From fairways to runways, there’s more to Turnberry than just hitting a little white ball

By Paul Newberry, AP
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

pamplingTURNBERRY, Scotland — Rod Pampling was in the middle of a practice round at the British Open. Still, he couldn’t pass up the chance to get in a little history lesson.

So, huffing and puffing, the Aussie scrambled up a steep mound alongside the 12th green, the one topped off by a solemn piece of granite.

Turnberry, you see, is more than just a golf course.

Much more.

From its solemn monument to those airmen who gave their lives here during both World Wars to the sea-hugging lighthouse that supposedly stands atop the ruins of a famous king’s castle, there are remnants all along this craggy piece of Scottish coastline that don’t have anything to do with birdies and bogeys.

“I’ve been looking for the airfield,” Paul Goydos said Monday, taking a break from his preparations. “I heard it’s out here somewhere.”

Indeed, the British government gutted these lush, green fairways during World War II, transforming the property into an airstrip used for training the daring pilots who helped save the country from a Nazi invasion. Some sections of the 18-inch-thick concrete runways still survive, including one spot being used this week as a car park (that’s what they call parking lots on this side of the Atlantic).

“There’s some great stuff out here,” Goydos said, looking around as he stood on the practice range.

By the time Thursday rolls around, these guys will be all business. Padraig Harrington is trying to become the first golfer in more than a half-century to claim the claret jug three years in a row, while Tiger Woods has his sights set on becoming a 15-time major champion with an added sense of urgency — after all, this is the first time since 2004 that he doesn’t have any of the four biggest prizes in his possession.

But on this day, with many of the golfers still straggling in, there was time to soak up a part of Turnberry that doesn’t have anything to do with hitting a little white ball.

“I played some golf,” said Pampling, summing up his practice round, “and I saw where Robert the Bruce is from.”

That would be Robert I, the ancient king of Scotland who led his country to its freedom from England after the execution of William Wallace, a battle that was recreated in the epic final scene to the Academy Award-winning movie “Braveheart.”

The remains of Robert the Bruce’s castle are allegedly beneath the famous lighthouse that now serves as Turnberry’s most enduring landmark, its image stamped on everything from hats to shirts to ball marks in the clubhouse pro shop. The ninth hole of the Ailsa Course, the one that will be used for the Open, is known as “Bruce’s Castle.”

Pampling got his history a little mixed up, believing the war monument actually had something to do with one of Scotland’s most famous sons.

“I thought Robert the Bruce was buried up there or something,” Pampling conceded. “I had to run up there to have a look.”

Instead, he found a stirring memorial and a spectacular view. The monument was first installed to honor those airmen — British, Australian and American — “who gave their lives to their country while serving in the school of aerial gunnery and fighting at Turnberry” during World War I.

“Their names liveth for evermore.”

Looking almost like an afterthought, another tragic line had to be added later: “Also those commemorated below who died in the 1939-45 war,” a line followed by more than 80 victims of history’s worst conflict, all of whom died while training at the links-turned-military base.

There are names from Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A wreath is held in place by a thin strand of wire.

“It’s an amazing spot out there,” Pampling said.

On a sunny day — and that’s how the weather broke around lunchtime — the hill provides the best spot to gaze on the Ailsa Craig, a massive island of rock in the Firth of Clyde that measures 2 miles around, rises 1,129 feet above the sea and is best known these days for its role in a decidedly different sport — curling.

“Someone was telling me that every curling stone in the world comes from that island,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “That’s got to be a myth.”

Not really. The isle’s unique granite is believed to provide the best material for carving out the stones used by the sweepers on ice. Since curling became a Winter Olympic sport in 1998, every stone got its start on the Ailsa Craig.

But this week is about golf — and the persnickety Scottish weather that is sure to have a huge impact. In an ominous preview, a day that started out sunny was suddenly interrupted by a driving rain late in the afternoon.

As Michael Corcoran noted in his book chronicling the famous 1977 duel between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, the caddies at Turnberry have a saying, “If you can see the Ailsa Craig, it’s going to rain. If you can see the Ailsa Craig, ’tis already raining.”

But it’s worth noting that this particular patch of shoreline was dubbed the “Sunshine Coast of Scotland” when a golf resort that is relatively new by Scottish standards was created at Turnberry around the dawn of the 20th century. And, of course, the momentous Watson-Nicklaus showdown is still remembered as the “Duel in the Sun,” also the name of Corcoran’s book.

In every respect, it seems, there are two sides to Turnberry. For all its outside-the-ropes history, it’s the newest of the courses in the British Open rotation, first joining in ‘77 — less than three decades after Mackenzie Ross put the place back together following World War II — and now preparing to host for only the fourth time.

For years, Turnberry was considered too remote to host an event such as the Open. Even now, there’s little here beyond two championship courses, the clubhouse, a luxury hotel and a few dozen cottages. Those seeking restaurants and pubs must drive elsewhere.

“You’re here to play golf,” Goydos said. “That’s it.”

Or catch up on the family tree. The PGA Tour media guide says Ogilvy is a distant relative of Robert the Bruce. But the Aussie said his own research found that his ancestors were merely close friends of the Scottish king.

“As best as I can tell, Robert the Bruce liked the Ogilvys,” Not-So-Sir Geoff said. “He gave the Ogilvys a huge chunk of land.”

Probably not a spot like this one, however.

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