It’s one of the most storied venues in the game, a moonscape of humps and craters along the Firth of Clyde with golf holes designed by the Lord Almighty, along with a little help from Willie Fernie and James Braid, Open champions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So, it seems fitting that on a week when the R&A announced a number of extraordinary additions to the AIG Women’s Open rotation (including Carnoustie next year, Muirfield in 2022 and Royal Porthcawl in 2025), that 2020’s first major championship should be contested at Royal Troon, the site of so many of the game’s memorable moments.
Dame Laura Davies, playing in her 40th AIG Women’s Open, will hit the first tee shot on Thursday. And the Hall of Famer has no illusions about the test that lies before her.
“The course is set up extremely hard,” Davies said. “You get some of those holes coming in from No. 13 onwards where you're basically coming into the prevailing wind, that should be that wind all week from what the R&A were saying earlier, and it's just going to be tough out there. But condition-wise, I've never seen anything like it.
“The way I'm seeing the course, and I think traditionally (the way it has played) over the years you've got to make your score on those first seven holes because once you get to the (par-3) 8th, that's obviously the Postage Stamp, well, you've got to hit the green otherwise you're going to make a bogey because it’s such a difficult green to get up-and-down.
“Then, 9 is a hole where you can't hit driver, so yesterday I hit 2-iron, a good 2-iron off the tee and it left me where I couldn't see the green. I hit 3-iron in there, so that's going to be a really tough hole. Although it should be going in the (right) direction with a little bit of help from the wind.
“But then 10 is a completely blind tee shot. You can hit driver there because the fairway is very generous - that hole has probably the widest fairway on the course, but you can't see it - so it's a visually intimidating hole, which is difficult.
“Then 11, all you can see is railroad lines and gorse bushes down the left side. Another tough hole. And then you're going to turn into the wind on 12, 13 and then you hit that run of 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, which should be into the prevailing wind, and it really is, it's a nightmare.”
History bears out Dame Laura’s assessment. Players throughout Open Championship history have played the first seven holes at Royal Troon in ridiculously low numbers – often 4- to 6-under par – only to turn into the wind at the eighth where many major downfalls have begun.
“One of my greatest experiences in the game was being a spectator standing in the middle of the 7th fairway at Royal Troon for two consecutive days in 1973 and watching Gene Sarazen play the (Postage Stamp) 8th,” Tom Weiskopf told me. Weiskopf won his only major title at Royal Troon that year and he remembers every moment on the 8th.
“Gene was 71 years old at the time and had been invited to play in the Open Championship as a former champion,” Wieskopf said. “On the first day, the first round, I’m standing in the 7th fairway waiting for the green to clear, and I saw Gene make a birdie 2 on the 8th by holing his second shot from the front right bunker. This is particularly poignant since Gene is recognized as the historical creator of the sand wedge.
“The next day, second round, I’m standing in the same spot and Gene is on the tee again. I see him hole his tee shot for a hole-in-one. He played the hole in three shots for two days and never used a putter. Now that is as much history as you need on one particular hole. To me, that should be equally as famous as Gene’s double-eagle at Augusta National when he won the Masters. I witnessed something historic, that’s for sure.”
Judy Rankin also witnessed history at Royal Troon. According to the LPGA legend, “The very first Open Championship that I did (for television) was at Troon in 1989, and that was the year that Mark Calcavecchia and Greg Norman were in the playoff. I was certainly new at Open Championship kind of golf. In the final round, they sent me out with Greg Norman, and to this day I have a very keen memory of it. First of all, he birdied the first six holes. That was pretty impressive to me. Then he hit probably as good a shot as I have ever seen hit in my life at the par-5 16th, when he put a driver on the green about, I don't know, 18 feet behind the hole. He went on to lose in the playoff, but it was a spectacular experience. I think it's an extremely difficult golf course.”
Justin Leonard won his lone major at Royal Troon, as did Henrik Stenson, in an epic battle with Phil Mickelson in 2016. All believe the round begins and possibly ends at the 8th.
“I was very fortunate that I never missed the green in four rounds, so I was able to walk away with four pars,” Weiskopf said. “But it can be, in certain wind conditions, just horrible. It’s the first hole where you turn back toward the clubhouse and the sea after playing the first seven holes out. Behind it and to the left is a long-distance view of the sea. And well to the left of the biggest dune is the Ailsa Craig (a giant granite outcropping in the Firth of Clyde that is the source of the world’s curling stones). When you play that hole into the wind, you know that you’re in for a difficult back nine once you turn back for good toward the clubhouse.”
“It's going to start on the 8th,” Dame Laura said. “In normal conditions, not what we might have Thursday, but normally, that’s where you turn into the wind. That’s when things get difficult.”