This is a slight exaggeration, but the reconstruction of all eighteen greens complexes on the West course (Burma Road to give it its nickname, for those who remember such days!) has caused much gossip, rumour and debate within our industry. So what is the truth, are the greens going to play better than in the recent past, is the design in keeping and of tournament quality, just what has been going on at Britain’s richest estate?
Firstly is it any of my business? No not at all, and it is none of yours, unless you are a shareholder, board member, member of staff (especially greenstaff) or paying member. But as you are reading this I bet you cannot help wondering what has been happening.
Maybe you have been to one of the many tournaments on the West course over the years, or have been lucky enough to play it. It might be that you are a greenkeeper, golf architect, club official or golfer who is just interested from afar. And why not, The Wentworth Club is one of the flagship clubs in British golf, is well known around the world and the West is the most televised golf course in Europe (over 60 televised events).
Well at during November I was fortunate enough to be given a complete guided tour of the course by Chris Kennedy, the Courses Manager and the man responsible for the delivery of the project. He is of course also responsible for ensuring the West in great tournament condition, for Paul Casey’s defence of the BMW PGA Championship in May 2010.
Should The Wentworth Club have dug up their greens at all?
Before I go into detail, I want to say that I went into this visit with an open mind on the project. I took the view that I was not going to be influenced in my final opinion of what I saw by Chris. Before I turned up I read just about everything I could find on this redevelopment work. I also spoke to a few ‘in the know’. I have to say most of the commentator’s opinions left me with negative feelings. Sectors of this industry never embrace change and many enjoy knocking the big names, especially if they are commercial in nature.
Okay so now I’ll declare my hand. In the late 80’s I was the Course Manager at The Wentworth Club, so you can see how I might be interested. Thus, it is impossible for me to discuss this topic without providing some agronomic back-story to greenkeeping at the Wentworth Club. It is a history that is closely linked to the changes and trends that have affected many of our older golf courses in the UK, so hopefully it will be of interest to all.
The finer bent/fescue turf was still present at Wentworth in the late sixties, and the course retained a great deal of its heathland nature. This despite the invasion of Scotts Pine and Silver Birch, and the fact that half its holes were surrounded by large, all be it well hidden, homes. Then in the early seventies an irrigation system was installed, manufactured fertilisers were more readily available and were more readily applied! The demand to play at the club grew along the interest in the game, compaction of the old local ‘pushed-up’ soil rootzone set in, and the downward spiral in conditioning started.
The Head greenkeeper during these ‘new technology’ times was not a ‘links’ man, he used to instruct his staff to cut with the boxes of in the spring when the Poa annua was in senescence, as “it is a free supply of seed”. So there was no way back from years of this sort of Poa propagation. The club briefly employed the renowned agronomist Jim Arthur to put things right. This did not last long as the PGA European Tour were using another consultant by the name of Martin Jones at a time, who had differing opinions to Jim. For those of you who knew Jim I don’t need to explain why this did not work!
When I joined the club they had just hired the STRI with Dr Peter Hayes, the then Director of the Institute, as their advisor. To be frank no advisor or the most skilled greenkeeper was ever going to convert those greens back to bent/fescue. With a televised tournament at the two worst ends of the tournament calendar coupled with the silt-based rootzone embracing Poa annua was the only option. As an indicator of the levels of golf we coped with in 1988 the West took 63,000 rounds and the East 45,000, someone since then has learnt the value of the supply/demand/cost triangle.
In 1987, for the first time in their lives, I put the Vertidrain through the greens this was after the October hurricane. I used 1” tines at full depth (14”) and the soil just smeared, there was no chance to ‘shatter and fracture’ to create some structure. This senario has been the case up until the World Match-Play moved to mainland Europe last year.
During my time at Wentworth I was in discussions with the then MD about digging up the greens on the West. These discussions were based on whether the greens had the ability to provide great putting surfaces in the future. Future income, tournament conditioning and real estate values were the drivers.
To make this happen I was pushing for a tournament to be moved on to the newly constructed Edinburgh course (originally the South course), so that we would have a chance to reconstruct the greens to USGA specification and seed them with Creeping Bent. A grass that I knew we could get into tournament condition within the limited timeframe. Of course this never materialised, and to his eternal credit, Chris Kennedy has been producing tournament standard surfaces on this inadequate material for the past twenty years. So to answer my own question at the top of this section, the answer is very much in the affirmative. It was about time someone took the bull by the horns and brought the greens into the new millennium.
That matador is one Richard Caring, the club current Chairman and owner of the club.
Wentworth’s history is going to have a second starting point
This was a very brave and historic decision by Mr Caring, taken after considered evaluation and planning by an assembled team of experts in the fields of golf course architecture, construction, agronomy and course management. Yes this decision is historic, remember the West Course was designed by Harry Colt and opened for play in 1927. It hosted the tenth Ryder Cup in 1953. The course has hosted the PGA championship since 1984 and the World Match-Play championship, which ended a forty-four year run on the West course last year, that’s a lot of golfing history.
There is no getting away from the fact that the course is now a different animal than it was last May, it is now an animal with teeth once more. The West did not earn the nickname of The Burma road without reason.
Apparently Richard Caring told one of Ernie Els’ design staff, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted more drama, well they certainly took his instruction on board. The design work to the greens is very good, half of them are very similar in shaping to the originals, however they provide enough change that the golfer will have to learn new ‘reads’ on them all. The greens with least changed surface contours are 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11,13, & 15. The others are all dramatically different, incorporating more movement and drama than the Colt greens (I leave the 3rd out of that statement as it was redesigned by John Jacobs in 1987). The 6th, 8th, 9th, 12th 14th 16th &17th are very exciting to look at and just made me want to take on the challenge of putting on them.
This leaves the 18th, and what a closing hole it has become. The West course now has a signature hole and this is it. I understand that the new sleeper faced steam that crosses the hole, and supports the raise green, is the brainchild of the owner. Well for what it is worth Mr Caring it gets my vote, it is just excellent and will become the most talked about hole on the course.
The best piece of design work for me is the way Ernie Els and his chief designer have dealt with the surrounds and approaches. They have created false fronts with big drop offs, swales that gather and take away the miss judged approach shot. Whatever you do don’t miss seventeen on the right, the green is a lot smaller and you cannot now run it in off the droughty bank on the left. The new deeper bunkering is far more penal on both the golfer and the greenkeeper, (lots of big sand faces to get washed out and steep faces that are only mowable with a hover) but not much phases the pro these days so they have to be tough.
Have The Wentworth Club owners committed a crime against golf’s architectural history?
This is a hot topic on the ‘design experts’ agenda, is the West course still a Colt or is it now an Els. Lets face it anyone who has an interest in the West course has had an option on Ernie Els’s minor design tweaks of the recent past, so this major design change to every hole is going to cause a lot of ‘expert’ opinion.
In my view, for what it is worth, it remains a brilliant Colt layout that fully utilises the given natural topography, now though with greens and bunkers that challenge the modern player in the way that Colt’s did in their day. It is a Colt design with an Els make over, which is not all silicone and botox, this could have been the case with some signature architects!
So what didn’t I like? Well I would have still gone with creeping bent grass greens and I would have like to have seen heather turf used on the bunker faces of the holes that can be still classed as heathland (5th to 15th). Other than that it is a great job and I for one can’t wait for the pros to play it in May, and see the new course record set.
The best of all, for those of us who care about the playing conditions of our courses, will be that Chris and his greenstaff will not have to deal with Poa annua for a while. They now have a predictable, manageable rootzone, supporting a grass that is far lees prone to stress and disease, that will produce consistently sound playing surfaces, reflecting the quality of the venue.