Turnberry: For one glorious day, I got to be the ‘Boss’—just like Donald Trump
As previously noted, I made my first trip to Scotland in 1997 and have crossed the pond more than a dozen times since. Yet, with the exception of one jet-lagged round at Western Gailes, I’d never played golf in the country’s famed Ayrshire region. Until now, that is, when I proved that good things really do come to those who wait.
Actually, great things!
First, a bit of context: My wife’s company—purveyor of specialized hotel software—signed on with the Turnberry resort about two years ago when it was under the auspices of the Starwood Luxury Collection. For various reasons though, this site of four Open championships (1977, 1986, 1994 and 2009) didn’t move forward with the adoption of her employer’s services until now, just six months after Donald Trump assumed ownership of the resort’s turn of the 20th century hotel and its 45 holes of links golf. As such, she was able to schedule their start-up to coincide with our two-month stay in Scotland. Which meant, in turn, that I could tag along.
After a weekend in Ayr with stops at the recently-revived Dumfries House (thanks to the timely intervention of Prince Charles) and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (Scotland’s beloved poet was quite the womanizer!), we turned off the A719 and coaxed our rental wheels up the hill to Turnberry’s stately white edifice, circa 1903. About 30 minutes later, we had fully decamped at Nairn, one of the property’s self-catering cottages named after famous Scottish links courses.
Clear skies and a setting sun, though, soon lured us out of those cozy confines and onto the links with camera (not clubs) in hand. The shot at the top of this post captures just one moment in time from that stunning evening, capped off with the haunting sounds of a lone bagpiper who routinely serenades the hotel’s guests at sunset.
Opening Salvo on the Kintyre
The next morning, my wife donned a business suit and headed back up the hill to work at the big house. I loaded up on multiple layers of clothing to insulate myself against the chill, then found my way to the first tee of the Kintyre course, the less famous of Turnberry’s two 18-hole tracks. That’s where I met up with Travis, a locker room vendor from Texas who’d flown into Glasgow the day before and was intent on squeezing in some golf before meeting up with Trump’s entourage to discuss the new ownership’s ambitious plans for the property. Travis hired a caddie so the three of us made our way around the relaxed layout, which measures 6,194 yards from the yellow tees.
My memories of that round are favorable but fuzzy. Most of the holes are quite solid and a few, most notably the 8th—a drivable downhill par 4 that delivers views of the Isle of Arran, the Mull of Kintyre (thus the course’s name) and on a really clear day Northern Ireland—stood out.
But I must admit I had my sights set on the Ailsa course, where, in 2009, Tom Watson—one of my golfing heroes (this year’s Ryder Cup outcome notwithstanding)—came within a whisker of claiming his sixth Open crown on the eve of his 60th birthday. As such, I probably didn’t give the Kintyre its full due.
First Man Out on the Ailsa
That opening salvo, however, did lead me to make what turned out to be a crucial tactical maneuver. My original booking for the Ailsa had me joining up with three visitors (aka Americans) at 9:40 a.m. Travis’ interaction with his caddie, however, got me thinking: What if I was the first person on the course, went out as a single and secured a caddie to show me around? I’d have the place to myself. And I’d have the guidance and companionship of a local vs. the slower pace of a four ball with playing partners who, in all likelihood, were just as clueless as me. So I claimed the 8:20 a.m. tee time as my own and the club arranged for Lee, their most experienced looper, to serve as my host.
Trust me: This was a radical move on my part. I almost never take a caddie. But a little voice in my head told me to, “Go for it!” And boy howdy, am I glad I did.
My second full day at Turnberry dawned crisp but also clear, with nary a cloud in sight. All signs pointed to brilliant playing conditions, especially once the sun rose above the roofline of the iconic hotel atop the hill and warmed the golfers on the links below.
Lee met me on the practice green, shook my hand and shouldered my golf bag—all seemingly in one motion. Then he asked a few questions to size up my game, such as my handicap and the distances I hit several key clubs. Initially, I was a wee bit hesitant to divulge such personal information to a complete stranger. But his self-assured yet low-key manner quickly put me at ease. By the time he handed me my 3-wood for the opening shot of the day, I had placed myself totally in his care.
I parred the first hole. Then I parred the second. And the third. This guy is a freaking miracle worker! I just missed my par putt on the 4th hole, a par 3. So that’s 4-4-4-4 for those of you scoring at home. Then I knocked my second shot into a greenside bunker on the 5th hole and the bubble burst, spectacularly. I needed three flails in the sand to get the ball out and onto the green. Even a top-drawer caddie can do only so much.
And Lee is most definitely that. He first tried his hand at his humble trade when he was just 14, earning £2.50, plus a 50 pence tip. “I thought I was rich,” Lee told me. Hooked on the money and the game, he basically traded school for golf. Twenty-five years later, he’s still at, a faithful servant to the rich and famous (including Donald his ownself) as well as interlopers like me.
“Good shot, Boss,” he’d say to me. Or, “Keep it to the left of that bunker, max, Boss.” It was a little unnerving, until I realized that Lee calls everyone he works with, “Boss.”
That includes his ultimate boss, Donald Trump. It’s clear from everyone I talked to that the man has big plans for this place, including some reworking of the golf course. I just pray he gets it right and doesn’t, in effect, put a moustache on the Mona Lisa. I’ve had the good fortune to play a lot of links courses in my life. The Ailsa, pure and simple, is one of the best—as is.
Lee’s War Stories
Lee and I conversed as we continued, setting our own pace with no one in front of us or, for that matter, within view behind. He had the opportunity to caddie for Colin Montgomerie several times when, arguably, Scotland’s best player paid Turnberry a visit from his home course of Troon, just up the coast. He carried Davis Love III’s bag in a group that included Brad Faxon when they were tuning up for an Open at Troon.
Most recently, and as it turned out most unfortunately, Lee was hired by Ryu Ishikawa for the 2009 Open. The Japanese sensation’s playing partners in the first two rounds of that championship were Lee Westwood, still searching for his first major title, and Tiger Woods, just back from surgery after winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines essentially on one leg. Lee shared two stories about those heady days.
The first was an object lesson in the unique caddie-player relationship. Going into the competition, Lee negotiated the following deal with Ishikawa’s manager: If his man missed the cut, Lee would take a £400 reduction in his pay; but if Ishikawa made the cut, Lee would receive 10 percent of his earnings. All was well through 27 holes. But on the 10th, a brute of a par 4 that often plays dead into the wind, Ishikawa’s tee shot found the right rough. So Lee handed him a pitching wedge and instructed him to knock it back on the short stuff. Take your medicine and move on. But the player balked, insisting he could get to the green with a 3-iron.
“It was the first time he questioned my advice,” said Lee. “I tried to talk him out of it. But he was dead set on the 3-iron. I knew it was a mistake. But I’m just the caddie. What can you do?”
The result? Ishikawa had his way, but his ball did not. It dove into an island of deep grass surrounded by a moat of sand some 40 yards short of the green. Westwood managed to find it. But Ishikawa needed four more shots from there to finish the hole. Then he proceeded to bogey the next three holes. In the end, Ishikawa missed the cut by two shots. Lee’s cut in pay? Considerably deeper.
The second story involved Tiger Woods, who also missed the cut. After it was all said and done, Lee approached the winner of 14 major championships and asked if he’d be willing to autograph a hat for his son, who worshipped the ground Tiger walked on. In fact, out of deference to his hero, Lee said his boy refused to use anything but Nike golf products—and he used them quite well, to hear Lee tell it. But the father’s plea fell on deaf ears. Tiger refused to sign.
“My son was devastated,” said Lee. “He felt bad that I’d spent all that money buying Nike clubs. Now, he won’t touch the stuff.”
My time on Ailsa with Lee? Pure golfing joy. I dispensed with keeping score and focused instead on his instruction, learning a thing or two about course management. And I marveled at his uncanny ability to read Turnberry’s greens, berating myself when I failed to take advantage. Sadly, it was all over in less than three hours, still well shy of noon.
Last Man Out on the Ailsa
That’s when that little voice in my head piped up again. “Play 36. When will you ever get this chance on this course in this weather again?”
Good point, I thought. So Lee and I took a look at the caddie master’s tee sheet: Last scheduled game out was at 1 p.m. If we simply waited until 2:30, we’d have clear sailing ahead of us once again. My wife had to work until 5 and had booked a massage at 6.
So, heck yeah!
I’d love to report that, with Lee’s help, I got into the flow and posted a career score the second time around. But bogies on the first three holes (vs. the morning’s string of pars) squelched that. On the flip side, though, I managed to tame several of the holes that had jumped up and bit me in the morning—including birdies on the 6th, 16th and 17th. The latter two came after Lee noticed that, when putting, I tended to line up the ball slightly toward the toe of the blade, causing the head to shimmy at impact.
“You know, you could have mentioned this earlier!” I mocked Lee in jest.
“I hesitate to make suggestions, Boss, until I’m asked,” said Lee, always the gentleman.
When my personal golf fest had come to a close, my only complaint was that I’d made it around with just one ball until I blocked my tee shot into the gorse on the final hole. Ugh!
But that small disappointment was overwhelmingly offset by 36 holes of unimpeded golf on a pure links golf course with a gifted and gracious guide. Like Louis Armstrong, I walked off the 18th green thinking to myself, “What a wonderful world!”
“Thank you, Lee,” I said, after the caddie master snapped our picture with the hotel as a backdrop. “I hope to see you again.”
“I’m sure you will, Boss,” he said.
Amen to that, brother.