Every member of every golf club probably thinks they could be a decent golf course architect.
Here’s what you do. Sketch out a few holes on the back of an envelope. Make sure that the par 3s run in different directions. Design four par 3s, four par 5s and make the remainder par 4s. Try and bring the first nine holes back to the clubhouse and make sure the 18th hole is a stonker, finishing under the clubhouse window, perhaps with a do or die element to it.
Keep water to a minimum, likewise soil movement because that costs money, and don’t overdo the bunkering. And off you go. Bob’s your uncle. James Braid, not a man to linger unnecessarily, once caught a mid-morning train from London to King’s Lynn and was on the mid-afternoon train back having designed a nine-hole course – and having had lunch.
Well, actually, it’s not quite like that. Just ask European Golf Design, one of the largest golf such firms in Europe, nine of whose courses were used by the European Tour in 2009. To be more precise, ask Ross McMurray, 46, who has designed 25 courses in nine different countries yet will forever be remembered for one: the Twenty Ten at Celtic Manor, near Newport, Wales, venue of the 38th Ryder Cup.
Literature advertising the Twenty Ten contains the following lines: “This is the Twenty Ten. Tailor Made To Challenge The Best. This Is The First Course In History Built To Host The Ryder Cup.” In between those words came five more, set in much larger typeface, screaming their message: “This Is Where Dragons Play.” No pressure on McMurray then to make sure that his work lived up to those extravagant words.
Rare is the course that is the same when it opens as it was when it was first conceived on the architect’s drawing board. Much more common are the courses that undergo changes, followed by modifications, followed by alterations, followed by tweaks. In this regard, the Twenty Ten is no different. Since he first started work at Celtic Manor ten years ago McMurray, a lead designer with European Golf Design, made nearly 200 site visits and worked on 20 significant design changes.
Parts of the course that will be the venue for the biennial match between Europe and the US were once part of a course known as Wentwood Hills, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr. It quickly became obvious that the Wentwood Hills course as it then was had too much slope on it for it to be considered for a Ryder Cup. That was the start of the modifications that would end up with the course that now sprawls mostly across the bottom of a valley.
In broad terms, McMurray has added another nine holes, a few at the start of the course and a few at the finish, and the course has been renamed The Twenty Ten. It looked benevolent as it simmered beneath the sun at the Celtic Manor Wales Open last June but at nearly 7,400 yards it was a monster. It has one hole that measures 610 yards and three others that are each more than 560 yards.
“It has been a pleasure and a privilege working on it. There is no doubt of that”, McMurray said. “But it is easily the most difficult project I have ever worked on. There were very unusual ecological, archaeological and engineering issues that had to be considered.
“As far as the ecology is concerned we had to limit the course’s impact on otters, dormice, badgers and bats which were all present on the site. New archaeological challenges kept being thrown up because there were archaeologists working alongside us on the site and they kept on making new discoveries. Roman times Caerleon was a very important pottery site and there are kiln workings we had to respect, for example. And it was for archaeological reasons that we completely redesigned the last three holes at the 11th hour.”
As if that wasn’t enough, there were drainage issues that had to be resolved, too. That is no surprise. The course covers several hundred acres in a valley and the river Usk runs nearby. “We had to resolve issues concerning storm drains, high water tables and even the fact that at high tide the nearby river Usk was liable to flood.”
McMurray pointed out that for European Golf Design and for himself, a project such as this was worth any number of difficulties. How many designers can say, hand on heart, they have designed a course for a Ryder Cup?
“Every project has its problems” McMurray said philosophically. “You have to take a deep breath, step back and start again while muttering to yourself here we go again. Actually, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for the production guys. They think they’ve finished and you have to go to them and say “sorry guys. We have got to go again”.
No-one doubts ‘though’ that all the work, the designs, the redesigns, the tweaking and changing have been worth it. There are a number of risk and reward holes, which are the very bones of a matchplay competition. And the spectator facilities, particularly those along the last few holes, should create a memorable atmosphere. The 38th Ryder Cup will be staged on a course worthy of the men who will challenge it.
By John Hopkins.
Ross McMurray – It has been a pleasure and a privilege working on the Twenty Ten Course