“I don’t like to rank, but it’s right at the top,” declared the five-time Open champion of the Ailsa Course, which re-opened at the beginning of June after Donald Trump enlisted Martin Ebert to carry out some dramatic changes to the venue where Watson, of course, beat Jack Nicklaus in their famous “Duel in the Sun” in 1977 then came agonisingly close to becoming the event’s oldest winner at 59 seven years ago.
Watson took the chance to check out the Turnberry revamp in between doing some commentary work at last week’s Open – the first he had missed since his exemption ran out – at Troon and teeing up in the Seniors’ equivalent, which gets underway at Carnoustie today. “Turnberry has been significantly changed for the better. It’s not just good; it’s excellent,” added the 66-year-old.
“They have added beauty and length to it. One of the knocks on Turnberry in the past was it was too short. In a sense, it was. Do you know the total yardage of the golf course now? 7,489. And that’s on seaside winds. It can never be called too short now. They’ve built tees that you won’t use unless the wind is a factor. It can be played in any wind and still be a very challenging golf course for the Open Championship.”
It remains to be seen, of course, when that event will return to the Ayrshire venue. The first available slot is likely to be 2022 and some of Trump’s controversial comments on the political stage in the US over the past year have left the R&A in a delicate situation as far as Turnberry is concerned.
“I would be very disappointed if they don’t go back to Trump Turnberry,” admitted Watson. “What might happen with the political thing [Trump is now the Republican presidential nominee] is anybody’s guess. I’m just saying the golf course is A1. I’m not being paid to promote it, but I know one thing – it’s a course that everybody ought to play.”
Watson, it must be said, is an equally big fan of Carnoustie, where he claimed the Claret Jug at his first attempt in 1975. Due to the championship course being closed, he played a practice round for that event at nearby Monifieth Links, where he returned last night to receive honorary membership and see a new plaque on the first tee to mark his virgin blow in the UK. “I still think Carnoustie is the toughest course on the rotation,” admitted Watson, a three-time Senior Open winner. “They have added length on other courses, but Carnoustie has been unchanged and it’s all teeth.”
In his pre-event press conference, Watson eventually got his teeth into comparisons between the “Duel in the Sun” and Sunday’s thrilling finish at Troon between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. Like Jack Nicklaus earlier in the week, he admitted the 1977 contest had definitely been eclipsed. “It was better,” said Watson. “Just look at the facts. Jack and I were nine-under (65-66). Henrik shot eight-under-par in the last round on a very tough golf course; Phil shot six-under with no bogeys. It was a shoot-out from the start. Great shot after great shot. Great putt after great putt. It was one for the ages and the aura of this championship won’t wear off. It’s always going to be there. “They will always talk about Stenson and Mickelson at Troon in the highest echelon of conversation about the Open Championship.”