Is Royal Troon the Weakest of the Open Rota Courses?

Let’s make one thing clear from the start: the Old Course at Royal Troon Golf Club is one of western Scotland’s premier links. It wasn’t chosen to host the Open Championship 10 times for nothing. Its seaside location in Ayrshire, its long and proud history, the warmth of the club’s welcome, and the number of deceptively challenging holes you’ll do battle with there have made it a bucket list course for over a century.

But how does it stack up against its Open Rota competitors, especially now that Royal Portrush has been added to the mix? You’ll get a variety of answers to that question. Here’s mine…

The Open has been contested at 14 different courses during its history, beginning at Prestwick Golf Club just down the railway track from Troon and including several others the championship has outgrown: Musselburgh, Prince’s, and Royal Cinque Ports. Turnberry, a four-time Open host which hasn’t hosted since 2009, would be one of the best venues for the Open if the R&A decided to stage it there again, especially with all the changes that Martin Ebert has made to the course over the past 4-5 years. Of the nine courses that remain—four in Scotland, four in England, and one in Northern Ireland—it’s fair to say that even at 146 years old, Royal Troon isn’t the most historic. That honor must go to the Old Course in St. Andrews. Nor could one grant it the title of most scenic or dramatic. Others, including Royal Portrush, would pip Royal Troon in those categories.

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Royal Troon (photo by Kevin Murray)

But there’s drama and then there’s drama, and when you’re faced with a wedge shot to the green of a short par three where there’s absolutely no bailout—or trying to thread a tee shot between a forest of gorse and a railway line in a three-club wind—your chief concern isn’t with how engrossing the journey that led you there may have been. It’s more about the nature of the challenges offered.

On that score, the out-and-back layout at Royal Troon more than holds its own —but sporadically. When the wind is up, as it often is at Troon, those challenges multiply, and therein lies the first thing to understand when evaluating Troon or indeed any links golf course: Wind is everything. Without it, the course’s teeth are just nubs. But let it blow, and they suddenly bare themselves on just about every shot—even including putts.

Here’s a quick review of the Old links at Royal Troon, followed by an overall assessment. Note: all yardages mentioned are taken from the official card for the course for the 2024 Open Championship.

Holes 1–6

Royal Troon opens with three straight short par fours, and by straight, I mean straight. Each has fairway bunkers, greenside bunkers, and slightly elevated greens with just enough movement to them. There’s little that’s distinctive about any of them, but they get you started. The 4th hole is a par five that bends a bit to the right, but once bent, it’s another straight-ahead march between more bunkers to the green. Troon begins to show its mettle at the 220-yard par-three 5th, where the prevailing wind off the water threatens to send every tee shot into the trio of bunkers left of the green. The 6th hole is your second par five—a 623-yard bruiser that threads its way along a stretch of shoreline where the oceanfront dunes now grow a bit taller. Its green has two distinct sectors divided by a shallow swale, with a drop-off to the left and a rough-covered dune to the right. It, too, is a formidable hole, if another dead-straight one.

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Royal Troon 7th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Holes 7–10

These middle holes at Troon are where its true majesty lies, beginning at the downhill-then-uphill par-four 7th. From the elevated tee, you play down to a fairway flanked by bunkers—two on the right and four more marching up the left. From the landing area, the fairway jogs right and you play your second shot uphill to a narrow but deep green wedged between two tall dunes, with one bunker short-right and another ready to swallow up any approach shots that stray left of the putting surface. It’s a hole with more visual interest than the first six combined, and the elevation changes force you to think in ways that the course hasn’t demanded of you before.

Next comes “Postage Stamp,” Royal Troon’s most famous hole—and indeed one of the most famous holes in the world. It’s a do-or-die one-shotter on which most players will typically take far more than one shot (though Gene Sarazen did famously ace it at age 73 in the 1973 Open). It’s the shortest hole on the Open Rota, made even shorter because it plays downhill, but one with absolutely no bail-out. Short-right is one pit of despair. Short-left is another. Left of the green awaits a narrow coffin bunker that’s buried many a player’s hopes, modified for the 2024 Open. And to the right of the putting surface, where the land drops off precipitously, you’ll find two more pits waiting to swallow up errant shots. You either choose the right club and hit it squarely here or you’ll be looking at bogey—or worse.

The front nine’s closing hole is a bit out of character—but in a good way. It’s a dogleg-right with just two bunkers, but it doesn’t need more to present a heady challenge. Both bunkers guard the left side of the fairway like blinking beacons warning you to keep your tee shot to the right. At that point, the hole turns right and ambles uphill to a large (by Troon standards) two-tiered green that’s protected by rough-choked hollows on both the left and right. Again here, the way the hole bends and the elevation change add visual interest and bring more strategy into play than on many of the course’s earlier and later holes.

After three strong holes to close out the front nine, Royal Troon serves up another gem at its 10th, where the course does a 180 and turns back toward the clubhouse—and into the prevailing wind. Your tee shot is semi-blind over a gap between two rough- and gorse-adorned sandhills to a fairway that then angles left. Choosing the correct line off the tee, especially when the wind is quartering from your left, is no easy feat. And even when you find the fairway, you’ve got a long, uphill second shot to a tabletop green that needs no additional protection in the form of bunkers. Any shot not hit the right distance and direction will roll off the green and leave you with a delicate uphill chip or pitch. It’s a marvelous hole from start to finish.

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Royal Troon 11th hole (photo by Kevin Murray)

Holes 11–16

The 11th at Royal Troon is aptly named “The Railway.” A long, narrow slog whose chief point of interest is its proximity to railway tracks, it calls for two straight shots but little imagination. Hole 12 is a gentle, dogleg-left par four with a two-tiered green that can cause trouble, but if you’ve played much links golf, it’s a standard hole you’ve seen a hundred times before. At the par-four 13th, we return to straight-ahead golf, though the fairway is undulating, and the tilted green has a false front to contend with. At the 200-yard par-three 14th, you’ll find two bunkers short-right of the muffin-shaped green; one bunker short-left of it; and a drop-off behind. You can only hope that there’s a strong side wind to make it more interesting. The long par-four 15th is another airport-runway-straight affair with bunkers and length but not much else. If you want to find drama here, you’ll need to bring your own, possibly by making a bad shot or two. At the par-five 16th, behold!—there’s a burn running across the fairway! It’s the sole thing that gives the hole any character.

Hole 17

Though Royal Troon’s penultimate hole, a 242-yard par three, isn’t going to win any beauty contests, it’s a strong hole nonetheless—in part for its length (made even longer when playing into the prevailing wind), and in part for the nature of its target. The green sits alone on its own rounded plateau. Anything short, right, left, or long will leave a testing uphill recovery shot. It’s an Open-worthy hole.

Hole 18

Fittingly, the fairway of the home hole is railway-straight, with naught but bunkers to get in the way of a closing par (or birdie). Those bunkers get their fair share of visitors, though. Just ask Greg Norman, who hit his tee shot a tad too well there and found what he thought was an “unreachable” bunker that caused him to lose the 1989 Open to Mark Calcavecchia. It just goes to show that what may look like a banal, straightforward hole from the tee can turn into something menacing very quickly—and that’s the story throughout the course at Royal Troon. It may not look dramatic, but you can make your own drama with every swipe.

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Carnoustie (photo by Kevin Murray)

So How Does Royal Troon Stack Up Overall?

I place Royal Troon at seventh in my ranking of Open Rota courses, which looks like this:

  1. St. Andrews (Old)
  2. Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
  3. Royal Birkdale
  4. Muirfield
  5. Royal St. George’s
  6. Carnoustie
  7. Royal Troon
  8. Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s
  9. Royal Liverpool

Why seventh? Despite the strong stretch of world-class holes that Royal Troon serves up between holes 7 and 10, there’s just not enough variety. Too many of its holes are generally flat and straight—and too many look and play alike. Overall, it lacks the drama of Royal Portrush, lacks the guile of Muirfield, and lacks the quirk and subtleties you’ll find all over the Old Course and to a lesser extent at Royal Birkdale. And unlike Carnoustie, its closing holes are typically anticlimactic. Royal Troon’s defenses rely too heavily on its less-than-imaginative bunkering and its length—and especially its back-nine length.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a championship-caliber course. It’s one of the best links courses in Scotland, without doubt. And here is a good place to remark on the intelligence that went into the strategic placement of so many of Royal Troon’s bunkers, which represent its chief challenges. When the wind is up, avoiding the course’s card-wrecking sand pits requires not just skill but a good measure of luck. At the long 17th, for example, when it’s playing into the prevailing wind, many amateurs’ shots will be approaching the green on the ground. So the steep-walled bunker short-left is ideally placed to catch anything that’s even slightly pulled, while its three brethren that fan out to the right of the green are guaranteed to ruin any slicer’s day. Of course the opposite is also true: take away the wind, and Royal Troon can easily be had. The average winning score in the last four Opens there has been 13.75-under par, with Henrik Stenson finishing at 20-under in Troon’s last Open in 2016.

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Royal Liverpool (photo by Kevin Murray)

The course for the 2024 Open will play 195 yards longer than in 2016, thanks to some new back tee placements added by course architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert. And three new bunkers have been introduced, as well. Will we see another 20-under performance from someone? That will largely depend on the weather. But we’ll undoubtedly see a lot of birdies—and a lot of sand shots, too, as Royal Troon’s battalion of bunkers look to protect the course’s standing on the Open Championship rota.

Where does Royal Troon rank on your own list of the Open Rota courses?