Frothy whitecaps formed on the nearby Firth of Clyde Monday as the usual prevailing winds whipped across the grounds of Royal Troon Golf Club, perhaps a portent of wild and weird things to come. In three days, most of the world's finest players will begin vying for the Auld Claret Jug in the 133rd British Open, when more of the same can be expected off the southwest Scottish coast.
Strange occurrences often have been a hallmark of the seven previous championships held at this all-male club, one of three such venues on the Open course rotation. In 1923, during a qualifying round for the first Troon Open, a chap who never really lived up to his surname -- one Audrey Boomer -- took a mighty swipe at a ball in a bunker, then watched in dismay as it flew straight up in the air and disappeared into one of his coat pockets.
That same year, Gene Sarazen, the dandy 21-year-old U.S. Open champion, was appropriately humbled by a gale-blown Troon round of 85 that included a nine on the second hole. Fifty years later, Sarazen returned to play the course again at age 71, and at least got some sweet satisfaction. On Troon's famous Postage Stamp No. 8, at 123 yards the shortest hole on any of the Open courses, he took only three swings in two rounds. Sarazen aced it the first day, then followed that with a birdie blast from a bunker into the cup on the second.
From an elevated tee, No. 8's minuscule green, surrounded by all manner of trouble, truly looks to be the size of a stamp, even to masters of the game often left trembling on the tee. Tiger Woods's 1997 Open hopes ended there with a triple bogey six out of the gorse.
The wind almost always is a factor on these Ayrshire links; why else would the official club history be entitled "The Breezy Links O' Troon"?
Players also know that it likely will be at their backs on the far easier front nine -- save for No. 8 -- until the turn home becomes a constant battle with gusts that make club selection a pure guessing game on a 7,175-yard course that plays to par 71.
Said 1989 Royal Troon Open champion Mark Calcavecchia: "If the wind is blowing pretty good, which I hope it does, I've got to believe the back nine will play, on stroke average, my guesstimate would be five shots harder" than the front.
The earth has also been known to shake on these grounds. During World War I, several holes were used by recruits to practice throwing hand grenades. Allied tank commanders trained around the nearby dunes during World War II, and occasionally even veered onto the course.
One day in the early 1940s, according to the club's written history, caddie master Bob Manson could barely believe his eyes "when a Mustang dropped out of the sky, skimmed over his head and made an emergency landing which ripped out the fourth green. The pilot stepped unharmed from the wreckage and, presumably with thoughts of a restorative whiskey in mind, asked calmly, 'Was that the Marine Hotel [just off the 18th hole] I just passed?' "
Troon was the site of then-32-year-old Arnold Palmer's second straight, and final, British Open victory in 1962, when he scorched the field with a then-record score of 276, winning by six over Australian Kel Nagle. Greg Norman also was sizzling at the start of his final round in 1989, opening with six straight birdies on the way to a 64 that got him into a four-hole playoff with countryman Wayne Grady and Calcavecchia.
But when Norman's tee shot at the 18th hole traveled 330 yards into what had previously been considered an unreachable fairway bunker, it was the beginning of the end for the star-crossed Aussie. His ball had lodged in the lip of the evil trap, and a second shot into a greenside bunker followed by a blast out of bounds sealed his demise. Still, Calcavecchia clearly earned the title on the final extra hole with a crackling 5-iron to the 18th green from 200 yards out. The shot left him with a six-foot putt that he knocked in for his second birdie at the hole that final day.
"That 5-iron will go down as my best ever shot," Calcavecchia said, "unless something else miraculous happens in the next six days."
Justin Leonard also has grand memories of Troon, particularly his final round of 65 in the '97 Open that allowed him to overcome a five-shot deficit to Jesper Parnevik after 54 holes to prevail by three.
Leonard celebrated his triumph that night with carry-out pizza and a few pints of lager consumed with a few friends in darkness near the 17th green, the same place where he had nailed a 30-foot putt for birdie on the 222-yard par 3 earlier that afternoon.
Leonard smiled Monday about his nocturnal adventure seven years ago, saying, "Yeah, I heard that rumor . . . about some pizza and a few pints." But a replica of the Claret Jug back home in Dallas is true, and all about Troon's storied history is, as well.