Another Ryder Cup concession?

Another Ryder Cup concession?
Jim Hansen
By Jim Hansen

The creation of Celtic Manor's Twenty Ten course, the host venue for this year’s Ryder Cup, involved both sides of the Atlantic, says James Hansen.

If conceding a short putt on the final hole of a golf match can be hailed as a magnanimous international gesture of sportsmanship, what about conceding the design of an entire golf course?

To this day, Jack Nicklaus’s concession of a two foot putt to Tony Jacklin on the last hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale, halving the matches, is considered one of the most gentlemanly acts in the history of sport.

This came after one of the most competitive contests in Ryder Cup history. Eighteen of the 32 matches came down to the last green. Acrimony and gamesmanship marred a number of matches. Nicklaus chose a nobler path. “I don't think you would have missed that putt,” he told Jacklin afterwards, “but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

To this day, the two men remain great friends. In 2006, they completed the design of a course in Sarasota, Florida, which they named The Concession.

Thirty-one years later, another concession has been made, this time granted by Europe to America. This new concession involves the authorship of the golf course on which the 2010 matches will be played: the Twenty Ten at Celtic Manor, the first Ryder Cup in Wales. The layout is a creative blending of European and American design elements and construction.

The history of the course is complicated. In 1999, an earlier championship course opened at Celtic Manor. Designed by California-based Robert Trent Jones Jr, Wentwood Hills hosted the European Tour’s Wales Open from 2000-2004.

The Jones family had made its mark on Celtic Manor even before Wentwood Hills. In 1994, a course opened there called Roman Road, because a number of Roman ruins were found on the property. It was designed by the firm of Robert Trent Jones Sr, the legendary American golf course architect whose father was Welsh and whose birthplace, the little English town of Ince, stood only a few miles from the Welsh border.

But the direct progenitor of The Twenty Ten is Wentwood Hills – a championship course that owner Sir Terry Matthews, high tech entrepreneur and Wales’s first billionaire, and his son, Dylan Matthews, Celtic Manor’s CEO, dearly loved. The Matthews clan had an even bigger dream than the Wales Open, however: to bring the Ryder Cup to their homeland.

Problem was, Wentwood Hills had some serious limitations as a Ryder Cup site. Smack dab within the course was a large hill that golfers had to trek over, down, and up and over again. Such a hill was too mean on feet, leg muscles, and cardiovascular systems for throngs of Ryder Cup spectators. Also there was almost no room along the routing of Wentwood Hills for the erection of the mammoth tent city that had become part and parcel of every major golf tournament.

The answer was to rework the course. To the task came European Golf Design, a joint venture between the European Tour and Mark McCormack’s International Management Group. EGD architect Ross McMurray bypassed the big hill by creating new holes in the Usk Valley on land not owned by Sir Terry when Wentwood Hills was built. McMurray also accommodated the new holes so as to ensure the location of an adjacent tent city.

The result of the intensive three-year effort (2004-2007) was a new golf course, the first ever specifically designed from inception to host the Ryder Cup. Featuring nine brand new holes, the Twenty Ten incorporated nine holes from Wentwood Hills, holes Celtic Manor described in pre-Ryder Cup publicity as ‘extensively remodelled.’

Ross McMurray knows better. “It is not correct to say we ‘extensively remodelled’ the nine holes from Wentwood Hills. More accurately, we ‘sensitively remodelled’ those holes, keeping much of their original integrity and character. I myself have never used the phrase ‘extensively remodelled; and intend to make sure that the phrase does not appear on our website or anything else we say about our work on the course.”

It is never easy to discover the truth about the history of a golf course design. The process is often messy and covers many years. Many people are involved, some of whom may have big egos and wish to take more credit than they deserve. Talking to the golf course architect chiefly responsible for the course is critically important to uncovering the depths of the story, but typically it is not the architect who has spent weeks and months on end at a construction site. To learn the nitty-gritty of how a golf course was built, one must talk to the crew responsible for literally turning the property into a playing field.

For Celtic Manor and its original golf courses, the man to talk to is Bob Harrington, the foreman of the construction team who oversaw the construction of Wentwood Hills and the reconstruction of Roman Road and Coldra Woods that came before it. On assignment from Jones Jr, Harrington, a Canadian, also helped Ross McMurray and European Golf Design convert Wentworth Hills over to its new purpose as part of the Twenty Ten.

In a career of golf course construction now into its third decade, Bob Harrington has turned out courses in twenty different countries. Currently at work on a new course in Poland, his take on the design and construction history of The Twenty Ten meshes well with the ‘concession’ made by Ross McMurray.

Harrington recollects: “Bob Jones and Celtic Manor brought me into the situation for continuity between Wentwood Hills and the new course. I consulted regularly with Bob, and I think that continuity was achieved with my shaping of all the new holes in a style generally similar to what Bob and his company employed in the design of Wentwood Hills.”

Holes six-thirteen and fifteen on the Twenty Ten are the holes retained from the former course. Six of the new holes – one-five, plus fourteen – were built in the floodplain. Above Bulmore Road, the final three new holes – sixteen to eighteen – were placed, because it was too difficult, especially for spectators, to loop back uphill to the clubhouse.

Ross McMurray and EGD’s managing director Jeremy Slessor first got involved in conceptualising the Twenty Ten at the end of 1999, not long after Wentwood Hills opened: “We got the idea not to build an entirely new course but to retain some of the holes from Wentwood Hills – either seven, eight, or as it turned out, nine of them – and then build new holes down in the flat land alongside. I did all the new routing work, and it was that layout which was presented as the bid for The Twenty Ten.”

“Our brief was to create a golf course capable of holding the Ryder Cup,” McMurray says. “It involved input and advice from many interested parties, including the various statutory bodies, the European Tour and its staging department, the Ryder Cup committee, as well as a number of other consultants, such as former Ryder Cup captain Brian Huggett. Also, Bruce Charlton , Bob Jones’s chief designer officer, also kindly offered some suggestions on course strategy. It was part of my role to listen to all this advice, incorporate it where appropriate, and reach compromises where necessary.”

“There were many, many changes, most due to environmental and archaeological concerns. That's why the seventeenth turned out to be a par three instead of a par four, so as not to disturb an historical site. Not just the design but the building of the Twenty Ten was a team effort, absolutely.”

It was also a massively complicated projected. An incredible amount of dirt had to be moved alongside the big hill. “Visually, we didn’t want to change the character of the landscape,” McMurray recalls. “It was a major challenge not to do that. The engineers played a very big role.”

As for Harrington, with the help of Jim McKenzie, Celtic Manor’s director of golf courses, and his crew, he worked with direction from McMurray to add some back tees and enlarge some putting surfaces. But the most major change to the holes from Wentwood Hills came with the bunkering. According to McMurray: “At first, we weren’t going to do much with the bunkers on the old nine. Before long we realised we had do make stylistic changes to match the style of our bunkers on the new nine. Our idea wasn’t to make them exactly similar in style to those of the new nine but we did need to do enough to it make it all work together.”

A few new bunkers were added around some greens. Other greenside bunkers were reshaped and made deeper – sometimes by raising their surrounds – to make them more like pots. On others turf was rolled down onto the faces. Most of this was done to create more penal pin positions. “There remained some stylistic differences in the bunkers,” explains McMurray. “But when all was said and done we felt the bunkering blended well into the landscape.”

Eight new fairway bunkers were added and some reshaped or moved to new locations. McMurray admits: “These were the only changes to the holes that came over from the old course.” Harrington concurs: “The changes to the Jones-designed holes mostly involved the slope and depth of the bunkering.”

McMurray credits both Harrington and McKenzie for doing fabulous jobs: “Jim and his course maintenance staff did a fantastic job, and have continued the wonderful work over the years, tweaking away at the new course with a mini excavator, adding a wispy brow to a bunker here, removing a nose there, coring the bunkers, installing drainage and irrigation, adding a swale on a hole. It’s one of the finest maintenance crews I have ever run across in golf.”

Bob Jones himself was, both directly and indirectly, involved in the design of the Twenty Ten. During one visit to Celtic Manor in 2004, in the company of McKenzie and Harrington, Jones toured the old holes that were going to be converted. The trio discussed options for making some of the bunkers deeper and raising some of the faces to make the bunkers more penal while retaining much of their original appearance and style – ideas for modifications that resonated well with what McMurray and company had in mind. Not that there was total agreement on the bunker styling. As bunker renovation on the old holes began, McKenzie asked Harrington to make them look more Scottish, by removing some of their grass noses, cutting them deeper, and generally making them even more penal.

Harrington also did the shaping for the new holes on the Twenty Ten, adding to the blend of the previous styling with a more British-style design. “If you look today at the new bunkers on holes one to five, they look very much like the original remaining bunkers on holes six-thirteen and fifteen,” he says.

Harrington feels that, over the years, the question of who deserves the credit for designing the Twenty Ten has become more and more a matter of American versus European. “From the time I first returned to Celtic Manor, I have always sensed a Europe against the United States feeling from everyone with whom I interacted and worked. Even the guys down at the local pub!,” says Harrington. “But there is not one square inch of the Twenty Ten I did not drop a dozer blade on.”

For those who wish to pump up the competitive nature of the Ryder Cup matches, the story of how the Twenty Ten was designed and built can be misused for just such ballyhoo. Harrington himself provides some of the fuel for that fire: “The 2010 Ryder Cup competition actually began as soon as construction of a new purpose-built course began. It was a competition over the design. The hype in Wales has been building up for a long time and it won’t be over until the last putt is holed – perhaps not even then.”

Ross McMurray and Bob Jones see it differently. In the view of the lead architects involved, the design of the Twenty Ten is an extraordinary example of a blending of outstanding design elements and construction techniques, some American and some European. Any thoughtful analysis of the golf course’s design history should therefore give full co-credit to Robert Trent Jones Jr and Ross McMurray.

Ross McMurray makes just that ‘concession’ saying that the phrase “extensively remodelled” is wrong and that ‘sensitively remodelled’ is the accurate expression for what European Golf Design did with Bob Jones’s nine holes from Wentwood Hills.

It is a gentlemanly concession in the spirit of Nicklaus’s gift to Jacklin in 1969, this time made from European to American. It is a generous statement and one that should be well received on both sides of the Atlantic.

James Hansen is professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Trent Jones Senior

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