How to design a golf course for the Ryder Cup
European Golf Design, the golf course design company of the European Tour and IMG, has created some of the most successful professional tournament courses in Europe, including the Twenty Ten Course at the Celtic Manor Resort, venue of the 2010 Ryder Cup. In this feature interview, Jeremy Slessor, Managing Director of EGD, and designer Ross McMurray discuss the factors owners, investors and developers must consider in making their tournament course a success with the public as well as the professionals, and reveal the extraordinary challenges of a designing a golf course for one of the world’s biggest sporting events, the Ryder Cup.
How did you become involved with the design of the golf course for the 2010 Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor Resort?
Ross: “We were approached by the owner, Sir Terry Matthews, whose vision it was to bring the Ryder Cup bid to Wales. Having just opened a third course at Celtic Manor, the original intention was to design a fourth course, specifically for the event. However, the Usk Valley is a challenging landscape with steep slopes, and it would have been impossible to create a new course there that could have been walked twice in a day, which is required in the Ryder Cup.”
So, what was the solution?
Ross: “We began looking at sites close to the venue, but kept hitting the same hurdles.
We persevered, looking at various concepts, before agreeing a scheme to build nine new holes and add them to nine on what was then the Wentwood Hills Course. It took ten years of diligent design and construction, but ultimately it was this concept which came to pass at the 2010 Ryder Cup.”
Besides the golf course itself, what factors must be considered when designing a Ryder Cup venue?
Jeremy: “The infrastructure required is phenomenal. It’s much more than we deal with when masterplanning courses for European Tour events. The primary concern is the volume of spectators. There can be upwards of 40-45,000 people who, because of the nature of the Ryder Cup, want to see the start and stay to the end of play. So you have to consider this and how you get them onto and off the site, so transportation is fundamental.”
What else do you have to take into account?
Jeremy: “The media must be looked after, as they take the Ryder Cup to the world and so the media centre is a small community in its own right. A significant amount of space is required for a tented village, which is occupied by sponsors and retailers. Then there’s catering to consider – it must be possible to deliver food to the site, cook it and then clean up afterwards. So the whole event is a significant logistical challenge and the golf course design has to fit into the overall masterplan for the site.”
Does this actually impact on the course design?
Ross: “Definitely. In fact, the first tee on the Twenty Ten Course had originally been designed close to the clubhouse, but was moved more than 200 metres in order to facilitate the tented village and the media centre. I was actually able to come up with a potential design for the new nine-holes relatively quickly. However, there were so many considerations that impacted on the course layout, it ultimately took nearly six years to finalise the routing.”
Forever remembered as the wettest Ryder Cup ever, had you factored in the weather to your plans?
Ross: “It had been a point of discussion from the outset. Any outdoor event in Wales at the end of September has to expect some rain. Having three courses already, the resort had an understanding for what was needed to improve the drainage, but we had more to consider than just rainwater. In the event of heavy rain, the course was also threatened by rising floodwater from the River Usk and the local high-ground water tables.”
So what did you do?
Ross: “We raised the ground level around the river with a bund to prevent flooding and put perforated drainpipes through every fairway using a combination of drains and catch basins to capture surface water. We worked closely with the project engineers and the contractors to develop an overall drainage scheme which we felt would handle any eventuality. We wanted to ensure we’d done everything we could in order to protect the course from wet conditions. And thank goodness we did, as it was only because of those precautions that the Ryder Cup was completed.”
What was Sir Terry Matthews like to work with?
Jeremy: “He is very driven and demanding, but he’s very reasonable, too. He drove the project from beginning to end with the single goal of putting on the most successful Ryder Cup of all time and he would not take ‘no’ for an answer. The word just isn’t in his vocabulary. “On a number of occasions we were faced with a situation where all options seemed exhausted, but he couldn’t accept that. Invariably, we found a solution and learned a valuable lesson from that – if you look hard enough, you almost always find a solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.”
Ross: “What I found admirable, was how he had put a great management team together who worked exceptionally with all the consultants involved in the process. It was a fantastic team to work for and over the years on the project, we got to know each other very well, learning how each other worked – it definitely made a positive impact on the overall result because we all pulled together, cohesively to ensure the Ryder Cup would be as good as it could be.”
You mention that Sir Terry wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but are there occasions when a developer must listen to his team and moderate their hopes?
Ross: “Yes, absolutely. There are times when you must stand up and be counted, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. It is important to be responsible and developers are generally receptive to a professional opinion, provided there is sound reasoning behind it.”
What do you say to developers when they ask you to design a tournament course?
Jeremy: “The first question we ask is why they want a tournament course. There are occasions where it just isn’t suitable to build a facility of that stature. One of the mistakes some developers have made in the past, particularly in emerging markets, is building tournament courses without thinking who their paying customers are going to be day-to-day. Supply and demand in a locality are key factors and if the local market is ignored, commercial success can take longer than it should.”
How might a developer in a new golfing territory increase domestic demand for golf?
Jeremy: “We design different types of golf facilities including nine-hole par-3 courses, golf academies, practice areas as well as club courses, European Tour courses and Ryder Cup courses. In some circumstances, supplementing a championship golf course with an academy will provide the necessary nucleus to stimulate domestic participation.”
Does creating a tournament golf course reduce its playability for the golfing public?
Ross: “With creative design, you can ensure that all golfers can enjoy even the most demanding of tournament courses. We design the course so that the landing areas for public golfers are substantially wider than for professionals. We have to be careful that bunkers aren’t so difficult that golfers of all abilities can’t escape from them, while providing enough of a challenge to tour professionals. It’s a fine line, but it is possible.”
Is the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort an example of that?
Ross: “I believe so. It is certainly a demanding course, but it has become hugely popular with golf tourists and the feedback we have had has all been positive. Golfers appreciate that they’re playing a Ryder Cup course and they expect there to be a level of difficulty they’re not used to.”
How will your experience at Celtic Manor Resort influence your work at Le Golf National, Paris, ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup?
Jeremy: “Le Golf National is a very different project compared with Celtic Manor Resort, but the experience that we gained in Wales will be crucial. Although it has hosted the Alstom Open de France, this is a much bigger event.”
What changes are you making to the golf course itself?
Ross: “Although there are some strategic changes to make, we will avoid significant alterations because there are so many aspects of the course which golfers really enjoy. Some bunkers will be moved, or upgraded, to offer more of a challenge to long-hitters – and the Ryder Cup demands a greater variety of flag positions than the existing greens offer, so we will rectify that. We will also move some of the tees to make the holes a little more interesting. Most of the major alterations we are planning to the golf course are to provide improved infrastructure, viewing and spectator circulation for the event. In particular we will be looking to create extensive areas for hospitality, using the experience we gained from Celtic Manor.”
Having spent more than ten years working towards it, what are your feelings looking back at the 2010 Ryder Cup?
Ross: “I am quite sentimental about it now. I thought I’d be glad for it to be over, but I do miss it and how it would occupy my day-to-day thoughts. It is the absolute highlight of my career; it isn’t everyone who gets an opportunity to design a course for the Ryder Cup. I think the memory of Graeme McDowell sinking his putt on the 16th will be with me forever.”