'The Belfry is probably the best course designed for matchplay either side of the Atlantic'September 11, 2018 History
George Oldham reminisces and revisits The Belfry, the Ryder Cup’s spiritual home and venue of Europe’s first victory
The Ryder Cup in Europe today is a peripatetic movable feast, having left its original English base for, in order, Spain, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and, this year, France.
This is possibly as it should be, involving all the nations who contribute to the team and positioning the Ryder Cup as a global phenomenon. The likelihood is that the next decade will see it anchored on the continent, with Rome already fixed for 2022 and surely with the likes of Germany, Belgium and either Denmark or Sweden to follow.
However, I can’t help regretting that England, and The Belfry, is unlikely to be in with a shout for some time. This is not simply sentiment based on the classic matches that have been played there but also for the fact that it is probably the best course designed for matchplay either side of the Atlantic.
Having played all the subsequent venues; Valderrama, the K Club, Celtic Manor and Gleneagles, I stand by the view that none of them have comparable matchplay holes such as the iconic 10th and 18th at The Belfry, nor indeed, a layout so perfectly designed for the cut and thrust of matchplay.
Granted, the National might make me eat my words; I have played it twice and it is outrageously and theatrically dramatic. Millions of tons of rubble and topsoil have been imported to turn flat farmland into a sculpted landscape with vast spectator mounds. Artificial lakes abound, with water on 11 holes.
Yes, it’s artificial, but what artifice! I am even prepared to admit that the 18th might be the equal of The Belfry’s for drama and that there might well be the equivalent of a Torrance moment which will last as long in the memory. However, on the basis that the absolutely ideal course exists in England, and is even better now with maturity, it seems a pity that the Ryder Cup is unlikely to return soon to this classic course.
It was not always so. When it was first mooted that the Ryder Cup should be played in 1981 at the new PGA HQ in the Midlands on a new course designed by Dave Thomas and Peter Alliss, the proposal was met with horror; ‘potato field’ seemed to be the most common description of the intended venue. Things actually got worse; delays in construction necessitated a late change to Walton Heath.
Neither was all well on the playing front. For years the USA had routinely given the Great Britain and Ireland team a hiding until, in 1979, at Jack Nicklaus’ suggestion, the whole of Europe was represented in the hope that the matches would be more even. At first, it didn’t work out that way; under the captaincy of John Jacobs, the new European team lost 17-11, and two years later, at Walton Heath, it was even worse, 18.5-9.5.
Things were, however, transformed with the appointment of Tony Jacklin as captain. In Florida his revitalised team narrowly lost, but in 1985, with the Belfry now up to scratch, his team, which included Faldo, Langer, Woosnam and Lyle, Torrance sank the putt on the 18th which brought the first victory in 28 years against the Americans and cemented the link between Ryder Cup success and The Belfry. The matches were to return a further three times, making The Belfry its spiritual home.
By way of a pilgrimage then, I re-visited the Belfry to remind myself of the setting of the matches played there when Europe was resurgent. It was five years since I had last played there and I found both the hotel and the course transformed as a result of the recent £22m investment.
In truth, the hotel had been looking tired, but ‘opulent’ now best describes it, and it was packed. By prior agreement, I met up with Angus Macleod, the Director of Golf Maintenance for a chat and briefing prior to my round, and a very useful meeting it was too.
Angus’ enthusiasm for the course is quite intoxicating and obviously genuine. His account of the changes he has made to the course in the six years he has been in charge, is fascinating, and consequently I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with the course.
Frankly, it was a revelation. The trees, now mature and richly diverse, make every hole a separate room. The sward, now with 40 years of care, is like a carpet, the greens true and fast, and all beautifully manicured. Certainly, The Belfry is now one of the prettiest inland courses in the UK, but more than that, the challenge in every hole makes it one of the great golf experiences.
Additionally, there is the overlay of Ryder Cup memories. Play the 10th, on which Angus has reinstated the famous three bunkers and you immediately think of Seve going for it, put the ball in the lake on the 18th, as I did, and the memories of various Americans also doing so bring a smile to your face.
This year I have had the great pleasure of playing my two favourite courses, Turnberry and Kingsbarns, but I enjoyed my round at The Belfry every bit as much. Memorable and unmissable.