Royal Troon Golf Club has completed the most comprehensive preparations it has ever undertaken to ensure the Open Championship is played over firm and running links turf.
Considered one of the world's finest links courses, Royal Troon's unprecedented preparations for the 145th Open have been three years in the making.
Weather permitting, this year's Championship should have all the hallmarks of a classic links layout with firm surfaces providing ideal playing conditions for four exciting tournament days. These characteristics are intrinsic to the history and traditions of the game and, of course, The Open Championship.
"We want a traditional links feel," said Billy McLachlan, course manager at Royal Troon Golf Club. "Firm, fast and bouncy. That's what we're trying to target for at The Open, and at any time. We're doing everything we can to get a linksy feel and if the weather goes with us, we will hopefully achieve it."
The Ayrshire course has hosted The Open Championship eight times, with the last Royal Troon Open being decided in dramatic style by Todd Hamilton in a four-hole play-off in 2004. This year's tournament will be an even greater feast for links lovers thanks to the efforts made by McLachlan and his team of greenkeepers as well as the support of the Sport Turf Research Institute (STRI) and sand supplier Hugh King & Co.
This collective team, along with the club itself, embarked on a targeted project to deliver a firmer, more linksy feel following the staging of The Amateur Championship in 2012. Played in less than ideal conditions, the event highlighted the need to improve the firmness of the golf course in the run-up to The Open Championship.
"We held The Amateur in 2012 and it wasn't very nice weather. It was wet and the ground was a bit soft," McLachlan remembered. "There was a deliberate decision made then to be more 'linksy'. At that time, we were the softest of the Open Championship courses."
Until then the club had used a sand-soil mix. A judgement was made to retain the sand, but omit the soil. "In 2013 we went to using straight sand, which was Hugh King's Washed Dune sand. It is used by a lot of golf courses, so we were quite fortunate to have it just 10 miles up the road."
The club opted to topdress its greens, tees, fairways and surrounds with Hugh King's Washed Dune sand and, under the guidance of Richard Windows, the STRI's turfgrass agronomist, dilute organic matter and improve firmness. "This was initially done through hollow-coring and Graden sand injection scarification using Hugh King kiln-dried sand," explained Windows. "Thereafter, there was a process of solid-tining and routine sand top-dressing with the majority of sand being applied during the September to May period to minimise disruption to golf."
The ambitious three-year project was completed this winter and has delivered sensational results. "It has been incredibly successful," said Windows. "Organic matter has been reduced by an average of 58% on the greens and firmness has been improved by 25% and is now in the target range of The Open Championship. We tried to get the levels of firmness in target regardless of the weather conditions. The more sand you put on, the more chance you have of achieving that objective."
For the man closest to the project, the change has been most noticeable on the greens. "Before there was more organic material in the greens, so the turf held more moisture," McLachlan explained. "Hopefully we're heading down the right path. All the tests are giving us good results - organic matter down, firmness readings up. I can get more speed in the greens more easily and they don't hold the water as they did before - all this kind of stuff. We're on line to where we want to be which is harder, faster and firmer."
The ambitious project to firm up Royal Troon centred around taking organic matters out of the soil. To do this, the club needed sand. "It has been a privilege to work with Billy on this project and to see the huge strides made by he and his team," said Graeme King, managing director of the family run business Hugh King & Co. "Sand is a critical part of a golf course and we are extremely proud our sand is helping one of the finest links golf courses in the world deliver what should be a memorable Open Championship."
Hugh King & Co supplies sands to over 120 golf courses including all Open Championship venues in Scotland.