October 01 2010
Sporting eyes will be focused on South Wales this weekend as Celtic Manor golf course (which featured here earlier in the summer) hosts the 38th Ryder Cup match between Europe and the US. The club’s founder, locally born telecoms billionaire Sir Terry Matthews, will no doubt be hoping that all the effort and expense that have been lavished on the course since it was awarded the cup back in 2001 will be appreciated by players and spectators alike. But golfers are a notoriously conservative bunch, and novelty is not always welcome – as Richard Caring can testify.
The entrepreneurial owner of The Ivy, Le Caprice, Annabel’s and Soho House bought Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey for an estimated £130m in 2005. Wentworth was founded in 1926 and its iconic West Course, also known as the Burmah Road, is one of the most famous in the world.
The BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event of the European tour, takes place there each May and the Ryder Cup was born over a drink in its bar in 1926. Caring has brought a modern touch to Wentworth, improving the food and the accommodation, offering members all kinds of reciprocal benefits at his London clubs and restaurants, and generally transforming it into a luxurious, American-style country club with a contemporary feel. But not everything has gone down well.
The surrounding Wentworth estate has been home to all kinds of celebrity golfing enthusiasts, from King Edward VIII to Bruce Forsyth, and the world-renowned South African player Ernie Els currently has a house overlooking the 16th green. Last year, Caring invited Els to work with him on a £6.5m upgrade of the West Course. The intention was to make the PGA a more compelling spectacle for sponsors, crowds and television audiences. Seventeen holes were altered and the innovations Els came up with included a new stream or “moat” in front of a new elevated green for the par-five 18th hole.
But the response from some of the players was anything but complimentary. The standard complaint was that the new feature made the hole too hard and that, rather than trying to reach the green in two – as the designers had hoped – most of them would adopt a risk-averse strategy, thus diminishing the excitement rather than adding to it. Some went so far as to describe the changes as the equivalent of vandalising a Grade II-listed building, while one commentator harrumphed about Caring’s “Florida water feature” as if he were some deplorable metropolitan upstart with no respect for the traditions of the stockbroker belt. Most outside observers have been bemused by the episode – but then the sight of highly paid professional golfers moaning about their lot has long been one of sport’s more ludicrous spectacles.
Colin Montgomerie, the captain of this year’s European Ryder Cup team, has been known to glare furiously at spectators when his round isn’t going well, and it’s said that he can detect the rustle of a sweet wrapper at 100 paces. “Monty” has been an outstanding Ryder Cup competitor, though, and if he can keep his temper under control at Celtic Manor, I reckon he’ll be a winning skipper. The pool of talent available to the Europeans is a deep one and I’m backing the gifted “rookie” Rory McIlroy to be their top points scorer at 6-1 on Betfair.