The 145th Open Championship will be played for the 9th time at Royal Troon and if there is anything that stands apart at Royal Troon is how the course - or should I say - the two nines can play so differently. Troon is a prototypical links course: the first half goes out and the other half follows the return. The main impactor is the varying nature of the wind - at times it can be soft and welcoming - at other times the ferocious nature can be as vicious as any venue used for The Open.
Troon has always been a men’s only club, but given the fanfare tied to the decision by The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield in continuing to refuse women as members, the probability is that Troon will opt to include women in order to be maintained for consideration for future Opens by the R&A.
Located 35 miles southwest of Glasgow, Troon hugs a rugged curve of links land that borders the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Arran. The course will play 7,190 yards to a par of 71.
The players who come to Troon will quickly realise the links is about making the most of opportunities. The opening nine holes generally plays with a helping wind and there are numerous situations that will present very doable birdie holes. In fact, getting off to a quick start will likely be a necessity in order to avoid making up ground later in the round, which can prove extremely difficult.
The past winners at Troon have been a mix bag of renowned stars such as Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. Palmer’s win in 1962 was noteworthy in that he set the championship record with a 276 score pushing him to a six-stroke win. At other times Troon has brought to the surface names the global golf audience may not have truly known with the likes of Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard and Todd Hamilton in the last three Opens in ‘89, ‘97 and ‘04.
The outward half also features The Open’s shortest hole - the Postage Stamp 8th (see related feature). But the teeth of Troon takes a serious turn when the players commence the back nine in making the long trek back to the clubhouse, with the long 10th leading the way.
The inward half plays 3,745 yards and there are no less than five par-4’s in excess of 450 yards. The 11th - a devilish hole of 482 yards - is especially demanding with gorse and a rail road hanging tight to the right and causing a possible out-of-bounds situation for both the tee shot and approach. Players who have got off to a fast start can hit a definitive major bumpy road with the series of holes that take them to the round’s ultimate conclusion with the 458-yard finale.
World class players Greg Norman and Ernie Els had The Claret Jug within their sights in the ‘89 and ‘04 events. Both made critical errors that allowed Calcavecchia and Hamilton to claim their sole major title.
This year’s championship will have plenty of interesting storylines. Can Jason Day continue his ascendancy as the game’s dominant player? Can Rory McIlroy shake off a poorly-played US Open performance at Oakmont and recapture the form he showed in winning the ‘14 Open at Royal Liverpool? Is Jordan Spieth able to shake off the up/down efforts he has shown in ‘16 and go one step beyond what he did so well at The Old Course last year - finishing one shot of the three-way playoff, which was won by American Zach Johnson. Can England’s Lee Westwood - at 43 now - finally break through and win his first major? Westwood has had five Open top-10s, including a fourth-place-finish at Troon.
Troon has not been seen by a range of the younger crop of players who did not compete in the last event in ‘04, so getting familiar with the course will be a major task. As with any links course, being able to adjust as the moment commands will ultimately play a major role in shaping how a competitor will fare.
At this year’s event the R&A will have a new chief executive, Martin Slumbers, the 56-year-old took over from Peter Dawson. The R&A has made major strides in elevating The Open to a level far beyond what it was when Dawson took the reins from former leader Michael Bonallack in 1999.
Troon is not as beloved as other more noted Open venues such as The Old Course at St. Andrews or Muirfield, but it is formidable layout that will demand nothing less than stellar play over the final run of holes. The Claret Jug awaits.
Proper Postage Preferred ... Royal Troon’s Maddening Par-3 8th
There is nothing more disheartening for a world class professional to be embarrassed on the grandest stages of championship golf and to have that happen on a hole which on first appearance should be a relative pushover to play.
This year’s Open Championship features the diabolical par-3 8th - otherwise known as the Postage Stamp. The hole is one of the finest of its kind and deserves no less billing with such famous holes as The Road Hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews and the par-5 17th at Muirfield, to name just two others. The placement of the 8th at Royal Troon is well-positioned. Players generally can get off to fast starts at Troon and the 8th comes before the turn back to the clubhouse begins.
The 8th is the shortest hole played in the rota of courses used for The Open, but do not be fooled for a minute that shortness means weakness. Quite the contrary. The Postage Stamp is played from an elevated tee and the green sits down below with no more than 10 yards across. There are also the devilish winds that can change both direction and velocity at any moment.
Originally called “Ailsa” because of the views of the rocky inlet near its location, the present tagline is attributed to William Park writing in Golf Illustrated said, “A pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a Postage Stamp.”
The green is long lengthwise, but actually narrows the deeper into the green one goes. There is an abutting sandhill to the left and the green is well fortified with no less than five bunkers fiercely awaiting the misplayed or hapless play. The bunkers, like many in Open Championship play, are deep and can prove to be extremely vexing for anyone that finds them.
Amazingly, the hole has had its moments in glory. In 1973, playing in his final Open Championship 51 years after winning his lone Claret Jug, was Gene Sarazen. The Squire demonstrated one final curtain call with great panache: acing the Postage Stamp with a 5-iron in the first round and then the very next day finding one of the greenside bunkers and blasting his ball in the hole for a birdie.
The club motto clearly applies when playing the hole - “As much by skill as by strength.”
The R&A will have a “wire camera” running the length of the hole. The aerial perspective will be a fantastic way for viewers to more fully appreciate the character of one of the greatest short holes in all of golf. There will also be cameras in each of the five bunkers to give even more awareness of what the world’s best players will encounter.