For a creative process, golf design requires a remarkable degree of problem-solving skills. In any new course design, a sequence of puzzles must be cracked to unlock the best solution – where will the water come from and be stored? Where will the maintenance building go? If a cart path is needed, how will it be routed around the course? And, perhaps the most common constraint nowadays, if there is to be housing on the property, where will it be located, and how will it impact on the golf holes? These issues make routing a golf course more complicated than if the architect were simply required to find and string together the best 18 holes on a piece of property.
Courses designed for tournament play are nothing new. The series of Tournament Players Clubs built by the PGA Tour during the 1980s, often characterised as 'stadium' golf courses, featured substantial mounding to make viewing easier. Some of the many redesigns of the Belfry's Brabazon course have had a similar effect.
Imagine, though, being a golf architect and knowing you were building a course specifically for a Ryder Cup. That's what Ross McMurray of European Golf Design has been faced with at Celtic Manor in south Wales for the last two years.
When Celtic Manor was awarded the 2010 Ryder Cup, a key part of the bid's success was the resort's commitment to build a new course for the event. The existing two full-length golf courses at Celtic Manor, Roman Road and Wentwood Hills, have served the resort well, but for reasons of challenge, and especially spectator access, neither would be well suited to the demands of a Ryder Cup, which on its first two days will see over 40,000 people clustering around only four matches.
McMurray, therefore, has taken nine of the existing Wentwood Hills holes and renovated them – focusing particularly on bunkering – and built nine completely new holes. A substantial new clubhouse – away from the main golf resort – is under construction, and this removed the need for the Ryder Cup course to return back to the existing clubhouse, as well as providing the opportunity for spectators to access the course from the main A449 road.
The really exciting part of the new course is the last four holes. The first fourteen holes occupy essentially flat land on the Usk floodplain, although the river is isolated from play for environmental (and flooding!) reasons. From the fifteenth onwards, though, the course ascends the valley side, and then turns for home.
Fifteen is a short, uphill par four. Hit a medium to long iron up the fairway to the turn point of the sharp dogleg right, and the approach is a wedge or other short iron across a deep ravine to a shallow, wide green. But if the golfer is sufficiently confident to attempt the direct route, a gap in the trees offers a 265 yard, steeply uphill carry. But the shallowness of the green from the fairway translates into narrowness from the tee, and precision will be required to avoid dropping down into the ravine, or sticking in the tall rough on the bank behind the green.
After the fifteenth, the course turns for home, and the final three holes play in the same direction, directly into the prevailing wind. Sixteen is a brutally long par four, almost 500 yards from the championship tee. A deep bunker to the right of the fairway is death; further along is another bunker on the left side of the fairway, not so catastrophic but hardly a desirable place to be. Put the tee shot in play, though, and a challenging approach remains. A massively long drive will catch a downslope and could leave the player within a short iron of the green, but a longer approach will normally be more needed. And the green, angled away from the player, and also sloping away, Redanstyle, will offer a number of different potential second shots.
The par three seventeenth will doubtless be the ending location of many Ryder Cup matches, but for those that go to the home hole, an exciting conclusion awaits.
The par five eighteenth may not be massively long by modern standards, at just under 600 yards, but playing into the prevailing wind it will be a strong and brave golfer who is prepared to try for the green in two. A stream has been dammed in front of the green to create a pond (this writer, who is not fond of water at the top of hills, would prefer it to have been left as it was) and the green sits atop a steep bank, which both architect McMurray and resort director of golf Jim McKenzie hope to shave down. The green is relatively small – or at least will appear so for anyone hoping to get home in two – but a front pin position will make even a wedge approach no easy option. Spin back a few feet too far, and the ball will begin a slow yet inexorable retreat towards the water's edge.
The construction of the new Ryder Cup course isn't the end of the story, though.
For the last twelve months, McMurray and contractors MJ Abbott have been building yet another course at Celtic Manor. The parts of the old Wentwood Hills layout not being incorporated into the Ryder Cup course, plus the land previously occupied by the Coldra Woods academy course, are being transformed into a third full-sized 18. Billed as a Colin Montgomerie signature design, the par 69 yard course is likely to be among the toughest 6,300 yards most golfers will play. The land slopes steeply in places, and the 421 yard sixteenth hole, for example, will offer an exhilarating yet intimidating experience. The hole plays from a high tee across a deep valley to a fairway that sweeps back uphill while turning to the left. Players attempting to take the short route up the left side of the fairway will do so at their peril, as the sideslope of the land will feed many balls back down towards the ravine.
The next hole, though, offers a potential respite – at only 285 yards, plenty will be tempted to carry a set of cross-bunkers and attack the green. Trouble awaits, though, and the lay-up option will probably be more sensible for most. A cleverly angled fairway makes the pitch shot no picnic.
In some ways, with its huge hotel, bag drop facility and large fleet of carts, Celtic Manor represents a most un-Welsh approach to the game of golf. It is a severe property, built on very heavy soil in an extremely wet climate, and the resort is no stranger to drainage problems. But McMurray is confident his new Ryder Cup course has been built with sufficient drainage to cope, and in the finishing four holes, he has certainly created a finishing stretch that will make for exciting golf. Roll on 2010.