2004: Unrelenting grimness defines Troon

Royal Troon Golf Club is one of those British links courses that you play more out of duty than out of joy. A round here is hard work, as much for the average golfer as for the worldly professional seeking to have his name etched onto the Claret Jug.

The course sits along a dunes-laced stretch of western Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast that is regularly buffeted by winds coming in from the Firth of Clyde. Surprisingly for a links course, the open water not only is in view from the course but occasionally in play. On those precious days when the air is clear there are wonderful vistas, whether south to the Ailsa Craig, west to the Isle of Arran or north and inland to the Strathclyde hills outside Glasgow.

The lovely setting belies a course of unrelenting grimness. The 7,175-yard, par-71 layout offers a twist on the traditional “out and back” routing, with the first six holes marching headlong on a southeast axis (often downwind) and the last six holes arrayed in a conga line oriented northwest (into a head wind). The most interesting terrain on the course sits at the far end, where sandhills 20 to 30 feet high on Nos. 7-12 create uneven lies, semi-blind shots and a lot of hitting and hoping.

The basic playing strategy at Troon is to make some good scores early, play cautiously but smartly in the middle, then hang on for dear life during the end run. A good sense of the contrast can be seen in the sixth and eighth holes, respectively the longest and shortest holes in the British Open rota.

The 601-yard sixth often plays downwind and can be a driver and short iron, providing the tee shot threads the Barbie doll-narrow landing area. The eighth hole, the famous Postage Stamp, is only 123 yards but plays to a minuscule green, only 2,500 square feet that’s convex and protected by five deep bunkers. The hole often plays into a howler, and can call for as much as a middle iron.

Traditionally, the 490-yard, par-4 11th hole is Troon’s toughest in championships. The drive is basically uphill, over a rise and lined by thick gorse bushes on both sides. And the second shot is nerve-racking, too, thanks to an active railway along the right that comes close to the green.

This year, the course will play 96 yards longer than when Justin Leonard won the last Open at Troon in 1997. That’s a small concession to technology and distance. But at a classic links course like Troon, distance is less relevant as a defense against par than the vagaries and forces of nature. When the wind blows, as it usually does in Ayrshire, par stands out.

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