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Wentworth

Yardage
7,267
Par
73
SSS
76
Built
1926, 2007
Architect(s)
Ernie Els on a Harry Colt lay-out,
Nature:
Ernie Els designed 'target-golf' championship parkland course on a Colt lay-out. Wealthy Club.
Location/Address:
Virginia Water, near Ascot.
http://www.wentworthclub.com/
Secretary
StephenGibson
Telephone
01344 842201
Professional
Kristian Baker
Green Keeper
Daniel Clarke
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Access Policy:
introduced by a member only.
Dog Policy:
welcomed on a lead
Open Meetings:
none
Fees in 1960s
£1
Fees today
£245 - 2015

Review

Ever since Harry Colt designed the West course at Wentworth, opened in 1926 (nicknamed ‘the Burma Road’ for its toughness before the Japanese whisky owners acquired the property) it has remained at the forefront of British golf. Having been televised to a wide audience, the West has a place in the hearts and minds of golfers the world over. A bit like Augusta we know the holes, particularly on the back nine.

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1st tee with clubhouse behind

Initially, the course was designed as a brutally long, fast-running heathland course with heather roughs, strategically placed but few bunkers, and greens on many holes level to the fairways with room to run-in your ball.

It held the Piccadilly World-Match-Play event in the sixties where there were so many people walking round the organisers gave out cardboard mirror periscopes to allow the spectators to watch play over the heads of those in front of you!

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The first green

Somewhere around the 1970s, probably due to over-use of a new automatic watering system and the beginning of pressure to speed-up the greens by shaving them, the previously firm, fast-running fine fescue/browntop and perhaps some highland bent grassed surfaces became soft with the ingress of annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

Since 1983 Wentworth has hosted one of the European Tour’s premier events, the PGA Championship and since 2003 BMW as the main sponsor has made it a class act of the highest quality so as to match their upmarket cars.

In 2007 when owned by Richard Caring, the restaurant and nightclub entrepreneur, Ernie Els, who has a house on the estate, was invited to redesign the west course. (Wentworth has two other courses, called East and Edinburgh, and to judge from the green near the West’s sixth tee their greens are likely to be 100% Poa annua).

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The new sixteenth green

Els said that “with recent advances in golf ball and equipment technology it became necessary to carry out a programme of restoration and modernization in order to restore Colt’s original shot values”.  Well, he did keep the original lay-out of holes and their predominantly un-bumpy fairways, but he proceeded to raise most of the greens, fronting them with deep bunkers to try to create some penalties and challenge for the pros. “Original shot values” – whatever that means, is management-speak for ’We want to continue to use Colt’s name but his type of golf is no longer appropriate’. Howls and screams came from Harry Colt devotees of the strategic running-game but hey, money calls the tune here and the Club desperately wanted to keep the professionals coming, and to maintain the Club’s prestige among its wealthy clientele.

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Approaching the fifteenth green.

Basically, with Harry Colt’s greens having gone soft it was too easy for the ever-longer hitting pros to attack the pins with their ever-higher hit approach shots. For example the right-hand dogleg fifteenth that was once a drive and a well-hit long iron that ran in to a right-to-left sloping green and formed part of the daunting finish. Champion golfer and course architect Frank Pennink said of it in 1962 “there is no finer, long two-shotter”. Yesterday, even at 491 yards it is a mere drive with no run and an eight iron, confirmed by the pro, while I watched the PGA practice day played across a total of 7,267 yards, lengthened from 6,472 in Pennink’s day.

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The eighteenth amphitheatre

The PR emphasis on Els’ layout was focused on the spectacular new 523 yard eighteenth with its lake in front of the green surrounded by magnificent curved grandstands and open glass hospitality arenas. The course was no longer an enjoyable challenge for the recreational player.

Now there are again new owners from the Far East, this time Chinese and after a confrontation and climb-down with the members over the cost of membership (even Chancellor Hammond, within whose constituency it is, got involved) the course has had another make-over costing £5 million pounds in the last year (led again, at least PR wise, by the amiable ‘big easy’). Priority this time was to make it a more attractive course to play for the amateur recreational player. The penal design has been softened while the owners maintain that the challenge can now be enjoyed by club golfers and legends alike.

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The apron at the twelfth green

Twenty-nine bunkers have been removed, mostly from in front of the greens, to supposedly allow a Harry Colt run-in. However, the greens’ striped-cut aprons and run-offs now have up-slopes and are of ryegrass, which has a ‘greasy’ leaf making the ball ‘stick’ and is killed from running-on.  Whereas Colt had low cut run-offs that drew the not-perfectly-hit ball away into bunkers or areas from which a putt or bump-and-run was best used, now there is a pure parkland set-up with a semi-rough fringe near the green from which the modern lob-wedge is the preferred choice of club.

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New heather bank by sixth green

They have created the odd new bank of heather as at the left of the sixth green, but the heather has been lost from the sides of the fairways, where the natural fine fescue grass has predominantly gone, from the immaculately mown surfaces.

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The iconic scots pine on the twelfth drive.

The iconic Scots firs on the drive at the twelfth are still there and many trees have been appropriately taken out to allow airflow and the sun to get in and give vistas to other holes.

Speaking with one of the pros while he waited on one of the tees, he made the prescient comment that it was not clear for how long the newly laid creeping bent grass would survive before ingress of ‘weed’ grass required them to be dug up again. He was impressed, however, this year with the trueness and consistency of the green surfaces and some excellent new subtle movements had been created.

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Creeping bent on the second green

Serendipity allowed me to come across the course manager who revealed that the soil moisture of the greens was at 25% but he was off on a mobile call before I could ask whether the new grass was Agrostis Stolonifera (our native creeping bent whose surface stems have to be kept in order by regular verti-cutting) or Agrostis Palustris (an aggressive American strain that needs constant maintenance and suffers disease with its thatch-forming habit).

There are a number of courses in GB&I who tried but ditched the latter after a few years but (like the nearby Queenwood course) there is so much money here that perhaps part of the plan is to replace the stressed out grass every seven years.

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A pitchmark on the sixth green

Although there is an under-green air and moisture control system (as at Augusta and the Gleneagles Nicklaus course) whose generators give a loud background hum to each green complex, the greens were certainly firmer than Poa greens but were still soft, leaving pitch-marks as each ball stopped quickly with a ‘dead-like’ bounce.

A number of greens have been re-modelled completely including the eight, eleventh, fourteenth and sixteenth. A partial rebuild was carried out to the greens on the third, fourth, fifth, twelfth and fifteenth holes.

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Front bunker on the new eleventh green

I remember Arnold Palmer hitting a wedge into the eleventh Poa annua grassed green that, in those days, ran quite severely from back to front. His ball pitched next to the pin at the top of the green and screwed back all the way off the front! The new eleventh today has been flattened with a little triangular top tier so the players do not see the bottom of the pin over the deep front bunker but despite all this, one ball still had some twenty foot of action on it and almost came off the green.

The par three fourteenth up the hill used to have a two tier green. It now has a gradual slope with a ridge up the middle giving more pin positions.

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The apron and semi-rough swale near the 17th green

The  long left hand dogleg seventeenth is now 610 yards but I still saw one player arrive alongside  the green with just two strokes in the deep right hand swale that is now semi-rough ryegrass. He could not stop the ball with the new grooves on his wedge and so ran across the green and made par. The trees on the corner are high enough to protect the houses and so only a strongly hooked shot will make the green and I guess most players will leave themselves a pitch to the flat green for their one putt birdie. To tittilate the risk an albatross is rewarded by a snazzy new BMW!

Wentworth have made a big and costly effort and I am sure the professionals will enjoy the creeping bent surfaces of the greens in contrast to the Poa annua, as well as the overall high quality greenkeeping set-up but to call it more closely re-aligned with Harry Colt’s original vision, that was running heathland, when this is “parkland target-golf ” is either ignorant or something worse.

The 2007 attempt to create a penal challenge to the pros showed that this could not be done on a modern ‘target-golf’ course without making it impossible for the recreational player.

In contrast the fine grassed, running Royal Birkdale, where the Open Championship is played in July, tests and gives enjoyment to both pros and recreational players.

Wentworth is under pressure from all sides, added to which the USPGA is likely to move from August to May in 2019. We will see if the pro game has managed to satisfy both parts of the game by the new look Wentworth.

What is certain is that no ordinary members club can afford the course expenditure that Augusta and Wentworth make on the back of the money in the professional game and it only emphasises the ever increasing gulf between the two parts of the game.

FineGolf suggests that the only way back to unify the game is to remember that golfers want performance through

  ‘firmness, trueness and sustainability (low inputs and lower costs)’

and the key to achieving that objective is a return to the classic values of the running game played on fine grassed surfaces.