My first round at Turnberry was in 2011, prior to the major restoration, and prior to my understanding about not rushing golf trips. We arrived at the course, played our round, and rushed off to our afternoon loop elsewhere.
For my second visit to Trump Turnberry, I slowed things down and really enjoyed my time. I arrived the evening before my round on the Ailsa course, stayed in the Turnberry Resort Hotel on top of the hill, and had an entire day to enjoy the property. The weather was cold and windy with patches of heavy rain, but I did my best to keep the camera rolling throughout the very enjoyable round.
On the first tee I was paired up with a gentleman who just so happened to live down the street from me in South Carolina. What are the chances?! I pass his house every day on my way to work, and as luck would have it, we thoroughly enjoyed the chilly round together.
Turnberry has a very interesting history. The resort has hosted four Open Championships (1977, 1986, 1994, and 2009), but the unique aspects of Turnberry go well beyond those events.
Willie Fernie designed the original layout in 1902. During World War I, the course was commissioned as a Royal Air Force base and an airstrip was built over the layout. Before the course could be rebuilt, World War II started, and the air force returned. Both times the hotel was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. A memorial to the lost airmen still remains behind the 12th tee on the Ailsa course.
Following WWII, architect Mackenzie Ross redesigned both courses and the Ailsa reopened in 1951. That version of the course lasted until Donald Trump purchased Turnberry Resort and brought in Martin Ebert to renovate and redesign the Ailsa course in 2016.
The renovation by Martin Ebert has been heralded as a great success by nearly everyone. All 18 holes were changed in some way and a number were completely moved and redesigned. In addition to Ebert, the R&A provided feedback and approval on the changes as they’ve done with other Open Championship course renovations. It has also been reported that Donald Trump was heavily involved in the decision making process. Geoff Shackelford writes, “Trump set an agenda that gave Ebert leeway while pushing back constantly, sometimes even sending notes on design plans. Ebert said this led to an intriguing process which ultimately made the final design better.”
The group turned a course with a few highlights and some weak areas into 18 world-class holes. Many of the changes were meant to maximize seaside views, so greens were moved, tees were shifted, and now the Firth of Clyde plays a much more prominent role in the round. You’ll see many of the changes in the hole-by-hole section of this review and in the video immediately below (produced prior to the renovation). The improvements that most strengthened the overall design occurred on the back nine, which was turned from a relatively bland stretch of holes into a really strong final stretch.
I appreciate how bold the renovation program was. Famous holes (like the 9th) were completely changed and others, like the 11th, were turned from bland holes into ones that will almost certainly be famous in their own right. Ebert took some real risks and he turned the Ailsa course into unquestionably one of the best in Scotland. It doesn’t have the quirkiness you’ll find at nearby Prestwick, or the links purity of nearby Royal Troon, but it has 18 world-class beautiful holes that can stand up against any links. It would have been too easy to tweak a few things and call it a day. Instead, they completely redid and improved a classic links.
Overall, £200 million was spent on renovating the entire resort. The Ailsa course was renovated, the King Robert the Bruce course was totally redesigned, and the hotel was redone and modernized. In turn, the experience of staying at Turnberry really feels 5-star. Staff members are extremely helpful and remember your name, the amenities are top notch, and everything feels new and very nice. Each room has a 60″ curved ultra high-def TV and the wall power sockets have USB plugs next to the outlets. The breakfast rivals any I’ve ever seen.
It feels much more 5-star American than it traditional Scottish. Personally, it was a welcome change after 9 days earlier in the trip staying in local hotels and B&Bs. It’s not for everyone, and for those who don’t want the hotel experience, you can stay in Ayr and just play a round on Ailsa. Do be prepared to shell out some serious green fee cash as a non-resort guest, though.
Hole #3 – 390 yards – “Blaw Wearie” – This hole usually plays into the prevailing wind and it requires two great shots to get on in regulation.
Hole #4 – 189 yards – “Woe Be Tide” – This par 3 was a highlight pre-renovation, but it’s much better now. The green and tees were moved closer to the beach, bringing back the original design. This hole starts a stretch of world-class seaside holes.
Hole #5 – 501 yards – “Fin Me Oot” – This is one of my favorite par 5s. Photos don’t do its drama justice, but this dogleg left sits below the level of the dunes and the green seems to hide ever-further around the corner.
Hole #6 – 136 yards – “Tappie Toorie” – This used to be a very long par 3 with a penal false front. During the renovation the tee was moved to the top of the dunes looking down to the green. The hole now feels like a Postage Stamp competitor with stunning views and waves crashing to the player’s left.
Hole #7 – 491 yards – “Roon The Ben” – “Round the mountain” is the translation of this hole’s name and it feels accurate when you descend from the tee to the fairway. A tough tee shot has to land between the fairway bunkers to leave an uphill approach (or layup) to the green.
Hole #8 – 429 yards – “Goat Fell” – The green is the highlight on this straight par 4. The putting surface is absolutely massive and there’s no reason to challenge the front left monstrous bunker. That said, it looms in your mind and the green seems to shrink as you address the ball. It’s a great use of a single bunker to force a certain style of play.
Hole #9 – 187 yards – “Bruce’s Castle” – Prior to the renovation, the famous 9th was the most boring beautful hole in Scotland. The tees, set on the cliffs, played away from the water to a featureless short par 4 green.
Now the hole is a dramatic par 3 with a natural-looking green set just back from the cliffs. Different sets of tees determine how much forced carry is required, but there’s no question that this hole is now one of the best par 3s in Scotland.
The famous Turnberry lighthouse sat empty and unused prior to the renovation. The team turned into a halfway house/restaurant and two suites where guests can stay. A beautiful outdoor seating area looks over the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran and beyond. How did someone not think of that before?!
Hole #10 – 496 yards – “Dinna Fouter” – The dramatic dogleg left 10th is great in that it forces a tough decision for the layup. In the first photo below you can see the large waste area in the perfect layup zone. Carry it and have an easy approach. Lay back and have a tough iron into the exposed green.
Hole #11 – 178 yards – “Maidens” – The seaside section of the course ends with a great new par 3. The old 11th played away from the water to a nondescript green. This new hole features a cliffside green and single front right bunker. There is a forced carry over a rocky area, but anything that carries it will run up to the green.
Hole #12 – 388 yards – “Monument” – This otherwise nondescript hole is made memorable by a great green. Take a minute to look at the second photo below and consider the approach and chip options, especially when the pin is on the right! Also take a moment to appreciate the monument to fallen airmen during WWI see on the right.
Hole #13 – 380 yards – “Tickly Tap” – This green is much larger than it looks, but the approach shot is still not easy. Longer players will likely want to lay back to have a full short iron into the green.
Hole #14 – 498 yards – “Risk-an-Hope” – This meandering par 5 works uphill past deep bunkers and stretches of heather. The green features an expansive view where you grab the final up-close look at the Turnberry lighthouse.
Hole #15 – 183 yards – “Ca’ Canny” – A range of tees provide different angles with varying difficulty into this green. You may have noticed that most of the par 3s on the course are of similar length. You have to consider that they all face different directions, so all require totally different shots.
Hole #16 – 420 yards – “Wee Burn” – Into the wind, you may consider laying up on this par 4! The “wee” burn in front of the green is actually a mean creek at the base of a large slope. Anything that doesn’t land on the putting surface funnels back down to the water. It’s a very fun approach and great use of a burn (similar to the 18th at Kingsbarns).
Hole #17 – 449 yards – “Lang Whang” – Although you can’t see it in the photo, the sideways rain was really coming down. And before you ask, “Lang Whang” means “long wack” – something it takes to reach this long par 4 in regulation!
Hole #18 – 417 yards – “Duel in the Sun” – Turnberry, and particularly this 18th hole, was the site of the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson during the 1977 Open Championship. The two separated from the pack and Watson’s 65-65 weekend bested Nicklaus (65-66) by a single shot. Watson birdied four of the last six in what is considered one of the best major championship performances in history.
Turnberry before the renovation was impressive, but the new course shows just how good it could have been. Ebert wasn’t afraid to completely rework areas and the course benefited greatly from his boldness. Holes 4-11 should be considered some of the best links holes in the world, and after all the work, the finishing stretch is pretty darn good, too.