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Worth The Wait?

Consternation over the course alterations at Wentworth's West Course.

Posted May 24, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

simon khan

If the objective was to toughen the West Course at Wentworth against modern technology, then the changes wrought by Ernie Els have to be considered an unqualified success. Simon Khan's winning aggregate of 278 in the BMW/PGA Championship last weekend was, in fact, four strokes higher than the record of 274 which Christy O'Connor Snr set for the course in the Daks Tournament of 1959.
So it would appear that Els has nothing to reprove himself about.  Yet he appeared to be extremely sensitive to the criticisms of tournament colleagues about the changes, when they were asked their opinions by Wentworth's media.  Els took the view that any complaints they may have had, should have been made directly to him.
Against this background, it may be no harm to remind Ernie of a comment by Harry S Colt, the original designer of the West Course. Indeed Colt was also responsible for Wentworth's East Course among many fine designs in these islands and further afield.
"An architect's earnest hope," he said, "is, without doubt, that his courses will have the necessary vitality to resist possibly adverse criticisms and will endure as a lasting record of his craft and of his love for his work."
Meanwhile, in his fascinating writings on the craft of golf-course architecture, Colt remarked that the challenge of wrestling with difficult, unsuitable conditions "is, no doubt, one of the many charms of this occupation." He added that with skilful treatment and an adequate supply of money, relaxation and sport can be obtained "from almost any locality, provided the land be not too mountainous."
In describing Colt's design skills, Bernard Darwin, the father of modern golfwriting, referred to him as "an eminently sane architect." And we had good reason to admire the pragmatism behind his design of the West Course when it played host to countless, leading tournaments over the years, including the Ryder Cup and the World Matchplay Championship.    
Now that it has undergone an overdue remodelling, criticism centres mainly on the new 18th which remains a par-five but with a serpentine stream eventually fronting the green, not unlike the par-four 18th at Carnoustie.  Some players disliked the extent to which the green has been elevated, so making the putting surface very difficult to hold with a long approach shot.
We're told that Wentworth's members now play the hole as a fairly standard, three-shot par-five, reaching the green with a drive and something like five-wood and seven-iron second and third shots.  In his own attempts at it, Els reduced it to no more than a three-wood and seven iron on one of the days of the PGA and Padraig Harrington, who had no problems with the design, held it beautifully with a five-wood second shot on Sunday.
All of which reminded me of Nick Faldo when he played the Irish Open at Killarney in 1991 and 1992.  While many of his rivals were whining endlessly about the difficulty of the par-four 17th with its elevated, shallow green, Faldo's reaction was: "It's difficult, it's playable and it's there."  And by way of demonstrating the power of positive thinking, he outscored them all to win the tournament both years.  
Richard Caring, Wentworth's owner, manfully shouldered the blame for the controversial 18th while pointing out that he himself had insisted on its raised character.  And seeing it as a mistake, he indicated that spectators would see an altered finishing hole at next year's championship.   
My view is that he should do nothing hasty.  The fact that tournament professionals dislike a certain hole, could be interpreted as its most positive endorsement.
Indeed before succumbling to the temptation to condem the work of Els and Caring at Wentworth, we should note Colt's words regarding public recognition. As he put it: "Few (players) perhaps realise how difficult it is to arrange for the natural features to provide to the fullest possible extent, the necessary excitement for the course, and to supplement these features without destroying the natural beauty of the site."
In this context, one imagines that last weekend's pros were thinking more about the passing of an easy, closing birdie or possible eagle, than the quality of its replacement.

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