It’s not every golf-minded Englishman who can wander into Scotland and make a name for himself as a keeper of the greens.
But that is what George Brown, who got his start at Prince’s Golf Club in Sandwich near his home in Deal, did in his 20 years at Turnberry. The announcement four years ago by the Royal & Ancient that the 2009 British Open would be staged on the resort’s Ailsa Course after a 15-year hiatus was like the singing of skylarks to Brown’s ears.
The 72-year-old Brown, who played to scratch for decades (his index is now 4.5), was the ideal custodian for the Ailsa, a course he loved and nurtured like no other. (He retired as Turnberry’s golf course and estate manager after the Open last summer).
A majestic links twice requisitioned as an airfield during two world wars, the Ailsa Course, described by Brown as a “premier test that humbles the giants or confirms their greatness,” was completely rebuilt by Scottish architect Mackenzie Ross in the late 1940s. (Sections of concrete runway can still be seen in the center of the course). The creation of a road bypass to mitigate traffic congestion was instrumental in returning the game’s oldest championship to Scotland’s grandest links.
Its credentials were never in doubt. According to Brown, “It’s not by chance or coincidence that the three players who won the Open here—Tom Watson (1977), Greg Norman (1986) and Nick Price (1994)—were all the top-ranked golfers in the world at the time.” (It would have been poetic justice had Watson won again last year on a links he made legendary during his long-ago “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus, but the golf gods decided otherwise).
Under Brown’s tutelage, the Ailsa Course, which tuned up for the return of the Open Championship by hosting the 2008 British Amateur, was tweaked to keep pace with modern technology. “The course only has 64 bunkers,” Brown says. “Compare that to other Open venues—most have nearly double that. On the other hand, we didn’t want millions of bunkers scattered all over the place.” Too many would be a blight on this epic links, its feature holes tracing the curve of the rockbound Ayrshire coast as they mount a shaggy dune ridge and climb past the 13th-century ruins of Robert the Bruce’s castle.
What makes the Ailsa great? “It’s a package, not one thing,” Brown relates. “For starters, the site is prime. It’s naturally undulating, with sandy hillocks and beautiful natural amphitheaters for a few of the greens. Second, you can you see the hotel from any hole on the course,” in this case a white-faced, red-roofed Edwardian landmark that commands a ridge high above the links. “Next, the rolling farmlands of Carrick backdrop the course. They’re lovely. From the 10th tee, you can see the island of Arran, the granite dome of Ailsa Craig, even the coast of Northern Ireland on a clear day. I used to be a shooting man, but now I admire the wildlife. Hare and deer are common. We have hundreds of species of birds. You’ll see porpoises and dolphins and the odd whale, too. Even if you’re not playing well, you can smell the wild roses and admire the native plants in the rough, which we did not cut.”
What made Brown an icon among his peers and a favorite among the pros was his expert knowledge of how the links should look and play. “It’s easier to work with Nature than against it,” he confides. “For example, if we were having a hot, dry summer, I liked to see a sheen of brown on the fairways. I liked to feel the firmness of the ground underfoot. If the weather permitted, I liked to see the greens fast and fiery. We only used the irrigation system to keep the grass alive and healthy, as opposed to lush and green. Lack of fertilizer is the key. Fescue grasses grow naturally here. It’s their nature to thrive in sandy soil. If you put a lot of fertilizer and water on the fairways, you lose those fine-bladed grasses.” Most courses, Brown believes, “are ruined by too much kindness.” A links is at its best, he says, when it’s “lean and mean.”
A staunch proponent of sustainable agriculture, Brown’s enlightened view of agronomy is every golfer’s gain. The resort, to its credit, carries on his maintenance legacy. Turnberry’s guests are privy to something no other resort in the world can offer: A British Open venue maintained to championship standards.
Located in Robert Burns country an hour’s drive south of Glasgow, Turnberry, opened in 1906, was the first purpose-built hotel/golf complex ever built. In addition to the Ailsa, there’s the Donald Steel-designed Kintyre Course debuted in 2001; and the Arran Course, a nine-hole, par-31 layout attached to the Colin Montgomerie Links Golf Academy.
Turnberry Resort’s dining room, its bay windows overlooking a stone terrace where a bagpiper skirls his notes at day’s end, serves superb Scottish/French cuisine. With a lingering sunset over the Firth of Clyde to admire and a glass of vintage port to accompany the Stilton cheese and homemade oatcakes served after dinner, there can be no finer window seat in all of golfdom.