The Open 2004

Man about Troon in his elements

Ground force: Course that can deliver dreams or damnation in the hands of a caring keeper

This morning, when the dawn broke across Troon Bay, there were more than just the oyster-catchers, curlews and eider ducks disturbing the peace. Alongside any early risers, Billy McLachlan, together with his 18-strong team, could be found tending the patchwork of greens, roughs and fairways of Royal Troon Golf Club with the meticulous attention of a proud seamstress.

During the prelude to the championship, and throughout the four days of the actual tournament, McLachlan has an existence not dissimilar to certain forms of wildlife. The head greenkeeper (or course manager, to give him his official title) tends to appear when the rest of us are sleeping, and disappear amid the hubbub of the daylight hours, when many thousand feet trample the paths, and players do their best to disturb the pristine condition of the Ayrshire course.

Midday yesterday, and McLachlan, I am advised, is taking a nap. It is a well-deserved break. He has been up since 3am, began work an hour later, and won't finish until 10.30 at night. Ken Arthur, head of Royal Troon's greens committee, who has overall responsibility for the course conditions, can vouch for that. He keeps the same hours. He can also confirm McLachlan's expertise: "Greenkeeping's a cross between a science and an art. Billy's been here 23 years and has got that balance."

The science comes into it where cutting is concerned. This is no work for a hover-mower. As Arthur explains: "At night, we look at all the weather forecasts, review the play, talk to the R & A about any difficulties there may have been regarding pin placements, and decide on what pace we want to get the greens to. That may mean adjusting the cutting height to try to maintain the standard. We were cutting at three-and-a-half millimetres in the practice rounds. We've lowered the blade by 0.3mm to 3.2mm. You're just knocking dust off the top, essentially. But it makes them faster than they would be for our members during the rest of the year."

He adds: "Billy and his team work through until play is about to start. They'll cut all the championship tees, cut all the greens twice, as well as all the fairways. In the evening, they'll patch up fairways and paths. In addition, the 93 bunkers, including 10 new ones introduced over the past couple of years, have to be overseen and raked by a team of 45."

It is a daunting logistical task. Aesthetic appearance is one thing; gaining the endorsement of the players is quite another, as the R & A would confirm. Just remember the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, which provoked so many complaints about the narrowness of the fairways and the condition of the rough.

Here, the participants' observations about the course have been as benign as the breeze on the opening day. As Arthur says: "There are things you could do to make a course quite quirky, but we want it to be fair: the fairways are generous, the rough is not particularly difficult, and the greens are of a pace which is not particularly fast by professional standards.

"Some may even say it's easy, but the unknown factor, of course, is the wind. It can be fierce, and then you have to strike the ball particularly well to get round. I would be very disappointed if people thought this course was set up in a way that people thought was unfair." Even the eighth, the par-three Postage Stamp, given its name by Willie Park Jnr in the early 20th century, can deliver unexpected riches just as it can be damnable, as Ernie Els discovered on the first day with his hole in one. "If you hit the green, there's a chance of a two," says Arthur. "If not, you'll be quite pleased to get away with a four."

It was Bobby Locke, the 1950 Open champion here, who thereafter would send a Christmas card to Troon, with the simple message: "Still the best greens in the world". They say it was no coincidence that Justin Leonard, the best putter at the time, won the last Open to be held here, in 1997.

Not that, over the years, the course has not been named as an accomplice to an indifferent round. McLachlan, who was also the course manager when Leonard won here, told me later: "You do your best. You do get players occasionally whingeing about the slope of the fairways, and you think to yourself, 'Well, you knew that before you hit it', or those who say that a green is too quick.

If it's justified, we will look at their complaints. But with a sport that covers so many acres, you will never, ever please everybody all of the time.

"Certain players, though, have shown their appreciation. Justin Leonard was brilliant when he won here. He spent a bit of time with us after lifting the Claret Jug. Darren Clarke was excellent, too, that year. I would like to see him do well, and, of course Colin Montgomerie. As you know, his dad was the secretary here, and I have always got on great with him."

McLachlan is no believer in lush greens, whatever the seductive appeal to television. In his view, it reduces the drama. A touch of brown makes rounds far more unpredictable.

The beauty of Troon is that it does not betray its origins. The links course began, in 1878, as rough pasture land, sand dunes and hillocks, broom whins, brambles, heather and considerable marshy ground (where the first and 18th fairways are now located). The years have transformed it, like a rich man's Ground Force programme, into the haven for golf that exists today. That is if you ignore the years of the First World War, during which part of the links area was used as a hand- grenade practice range.

As for McLachlan, he expects to witness today's denouement on the course he has prepared, his job complete. "With four children to look after, that won't be easy," he says. "Fortunately, my wife, Andrea, does a wonderful job."

When all the bar talk is about the quality of rounds, not the vagaries of the course, McLachlan can acknowledge that he has done so, too. He can sleep long again, and easily.

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