It took a lot to prize James Bledge from Royal Cinque Ports but the lure of The Open was just too tantalising. ‘Bledge’ spent nine happy years at Deal, before decamping to Royal Liverpool to fulfil a dream of hosting the world’s oldest major.
It’s been all hands to the pump since, with the Links Manager embracing the challenge of preparing a course for the planet’s best golfers.
With the countdown in its final stages, James came on the From the Clubhouse podcast and we asked him what goes into putting on this championship and learned about the course’s newest attraction – the par 3 17th.
You arrived at the start of 2022 knowing The Open was coming to Royal Liverpool this year. What has that period been like?
I’ve got a great team around me and if you plan and prepare well you can’t fail. From the second I got the job, even working my notice period at Deal, I started planning for this event. Every little thing now is just a little tinker, a little change.
It will be great to show the masses one day, but no one will ever understand how much work goes into this. The more mind-blowing thing is all the stuff behind the scenes.
It’s just unbelievable – whether that be road networking, all the services, the grandstands, the tenting, security, all the scenarios in case things go wrong. There are a lot of heroes out here and I just play a small part in the cog.
There’s a lot of people, I guess, that make me look good and make my work look good but the team goes well beyond the greenstaff. There are a lot of people involved in the biggest championship in the world.
What’s the feeling like around the club and around the members? Is there universal excitement about The Open coming?
They’re absolutely buzzing. I don’t hear any negatives. They’re so excited to play among the stands. With Hoylake being flat on the opening holes, and with the stands and tents up and the dimensions of those, we’re playing through channels of infrastructure. It’s unreal. There’s no better feeling.
For anyone who’s played an Open course with the stands up, the ball sounds different. Probably the most enjoyable shot of my life was when I played off the 1st at Royal St George’s a couple of nights after The Open.
The noise of the driver ricocheting around the stand is just incredible. These guys are getting to play it day in and day out and they love it.
We played off mats on all fairways from last October and moved on to mat zones. We had about 10, and the members said, ‘let’s just have 18 mat zones. We want to give them the best golf course we can’. They’re 100 per cent on board, 100 per cent excited. They absolutely love it.
How long have you been in Open mode for? Have you started prepping from the day you arrived?
Exactly that. From the day dot, documents get put on your desk saying, ‘this is what we need. We need these areas cut down for infrastructure, we need this extended, this is going to be coming on this day’. Then you start planning your Open team, looking for sponsors for all your clothing, thinking who could do what job.
You’re working back from The Open to see what areas need to be done at what point. It’s like a domino effect. If I need this guy to come in and do this part, then I need this part to work first.
The new 17th hole is attracting a lot of attention. Tell us a bit about it?
You’re hitting towards the sea. It’s 133 yards off The Open tee. It’s a 330 square yard green – a very small green sloping gradually from back to front. We’ve got a false front and a very deep sand scrape. On the left, we’ve got a deep bunker. Over the back, we’ve got a scrape and on the right we’ve got a postage stamp-esque bunker.
I’ve worked hard to get the rough over the back of the green growing up. Balls that go a little bit long used to end up in the scrape but now they stick up.
I’m not a golfer in the slightest, anyone will tell you that, and the last two times I’ve played it I’ve birdied it and then hit it to five feet and missed.
If the wind blows, though, it’s going to be totally different. If it blows an absolute gale, I’ve hit 4-iron in there because we’re going uphill and it can completely take your ball away. But we’re talking about the best guys in the world here and they need to be challenged.
It’s a stunning golf hole. Aesthetically, it looks beautiful. It doesn’t stand out because we’ve built more sandscrapes along the course now. It’s weathered beautifully.
It’s iconic and what better way to finish an Open and have people gripped on the edge of their armchairs? It will be up there with the 17th at Sawgrass when it comes to exciting finishes.
To listen to the whole conversation, click the link to hear the From the Clubhouse podcast. And let us know what you think about this year’s championship at Royal Liverpool by tweeting us.
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