This has been a seminal week in my career as a golf writer. On Wednesday I competed in my first Association of Golf Writers (AGW) Championship at Wentworth.
Taking the trip south meant missing the Alliance – obviously a considerable blow and a difficult decision to make. But, I felt the chance to play Wentworth’s East Course for the first time and to watch Ernie Els demonstrate the impact of alterations to the West’s 18th hole was too good an opportunity to miss.
The East Course had received quite a soaking the day before and the ground was pretty soggy. The greens, however, had held up remarkably well and were fabulously true, and fairly quick, for the time of year.
The East is a fantastic course – a classic Harry Colt heathland design that uses natural hazards and contouring, sloping greens and strategic bunkering rather than simply length as its protector. There’s a great variety of par 4s, some tight yet driveable others long and sweeping. Like most Colt tracks, the par 3s are excellent – greens framed by mature trees and clever bunkers and ranging in length from 130 to 220 yards.
The halfway hut deserves a special mention. In fact, it’s actually a third of the way hut on the East Course as you reach it after the sixth hole. Anyway – the sausage sandwich in there was of the highest quality. If we ever decide to run a third of the way hut competition, I’d expect it to be well up the rankings.
Let’s get the golf out of the way quickly. I played decidedly averagely but I wasn’t helped by making one of the cardinal errors when visiting a course for the first time – not listening properly to the starter. After the round I was reliably informed that he did indeed tell us the 150 and 100 yards marker posts were to the front of the greens. For some reason, however, I’d been convinced they were to the middle and had spent the full 18 holes wondering why I was hitting my irons so short. I put it down to the heavy air; in fact it was just my empty head.
I finished on 30 points. Not a bad first effort but nowhere near good enough to get my hands on the trophy – a strange looking piece of silverware that seems to be a cross between a soda siphon and a soup flask. Jezz was the closest Golf Monthly challenger and, with 36 points, he was unlucky to lose on count-back to Carly Cummins – the only girl in the field showed all the boys a clean pair of heels.
GM Editor Mike Harris (Golf Captain of the AGW) returned a sold 34 points that was good enough for him to retain the coveted golfer of the year title – best three scores from the season to count. Well done Mike.
And what about the West? Well there’s a huge amount of work going on across the course but probably the most dramatic change is to the 18th where a water hazard, or brook, has been constructed in front of a new green – as you can see in this picture.
As we stood back in the fairway, where a good professional drive would end up, we remarked what a daunting a prospect the second shot was. We doubted if any of the pros would risk going for it in two. Then Ernie showed up and cheerily smacked six of eight shots on to the putting surface, using a five-wood from 235 yards. What did we know? “If only I could have done that last week.” He joked in reference to his shot to the final hole of the WGC HSBC Champions that found a watery grave and cost him the title.
Els’ design team has been overseeing the project at Wentworth and he’s pleased with progress. “I’ve walked the course a couple of times and it looks fantastic,” he said. “You can see now how spectacular the course will look when it re-opens.”
Ernie then moved up to demonstrate the other way of playing the hole – a lay up with the second shot to some 80 yards short of the green. After we’d watched him lob a series of wedge shots tight to the hole, the chap standing beside me whispered in my ear, “So the conclusion is – it’s still a bloody easy hole.”
It will, actually, be considerably more difficult than before and the new features will surely add to the drama at next year’s PGA Championship and, possibly (certainly more importantly,) at next year’s AGW Championship.