinson, who schooled Carrick in the classic design principles that were passed onto him by the renowned golf course architect, Stanley Thompson. Carrick Design was founded in 1985 and has designed & renovated more than 60 golf courses worldwide, including The Carrick on Loch Lomond in Scotland. The firm has won numerous design awards from Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, ScoreGolf magazine and several others. Five of Carrick`s Courses have hosted PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and European Tour events.He can be reached via carrickdesign.com.
Paul C. Kimber heads Kimber Golf, based in Auchterarder, Scotland. Has been designing courses for sixteen years, the first nine with David Kidd, where he helped create the Castle Course in St Andrews, Nanea in Hawaii, Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland and gWest in Perthshire and a further seven years building his own business with Niall Glen where they consult some of the oldest clubs in the world;- Glasgow Golf Club and Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society, as well as working with the R & A in developing their new equipment test centre. Currently a member of both the European institute of Golf Course Architects and Scottish Association of Golf Course Architects. He can be reached via kindergolf.com.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.