0 George & Ailsa – A Match Made in Heaven

image002.jpgWe have all heard of George and Mildred, and George and the dragon but who on earth are George and Ailsa? Unlike the other two, George and Ailsa are still alive and happily married and about to cause a stir on the Ayrshire coast.

The Open Championship will return to the shores of The Firth of Clyde again in July 2009 to the much-changed Ailsa course at Turnberry. Unlike many of the links on the Open rota, which have hosted The Open on numerous occasions, this will only be the fourth time that these famous links have challenged the best in world golf. This will come as a surprise to many but it becomes a little more understandable when one reflects that its history is somewhat newer than many of its counterparts.

Golf was first played at Turnberry in the late 1800s and The Turnberry Golf Club was formed in 1906 but it was not a regular venue for Championship golf. The links were used as an RAF station during the Second World War and many of the runways, which crisscross the site, can still be seen. They continue to perform an important role in the delivery of The Open helping with car parking and aiding storage and the movement of heavy equipment around the site. For the last few years they have housed George Brown's special homemade cocktails for the grass, the primary ingredient being the seaweed from Turnberry beach!

Picture above - George Brown (Courses and Estates Manager) with Martin Lothian (Head Greenkeeper - Ailsa Course) and the famous Turnberry lighthouse

image003.jpg Picture right - The 10th hole with the lighthouse and Ailsa Craig in the distance

The golf architect Mackenzie Ross was brought in post war (1948) to upgrade the links and create a golf course of Championship standard. The land was ideal and the sea frontage spectacular. He made the most of it and the revamped layout was opened for play in 1952. The course was a great one from the outset and the fortunes of The Ailsa course and the hotel at Turnberry changed in the early 1970s when The R&A decided that Ailsa would host the 1977 Open. It was a decision that would resonate around the world.

There is little need to recount what happened on the burnt turf in July 1977 other than to say that in the opinion of most golfers and commentators it was the best Open Championship ever staged. The two best players duelled on a great stage in the best of weather and delivered entertainment and excitement beyond the imagination of everybody. Tom Watson triumphed and the Ailsa course at Turnberry was thrust onto the international golfing map. It has stayed there ever since and in more recent years has risen to No.1 in Golf World and Golf Monthly magazine rankings for golf courses in the UK and Ireland.

The success of 1977 led to The Open returning to the Ayrshire links in 1986. On this occasion the weather could not have been more different with wind and rain prominent as Greg Norman won his first Championship. George Brown had only six months to prepare the links for The Open following the untimely death of his predecessor Russell Brown in the lead up to the Championship. Despite this, the links triumphed again.

Nick Price's snaking putt across the 17th green remains the abiding memory of the 1994 Championship. His eagle denied Jesper Parnevik, and although he would go close again up the road at Royal Troon in 1997, Parnevik was destined never to win the Championship.

It is a long time since 1994 and many are asking where Turnberry has been? The hiatus has had more to do with off course matters, although the links will show a number of changes since The Open was last played. The 10th and 16th holes have been changed significantly, remodelled by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie and Ebert Architects. The 10th now plays from a new tee (George was responsible for first noting the site) overlooking the beach and demands a tee shot across the bay. There is a real risk and reward element to the shot with the golfer having a choice of taking a tight line between beach and bunker to a narrow strip of fairway, or playing conservatively to the right, avoiding further bunkers yet leaving a longer shot to the green. As always, the choice will depend on the weather and the wind direction but if nothing else, the new hole is more of a visual feast than its predecessor.

image005.jpgThe 16th hole has been lengthened and the fairway moved to the left to create a dogleg from a previously straight hole, add a more challenging angle to approach shots over the burn, and to create room to move the Championship tee for the par 5 17th further back. Each piece of fairway turf was laboriously stripped and re-laid in the winter of 2006/7 to create a surface for play the following spring. Much time and effort has gone into perfecting the surface, which should be comparable with other fairways by the time The Open is played.

Picture left Ailsa 16th. The new alignment of the fairway changes the angle of the second shot over the burn

Some 21 new bunkers have been added to ensure that the Ailsa of the 21st century tests the very best in the world. Most of these new bunkers are encountered off the tee rather than alongside the greens, putting a much greater premium on accurate driving. New Championship tees have been introduced at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes and these new tees stretch the links to approximately 7,200 yards.

George and his team have focused on improving links grass composition on fairways through aggressive overseeding and improving firmness and trueness through plentiful top dressing. The mowing patterns on some green complexes have been adjusted to accommodate extended run offs and work continues to perfect the quality of turf in these areas.

The greens are unique in that many of them are bowls which collect both balls and water. The 3rd, 4th, 9th, 11th, 14th, and 17th are the most prominent in this respect and George is ever vigilant about turf decline in such circumstances. Aeration packages and programmes have been varied and plentiful over the years to get the best from the greens and some progress has been made with bents and fescues, although heavy playing levels at Turnberry mean that annual meadow-grass will always have some role to play in the turf. Currently, inputs are focused on minimising this in line with best practice guidelines set out by the Golf Course Committee of The R&A. In the future Leisurecorp, the new Dubai based owners of Turnberry, are committed to delivering further improvements and ensuring that all the courses at Turnberry offer the very best of golfing experiences.

So, Ailsa is being made ready again, helped this time by new ownership and a seven-month rest. However one thing has not changed and that is the responsibility for delivering agronomic excellence the week of the Championship. George Brown has been in charge at Turnberry since 1985 and this will be his last Open before he retires.

It would be wrong to call George the greenkeeper - he is the greenkeeper, and a very good and experienced one at that, however he is Mr Turnberry, and it is difficult to imagine this great links with anyone else at the helm. He's looked after the grass, he's looked after the members, he's looked after golf's cogniscenti and he's looked after world leaders when they have come to play. He's beaten most of us with his clubs, and he's told others all about it in his own inimitable way; a way no other man can.

This is George's Open and no other custodian of any links the world over deserves a successful outcome more than George. It has been a real privilege to walk these fairways and talk turf and golf in his company and I will help him all I can to add the final chapter to one of the most interesting and successful careers in this industry. George and Ailsa has been a match made in heaven and here to one more hurrah for the golfing and greenkeeping raconteur extraordinaire!

For further information please visit www.stri.co.uk or contact:

Anne Wilson
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STRI
St Ives Estate
Bingley
BD16 1AU

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