Newport, Wales – The hills that define the Usk Valley are not so tall, nor are they so steep. Instead, soothing to the eye, they are covered with a quilt in shades of green. The patches define farms producing maize, barley, rapeseed and the grazing grasses for dairy cattle and sheep.
This, then, is the lush background for two dozen of the world’s finest golfers as they compete during the first three days of October in the Ryder Cup. That every-other-year tournament pits a team of Americans against a team of Europeans.
And this year, for the first time in its 83-year history, the matches will be played on a course built just for this competition: the 3-year old Twenty Ten Course, at the Celtic Manor Resort.
There is no prize money at stake; rather the tourney is about national pride. A place on one of the 12-man teams is ranked just below winning one of golf’s four majors. The Americans won the Cup in 2008, in Kentucky, but the Europeans had won five of the six contests before that.
In a bit of irony, when the Europeans won in 2006, it was Wales’ greatest golfer, Ian Woosnam, who was team captain – the non-playing leader and strategist.
This year when the Cup is contested in Wales for the first time, the European captain is Scotsman Colin Montgomerie – undefeated in head-to-head play in his eight Ryder Cup appearances. And Montgomerie has tried to boost the home-course advantage:
“Monty came by some time ago,’’ confides Matt Barnaby, golf operations manager at Celtic Manor. “He walked the course and decided the fairways were too wide. He had them narrowed, to favor the European players’ style of play.’’
Was American captain Corey Pavin allowed similar input? “No,’’ Barnaby told me recently, “this is our course.’’
A visual treat
Watched by those holding 45,000 spectators’ tickets, plus millions on TV, the competitors will face a course that plays 7,493 yards from the back tees. Par is 71, with water on nine holes.
“The course sits on what was largely marshland,’’ explained Butler, as he steered us carefully in a cart – none are allowed on the course lest they damage the fairways.
“The land was built up to avoid flooding, and there are pipes under the fairways, and sand under the greens’’ to promote drainage after Wales’ frequent rains.
Even after the course was designed, it had to be re-shaped a reported dozen times when archaeological ruins dating to the Roman occupation were uncovered.
“It took a couple of years to actually build the course,’’ continued Barnaby as he snaked the cart this way and that. Since being finished in 2007, “The greens have firmed up, trees have continued to grow … though there are not so many trees in the field of play.’’
Several do line the right side of the dogleg, 377-yard, 15th hole, blocking the view of the green from the tee. The average golfer has to drive it far and straight on this par 4. “But we had the Welsh championship here in 2009,’’ said Barnaby, “and most of them just shot over the trees.’’
After that challenge, the par-4 16th is 508 yards fairly straight to the hole, but it has a narrow fairway that slopes to one side and has deep bunkers on either side of the fairway and guarding the green. The par-3 17th is a straight 211 yards, but it is followed by one of the Twenty Ten’s true challenges:
No easy holes
A monstrous 613 yards, the par-5 18th is a slight dogleg to the left, but it’s the approach to the green that will test the world’s best. The relatively small green is elevated above, and slopes toward, the fairway. Just off the fringe, that downward slope angles steeply into a pond. Hitting the ball short, or even to the wrong place on the green, could mean having to take a drop.
Yet Barnaby, who had never played a round of golf when he got to Celtic Manor after graduating college 6 years ago, said he believes hole No. 5 may be the most difficult.
Measuring 457 yards and a par 4, it is a right-to-left dogleg. Golfers must clear trees and bunkers with their tee shot but not hit into a further bunker at the far edge before that dogleg. Then the approach to the green is down a tree-lined fairway, with a stream on one side and deep sand traps fronting the green.
Whether the Europeans will be aided by the narrower fairways, they have a slight advantage off the course: In the 2 ½-year-old clubhouse behind the 18th green, they will relax and hold meetings in the clubby, purpose-built members’ lounge, which has a long bar and a large fireplace.
The Yanks, just a few yards away, will have to make do in what is now the clubhouse dining room: Lots of floor-to-ceiling window views of the course, but no wood-paneled walls, no fireplace, no bar.
One floor below, the carpeted locker room will be split down the middle by temporary partitions. The nameplates of the 170 current members (£3,000 pounds, or about $4,330 to join, plus £3,000 for yearly dues) will be removed from the doors of the polished wood lockers.
The adjacent shower room will also be partitioned. And lest the players forget why they are here, the frosted glass doors on the red-tiled shower stalls read, in script, the Twenty Ten.
If you go
The 2010 Ryder Cup will take place from Sept. 28-Oct. 3 in Newport, about 90 minutes by car or train from London, a little longer by train from Heathrow and Gatwick airports, about 40 minutes from the Welsh capital of Cardiff. There will be a park-and-ride plan from the nearby city of Newport and about 16,000 temporary seats will be erected throughout much of the course.
Sept. 28-30 are for practice rounds. On the first two days of the Cup, two-man teams from each side compete, under different rules. In fourball, each golfer plays his own shots, and the team whose player has the lowest score on that hole wins the hole. If a players from each team tie for the best score, the hole is halved.
Also during the first two days, the teams will compete in foursomes: two golfers for each team take turns hitting just one ball.
On the last day, there are 12 singles matches, pitting one player from each side against an opponent. A team’s scores over the three days are totaled to see which side of the Atlantic gets to host the Ryder Cup for the next two years.
To learn more, book tickets or accommodations, go to these sites:
Welsh golf packages including accommodations can be booked at sites such as www.rarebits.co.uk and www.golfasitshouldbe.com.