Martin Dempster: Royal Troon is a true test

The 423 yards par 4, 9th hole 'The Monk' on the Old Course at Royal Troon, venue for the 2016 Open Championship. Picture: David Cannon/Getty
The 423 yards par 4, 9th hole 'The Monk' on the Old Course at Royal Troon, venue for the 2016 Open Championship. Picture: David Cannon/Getty
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WHAT a crying shame that Royal Troon’s main asset, the golf course, was overlooked in the immediate aftermath of a media day last week for the Open Championship’s return to the Ayrshire venue in July.

As the club’s current men-only membership policy grabbed the headlines – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Maureen McGonigle, the founder of Scottish Women in Sport, both waded in with comments and, inevitably, others will be adding fuel to the fire in the coming weeks and months –the actual battlefield for the 145th Claret Jug joust didn’t get a mention.

It will be the ninth time that Royal Troon has hosted the R&A’s marquee event – the last six have been won by Americans, so it’s perhaps storing that in the memory bank for the time to place those bets – and a fascinating aspect of this particular championship is that, for the majority of the top players, it will be their first visit to the venue. Jordan Spieth was 10 when Todd Hamilton sprang his surprise success in 2004, the last time the event was there; Rory McIlroy hadn’t quite broken through at the top level when it staged the Amateur Championship the previous year.

To whet their appetites and also the younger generation of golf fans who might also be paying their first visit to an Open Championship at Troon, where the event, of course, will feature a “Camping Village” for under 25s, here are a few things that have stuck in this correspondent’s mind from last week’s hit there despite finding myself caught up straight afterwards in membership matters rather than golf:

Gentle start

The opening three holes are par 4s that all measure less than 400 yards, even off the tips, and normally play with a helping wind. Add in two par 5s, the fourth and sixth, that head in the same direction and there is definitely scope to make hay early on. In fact, it’s just about imperative to get under par on the outward journey and we will get round to why that’s the case. At 370 yards, the opening hole will be in reach for the big hitters with the wind at their back, but a burn that runs across the fairway at 285 yards from the tee at the third will ensure a more tactical approach there. Playing downwind on a links, of course, is no pushover and a silky touch will be required at holes like the first, where the gap between two bunkers that stand sentry-like at the front of the green is very narrow indeed, for those hitting a bump and run for their approach.

Stamp of approval

At just 123 yards – it could potentially play to 99 yards – the Postage Stamp is the shortest hole on any of the 10 courses that are on the R&A rota for the Open Championship. It’s an absolute gem, first and foremost for the challenge it provides but also for a stunning view from the tee with Arran as a backdrop. It’s fitting, surely, that it has been selected to feature the event’s first “wire camera” because, even for the game’s top players, it will be a daunting challenge to find a sliver of green that is protected by five bunkers, including the “Coffin”, the closest of two to the putting surface on the left. Sitting in one of the two grandstands located here could produce endless hours of fun.

Dangerous drive

I don’t think there is a hole on any Open Championship course – and I include the 17th on the Old Course at St Andrews and the 18th at Carnoustie – which frightens the life out of you more than the 11th at Royal Troon. For starters, it’s a par-4
which measures 483 yards from the Championship tees and normally plays either into the wind or with it coming across from the left. What makes it so tough is that there is no bail-out due to the Glasgow to Ayr railway line running the entire length of the hole on the right and a wall of gorse protecting the other side of the fairway. In short, it’s a beast of a hole where, in July, disasters are inevitable.

Difficult finish

Whereas the longest of the par 4s going out is the ninth at 422 yards, the six coming back measure between 429 yards up to 502 yards. “That second nine at Troon is probably some of the most difficult links golf you’ll ever play,” said Ernie Els, who lost in a play-off to the aforementioned Hamilton in 2004, earlier this year and it is easy to see what he means because there isn’t a single hole you can pick out as a straightforward birdie. From the 13th onwards, the test is likely to be straight into the teeth of the wind, too, so whoever picks up that 
Claret Jug on the Sunday night is more than likely to be a very 
worthy winner indeed.

Verdict

An outstanding test of golf that is made, in some respect, by the fact it has two such contrasting nines in terms of the challenge they serve up. I think the new generation will love it.

It’s just a pity that Royal Troon Golf Club is going to allow attention to be taken away from the course, certainly in the build-up, by not getting its membership situation resolved before the event because the noises made last week about it being men-only will only get louder and more vitriolic. Don’t say you’ve not been warned.