As I sat with my golfing companions in Duel In the Sun, the new clubhouse restaurant at Trump Turnberry (those two words together seem strangely incongruous, but it is what it is), we munched on appetizers, sipped dark ale and watched the second day of the Ryder Cup play out on several big screens. Then it all hit me: This was the last golf stop on my whirlwind nine-day tour of Scotland, arranged and expertly hosted by Connoisseurs, who, I quickly realized and will forever appreciate, know how to present this magnificent island nation in the most sublime light.
Speaking of light, we caught this stretch of Scotland’s west coast under the brightest early October skies imaginable, with warm temperatures to match. A glorious fall sunset gathered outside the clubhouse windows, with the old-but-new Ailsa Course’s famed final hole to the left, Ailsa Craig crouched in the Firth of Clyde straight ahead and, panning right, the iconic lighthouse in the middle distance, framed by cloud-shrouded Isle of Arran and Kintyre Peninsula. A final few foursomes filtered down the same fairway where, in 1977, Tom Watson bested Jack Nicklaus in an epic Open Championship battle that gave this restaurant its name and put Turnberry on the worldwide map after decades in the shadow of Scotland’s more famous layouts, including Royal Troon an hour up the coast. Greg Norman won Turnberry’s second Open in 1986, carding a 63 along the way, and Nick Price notched his only major win here in 1994. Then, in 2009, Watson nearly made history again at age 58 before succumbing to a bad bounce from the 18th fairway, a weak par putt and a four-hole aggregate playoff loss to Stewart Cink.
We made our way out onto into the shadowy links to take a few photos, soak up the history and raw beauty and recall a fine Saturday at this rejuvenated, stately resort. That morning I’d strolled some of the front nine and snapping dozens of photos. I went back up the two long flights of stairs leading from the golf courses to the hotel, took a few laps in the indoor pool and joined my cohorts for a fun, freeform circuit around the lovely 18-hole pitch-and-putt course across the street from the big course. We capped off the afternoon with a trek into the village of Kirkoswald for the second of three Scotch tasting forays at an impressive shop called The Whisky Experience, owned by Tim Morrison, a longtime Turnberry member. Then it was to the Duel In The Sun for drinks and dinner. I went all in for the surf and turf, filet mignon and lobster. This is no “normal” clubhouse grill. In fact, the entire two-story building is part golf museum, part retail juggernaut, and stops just short of the gilded decorative bombast that mark so many of Trump’s properties (though the recently remodeled hotel rooms embrace that ethic full-on, evidenced by the huge chandelier hanging over my bed and a huge, ornate bathroom).
We hadn’t played a proper round of golf since Castle Stuart nearly three days before. Between then and now we’d driven through the heart of the Highlands between Inverness and Perth, enjoyed lunch among Glasgow’s movers and shakers at One Devonshire, a downtown hotel comprising five former townhouses, and toured several of its distinct, Victorian rooms before heading southwest to the Ayrshire Coast for an hour-long golf clinic with PGA Pro Sven Nielsen at Turnberry’s outstanding teaching facility. The practice tee looks across the current Kintyre-Arran course composite to the lighthouse-turned-luxury halfway house — one of the prettiest ranges I’ve ever seen and more than enough to whet my appetite for dinner of pan-fried scallops that evening in 1906, the hotel’s main restaurant named for its original opening date.
Pumped up with anticipation and two days’ worth of mouthwatering views, we’d finally get our shot at the Ailsa Course the next morning. It reopened in June 2016 after two years under the sharp redesign knife of Mackenzie & Ebert, one of the U.K.’s top architectural firms, who managed to make what was already one of the world’s great routings even better, tweaking virtually every hole to some degree — most extensively on the incredible mid-round coastal stretch including holes 8 through 11. Actually, they’d worked on the Ailsa before the 2009 Open, moving the then par-4 10th a bit closer to the sea and sliding No. 16 to the left to make room for what would become a new, shorter 17th. Armed with Trump Organization dollars (or, rather, those of his banking partners), along with the R&A’s and membership’s blessings, the architects dug in to the rest of the course with two big goals in mind: To make even better use of the setting’s natural majesty, and to make sure the Ailsa remained in the modern Open rota, not only in pure golf challenge for the world’s top players, members and visitors, but in terms of big-event infrastructure.
Mission accomplished on both points. As of last July the R&A declared that Turnberry would indeed host its fifth Open in the future; earliest availability is 2022. And hole-to-hole, the new Ailsa keeps the best elements of Philip Mackenzie Ross’s 1950s redesign of A.N. Weir’s 1909 routing — he was contracted to bring both Turnberry courses back after much of the Arran nine’s acreage was used as a Royal Air Force training facility during both World Wars — while breaking new ground in perfectly wrought ways. It’s as aesthetically moving as links golf gets and, while perhaps not as internally dramatic as Trump’s other course near Aberdeen, far more memorable hole to hole.
The first big change comes right off the bat, on No. 1, which was lengthened 50 yards and offers a fully visible and wider landing area from the tee (Mackenzie & Ebert got rid of many blind drives and approaches, in fact). No. 4, the first of three outward nine par 3s and the start of eight straight holes that either skirt the seaside dune or the firth itself, boasts a green that’s slightly closer to the water. No. 5 is a reachable par 5 whose green was pushed further into a big dune, creating a fine amphitheater. No. 6 is a short- to mid-iron playing atop a dune angled in from a shoreline tee box. No. 7 slides inland for up to 575 fairly flat yards before rising to a green that affords a killer vista up the coast, and the classic holes to come. After a bit of a duneside breather at No. 8, the course reaches its full dramatic pitch. What was once its most famous par 4, the somewhat awkward but cliffhanging 9th, is now a par 3 of 187 yards from the white members’ tees, most of them over rocks and frothing surf, with little margin for error between the cliff and the front of the green.
Make sure to take a slight detour down a wide path to check out the world’s most scenic and expensive halfway house. There’s a full menu and indoor seating, but if it’s a nice, sunny day like this one, you can take your burger or sandwich out on the terrace and gather yourself before the inward nine … and if you have north of three grand to spend on one night’s accommodations, you can rent the two-bedroom lighthouse suite. Put it on your gold-plated bucket list. Before heading to the 10th tee, give the historical plaque near the lighthouse’s entrance a read, and check out the ruins of Bruce’s Castle, which dates to 1271.
Now the 10th is a much better hole, a stunning par 5 demanding the same back-tee drive across a sliver of surf, with a second shot that must either fly or skirt a huge, rambling cross bunker about 50 yards short of the clifftop green. No. 11 is the final seaside hole and perhaps the prettiest par 3 of the bunch, its green now hugging the precipice with an uninterrupted view up the craggy Ayrsire coast. While the remainder of the Ailsa moves inland, similar vistas are never far away. Climb the hill to the right of the green at No. 12, where its namesake monument stands in tribute to the 60 pilots who lost their lives during wartime maneuvers on the Turnberry air strip, for a great photo op. The new green at No. 16, canted against a low dune beyond a tricky burn, affords a different kind of view — of the huge hotel hovering over it all and awaiting your post-round return. But don’t rush the final stretch, and when you come to the tees on what is now a dead-straight par 4 — it used to be a sharp dogleg-left — take a moment to recall the dusty drama of 1977, and Watson’s near-miss 32 years later. Then make your best, measured swing and see if you can clear the fairway bunkers, leaving a simple shot to one of the flattest greens on the course. I didn’t reach the bunkers with one of my best drives; in fact I barely cleared them with my second shot, a snuff-top that ended up in the wispy grass to the left of the fairway, which led to my fourth double of the day against a handful of pars and a slew of bogeys for a wobbly 89. Good thing I’m dwelling on the delicious views and overall majesty of the place, rather than the score. What a way to wrap up my first visit to Scotland.
Epilogue: But it wasn’t exactly a wrap. We still had a few more precious hours on the island before flying home, starting with a 90-minute drive to Edinburgh and an overnight at The Glasshouse, one of that beautiful city’s most interesting hotels, with an expansive rooftop event area and suites named after some of Scotland’s most famous courses, some of which we played. We enjoyed a private farewell meal in The Observatory, joining friends from Connoisseurs Scotland and Little’s Transportation as a Scotch expert — a transplanted Israeli in full kiltage — described each of five flights from various distilling regions: Glenkinchie, Oban, Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie and Lagavulin, the latter a peaty beast from the isle of Islay. As we finished off the last dram, America regained the Ryder Cup for the first time in eight years.
I rose early for the long flight home the next day — Heathrow-Chicago-Reno for me, though a couple guys had direct flights to the states — and spent much of it reliving every shot, every sip, every bite, every gale, every squall, every blast of blessed sunshine, every smile from a fellow traveler, every thick brogue from the locals, every picture-book view from tee and green and hotel window. Scotland was now part of me, and I gladly leave a glowing coal of my golfer’s soul behind. As we all do.
Trump Turnberry: www.trumpturnberry.com
Connoisseurs Scotland: www.luxuryscotland.co.uk