Our Editor plays all 14 Open venues
Jim McCann completes playing the full set of Open Championship courses
hen I played the Ailsa course at the Turnberry resort back in November 2001, I had absolutely no intention of ever visiting all fourteen of the venues that have so far hosted the Open Championship. Indeed, the thought of completing the full set only came into my head in recent months when the opportunity arose to travel to the remaining three Kent courses on my list. What follows is a brief look at each and every one of the courses where the Open has been contested since 1860, in the order that I’ve played them.
Turnberry (Ailsa) is one of my all-time favourites. I especially love the fact that this relative newcomer to the Open rota somehow managed to overcome a number of formidable obstacles – including government requisition for its use as an airbase during both World Wars – to become one of the most iconic golf courses in the world. Still a teenager when I watched television coverage of the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at the 1977 Open, I fondly remember the Ailsa as THE course that I ever wanted to say I’d played. Now that Donald Trump has purchased the Turnberry resort, it’s said that improvements may be made to the last three of the eight holes that hug the coastline (at the 9th, 10th and 11th), which would be a fabulous boost for the Ailsa.
Carnoustie was the first of four Open venues that I visited in 2003. I didn’t exactly fall head over heels at first sight of the Championship layout. On returning seven years later, I think I was a little better equipped to respect what Carnoustie is all about. As Malcolm Campbell says of the course in The Scottish Golf Book: “In a golfing world where the word ‘championship’ has become devalued by golf course builders and architects who produce ‘championship’ courses as if from a sausage machine, Carnoustie remains the true test for those who would be real champions, and one of the greatest challenges in world golf.” I’ll not argue against that, as it really is a world class, no nonsense track.
Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, sits at the very top of my personal list of 300+ golf courses played. I wasn’t bowled over by the Muirfield layout first time around, even though the whole golfing experience (including the famed carvery lunch) was absolutely fantastic. It was only on a couple of subsequent visits in 2005 and 2009 that I really appreciated how great a place this is. Often, on returning to a course that you liked first time around, you might be a little disappointed second or third time around. Not so here, where my admiration has grown for a club and a course that’s absolutely steeped in golf’s history and tradition.
St Andrews (Old) is quite rightly revered in golfing circles and it’s the course that just about every golfer worldwide dreams of playing one day. In his book Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens, author James Finegan says of the course: “The Old Course takes a bit of getting used to. It is no beauty. What’s more, it is shamelessly deceitful and capricious… It is sui generis, a law unto itself, and so extraordinary – its subtleties beyond calculation, its mysteries unfathomable – that, in the end, it defies conventional analysis”. And that pretty much sums up my feelings for the Old course: unique and rather difficult to measure against other top tracks. It’s way down my personal list of great links courses played, indeed I think it's more than a little overrated. I do admire its huge double greens and the positioning of many of the hidden bunkers but don't forget the layout is actually played the wrong way round nowadays! Granted, as far as great golf experiences go, it's hard to beat playing the closing three or four holes that lead into the Auld Grey Toon.
Prestwick is where it all began for the Open in 1860, of course, when eight golfers were invited to the inaugural event to contest the right to wear the winning prize of a red morocco leather belt. Even though today’s modern 18-hole layout at Prestwick bears little resemblance to the club’s original 12-hole course, it’s still a big thrill to be able to play over this hallowed old links. It’s just a shame that such a historically important course lurks somewhat in the golfing shadows nowadays. Nevertheless, many of its iconic features, like the Cardinal bunker at the 3rd and the Sahara bunker at the 17th, have been imitated by architects all around the world so the influence of this revered old course has been felt in many far flung golfing outposts.
Musselburgh (Old) was the first of two Open venues that I played in 2005. The old 9-holer hosted six Opens in total between 1874 and 1889, with local golfers winning four of these competitions. I’d driven past the Old course many times on my way to other more salubrious East Lothian links layouts with barely a second glance towards the rather understated municipal layout inside the horse racing track. Nevertheless, as every golfer worthy of the name really should, I finally set aside a little time to play the old girl in all her faded glory. Like Prestwick, there’s not much of the original course left but the opening par three 1st hole is one to really savour, as it plays to the green which was used as the closing hole on the old routing, a spot where six different Scottish golfers were presented with the famous old Claret Jug during the Open’s short spell at Musselburgh.
Royal Portrush (Dunluce) has lain dormant as an Open venue since 1951 however it looks like it has found favour with the R&A once again, following a recent announcement from the governing body which saw it pledge the return of the Open to the Antrim coast within the next few years, possibly as soon as 2019. The Dunluce course is, in my eyes, second only to Muirfield in my personal list of favourite Open venues so I’m absolutely delighted to hear that it’s back on the Open rota after an absence of more than sixty years. Donald Steel, in his book Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland described the course as “a magnificent links on the grandest scale but two qualities set it apart: it is one of the most demanding tests of driving because the fairways are narrow and the rough is rough; and the relatively small greens are full of hidden subtleties and tricky slopes”.
Royal Troon (Old) became an Open venue just a couple of years before Prestwick held its final Open in 1925 and it’s no coincidence that the emergence of the former on the national golfing stage resulted in the relative demise of the latter. Far better equipped than its near neighbour to cope with the modern day logistical demands of hosting an Open, Royal Troon was the first of three Open venues that I visited in 2006. As described in Keith Mackie’s book, Open Championship Golf Courses of Britain, “Royal Troon shares with Turnberry some of the finest seascapes to be enjoyed from any of Britain’s championship courses, with views across the Firth of Clyde, past the Isle of Arran to the hills of Kintyre while… it also shares the same exposure to the prevailing westerly winds which can almost instantly transform an idyllic afternoon’s golf into a titanic struggle over the closing holes”.
Royal Lytham & St Annes was next up on my Open golf course trail and, I have to say, staying at the Dormy House across from the clubhouse the night before playing remains to this day as one of my most cherished golf experiences. To be treated as a member, with the full run of the dining room, bar and snooker room was just an absolute thrill. A number of Dormy House dwellers who were fellow Scotsmen from Royal Burgess Golf Club in Edinburgh stayed up with me way after midnight that Sunday evening in the TV lounge to watch Monty blow his chance of winning a Major in the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot when he double bogied the 72nd hole – so near and yet so far to it being a perfect golfing weekend. Still, at least the course didn’t disappoint the next morning.
Royal Birkdale is one of my five favourite Open tracks, where most of the fairways are routed around towering sand dunes. A number of commentators have expressed the opinion that the three-year remodelling of the layout by Fred Hawtree in the early 1960s took manufactured golf course design too far but I think the enormous scale of a golfing property like Birkdale’s is such that only a large, stadium design could ever do justice to its surroundings. Author James Finegan, in his book All Courses Great and Small, makes this observation: “We are struck at once by, if you will, the course’s modernity, an absence of the eccentricities so often inherent in the very naturalness of seaside golf. Here the flattish fairways – there is very little undulation – prompt neither freak bounces nor awkward lies. Blind shots are all but nonexistent. This is a remarkably fair and straightforward test. And a remarkably majestic, challenging and varied one.”
Royal Liverpool was the next course on my (ever so slightly loose) Open schedule and I visited it in early 2010, nearly four years after playing Royal Birkdale. Some golfers, like me, find Hoylake too flat and rather dull. There’s no doubting the history of the golf club and the magnificence of its clubhouse – the extensive library room is one place I could gladly get lost in for a week – but its golf course, which don’t forget started out as a racecourse, is a touch on the bland side, apart from the seaside stretch of holes from the 9th to the 13th. I’m not a fan of internal, artificial out of bounds ditches and banks and the fairways at Hoylake are bounded by several of these on the opening and closing holes. They certainly imbue the course with a somewhat unique architectural quality but they’re not what I expect to see on any world-ranked championship links.
Royal St George’s was the first of the three Open courses in Kent that I finally got round to playing this year. There’s no doubting the golfing pedigree of this place: five years after it opened, the course hosted the British Amateur Championship then two years later, in 1894, the Open was held here for the first time, which was also the first time the event had been taken outside Scotland. Nick Edmund’s book Classic Courses of Great Britain & Ireland brings us up to date with changes made by Frank Pennink in the 1970s: “A decision was made to modernise St George’s – nothing too radical, but it was felt that if much of the overt blindness could be eradicated without disturbing the essential character of the links, St George’s might once again be considered a worthy venue for the game’s greatest championship”. Indeed the Open did return to Sandwich in 1981, 32 years after it was last held there, and another four of the prestigious tournaments have subsequently followed. Not a favourite course of mine, I must admit, as I found it an absolute brute to play, even in relatively benign weather conditions.
Royal Cinque Ports lies just along the Kent coast from Royal St George’s so it was only natural that I should play there in the afternoon, having tackled RSG in the morning. After being badly beaten up at Sandwich, I was looking for some relative golfing respite at Deal and, although my scorecard didn’t exactly reflect it, I found the course to be far more accommodating to my game than its Royal neighbour a few miles to the east. I also discovered one of the finest half way houses that I’ve ever come across, constructed from an old 40 foot-long metal sea container but lined inside and out with panelling to make it look like a wooden building. Very clever – snug in the winter I’d imagine – and manned by some really friendly artisans who I could have sat with and chatted about golf all afternoon.
Prince’s (Shore / Dunes) was the fourteenth and final course on my Open hit list and I was fascinated to discover from a map in the club’s centenary book that more than half the greens from the layout used for the 1932 Open at Prince’s are still in use on the modern day course, albeit that they are mainly approached from different angles nowadays. The Shore and Dunes nines definitely form the most challenging 18-hole combination at Prince’s, though the nine holes that form the Himalayas circuit are well worth a play on a day ticket green fee. I never planned to end my Open sojourn here but I’m really glad that I did because Prince’s ably demonstrated that it’s eminently feasible for a traditional old club with a famous past to reinvent itself and remain relevant in the modern era. Well done to the club for doing so and for making its golfing facilities so accessible to the golfing public.
All photos taken by Jim McCann except Royal Portrush courtesy of Keith Baxter
26 August 2014 Respond to this article