Royal Troon

Charlie Hunter, George Strath, Willie Fernie, Martin Ebert
Open Championship flatish links with sea views, gorse and bent/Poa greens. Tough back nine.
On the Ayrshire coast. SatNav KA10 6EP
Stephen Anthony
01292 311 555
Kieron Stevenson
Green Keeper
Billy McLachlan
royal troon, willie fernie, male only, postage stamp,
royal troon, willie fernie, male only, postage stamp,
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome by arrangement
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today


Royal Troon was the first Open Championship venue that I played and since the 1960s it has always remained as one of my favourites.

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From behind the twelth green named ‘The Fox’.

It may lack some of the outstanding aspects that make some of the other Open venues so characterful; it is really a quite simple, flattish links beside a strand beach with some gorse. I will return to that word “simple” later!

Nevertheless as an introduction to ‘running golf in the wind’, looking back now with a wider experience across GB&I’s finest, this is exactly for what one is looking.

My chauffeur, my mother, walked round with me and it was the ambition I showed to play it, driving over from my uncle’s house in Kelso on the Tweed, that convinced him (the ‘Flying Scotsman’, who still holds the record tries scored for Scotland and at the world’s highest strike rate of 75% with 24 tries from just 32 caps, between 1924 and 1933) to organise a game for me against a captain of the Honourable Company at Muirfield the following year.

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The Postage Stamp

Born and bred in West Sussex, I was enormously privileged to have this experience of learning my early golf on the Open Championship links courses of East Lothian and Ayrshire. This, in a country where golf is the national sport of all classes, where there are different clubs for every type of person, from, I am told, twenty-two women-only clubs, to the wonderful local, fescue dominated, natural nine-holers, to the most famous St Andrews and the tough Carnoustie, both municipally owned.

Troon Golf Club was founded in 1878 on land just north of Prestwick where The Open Championship was first played in 1860 and it was in 1978, on its centenary, that it was granted the ‘Royal’ accolade.

The Club might be regarded as having been a little lucky to be chosen to host the 1923 Open when it stuck up its hand after Muirfield, originally the chosen venue, refrained, pleading that the major renovations that were underway at its course by Harry Colt would not be ready to permit play.

Arthur Havers won it that year and he remains the only British man to win The Open at Troon that has now hosted the event eight times.

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Royal Troon champions board

South African Bobby Locke won the second of his four Opens here in 1950. The last six Opens have all been won by Americans, Arnold Palmer 1962, Tom Weiskopf 1973, Tom Watson 1982, Mark Calcavecchia 1989, Justin Leonard 1997 and the most recently by Todd Hamilton in 2004.

The two shots I remember from that last Open were, firstly, when Hamilton used a hybrid club to ‘bump and run’ from just off the eighteenth green in the play-off. For an American brought up on ‘target golf’ to play that percentage, scuffy shot well, was remarkable and though in winning terms he has hardly been heard of since and was a mere 56th in the world rankings at the time, this one shot demonstrated he had done his homework and that he deserved to win this major.

The other shot was the ‘big Easy’s’ bunker retrieval from under the vertical bank of one of The Postage Stamp’s many deep bunkers. Apparently Sky Television has mounted cameras within the bunkers on this hole for their 2016 Open coverage.

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Aerial of eigth Postage Stamp green

The eighth at Royal Troon is the famous shortest par three at all Open venues of just 123 yards. With any wind it requires a precision strike, as leaving the ball anywhere other than on the small, narrow green threatens a four or higher.

Many were surprised that Ernie Els lost to Todd Hamilton in the four hole play-off. Hamilton admitted afterwards that he enjoyed playing what he called “ugly golf” but in the world’s greatest golf championship his scrambling skills ultimately proved decisive and nowadays we would describe his play as ‘Running-Golf’!

Taking out Tom Watson’s level par win in 1982, the average winning score in modern times is 275, or nine under. I don’t have the statistics but I would bet that most of those birdies would come on the front nine.

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Willie Fernie’s clubs

The course evolved from six holes in 1878 on the Duke of Portland’s land, designed by Charlie Hunter, keeper of green at Prestwick. George Strath, the Club’s first professional, extended the course to twelve then eighteen holes by 1884 and this lay-out is still the basis of today’s course, which is a traditional nine out and nine back.

Nevertheless Willie Fernie, the Open Champion of 1883 was persuaded to come up from the fashionable Felixstowe Golf Club and was appointed the keeper of green, professional and expert clubmaker (in that order of priority) from 1887. During his thirty-seven years of tenure he became Troon’s most famous son and was responsible for many improvements to the Old Course including the creation of the now world famous Postage Stamp and Railway Holes. Among the thirty-three golf course designs to Willie’s name is Royal Troon’s second course on the inland side of the Old, called ‘The Portland’.

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Ebert’s recreation of Mackenzie’s 10th hole drive bunker

Dr Alister Mackenzie, the much lauded ‘Golden Era’ golf course architect, who did hardly any ‘links’ designs,  nevertheless worked extensively at Troon on reconstructing the Portland. He also built a drive bunker on the Old’s tenth, which was his only work on any Open Championship venue but it was later filled in at some point.

The Club have recently retained Martin Ebert of Mackenzie Ebert (no relation) which evolved out of Donald Steel’s partnership with the best golf course design practice since the last world war, Cotton, Lawrie & Pennink. Ebert has re-created the Doctor’s bunker in making a dramatic visual statement, honouring the great man, though the pros of today will of course just blast over it.

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Portland’s fourth hole.

The Portland course is shorter at 6289 yards and being just that bit further from the sea is less windy. Its agronomy, for whatever reason, is higher in fine grasses than on the Old course. A considerable amount of fine fescues can be found on the Portland greens giving a natural firmness, speed and smoothness of putting, whereas many tons of pure sand have had to be top dressed to the Old course. This was done in recent years running up to the Open Championship in 2016 to help dry-out and firm up the Browntop bent/annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens that certainly looked lush and all one colour, dark green, when I last visited in 2013.

The shallow-rooting Poa annua weed grass gives soft greens as it needs lots of water, fertiliser and pesticides to survive and it builds soft thatch in the rootzone. This ‘unsustainabity’ or as I prefer to call it ‘non-conservationism’ is becoming increasingly seen as unattractive cost-wise and ecologically, in contrast to natural fine grasses.

There is no doubt fescues prefer dry weather and Scotland’s west Ayrshire coast has received considerably more rain than the East Lothian and Fife coasts in recent years, offering perhaps part of an excuse for the Ayrshire greenkeepers as to why their agronomy has generally less fescue grass and more Poa in their greens.

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Billy McLachlan

Billy McLachlan, the notoriously publicity averse course manager, took over in 1994 from Norman Fergusson to whom he was apprenticed, whom in turn had taken over from his own father, meaning Royal Troon has had only three head greenkeepers in the last one hundred years.

Billy has been quoted as saying “ a bit of brown adds drama” and we shall have to wait to see to what extent he is allowed to give us bouncy, unpredictable brown or will the ‘journeyman’ pros howl in anguish if their ‘Target-Golf ‘ skills are put under real challenge, as with a bit of wind at St Andrews in 2015 and a bouncy Muirfield in 2013. The R&A authorities usually give in to the pampered pros these days.

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Bunkers on fifth green

There is these days enormous pressure on greenkeepers to have to always present pristine conditions for the punters who are paying £220 a round here and if one of the requirements is thought to be very fast greens it is not surprising that the Old course bent/Poa greens have to be cut down at 3.5mm normally and to even 3mm for big occasions to gain putting speed, both lower heights than fescues can tolerate.  This short-term cashing-in is to the detriment of the evolution of perennial fine grasses which if dominant in the sward and cut at over 4mm or above in the summer, provide the highest quality of firm, fast, true putting surfaces all year round (thereby increasing winter green-fee income), as everybody has known for centuries and recently even scientifically measured and proven.

Speed v Trueness has become the key recreational golfing issue of the moment. 

No progress will be made while speed of green articles like the one written by Steve Isaac of  The R&A are ignored.

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The Old course highlighted, the Portland inside it.

The leadership in clubs that have well draining poor soils and believe in going down the fine grasses route need to find a way to communicate to their memberships the benefits and the VISION for the future (as discussed here).

One problem they have to overcome is how to explain that Poa cut at over 4mm will give a slower pace and a bumpier roll than wanted. Pure fescue/browntop bent cut at 5mm will give a good speed and a true roll-out. The cleverness lies in the transition from weed grass to fine grass.

Before we return to Troon in fairness it should be said that the effort The R&A put in to each of the Open venues leave the courses generally in better condition than before, unlike many other televised professional tournament venues that are shaved down for the one week leaving behind a highly stressed weed grass agronomy.

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The first green from behind

Royal Troon’s back tees are 3462 and 3740 yards out and back respectively but it is not just the length that has resulted in the inward half being described by the Club website as “widely accepted as the most demanding of any course on the championship rota”. The prevailing north westerly wind into which the back holes play and their design also have their influence, as do the natural, more rumpled fairways.

The first four holes follow the coast line with fine sea views and are closer to the shoreline than at any other Open Championship venue. The first three holes are each under 400 yards which for the tigers makes it a comparatively easy opening to the round. The small greens are well bunkered and a burn runs across the third at 270 yards, which perhaps like the fifteenth at Hoylake will be flown if played downwind by the likes of Rory, Bubba and Dustin.

The fourth, a par five of 560 yards, has a right-hand dogleg that again will tempt the long hitters and then comes the start of the real test.

The fifth green

The fifth green

The fifth at some 200 yards, is played with a prevailing wind right to left and most players try to play over the right hand front bunker when the pin is on the right and finish up with thirty yard putts from the back left. Trevino in 1973 showed how to play it with a low, running fade through the gap, stunning his ball on the apron so that it then popped up and rolled within four feet! 1973 was the last time the small ball was used in The Open and Trevino, the forever talking and much-loved Mexican failed to claim his third Claret Jug in a row.

The sixth is a straight par five of over 600 yards. A deep chasm of a bunker protects the right-hand side thirty yards short of the green from those intent on being up in two shots.

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7th and 8th (postage stamp) greens from 7th tee.

The seventh is a good short par four with drive options from a high tee. The pitch to the raised, long and narrow green set up between two dunes has to be flown all the way and stopped, even if downwind, as the gully in front of the green is quite deep and difficult to run a ball through.

After the dangerous ‘Postage Stamp’ played back towards the prevailing wind, a classic slight right-hand dogleg to a two-tier green brings us to the far end of the course.

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The 9th showing caravan park prior to creation of bank.

A new bank has been built behind the ninth green to Martin Ebert’s design so as to shield the caravan park, through which members of both Prestwick and Royal Troon walk in opposite directions when playing their annual 36-hole match across both courses. The event includes lunch in each other’s clubhouses.

An indication of the even more wonderful links land that we are about to enter is that there are a total of only four bunkers on the first four holes of the back nine.

The reinstating of Mackenzie’s bunker on the tenth and the taking out of some of the gorse makes the hole more attractive but the approach to the plateau green sharply falling off to the right is made no easier .

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The eleventh with railway along right

The other dangerous hole comes next with a railway line running close to the whole of the right hand side. There is thick gorse in front of the tee and up the left and when playing into the prevailing wind Jack Nicklaus took ten shots here in the 1962 Open!  Nevertheless our friend Fergus Bisset of Golf Monthly, admittedly from the ordinary tee, achieved a three here recently.

The twelfth is called ‘The Fox’, after Charlie used to live thereabouts.

The thirteenth is the start of a run of six holes in the direction of the clubhouse and has another raised green.

Some respite is to be found at the par three 170 yards fourteenth where all the trouble lies at the front of green.

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Classic Troon gren.

Royal Troon members are likely to accept that their course is not at the top of the Open Championship hierarchy and Adam Lawrence of Golf Architects magazine, in attempting to summarise why this may be the case, suggests it has a comparative lack of identity. The reconstruction of the long par four fifteenth could be seen as the most dramatic attempt to provide more character with another great hole and possibly the most difficult on the card.

The championship tee has been moved, as well as the fairway, and Marcus Terry has done some superlative work here in shaping a rumpled landing area for the drive that used to be boringly flat. The flat green lies in the only bowl design on the course, with the best shots feeding in from the right over the bunker. Here, a bogey five or more will be the score for all but the best!

The burn that tickles the adventurism of the long hitters at the third hole does the same thing at the par five sixteenth, where new banks of heather and fescue now run up the right-hand side.

Here, at last, a flat fairway is pleasantly discovered from which to smite one’s second and the approach has to be accurate to reach the back-to-front sloping green with its six bunkers in attendance.

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Greg Norman uses a wedge from behind 17th green

The long par three next is a wonderful seventeenth that gives a player absolutely on his game a great chance of advancement. The high green, falling off on all sides with bunkers to the front right, is truly challenging.

Greg Norman was singing with a last round of 64 in the 1989 Open to get into a three way play-off  but lost to Calcavecchia, most people considering that this was due to his being so pumped up that he drove into the bunker on the right, miles down the eighteenth. Nevertheless he also dropped a stroke out of nowhere on the seventeenth after a great tee-shot to the back of the green, when he chipped with a wedge rather than using the percentage bump-and-run shot.

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The Royal Troon clubhouse and 18th green

The last hole is similar in feel to Royal Lytham & St Anne’s. This is a straight par four with the green sited directly in front of the clubhouse and what an impressive one it is too. The latest upgrade was opened in 2006 by Colin Montgomerie whose father was the club’s secretary here for many years.

Royal Troon may be more ‘simple’ than other Open Championship venues and may lack some of the quirkiness, gusto or pure class of others. The agronomy may not be ideal but the tonnage of sand deposited on it should guarantee firmness and a running-game for the 2016 Open. This should ensure there is no need to rely on the luck of dry weather in June/July as Hoylake had to do in 2006 when its greens were annual meadow grass (Poa annua) dominated.

It is worth mentioning that Craig Gilholm, Hoylake’s present, able greenkeeper appointed in 2006, despite the added pressure of a green-fee of £175, has developed a fine grasses agronomy and is now over-seeding fescues to their bent/Poa greens as well as cleaning out the infestations of Yorkshire Fog and Ryegrass from the now increasingly wispy roughs. It is likely to be a much improved venue by when The Open Championship is hosted again.

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Run-offs around the ninth hole

Nevertheless the Royal Troon green complexes are delightful and often raised, though not as aggressively as at Dornoch, and have sharp run-off swales in the older tradition, rather than the modern rounded mounds. The rumpled fairways and use of the natural movement in the ground, without lots of carry bunkers, is what ‘Running-Golf‘ is all about and this classic links continues to be one of my favourites.

The Club’s motto “As much by skill as by strength” reflects that Troon gives to the holiday golfer, from both of its courses, as much as to the top professionals.

Before leaving, mention should be made of two non-golf aspects and the wonderful array of courses on this stretch of coast.

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Gailes Links iconic red-sandstone clubhouse

Troon also has three very fine municipal owned links as part of the remarkable run of high quality ‘Running-Golf ‘  links courses that stretch from West Kilbride, Irvine, Gailes Links, Dundonald, Western Gailes, Kilmarnock Barassie, The five at Troon, Prestwick and Prestwick St Nicholas, before one travels south twenty miles to Trump Turnberry. Nowhere else in the world is there such a run of wonderful ‘Running-Golf ‘ courses almost touching each other.

The R&A has appointed Gailes Links (formerly Glasgow Gailes) to be now one of four courses that are fixed into the future as a venue for the International Final Qualifying for The Open Championship and this will no doubt appropriately help raise Gailes Links market profile. The other three are Hillside, Woburn – the first inland ‘target-golf’ course to be an Open Final Qualifier! – and Royal Cinque Ports.

The Club operates an extensive Environmental Management Plan, a strategy which maximises the wildlife potential of the courses by conserving and enhancing the existing habitat mosaic. The success of this policy is reflected in the wide range of birds which both breed and forage for food on the courses.

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The second green during The Open play-off in 1989.

Following the recent decision (discussed here) by The R&A’s new chief executive Martin Slumbers to remove Muirfield from the Open Championship rota, the Old course at Troon becomes the last of the Open venues owned by an all-male membership of Royal Troon Golf Club. The two Troon privately owned courses and their facilities are shared with the Ladies’ Golf Club, Troon and they will jointly host the 2016 Open Championship. Clearly under media pressure, and as part of an on-going membership review, the Royal Troon Club captain has recently stated “We care very much for the reputation of Royal Troon Golf Club and it is important that the club, much like the wider game, reflects the modern society in which we exist.  We have today written to all of our 800 members to understand their views and feelings on the issue of the admission of women to the Club. We expect to have a clearer sight of those opinions in the weeks ahead and will make further statements in due course.”

The Club has subsequently voted to equalise its membership arrangements.

Review by Lorne Smith – 2016

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