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  • Alistair Tait

Should Golf Courses Be Listed?

Should classic golf courses be listed in the way fine old houses are given Grade I, or Grade II listings to ensure they retain the characteristics the original architect intended? If that was the case, I wonder if the West Course at Wentworth would look as it does now?

What would Harry Colt think if he were to reincarnate on the 18th green? Would he even recognise the hole? Would he struggle to find his own handiwork anywhere, on that hole or any other on the famous Burma Road layout? (The photo above depicts the statue of long-time club professional Bernard Gallacher on the West Course first tee.)

Many golf clubs, especially those like Wentworth with a history of staging big tournaments, have no choice but to make revisions given the huge increase in distance today’s elite players hit the golf ball.

Thirty years ago, tour pros capable of hitting 280 yard drives were considered veritable beasts. Spaniard Manuel Moreno averaged 280.1 yards per drive in 1990 to lead the European Tour in driving distance. Scroll forward 30 years, and Wilco Nienaber averaged 340.47 yards last year. England’s Ashley Chesters fell just short of Moreno’s total. He averaged 280.34 yards to rank 154th in driving distance. Nienaber is leader again this year, but he’s reigned back to “just” 324.28 yards. Hitting 280-yard tee shots now ranks 173rd. Sweden’s Alexander Bjork is averaging 280.72.

Understandably, golf courses like Wentworth have to be lengthened as a result. Wentworth measured 6,945 yards when Moreno was unleashing his 280 yard bombs. It’s 7,267 yards this week, not long by modern standards.

The beginning of the end for Colt’s West course handiwork probably came in 2005 when BMW PGA Championship winner Angel Cabrera reached the supposedly long par-4, 3rd with a drive and a 9-iron. Cue a massive redesign by Wentworth resident Ernie Els which completely changed the character of the West Course. That design resulted in some Wentworth members petitioning the club for a separate membership for just the Edinburgh and East courses, and to hell with bunkers on the West so deep it was well-nigh impossible for ordinary golfers to get out of them without picking the ball up and chucking it out. It also led to a practice ground argument during the PGA Championship between Els and former Wentworth resident Thomas Bjorn. The European Tour could have charged admission tickets for that heavy-weight contest. Bjorn clearly won the argument because Els had to make revisions to his revision.

Chinese conglomerate Reignwood has made further changes since buying the course for £135 million in 2014 and getting rid of swathes of members.

It begs the question: how much of Harry Colt is actually left in the Wentworth West Course?

Martin Ebert knows all about making revisions to a Colt classic. He spruced up Royal Portrush for the 2019 Open Championship, a job that included adding two new holes. It was not a role he took on lightly.

“There is a fair amount of trepidation when you make major alterations to a classic course, especially at Portrush,” Ebert told me ahead of the 2019 Open Championship. “What was very much at the forefront of my mind was that this is a Harry Colt classic, and the members are so proud of that heritage. So it was a real concern.”
“Golf course should move on because the game moves on, but changes should only be made once the history and evolution of the course has been fully considered."

You won’t find many casting aspersions on the work Ebert did at Portrush. The Colt characteristics are still there. Can that be said about the Wentworth West? Good question.

Anyone who plays this game knows courses often have to be protected from a few greens committee chairs or even new owners who want to leave their mark by making changes not in keeping with the architect’s original design. Maybe our classic courses need grade listings after all.

#JustSaying: “Golf course architects makes me sick. They can’t play themselves, so they rig the courses so nobody else can play either.” Sam Snead

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