Royal Troon Real Test of the Best
It’s that time of year again for one of my favorite tournaments in the world, and part of the reason is that it brings much of the world’s best golfers to play in it – people we don’t see all year, and people from places many of us don’t know about. Yes, it’s the “Open.” The founders of the royal event don’t even need to include the location in the title. It’s the “Open,” and I’ll wager that to say it in any other way in the presence of a British golfer would land you in a whole lot of trouble – so I won’t. The “Open” it is. This leg of pro golf’s grand slam is shared by a few royal venues, including St. Andrews itself. This year, however, is the turn of Royal Troon in the community of Troon, South Ayrshire, Scotland. It’s in the Glasgow region, not far from the city, so don’t go looking for Brigadoon when you turn on the Golf Channel. It’s real, and this week, it’s packed with people.
The last few Opens have been won by Americans, which I feel certain a lot of people don’t like. It’s a streak that much of the world would like to break right away, and Henrik Stenson is doing his best to oblige, leading Phil Mickelson by one after the third round. Of course, Royal Troon is a different type of golf course for most westerners, unless you live on the Oregon or California coast, perhaps. Great designers create such jewel courses out of the natural environment, and in this case, it means old dunes, deep, brushy, and steely rough, and country that includes at least one ball-caroming bump per square inch. When Sam Snead played St. Andrews, he said that back home, it would have been a worthless piece of real estate, but with all due respect to Slammin’ Sammy, he was wrong on that one. He would have been wrong about Royal Troon, too.
What if someone told you that they had just designed the most interesting new course in the world, and then you found out that they had built it in the cow pasture next door – except that they did a really good job of it? What if they told you that the fairways were, from a golfer’s perspective, just wide enough to walk down, and that anything off the mark was buried in steel wool brush – and they made it brilliantly difficult to avoid just that? What if they put in a par 5 that totals over 600 yards in length, but didn’t really widen the fairways, like doing the balance beam or tightrope for 1800 feet with a stick in your hand – but designed it so that the exception sequences of shots were well-rewarded? How about a par 3 of barely more than 120 yards? Now that would have the novice licking his chops, until he got to the tee and said, “Hey, where’s the green.?” Never fear, the green’s there, it’s just tinier than you could possibly imagine, and tinier than a lot of us could usually hit in regulatiion. And what about one that has a railroad down the right side, all out-of-bounds? What if he added some wind off the sea, planes landing and taking off at the airport next door, a train coming through every once in a while, and a ball that won’t stay still when you try to mark it? That’s Royal Troon, at least it is this week.
Watching the third round, in which Mickelson squandered a five-shot lead, the danger is palpable. A bad approach that rolls back to your feet, a second one over the green to a high downward angle on a hill, and there you go – a three shot swing Â from 20 yards out. I saw a lot of that today. And the genius that built this course in the cow pasture, or oceanscape next door? Alister McKenzie, a name you might remember from Augusta National. Royal Troon was built 138 years ago, and it’s still a killer, despite all the new technology – just like it should be.