Commentary

Weathering the storm at Turnberry

Originally Published: July 4, 2009
By Lewine Mair | Special to ESPN.com

Padraig Harrington is looking for the kind of wet and storm-lashed week at Turnberry that will rule half the competitors out of the equation. "When conditions are easy," he says, "everyone has a chance. It plays to my advantage when the wind starts to blow."

Rory McIlroy, who two years ago collected the silver medal as the low amateur at Carnoustie as Harrington won the Claret Jug, is not of like mind. Though he arrived on the professional scene having played much the same amateur schedule on which Harrington was reared more than a decade before, McIlroy wants a quiet-weather week.

[+] EnlargeAilsa Golf Course
Getty ImagesTurnberry will host its fourth British Open from July 16-19. The three previous majors held at the club on the west coast of Scotland were won by Nick Price in 1994, Greg Norman in 1986 and Tom Watson in 1977.

"I don't know whether I have my best chance of winning a major on a links because I have a high ball flight," McIlroy said in the wake of his top-10 finish at Bethpage. "Only if a links course is calm do I think I can do well. So hopefully Turnberry will be benign."

The long-term forecast suggests that the sky, for the most part, will be overcast, with a bit of wind and rain thrown in.

Yet both Harrington and McIlroy know that whatever the weather when they drive into the little village of Maidens at the start of the week, the one who thinks he has the conditions he wants will still need to keep his fingers crossed. As the Turnberry lighthouse keepers used to say, things can change at a moment's notice.

Conditions can scarcely have been worse than during the John Player Classic of 1973. On the second day, when the course was at the mercy of the equinoctial gales, five out of the seven marquees were torn asunder, with their ripped remains taking flight across the fairways.

Tony Jacklin, the former British Open and U.S. Open champion, handed in a 74, which he would describe as "the best round I've ever played." By way of getting across the near-impossible nature of the course, Jacklin related how, when it came to the par-5 17th, now 559 yards, he needed a driver, a 1-iron and two 3-irons just to reach the green.

It was Norman Mair, a former golf and rugby correspondent for The Scotsman, who did most to capture the mood of that dark day when he said, "One had a vision of the local church filled with villagers praying for those in peril on the tee."

Yet Cecil Leitch, one of the greatest U.K. woman golfers of all time, scoffed at the idea that the storms could be as bad as when she played in the final of the British Women's Championship at Turnberry in 1921. In her admittedly prejudiced eyes, the wind for the men had been a mere zephyr against the tempest she had had to confront.

"And in those days," she pointed out, "we didn't even have waterproofs."

In 1977, for the so-called "Duel in the Sun" involving Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, there was a storm of a different kind. It was the equivalent of a sand and dust storm as the crowd stampeded around these two greats over the finishing stretch.

At one stage, both Watson and Nicklaus asked whether the marshals could do more to keep the people farther back. Not only was the crowd as a whole too close for comfort, but the dust being kicking up was stopping them from getting a clear view of the various landmarks they were using to help them take aim.

Best Ball Challenge

When you suggest to Greg Norman that he got off relatively light when he won the Open at Turnberry in 1986, he looks at you incredulously before recalling his wind-tossed third round. Peter Bender, his caddie, apparently described moments when he was worrying less about where Norman's ball was headed than whether he himself was about to fly off, Mary Poppins-style, with Norman's umbrella. He reckoned that it was only the weight of the golf bag that was keeping him anchored to the ground.

When Nick Price won in 1994, the weather was what tourists would want for a holiday in those parts. True, there was the story of how Jesper Parnevik, who finished second, did not see the leaderboard at the 18th, but that had nothing to do with flying dust.

The fact was that the Swede chose not to look at the leaderboard and played the last hole under the impression that he simply had to make a birdie. He endeavored to attack the flag with his second, only for the ball to fall short. Not up in three, he closed with a bogey, thereby giving Price, playing behind him, the opportunity to play sensibly for the four he knew would bring victory.

There are plenty of seeming experts to argue that Turnberry is too easy a course for the Open rota. Certainly, it is not as tough as Carnoustie and Birkdale, where Harrington won the first two legs of what so many among the Irish hope will be a hat trick.

Which brings us back to the weather. If the week is fine, it is entirely possible that the course will play into the critics' hands by being no less inviting, in its own way, than the five-star hotel standing at the top of the hill.

If, on the other hand, the storms roll in, life on the links could be hell. Or heaven for Harrington.

Lewine Mair is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage and can be contacted at lewinemair@aol.com.

Lewine Mair | email

Special to ESPN.com
Lewine Mair is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.