In wartime, Turnberry was a training field for the Royal Air Force, and traces of the runways may still be found there. It was years, though, before this scenic bluff on the Irish Sea, in the county of Ayrshire, became a golfing resort. It was years later that the Royal & Ancient finally included Turnberry in its British Open rotation. And it has been 15 years since the Open last visited, which is somewhat out of the ordinary.
Mainly, this is because Turnberry is kind of a “wildcard” in the established rotation that includes St. Andrews, Troon, Muirfield, St. George’s, Lytham and St. Annes and Carnoustie. The Championship is played on the Ailsa course, named for a domed rock that sits about 10 miles offshore.
And it might be said that it was the scene of the most memorable Open played in many a memory. Books have been written on it.
The year was 1977, my first Open, memorable at first by the pairing of Arnold Palmer and Sir Henry Cotton, who may have been a few years shy of his knighthood at the time. After two days it had developed into two tournaments — one played between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, the other between the rest of the field.
Without hedging, I can still say that it was the most riveting golf tournament I have ever covered. Watson and Nicklaus were even after the second round and the third, and in time separated themselves from the rest by 10 strokes.
It was their tournament. By Sunday afternoon the milling spectators, their bellies full of fire and lager, had become so unruly Nicklaus and Watson stopped play on the 9th fairway, had their caddies put their bags on the ground, and told the stewards, “We really can’t continue to play golf like this, having to wait continuously for the crowd to pass and keep a certain pace.”
Nicklaus was the spokesman, Watson said in a teleconference the other day. “It was dry, it was dusty, and it was difficult to concentrate.”
In the end, Watson took the lead and closed it out with a birdie putt on the 18th, and there they embraced.
“Jack was the most gracious competitor in the throes of defeat I’ve ever known,” Tom said. “He told me, ‘I gave you the best I had, and you won. Congratulations’.”
Nobody noticed who finished third, but it turned out to be Hubert Green, who said, “I don’t know who won the tournament, but I won first flight.”
This was Watson’s second of the five Opens he would win, and he returns for the 32nd time this year.
“Links golf,” he said, “it’s the real fabric of the Open championship, no other golf in the world like it. Of all the championships that I won, there is no doubt, this was the one I played best.”
The Ailsa course they played in 1977 measured 6,875 yards. This time the course Watson will be playing has been stretched to 7,200 yards, still par-70. Time takes its toll.
A plane filled with players will board a charter today and fly from the John Deere tournament to Turnberry. In years past, only rarely did American pros make a pass at the British Open. Sam Snead won in 1946 and collected a purse of 500 pounds. He never returned.
“Couldn’t afford it,” he said.
Ben Hogan conquered Carnoustie in 1953 and never went back. That was the year of his “almost Grand Slam.” The PGA Championship and the Open conflicted. After Palmer won in 1961, and won again, and kept going back, the trickle became a steady stream.
For a five-time champion like Watson, it has become a personal obligation.