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Letter from Europe

The Belfry, for all its quirks, has special meaning for a generation of golfers—and fans

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SUTTON COLDFIELD, England — OK, so The Belfry isn’t exactly The Old Course at St. Andrews or Augusta National when it comes to many things—history, atmosphere or classic architecture to name but three. But the mind’s eye is a wonderful and powerful thing. Even a short stroll around the premises, which hosts this week’s Betfred British Masters on the European Tour, prompts vivid flashbacks of daring deeds and magnificent shots, with a bit of agonizing failure adding to the mix, at four Ryder Cups—1985, 1989, 1993 and 2002.

Call it the great, the good and the gruesome.

On the 10th tee, the enduring image is of Seve Ballesteros, wielding a persimmon driver and hitting a balata ball, driving the green at the 311-yard par 4 back in 1989. The sight of Christy O’Connor Jr. hitting the shot of his life, a 2-iron to eight feet, lingers on the 18th fairway. As does the near shank perpetrated by Fred Couples minutes later.

The 18th green, of course, belongs to Sam Torrance, arms spread wide and tears in his eyes as he holed Europe’s first winning putt in 28 years back in 1985. Less gloriously and one day earlier on the same stage, Craig Stadler turning away after missing from no more than two feet—his left hand distinctively holding the back of his neck—is an equally persistent portrait. On the other hand, eight years later, Davis Love III was able to savor a “Torrance moment” as he clinched what remains the American’s most recent victory on European soil.

Then there is Nick Faldo’s hole-in-one at the short 14th in 1993. Or Paul Azinger’s persistently inept attempts at high-fiving his caddie in the immediate aftermath of holing-out from the bunker left of the 18th green in 2002. Or the sight of Colin Montgomerie inviting a jovial heckler from the crowd behind the practice range to “see if you can do any better.” Or Paul McGinley, 12 years before his winning captaincy at Gleneagles in 2014, diving into the pond fronting the final green after making the Cup-clinching putt.

Paul McGinley's "swim" at the 2002 Ryder Cup, after making the Cup clinching point, stands out among the unique memories from The Belfrey

Jamie Squire

There are many more examples on both sides of the ledger, but you get the idea.

“When you are one of my generation, this place is so associated with the Ryder Cup,” says Thomas Bjorn, who was part of the winning European team in 2002 and is the only member of the field this week who played in a Ryder Cup there. “Every one of the players I looked up to when I first came on tour played for Europe here. It has that connection for me. And back then, there was definitely a feeling that this was where the matches belonged. I have to be completely honest, too, today, the course is 10 times better than it was back then. It has grown over the years.”

That much is true, even if this week’s tournament is not likely to showcase the venue in anything approaching its best light. Cold spring weather has delayed the normal growth and heavy recent rain has left the fairways soggy. As a result, the depleted 152-man field (at 45th in the world, Bob MacIntyre is the highest-ranked player) will be employing preferred lies over the coming days.

None of which will be bothering Bjorn, however. The 50-year old Dane is relishing his return to the scene of his second Ryder Cup appearance.

“The 2002 Ryder Cup was special, and not just for me,” he says. “On paper, there was a huge gulf in class between the teams. So for us to do what we did was remarkable. The hotel has changed a bit since then, but my mind always goes back to Lee Westwood picking up a microphone and introducing every member of the side to the crowd in the bar after we won. That was so funny.”

Indeed, Welshman Philip Price still dines out on how he repeatedly encouraged Westwood to “tell them who I beat” that day. It remains doubtful if the man in question, Phil Mickelson, remembers the occasion with quite the same affection.

Since 2002, Europe’s home games in the Ryder Cup have been played in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France. But not England, a fact Bjorn would like to see rectified. Sooner or later, he doesn’t mind which.

“I walk around and think it would be great to see the Ryder Cup back here one day,” says Bjorn, who captained Europe to victory at Le Golf National outside Paris in 2018. “I’m not sure it will happen, but boy I would love to see it. I have to think I’m not alone, too. There is an older generation out there, players, fans, administrators and even media, who have great memories of Ryder Cups here.

“Those years formed the Ryder Cup we see today,” he continues. “Timing is everything and the timing was great. Our team had changed from Great Britain & Ireland to Europe and the whole thing exploded on the back of Seve, Nick, Sandy [Lyle], Ian [Woosnam] and Bernhard [Langer]. Then along came Ollie [Jose Maria Olazabal] and Monty. Having those magnificent players, at the time the best in the world,made the Ryder Cup competitive and special. We have great players now. I can’t argue against the present generation. But the guys I’m talking about were the building blocks for what we have now. They all seemed to win majors and be world number-one. They dominated the world of golf really.”

Thomas Bjorn shakes hands with Tiger Woods after making the winning putt on the 18th hole in his fourball match with Darren Clarke against Woods and Paul Azinger at the 2002 Ryder Cup.

JEFF HAYNES

More personally, Bjorn’s ever-active mind recalls 2002 as the time when he played in what he calls “my best Ryder Cup match.” Partnered by Darren Clarke, he holed from 10 feet on the 18th green to defeat Tiger Woods and Azinger.

“I’ve been part of a few great games, but that was my best performance,” he says, suddenly misty-eyed. “Darren was amazing that day. The way he played the first nine holes that day was incredible. It remains some of the best golf I’ve ever seen. He was one of those guys who liked the idea of playing in the Ryder Cup. He loved being out there. He had the ability to step up. Sergio [Garcia] is the same. And Lee. And Ian Poulter. Seve and Ollie were like that. So for me being here is a great reminder of what European golf is all about. The Belfry is just a special place for all of us on the European Tour.”

And special makes up for a lot.