After whirlwind three-year restoration, Trump Turnberry is back on top

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After whirlwind three-year restoration, Trump Turnberry is back on top

Travel

After whirlwind three-year restoration, Trump Turnberry is back on top

The sarcasm was evident even before the short visit to Scotland technically had begun.

The young immigration officer at Glasgow airport asked my destination. Turnberry, I replied.

She eyed me askance.

“Were you there before the takeover?” she asked.

The takeover.

“The Trump takeover,” I said in my most conspiratorial tone. “You make it sound so ominous.”

“Well,” she said, rolling her eyes, “it kind of is.”

Making light of all things Trump is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. All the cool kids have one, and they wield it freely.

But the snarky quips might not flow so freely if one were to take a drive down the A77 to Trump Turnberry Resort, which finally seems ready to realize its full potential after decades of ownership changes, altered strategies, half-measures, upheaval and, at times, outright neglect.

The Trump Organization acquired Turnberry in April 2014 for a reported $63 million from Dubai-based Leisurecorp. At the time, Donald Trump, pre-presidential run, said, “Our aim is to make it the finest golf hotel in the world.”

Say this about the Trumps: They might raise expectations, but they have a track record of spending freely to back up their words. At Turnberry, the hotel essentially was gutted and all 103 rooms elegantly refurbished, a grand ballroom was added and the clubhouse and golf courses renovated. Smaller projects remain, such as upgrades to the spa and to the villas that sit below the hotel, but it’s been a whirlwind three years.

“We have some projects where nothing happens in three years,” marveled architect Martin Ebert, who guided the renovations of Turnberry’s golf courses.

Turnberry always had a unique collection of assets – the hillside hotel, the lighthouse, the seaside links, the views of the Firth of Clyde, Ailsa Craig and Arran. Among British Open venues, it might be second only to St. Andrews in terms of its iconic setting.

So perhaps it was easy to overlook some of the flaws that were allowed to linger. Leisurecorp, for example, had renovated seaward-facing rooms, but many of the other rooms remained untouched.

“There were some rooms dating back to 1999 that had not been refurbished under the previous owners and the owners before them,” said Gordon Dalgleish, co-founder of PerryGolf, a tour operator. “If you were there in 2011 or 2012, you didn’t have to look too far to find some deferred maintenance going on. It was getting a little long in the tooth. . . You’d turn a corner and go down a hallway and it looked as though it was from the 1990s.”

The Trumps moved swiftly to correct that. The family’s hands-on ownership style has been evident throughout.

Ebert, for example, said Donald Trump immersed himself in the redesign of the golf courses, prior to and even during his presidential campaign. The two men would spend days on the courses, debating design changes. The Turnberry staff wasn’t used to such activist owners.

“We knew who the (previous) owners were, but we didn’t get to see the owners, to understand them,” said Ricky Hall, the director of golf the past 16 years. “Nor were they golf people with an understanding of golf and what it takes to create something like that (motioning toward the courses), but then maintain it as well. (The Trumps) understand exactly what it takes and the demands on the quality and consistency.”

The Ailsa Course reopened last year to widespread praise. Much of the talk has centered on the middle of the routing – holes nine through 11 – which surely rank among the most electrifying stretches of seaside golf ever created. And perhaps that was just a long time coming.

“I firmly believe that 150 years ago, if they had the machinery, the know-how and the money at that time to (shape) the land that way, they would have,” Hall said. “Because the land is crying out to do that, on those three holes in particular.”

Those holes are so dramatic that some more subtle changes perhaps get overlooked. The par-3 fourth, lengthened and nudged closer to the coastline, begins a stretch of eight seaside holes.

Some much-needed charm and playfulness was added to the par-3 sixth, which was shortened, with the walkway to the tee moved left toward the coastline, as opposed to having players walk behind the dune. The decision to straighten the closing hole placed the tee up on the seaside dune, with drives launched directly at the hotel. That should create some memorable images when the British Open returns to Ailsa.

It’s unclear when that will happen. No future Opens have been awarded to Turnberry, though Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, said its status remains unchanged.

“Our position is we have 10 courses on the Open rota, of which Turnberry is one of them,” Slumbers said. “It stands (on equal footing) with all the other courses.”

On June 28, Trump Turnberry reopened the rechristened King Robert the Bruce Course, named for the Scottish hero born in Turnberry Castle. Formerly called the Kintyre, the course opened in 2001 and had been an afterthought, often not even played by visiting golfers. Ebert’s job was to reimagine a course so compelling that guests would stay longer to play it.

“If it was three miles north or south of here, it would have an instant reputation, because it is that good,” Hall said. “It just has to grow into that because it sits in the shadow of the Ailsa.”

The focal point of both courses always has been the historic lighthouse, which was built in 1873 by Thomas Stevenson, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Trump masterstroke was to refurbish the lighthouse as a halfway house on the lower level and a two-bedroom suite on the upper level. A plaque on the lighthouse describes it as “the world’s finest and most spectacular Halfway House.” It’s not clear how one would determine that, but given the setting, who would argue the point? For all the exclusiveness attached to Trump’s properties, there’s something charming about that fact that local residents, out walking their dogs on the beach, are welcome to join golfers at the halfway house for coffee or a snack.

The lighthouse suite is the ultimate Turnberry experience, with the price tag to prove it – £3,500 ($4,500) per night, or £7,000 with butler service. Sam Baker, founder of tour operator Haversham & Baker, got the full lighthouse experience last fall and said it might just be worth every penny.

“I have never been in anything comparable anywhere in the world,” Baker gushed. “It’s to the point where we tell people, if you can find another couple and squeeze this in, you really ought to do it.”

Even if you can’t afford that, you need to get to Turnberry.

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