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The "New" Wentworth

I was glad to hear one or two critical opinions about the changes made to the West Course at Wentworth. I have played it once, courtesy of the Wentworth directors. For their generosity, I remain grateful. But I found some of the changes distressing: not because they made some of the holes much more difficult but because the essential nature and look of the course had been hacked about in such an ugly way.
Most of the controversy has surrounded the eighteenth, but, oddly enough, I have no grouse with it at all. There were two eagles made by brave souls late in the fourth round: on the other hand Westwood and Donald took the safety first route. All well and good. There seemed to be plenty of drama for the punters in the hospitality areas. It seemed fine to me.
Ian Poulter disliked the new greens and bunkering at the 9th and 12th and Paul Casey too. To those I would add the 16th. It was such an innocent looking short par four with just the one fairway bunker on the left but it was a classic risk and reward hole. Feeling good you might reach for the driver – just a touch nervous and maybe a three iron. It certainly took it's toll and there were not all that many birdies as I remember. By putting in more fairway bunkers, the driver is no longer an option with everyone hitting rescue clubs or five woods for position. Then you turn the corner and are faced with a raised green, only half the flag stick showing and nasty looking bunkers glaring at you. The approach shot cannot be played by eye so the visitor has to check all sorts of yardage information to have a hope of a decent result. The pros have all that info to hand but it is not golf the way it was meant to be.
I wonder too at the problems of upkeep with all the new bunkering and the reshaping of the putting surfaces. I remember last year, the owner Richard Caring saying that he wanted to ensure that the course retained it's reputation as the finest inland course in the British Isles. Mr Sepp Blatter said “Crisis – what Crisis?” I say “Reputation – what Reputation?”. No course can bear such a claim if it is not kept to the very highest standards, at least most of the time. When I played soon after last years PGA, the greens were pretty ropey and at the short tenth, my ball was plugged on the downslope of the right hand bunker. That is not the stuff of any “best” course. And I do not recollect the Wentworth Course ever heading any of the various top hundred lists which appear from time to time in magazines.
I understand that a visitor will pay a green fee well in excess of three hundred pounds – quite a hit for the chap who tells his mates that he will pop in the shop and pay for all four. It must take hours and hours for even a reasonable handicap golfer to get round. Is it all worth it just to ensure that a winning score in a Championship is three or four shots more per round?
The only course I have played where increased difficulty has been achieved whilst retaining the charm of the original (SottoGrande New) lay out is Valderrama. This is done by the relatively simple expedient of having small, slopey greens – so that when you get out of position, it is the devil of a job to keep the damage down to a single shot. For the sake of the original architecture of Wentworth, I hope that somehow it matures and starts to look again a little more like it's former self.

Seve Ballesteros

Some thoughts at the death of Seve Ballesteros.

I never actually played with the great Seve. I was lucky enough to play a good deal with Gary Player. I had a round with Nick Faldo. I played in pro-ams with Lee Trevino and Sandy Lyle. Back in the dim and distant past, I played with Ryder Cuppers Eric Brown, Dai Rees and others of that generation. Bad luck, really, to miss out on the inimitable genius of the swashbuckling Spaniard from Pedrena.
But I loved to watch him and followed him all the way round in one of the match play events in the Autumn at Wentworth. Gone were the days of wild hitting and miraculous recoveries. This was the mature champion who hit the ball long and straight as well as tidying up with high quality chips and putts.
It was closely fought with Seve one up playing the par five 17th. His Japanese opponent Aoki, always so immaculate in tailor made trousers, missed the fairway right. Then he mishit to the right again. Seve was on the edge of the green for two, closing in for the kill. But he was robbed by a chip in and then a long putt against him at the eighteenth.
Come the following year, I happened to see the Ladbrokes odds in the Sporting Life. Twelve to one Ballesteros was on offer which was irresistible. I withdrew £500 in cash from the bank and called in at the Ladbrokes branch in Acton. I asked for £400 at 12 to 1 and £100 a place. “Just a minute , Sir” was the answer as the manager checked with HQ. “You can have £200 at 10 to 1 and no place bet” was the sneaky response. So I stomped off in high dudgeon without a bet of any kind.
Come the competition itself and plans were well advanced to go on holiday to France with Mrs Dexter but as the day of departure drew near it was apparent that Seve was going very well. Obviously I had mixed feelings, half of me wanting him to lose, the other half wanting him to win to prove my judgement right. But how on earth could I find a TV in France with the coverage?
My devious streak came up trumps with the idea of a romantic week end in Jersey as a stopover on the way. Which is how I came to watch him at his majestic best, winning the Final comfortably while I silently suffered the pangs of the frustrated gambler without a sniff of the £5000 pounds that might have been.
It was in practise for the next matchplay that there was further evidence of his superb control in that period of his career. One of the Sunningdale assistants had popped over to Wentworth and was lucky enough to catch Seve setting out on his own. He was given a courteous nod of assent when he asked if he might tag along as a lone spectator. Nothing was said for 16 holes until Seve called the young man over on the 17th tee.
“This tee shot is unfair” he said “ I show you”. He hit three drives: the first straight down the middle: the second tight to the out of bounds on the left and then the third with a lovely long draw into the left half of the fairway – all nominated beforehand. They walked down to find all three balls within a few feet of each other, but all in the right hand rough. “You see. It is not fair”. End of golf lesson!
One of my favourite golfing books is titled “The Masters of Golf” by Dick Altman and Ken Bowden. It is right up my street because every golf swing of the champions from Vardon through to Ballesteros is described at length and in meticulous detail. Incidentally, I once asked Henry Cotton who was the best ball striker he had seen in his long life and close acquaintance with so many of the great players. “Harry Vardon” he said without hesitation. But that is bye the bye.
The eulogy on Seve is 16 pages long as opposed to 12 on Tom Watson and only 10 on Sam Snead. Surprisingly perhaps, in view of Seve's reputation for wild shots, his swing mechanics are described as the nearest to perfection of all these great champions.
“A truly superb grip”: “Retaining perfect balance and stability”: The striking part of the action is about as good as there ever has been”: “Truly, this is a one-in-a-million golf swing and a golf swing for the ages”.
This all begs the question i.e. why did all this excellence not last him longer into the mid and late forties? He had back troubles but he is not the first golfer to endure that particular misery. I am sure that Freddie Couples could tell us all about that and yet he is back now hitting it straight and true.
Perhaps the intensity of his determination to compete simply burned out his nervous system. Or were the insidious effects of the brain tumour which killed him affecting his whole being long before the problem was diagnosed?
None of that matters now. What we will all remember is his spirit and personality which lit up the world golfing scene for so long.