July 10 2010
During the first week of October this year, almost everything golfers watch, listen to, read or argue about in the bar is going to contain some reference or other to the Ryder Cup – and even those poor souls with only a passing knowledge of the Royal and Ancient game can’t fail to experience a tension-filled three days.
The Ryder Cup was last held in 2008 at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, with Sir Nick Faldo as European captain. Europe lost, badly, and didn’t like it because they’d won seven of the previous 11 matches and were on a roll. Afterwards, Faldo, who didn’t get on too well with the media, was criticised for playing his best players too low on the order during the final day. Big mistake. Now, as the chance to win the Cup back draws nearer, the stakes are already high.
The Ryder Cup is unique because it is a mixture of team and one-to-one competition. Twelve Europeans are matched against 12 Americans. Each side has a non-playing captain and competes over three days with 12 singles matches plus eight foursomes and eight four-balls. Playing as an individual for your country, you are also part of a team. What makes it so compulsive is the tactical skill of the captains and the tension experienced by the individual players and transmitted to the spectator.
This year, for the first time, this titanic sporting struggle between the US and Europe will take place in Wales. What’s more, it will be played on a course that cost £20m to build, was only completed in 2007, and is owned by a man who has never played the game. Sir Terence Hedley Matthews started his career selling electric lawnmowers and is now a billionaire with a broadband communications business based in Ottawa, Canada. He’s good at getting things done. The Celtic Manor Hotel stands on the site of the maternity hospital where he was born. Now it is his baby, and the new course and facilities that go with it have been designed purely and simply to hold the Ryder Cup.
I was invited to play Celtic Manor in April, just as the annual Welsh rainy season was drizzling to a close. The valley of the River Usk was draining nicely and the fairways were showing some lushness under the steely sunshine. I drove across the Severn Bridge and a few miles further west to Newport, where the stark landmark of the hotel looms high on a bluff above the valley.
There are three courses at Celtic Manor but the Ryder Cup course is known as the 2010 and is 7,493 yards in length with a par of 71. It has a mixed pedigree. Nine of the holes were originally laid out by the great Robert Trent Jones Jnr (and have been extensively remodelled) but the remainder were designed specifically for the Ryder Cup match under the guidance of The European Tour, and created by European Golf Design and its chief architect, Ross McMurray. The European and American captains, Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin, played the course together during the Welsh Open in 2009 and are old adversaries.
At the time, Pavin was unaware that he had already played on one of the greens in 1993 when he won the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth. It was a strange coincidence: during the building of the 2010 course at Celtic Manor, the designers had difficulties with turfing the practice green. At the time, Wentworth West Course was being rebuilt and, as the grass was the same type as at Celtic Manor, the designers bought the old greens from Wentworth and used them on the 2010 green.
If you feel like really putting your golf to the test, you can play the 2010 before the course is rested on September 7, three weeks before the Cup. It’s worth the effort because it illustrates graphically the sophistication of the modern professional game. Over the years, I have played several championship courses after they have been set up for the Ryder Cup, and none has anything in common with the club golf courses familiar to you and me.
Celtic Manor is a classic of its type. It has been designed as a challenge to the best professional golfers in the world and encourages risk and reward during match play; indeed, the severity of the test would not be acceptable in the stroke play tournament game. The course also encourages ferocious man-to-man competition. Within the 12 players in each team, partnerships are carefully worked out; particular strengths are analysed. Minds are read, holes are set up for length, flags are moved every day.
The final eight holes on the 2010 have been laid out to provide a tense finish and would be difficult for the amateur to master. I found them virtually impossible. The front nine are tough, but it’s when you walk onto the 11th tee that you really feel a chill in the air and know that the odds are against you.
I asked the Welsh professional Bradley Dredge, who has played the 2010 many times and all but won the Welsh Open there, how to play the final six holes, which is where European Tour statistics show most matches become critical. Dredge is an articulate and skilful golfer who stands a good chance of a place in the European side. We started at the 13th, a short (189-yard) hole with a carry over water of 150 yards into the prevailing wind. It’s a stinker. The narrow, kidney-shaped green slopes towards you and at the back are two pot bunkers which gather anything a little too long off the tee. Playing back out of these bunkers towards the water is a nightmare, with a slick run-off between the green and the lake.
Then you walk uphill to the 14th, probably the trickiest hole on the course and likely to be a nemesis for players from both sides. Bradley described it to me as “terrifying”, with two lakes and water all along the left. If you have the nerve, length and accuracy to carry the lake in front of you from the tee, you must carry your tee shot 280 yards onto a narrow fragment of fairway so that you can take a relatively straightforward wedge to the green. If you try to play safe and hit your drive left, your second will be a mid-iron to an oblique target with pot bunkers to the right and a lake cut into the putting surface on the left. This is precision golf designed to be played by nerveless men. Bradley said that much will depend on how European captain Colin Montgomerie sets the hole up – in other words, where on the green he will set the flag and which tee he will decide to use. Whatever he does, the 14th will mesmerise the spectator.
The 15th is unlike any other hole on the course: a 377-yard par four sharp dog-leg to the right, with a triangle of thick woodland between the tee and the green. It is theoretically possible to cut the corner and drive over the trees straight for the flag. Short, and you’re in deep trouble. The alternative is to go left then right with a mid-iron from the tee and a pin-sharp wedge. But miss the green and you’re in a river, a bunker or back down the steep, greasy slopes into the woods.
This is a pivotal hole. Two new bunkers have been placed on the elbow of the dog-leg and the narrowness of the green will deter even big hitters from trying to carry the drive 370 yards and reach it from the tee. Bradley believes that most of the players will probably go for it – in which case this will be the hole to watch if you decide to travel to the match. The long, straight drive to the green is frightening. But it could win you the hole, if you’re prepared to gamble.
Once through the 15th, you are in the final stretch; three beautiful holes cut into the hillside of the Usk Valley with views north to the mountains. Although the 16th is by no means easy, it is a relief after the questions asked by the three previous holes. Nevertheless, it’s narrow and into the prevailing wind, with a pair of deep bunkers right and left at 288 yards, which is where these guys tend to pitch their tee shots. Go to the right and you’ll be in big trouble as your ball bounds down the hill and into the valley.
On the left is the start of the slope where much of the gallery will be waiting for the final matches; probably a vocal Welsh crowd, very excited and itching to burst into song. The second shot is a long downhill iron or fairway wood to a small, tightly girdled green which slopes sharply left to right. It’s another risk that might pay off.
The 17th is a par three of 211 yards. “This hole is all about accuracy,” says Bradley. “It’s a four iron and you can’t be short. There is a sharp left-to-right slope at the front of the green with a cluster of bunkers on the right and three more deep little traps if you aren’t sharp with your sand wedge onto the green.”
The 18th is a very grown-up hole – 613 yards, with the second shot downhill to a tiny green with a lake in front and what Bradley calls “a bailout bunker” to the right. The problem is the wind, “which is generally in your face,” he told me, “and what sort of second shot you’re left with. If you’re on the steep down slope, which starts at about 340 yards, you have the problem of hitting the ball high enough to clear the water. The alternative is a mid-iron and a wedge onto the green.” A nasty finish in a tense match, but it gives you a chance.
I tried to put myself in Bradley’s position on the final day. I’m coming over the brow of the 18th, with the hillside alive with the roar of 50,000 Celtic golfers, and the great and the good in their blazers and ties crowded on the clubhouse balconies on the mound to the left of the green. I’m one up on my opponent, Phil Mickelson, and I have to finish with a four. A half is no good because I have to win to regain the Cup.
Now the crowd is singing Land of My Fathers and the rest of the team is watching me from the slope behind the green. All I have to do is hit a three wood 263 yards into the stiff westerly blowing down the valley. Make it soar and drop two metres over the water, onto the green, watch while it pulls up by the Cup. The crowd goes silent. My hands are sweating; my heart is hammering. In front of me, just out of eyeline, is a television camera and somewhere down the lens are five million Americans and probably the same number of Europeans. I take a practice swing and look down the fairway to the distant green. The breeze picks up a little.
What prayer do I pray?