Ricky Hall, the director of golf at Trump Turnberry, is one of the friendliest people in the game. Rain, hail or shine, he’s got a smile for everyone. Today, though, it was wider than usual.
“You’re in for a real treat,” he told me in the lobby of the Ayrshire resort's recently-refurbished clubhouse.
That’s because I was one of a small group of golf writers invited to try the new-look Ailsa Course, a course ‘reborn’ following the resort’s purchase in April 2014 by Donald Trump and subsequently redeveloped under the auspices of top architects Mackenzie & Ebert. Seriously, who'd turn down that invitation?
Now, before we go any further, a few disclaimers:
1. I’ve always been fond of Turnberry. That part of Ayrshire played a big part in my upbringing and the Ailsa was where I chose to escape to on the day before my wedding in March 2011. So, there’s a special part of my ticker reserved for it;
2. We played it today in near perfect conditions - blue, cloudless skies and almost no wind. In different weather, it might well have been a different experience.
That being said, what is the new-look Ailsa like? Excellent; formidable; fun; and, most crucially, significantly better.
The good bits…
The changes are far more comprehensive than first anticipated. Martin Ebert, of the aforementioned Mackenzie & Ebert, admitted as much. Very few of the holes have remained unchanged since the ‘old’ course closed late last September. However, anybody who takes issue with this on account of ‘tradition being tampered with’ ought to know that the Ailsa has changed regularly since it opened in 1901. This isn’t revolution. It’s evolution.
Read more -> Turnberry's revamped Ailsa looks the business
Some things are the same, though, including the long-standing, friendly starter, former Rangers goalkeeper Peter McCloy. A gentle giant of a man, McCloy’s enthusiasm for the new layout is evident from the off. “It’s really special,” he tells me. “You're going to absolutely love it.”
The modifications become apparent from the first hole. The green has been pushed back and to the right, creating a very slight dogleg. It’s a huge improvement – the previous green was thoroughly bland – and it sets the tone for the rest of the round.
The second and third are largely unchanged. The fourth, though, above, is where the big changes first appear. The green has been moved lower, back and left, taking it closer to the beach, with a purpose-built, clearly-defined sandy waste area extending from the front of the tee to the front of the green. It’s a longer hit than before – playing from the whites, I came up just short with a less-than-perfect hybrid – but, again, it’s way better than what was there before.
The fifth has been extended into a ‘reachable-in-two’ par-5 by dint of a pushed back tee and a relocated green.
Six, above, is an entirely new hole. It’s still a par-3, only now it’s a great one. Previously a thump of a long-iron (in benign conditions) with a steep run-off in front of the green, it’s now an actual ‘short’ short hole (a wedge or 9-iron at most).
Seven and eight have changed little – more of which later – but it is at nine, ten and eleven that the most notable work has been done.
Let’s cut to the chase: these three holes occupy the most iconic piece of real estate on the property but, without question, were previously three of the blandest, most disappointing holes. The ninth, in particular, was laughably bad. Hands up if you hit a straight drive there and subsequently found your ball on the fairway? Put your hand down – you’re lying.
Something major, therefore, had to be done. Martin Ebert drew up plans for both a long par-3 and a short par-4. However, Trump was adamant that the new ninth should be a par-3 playing over the rocks and closer to the famous Turnberry lighthouse. People, he reasoned, remember par-3s. It’s a valid point. Royal Troon? Postage Stamp. Sawgrass? The 17th. Augusta National? The 12th. I’m quite sure the new ninth on the Ailsa, above, will, in time, become as famous as all of those.
What's better about it? Mainly the fact that it's not the old ninth. Visually, it's stunning, which the old one wasn't. It also makes better use of the land around the lighthouse. I very much doubt they'll play it from the back tee during the Open, though.
As for the tenth, above, Ebert hopes that it will become one of the best par-5s in the world. It’s got a great chance. A challenging, sharp dogleg from the championship tee, it benefits from getting rid of that God-awful ‘donut’ bunker short of the green. It’s not completely gone; it has just been moved and given a more rugged, ‘wild’ feel, like many of the bunkers. The green, meanwhile, sits on the rocks where the old 11th tee was located. Word of caution: do not go long.
For me, the new 11th, above, is the best change. The hole used to just be there. Nothing special; nothing memorable. I’d go so far as to say it was one of the worst par-3s on the Open rota. Now, it’s one of the best. Again, it plays over the rocks towards a green that sits almost on the beach and, again, it's the aesthetics that make it special. It’s an instant classic.
The 12th and 13th holes haven’t changed massively. The 14th, though, is totally new. It plays to the right of the old hole and is a long, uphill, taxing par-5. It also offers one last, lingering view of the lighthouse before you turn for home.
Again, the 15th and 16th haven’t changed a great deal, although watch out for the new footbridge next to the 16th green, which has built using reclaimed stonework from the wall around the ninth.
The 17th has been shortened slightly in order to accommodate the last big change: the straightening of the 18th. If you played the old layout, you’d probably admit you didn’t know where you were aiming when you first stepped on the final tee. No such issues now. It’s all right there in front of you, whilst the new championship tee, which sits directly above the beach, is simply immense. Here's the view (note the Ailsa Craig in the background)...
Read more -> Donald Trump's Turnberry changes inspired
Turning the lighthouse into a halfway house was always going to be a winning idea. Forget the B&Q-looking old shack that used to sit next to the tenth tee. It’s history now. Taking its place is the historic lighthouse, which has been tastefully furnished and includes a beautiful balcony for taking in the sights.
There’s also a two-bedroom suite that can be hired out. Although, with prices starting from £3,500 per night – yup – it’s not exactly cheap. Still, Trump Turnberry’s most iconic feature is now an actual, functioning part of the Ailsa experience. Let’s just be glad about that, shall we?
The new-look Ailsa isn’t perfect and it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s very, very good but that shouldn’t make it immune from criticism.
For one thing, the signage isn’t great. As an example, my playing partners and I spent a few minutes trying to work out where to go from the fifth green. In fact, we almost ended up playing from the new championship tee on the 18th. I have no doubts, however, that will be improved in time, as will the lack of yardage markers. None of the sprinkler heads – none that I saw, anyway – had any yardages on them, so we had to rely on our trusty old strokesavers. And if you’ve got a GPS watch, forget it. One of my playing partners had one but soon realised it hadn’t been updated to account for the changes.
The 15th, previously the best of four par-3s, is now comfortably the weakest.
Other criticisms? Personally, I’d have smoothed out the eighth fairway. It slopes severely from left to right. That’s not so much an issue from the championship tee, where the angle into the fairway is slightly different. However, from the whites, you have to hit a draw to take the edge off. A two-tier fairway would have been way more interesting, in my opinion.
Also, the 15th, previously the best of four par-3s on the course, is now comfortably the weakest of five. Perhaps that’s testament to the quality of the changes made elsewhere; perhaps it’s a sign that the 15th was never that good to begin with. Either way, it’s pretty underwhelming.
The gigantic Saltire installed next to the first tee is an emotive, stirring sight for any patriotic Scot... but it's just too big. It remains in view for the entire front nine and, being honest, it started to grate on me after a while. It’s a fantastic touch; it’s just too much and too visible. Just a minor quibble.
Finally, I'm disappointed at the price of a green fee. For a non hotel resident, playing on a Saturday or Sunday at the height of the season, you won't get much change out of £300. That's over £16.50 per hole. Look, it shouldn't be cheap to play. There's a reason, after all, why a pair of Levi jeans cost more than ones from Asda. However, I just don't like the idea of the ordinary punter being priced out of the pleasure of playing because that's what it is - a total pleasure.
If you were to ask me to score the reborn Ailsa out of ten, I’d give it a solid nine. It’s truly excellent – but let’s not pretend it’s flawless. I’m perfectly happy with all of the changes that have been made, but it’s the ones that haven’t been made, specifically to the eighth and 15th, that, in my humble opinion, prevent it from getting full marks.
Still, it is so much better than what was there before. So, so much better. For my money, it’s now got to be considered one of the very best courses on the Open rota. I’ve seen them all and played most of them. What Ebert & Mackenzie and Donald Trump (yes, let’s give him the credit he’s due) have achieved at Turnberry is right up there.
You don't have to like Donald Trump but hating his properties simply because they are 'his properties' is dumb.
On that note, let me finish with this plea to the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers. If you’re going to drop Trump Turnberry from the Open rota – and I very strongly suggest you don’t – do it for legitimate golfing reasons, not because of who owns it.
Take Donald Trump’s name off Turnberry and nobody would deny it its place as an Open venue. But bear in mind that none of the changes – necessary changes and changes made with the approval of Slumbers’ predecessor Peter Dawson, lest we forget – would have happened without the American’s investment, vision and commitment.
You don’t have to like him but hating his properties simply because they are ‘his properties’ is dumb. Extremely dumb.
Ricky Hall wasn’t wrong. Today was indeed a real treat.
Trump Turnberry changes :: Your thoughts
What do you make of the changes that have been made to the Ailsa Course? Will you be rushing to Trump Turnberry to play it? Leave your thoughts in the 'Comments' section below.