May 11, 2009

Made To Order

The Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor was built with next year's Ryder Cup specifically in mind. How that translates to the average player is another matter

The original Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design included nine holes, since abandoned, that marched up and down the surrounding hills.

The original Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design included nine holes, since abandoned, that marched up and down the surrounding hills.

You don't have to be an incredibly wealthy owner of a big-time golf complex with excellent transport links to host a Ryder Cup, but it sure helps. Following tin-mining heir Jimmy Patino (Valderrama in Spain, 1997) and cardboard box magnate Michael Smurfit (the K-Club in Ireland, 2006), the 2010 Ryder Cup will be played in Wales thanks to the tiny British nation's richest man, billionaire telecom tycoon (and nongolfer) Sir Terry Matthews.

In 1980, Matthews bought a dilapidated 19th century Manor House and former maternity hospital where he was born, turned it into the monumental 54-hole, 1,400-acre Celtic Manor Resort, and muscled his way onto golf's top table. So keen was Matthews to secure the Ryder Cup that he was perfectly happy to turn the bulldozers loose on his golf courses and create a new, purpose-built layout that was designed specifically for one three-day match among 24 men.

The Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Wentwood Hills course, which opened in 1997, was considered unsuitable for the Cup, not least because it opened with ski-slope holes that marched down to the valley floor, and closed with an arduous climb back up the hill. Those holes were abandoned, nine new ones were created, and the Twenty Ten course was born. "I tried to make the whole course look and feel seamless," says the man who did all the work, Ross McMurray, one of the house architects of European Golf Design.

The course today is largely set in a big, wide, windy and largely treeless bowl of the Usk Valley. The opening holes meander among the gentle flatlands. The middle part of the course -- which includes the original holes -- plays around a series of lakes. And then the grand finale is four holes that play alongside a giant ridge, including a drivable, cut-the-corner-if-you-dare par 4, and culminating in a classic example of that Augusta National-patented fan favorite, a reachable par 5 with water in front of the green. At Celtic Manor, the plateau green of the closing hole has a false front that will surely be lightning fast for the Ryder Cup. Expect the tees to be pushed up -- it won't play to its full 613 yards -- with plenty of slightly less-than-perfect second shots rolling back down a steep bank into the pond. The fairway is flanked all down the left side by a massive bank for spectators -- 400,000 cubic meters of earth was moved to create this beast. Some estimates say that the 18th alone can accommodate 15-20,000 people. "We wanted to create a fantastic stage for the players to walk down," says McMurray. He certainly succeeded.

The Twenty Ten course, venue for the European tour's Wales Open since it opened last year, was built not for the likes of you and I, but for that rare species, the touring pro. It's long (7,493 yards), tough and a hell of a walk (just getting to the first tee from the clubhouse is the kind of distance that in the city you'd be tempted to take a taxi to traverse). Even from the forward tees, the average resort guest will struggle with the dramatic, penal bunkers, the various lakes and streams, and some forced carries, not to mention the fickle weather in this part of the world (one wonders what the conditions will be like on October 1-3 next year -- here's an early forecast: bad). "You've got to be on you're A-game to get round," admits McMurray. Fortunately, the resort has two fun-filled and much gentler alternatives, The Montgomerie, designed by Europe's 2010 Ryder Cup captain, and Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s Roman Road course.

Just like Celtic Manor's vast, 10-storey monolithic edifice of a hotel that looms above you from the highway, the Twenty Ten course is bold, monumental, ideal for big occasions, and capable of hosting many people. But, perhaps, it is not so easy to love.