“I don’t know why I bother!” golf course architect Ross McMurray is shaking his head in mock despair. He’s just watched me hit my drive at the 11th hole at the Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor, near Newport in south Wales. Opened in 2007, the course was designed by McMurray as the venue for this year’s Ryder Cup, between European and American golfers, which takes place in October.
McMurray first started work on this hole 11 years ago, setting out to create a visually intimidating 562-yard par five, flanked by water on both sides. There is a landing area down there, somewhere, but standing on the tee, it’s hard to believe it. Players are meant to stop and pick a club carefully, flick through their yardage book, then plot their way down the hole with all the care of a ship’s captain negotiating his way through a deadly storm. We are not meant blithely to pull out a driver, decorated with a grip that should have been replaced five years ago, take one quick practice swing and lash the ball forward in the vague hope it reaches dry land.
If ever there was such a thing as a golf course architect’s swing, McMurray has it. His shots are measured and shaped to suit the rolls and curves of the fairway – precise, neat, mathematical. My own chief ambition for a round of golf – to hit a couple of drives that I can con myself into believing have gone almost as far as “Bubba” Watson’s – is clearly anathema to him. But if my gung-ho approach is an insult to the care that he and his fellow architects have put into the Twenty Ten course, my game is proof he’s done his job well: confirmation that hitting the ball well and long (which I am, for once) is not – alone – enough on a tricksy, nuanced championship layout.
What does it take to set up 18 holes for Ryder Cup golf? Space, obviously. Set on a couple of hillsides just outside Newport, Celtic Manor is a vast resort. When I’m ferried from the clubhouse to the driving range in a van, I feel only slightly cosseted. There are two clubhouses, and when I go to the wrong one, the FT’s photographer, David, tells me he will come and pick me up. I think he’s joking, but there are neighbouring hamlets that are nearer than this.
Even the locker room is on a grand scale, though it will be partitioned in half before the Ryder Cup teams arrive in the autumn. “I suppose it will have to be a thick partition, so nobody can listen in on tactical pep talks,” I suggest, half-jokingly. “Oh yes, we’ll be getting some soundproofing experts in,” Celtic Manor’s PR manager tells me, in all seriousness.
While playing the Twenty Ten course, I often find myself asking the question, “What’s missing?” Some of the holes here did exist, in different form, as part of the old Wentwood Hills course, but the layout is fundamentally fresh and looks impressively grown-in. So why does it seem slightly … bare? Then I realise: it’s the grandstands. I’ve never seen the course with grandstands, but it already seems to be crying out for them, like a cowboy missing his Stetson.
The final four holes, where some serious gradient finally comes into play, are dramatic closing holes, but they’re also ready-made theatres. McMurray and his colleagues have made the 16th a sweeping downhill par four with a blind tee shot for the player; but for the spectator, it is anything but blind – from the green, with a good pair of binoculars, you can see virtually every other hole on the course. As I make a rare par, I can almost hear the roars that will ring out here during the final day’s singles matches.
Think of the US Masters and think Augusta; think of an Open course and think seaside; think of a US Open course and think tight fairways, lightning-fast greens and clinging rough; think of a USPGA course and think “like a US Open course but not quite as difficult”. The Ryder Cup, despite finding a semi-permanent European home in the past at The Belfry, has never been associated with one particular venue. Is there anything that now defines a Ryder Cup course?
“I think it’s important to have risk-and-reward holes,” McMurray says. “The problem with The Belfry was that the risk-and-reward hole, the 10th, was halfway round the course.” By contrast, the Twenty Ten gives us the 15th, a stream-guarded, short par four that requires a high, soft-landing drive of pinpoint accuracy over high trees, or a surprisingly difficult, laid-up iron. Then there’s the 18th, a long par five primed for drama, where any slightly short approach shot will trickle back down the slope into the pond, in a manner reminiscent of the 15th at Augusta.
For an idiot like me, this sort of challenge is irresistible, and accounts for the fact that, by the back nine, I’m haemorrhaging golf balls. Time and again, I go for the big shot – mainly because, if I pull it off, Celtic Manor promises to massage my ego. But does Celtic Manor have charm? I don’t quite think so. Maybe it will develop charm, but at the moment it feels like an extension of the giant resort hotel that accompanies it: a big, immaculate show home of a golf course. I’m not complaining – provided I could get someone to pay for my balls, I could happily play golf on a course as pristine and imaginatively shaped as this every day for the next year. But there is a part of me, as I play the 18th, that spares a thought for the smaller courses that hosted Ryder Cups in the past – the Lindricks and Walton Heaths; innocuous yet mysterious places, bludgeoned out of circulation, where you might even spot a part of the landscape not entirely geared towards the smooth, dynamic enjoyment of golf.
There is one such feature at the Twenty Ten course – a derelict farmhouse to the right of the clubhouse. It’s a beautiful, overgrown building, fecund with untold stories of its past; and, much as I like the ornamental pond below it, which guards the 18th green, my eye is repeatedly drawn to its overgrown magic. It won’t be here much longer, however. “We’ll be moving it and turning it into something of value,” I hear a club official say. “It impedes the view.”
Tom Cox is the author of the golf books ‘Nice Jumper’ and ‘Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia’
Twenty Ten at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, is a par 71, 7,493-yard course. Tel: 01633 410263; www.celtic-manor.com