Stephen Walker may now be a “Renaissance man”, having swapped his daily view of the Ailsa Craig for the Bass Rock in a move from west to east coast, but Turnberry will always be in his heart.
He spent 16 years at the Ayrshire resort in a sales and marketing role, the latter part of which coincided with it being bought by Donald Trump. The American’s controversial politics – most notably his description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and his call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States – have left a huge question mark hanging over Turnberry as a tournament venue.
While claims that it has already been dropped from the Open Championship rota by the R&A are unsubstantiated, it remains to be seen when the Ailsa Course will get the chance to stage the Claret Jug joust again, with 2020 the next free slot on the advance schedule.
Walker is confident, however, that the controversy stirred up by Trump – who is bidding to be the Republican party’s US presidential candidate – will die down once the American’s electioneering comes to an end. And he believes the multi-million pound work being carried out at Turnberry, both on and off the course, deserves to be showcased by it staging the world’s oldest major for a fifth time.
“I think time is a great healer,” said Walker, now director of marketing and hospitality at the Renaissance Club in East Lothian. “Irrespective of what happens next (with Trump in the US presidency battle), it will all be over by November and by this time next year I think a lot of people will have forgotten about what has been going on.
“The facility at Turnberry is phenomenal, as are the course changes (currently being carried out by Martin Ebert). Eventually, after many false starts with previous owners and planning, etc, this is the real deal. What they are doing to the place is phenomenal and, ultimately, people will want to go there when it is that good.”
Walker, who earlier in his career was heavily involved in establishing Dalmahoy as one of the leading golf and country clubs in Scotland, said his own decision to leave is unrelated to anything Trump has either said or done.
“I had been at Turnberry for 16 years and it was time to find something new and also closer to home,” he said. “After all, I’d lived in Edinburgh all the years I was at Turnberry so my wife is just adjusting to me being home seven nights a week.
“I’ve got a few friends who are members at the Renaissance Club, I’d played the course a few times and I’d met Jerry [Sarvadi, the owner] a few times. We’d had a couple of discussions over the years, but now was the right time for both of us to start working together.”
Designed by renowned American architect Tom Doak, the Renaissance course has been open since April 2004, a £9.2 million clubhouse opened its doors three years ago and membership, based on a bond that costs £75,000 plus £5,000 annual dues, now exceeds 200.
While disappointed to lose out to Gullane for last year’s Scottish Open, Sarvadi is excited about his club being involved in the stroke-play qualifying phase for the British Boys’ Championship this summer.
“They are different business models,” said Walker of his new challenge. “Turnberry has been created to try and drive occupancy through the hotel and that’s what the golf course is there for. Here, it is a private members’ club and the course is primarily for the needs of the members.
“There’s a lot to be done here. My pedigree is sales and marketing and the club has had an organic growth rather than that happening from a huge marketing platform. I need to broaden the profile of the club quite significantly.
“The club needs some revenue generation. Ultimately, it is about trying to sell more memberships, but I also need to look at other ways of utilising the huge amount of c apacity we have here, not just on the course but in terms of rooms and also the clubhouse.
“Part of my remit is to try and make it a bit more aspirational. We will be looking at events that can build the profile of the course and the club.”