Steeply banked at 33 degrees, Turn 1 at Talladega has been a crash-filled, limb-shredding nightmare for NASCAR drivers since the track’s inception in 1969. Golf’s equivalent is Royal Troon’s 11th hole. The round-wrecking wipeouts have continued with a vengeance in 2016.
Just ask U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, who made the turn Saturday at five under for the tournament and still within shouting distance of the leaders. Then Troon’s 11th sledgehammered his ambitions to bits. Johnson tugged his tee shot—not by much, but by enough—and wound up holing out with a title-ending triple-bogey.
“Other than number 11, I played pretty well—and I even hit a good shot off the tee on 11,” Johnson said after the round. “It was just the wind in off the left. All of a sudden, it stopped. It went in the gorse and I ended up making seven. I don’t know why the wind didn’t take it more to the right, but it happens, I guess. “
Johnson was hardly the first major champion to be victimized by Troon’s nasty 11th hole. Arnold Palmer, who won the 1962 Open at Troon, called the 11th, “the most dangerous hole I’ve ever seen.” And that was in the days when the hole played as a par-five. During that same event, recent U.S. Open winner Jack Nicklaus collapsed to a 10 on this hole in the fourth round. As Sports Illustrated described it, “…Jack Nicklaus typified his futile week…after driving into the whin, completely missing the ball once, hitting a shot onto the railroad track and finally arriving on the green in eight.”
Ah, the railroad. The 482-yard, par-4 11th is called “The Railway,” thanks to the commuter line that hugs the right side of the hole from start to finish. Much of the misery at the 11th is tied to this unusual, frightening hazard, yet as DJ found out, the left side is almost as horrific. As NBC’s David Feherty described the perils of the tee shot on Saturday, “If you miss the railway on the right, it’s because you’ve hit it into the gorse on the left.”
The trouble begins with a blind shot from a small, elevated tee that calls for a 200-yard carry over a mound of gunch that includes heather, gorse and a variety of tall, forbidding fescues. Complicating matters is a landing area that is angled slightly, on a left-to-right diagonal and at most is 30 yards wide. On calm day, that’s a tall order. Troon, however, has wind, and oftentimes plenty of it.
The prevailing breeze is coming across and into the player, so even with a sturdy tee shot that finds the short grass, players are still left with daunting second shots from 200-plus yards. Sergio Garcia had 226 yards remaining for his second on Saturday, Phil Mickelson 218, and Henrik Stenson 201. A four-foot-high stone wall that edges the right side of the green is the most-feared obstacle on the approach, though left of the green are tangled grasses, a lone bunker and more prickly gorse bushes. In the first round, only 24.4 percent of the field found the green, even as 60.3 percent hit the fairway.
During Thursday’s first round, the winds were light, averaging 7 mph, but with the breezes mostly into the player’s face, the scoring average at the 11th approached record-high numbers for much of the day, nearly a stroke over par, before winding up at 4.70. The number was well above the overall four-round scoring average from 2004 of 4.41, when it played as Troon’s toughest hole, yet was far shy of the first round numbers from 1997, when it brutalized players with a 4.91 average.
In round 2, the wind increased to 14 mph on average, yet scores went down to a 4.45, because the wind was mostly with the player, and across. Late in round 3, the field was posting a 4.53 average, with the wind straight across from left to right.
What makes the 11th the terror it is, however, is the specter—and reality—of crooked numbers. In the first round, 13 players made triple bogey or worse, lowlighted by David Duval, Kristoffer Broberg and Steven Bowditch, who each posted quintuple-bogey 9s. Duval’s playing partners, Sandy Lyle and Scott Gregory, each made 7, giving the group a cumulative score of 23, 11-over-par. Through three rounds, 23 golfers had suffered through 7s or worse.
2015 Australian Open champ Matt Jones was one who sliced his drive onto the Glasgow Central-to-Ayr railway line and was fortunate to hold the damage to double-bogey. “It’s a very tough tee shot, because you see nothing but trouble.”
Leave it to Bubba Watson to sum up the feelings of the field. “Let’s be honest,” Bubba said. “That hole fits nobody’s eye.”