Short shrift


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Along with Peter McEvoy and a little further back Michael Bonallack, Gary Wolstenholme is among the greatest amateur golfers Britain has produced in the modern era.

Twice an Amateur champion, six times a Walker Cup player, no golfer has won more Walker Cup points for GB&I than Wolstenholme.

Wolstenholme is the player who famously beat Tiger Woods in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl in 1995, despite being outdriven by 70-80 yards on most holes.Well-known for his ferocious competitiveness, he's just as feisty when talking about golf as he is when playing.

One of the ironies of high-level amateur golf is that such players almost certainly get more exposure to great golf architecture than do their cousins on the pro tour. Classic golf clubs are keen to hold top amateur events, reasoning that the effect on their courses will be minimal, while hosting big professional tournaments will cause the course to be out of play for months, and perhaps altered irrevocably. "That's been highlighted recently," says Wolstenholme.

"Some of the younger golfers contemplating turning pro find themselves playing golf on worse courses, especially at Challenge Tour level where they're likely to start off. And I do think that playing on better courses makes you a better golfer." The prime reason for the best courses being largely reserved for amateur events, apart from the huge circus that goes with pro golf, is the length of the players, and it's something that Wolstenholme regrets.

"We do get the opportunity to play classic courses, but my bugbear is that they pander to the way the game is going," he says. "People are falling into the trap of making courses longer. So players then want to hit it further still, manufacturers create longer balls, and the cycle repeats itself. It's a vicious circle. I played at Merion two years ago. They've ruined the golf course, just to get the US Open back there, and even so, given the size of the property, they'll have to severely limit the number of tickets. Take the fifth hole, which has been lengthened 70-80 yards, making it a 505-yard par four. It was difficult enough as it was. They're making the game harder without making it better, and the essence of game being lost, because there is no finesse. Parts of Merion are still a very good test, but it was one of the very best designed golf courses in the world, and much of that has been lost." And extreme length is not necessary to test and identify the best,Wolstenholme reckons. "Look at the Open," he says.

"Bombing it miles works at St Andrews, but not elsewhere, because the great links need more than that. This year at Hoylake, Tiger played well within himself because conditions lent themselves to his tactical play. Had the conditions been wet the golf course would have played differently and suited a different kind of golfer – perhaps a Luke Donald kind of player who was able to keep the ball in play. I'm so glad Hoylake is back on the rota though – it is a fantastic golf course.

"If you set courses up to negate the impact of length, with more doglegs, and make them tighter to promote accuracy then you don't need to make them longer. At Augusta and St Andrews they have fallen into a sad spiral of making the courses longer, and it makes them less interesting as tournament venues. Any events there are now going to be won by people who can carry it 300 yards; if you're shorter you don't have a chance. I don't mind lengthening par fives, because the shorter players can still reach in three, and we have a chance if our wedge game is strong enough.What I object to is the 500-yard par fours.

"People say 'Oh, Bobby Jones would have wanted this'. How do we know? How do we know Tillinghast wouldn't be turning in his grave, that Colt wouldn't be tearing his hair out? St Andrews is no longer one of my favourite golf courses, because it's been altered to such an extent. I once tried to persuade the authorities they were going the wrong way.Why not put more bunkering in, I said? I was nearly strung up. Similarly, if they want to make Augusta a better test, they should just put more bunkering in.

They didn't have to make it 7,400 yards and exclude most of the field. Nick Price was one of the great players, now he can't compete there any more. It doesn't surprise me that Nick Faldo prefers to commentate than play there – he can't possibly be competitive either." So what is Wolstenholme's alternative? As an amateur who has spent much of his career playing matchplay, it's not surprising that he would like to see more 'gambling' half par style holes. "I think those kind of holes create genuine interest," he explains. "Look at Royal County Down, where the Walker Cup will be next year. The sixteenth is a driveable par four in good conditions. It makes the hole really interesting, because you have a decision to make. Should I take the risk – there's a lot of trouble around the green – or should I lay back and trust my wedge play? I love playing holes like that, because it creates doubt in the golfer's mind. And at matchplay it's even more fun."