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The Belfry

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Some courses are born great, some achieve greatness and others—like the The Belfry’s Brabazon Course—have greatness thrust upon them

By: Nick Edmund

Appeared in September/October 2001 LINKS

It has become fashionable, especially in Europe and particularly among golf-design critics, to bash—or at least belittle— the Brabazon Course at The Belfry. Their jabs notwithstanding, the Ryder Cup returns to its habitual British home base the final week of September for the eagerly awaited 34th edition of the transatlantic rivalry.

Lest anyone accuse us of being out of step, we’ll begin by “rubbishing” The Belfry. Its Brabazon Course could never be said to exemplify classic British golf. Situated 10 miles north of Birmingham, The Belfry—a hotel, golf and country club complex now comprising 54 holes—is a mere 25 years old. The Brabazon’s design, or at least its original design, for there have been several makeovers, was inspired by 1970s American course architecture, a style today’s critics regard with disdain.

The layout’s most obvious features are its numerous and varied water hazards; its sprawling, often shallow and always pristinely white fairway bunkers, and its wealth of spectator-friendly mounding. There is plenty of strategy but not too much subtlety. The terrain is essentially flat and, though attractively landscaped, the course is surrounded by suburbia. There are no sweeping changes in elevation and, consequently, no sweeping views. What you see is what you get, but you have to squint to see it.

So how is it that The Belfry has been selected to host golf’s greatest team event four times in 16 years? If the Brabazon is as flawed as some say, then only politics or parochialism could allow it to stage all those Ryder Cups. Since its inception, The Belfry has been the home of the British PGA and, historically, this body has had a crucial say in choosing the venue whenever the Ryder Cup is contested in Europe. Thus, the case for undue favoritism is one you could easily make.

But, climbing down from our high horse, we might ask what are the qualities that make The Belfry such a favorite with the general golfing public and far more popular with professionals than the critics would have you believe?

The Belfry’s history may be quite recent but to explore it is to chart the rise of European golf, for the two are inextricably linked. When a European thinks of The Belfry, he invariably thinks of Seve Ballesteros. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Seve was the Continent’s equivalent of Arnold Palmer. His dashing looks and daring play—a brand of golf every bit as swashbuckling and audacious as Arnie’s—ignited the public’s imagination. For Arnold’s par-4 first at Cherry Hills in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open, sub in the par-4 10th at The Belfry in the 1978 Hennessy Cup (a match between Great Britain & Ireland and Europe). Here a plaque beside the championship tee relates how Seve became the first player to drive the green—or rather, à la Palmer, the first to achieve it in front of the watching  eye of television cameras. And it was Seve at The Belfry in 1985 who led Europe to its first Ryder Cup success in 28 years. For sure, Tony Jacklin was the European captain and Sam Torrance holed the winning putt, but Seve was the talisman. The decision to take the contest back to The Belfry in 1989 was made in the euphoric aftermath of that victory. When this subsequent encounter resulted in a just-as-stunning tie (14-14), back it went to The Belfry in 1993.

A critic might conclude that The Belfry was a more or less blank canvas onto which all this glory and drama was painted, that the course was merely in the right place at the right time. Perhaps it was, and is, for its central location at a transportation crossroads is still considered highly important by event organizers. But it is hard to argue with those who defend the Brabazon Course as a match-play natural whose features and hazards encourage dramatic, plot-twisting golf. Obviously, these defenders cite the three Ryder Cups as evidence, and their examples abound.

For the 2001 competition, the Brabazon Course has undergone a number of architectural nip-and-tucks, mostly to tees and bunkers, although significant changes were made to three holes, which may add to the drama. The third, formerly a long par-4, is now a dogleg-left par-5 with a lake to be carried on the second shot; the fourth, which was a par-5, was converted to a long par-4 with a new, more vigorously sloped green; and the par-3 12th was shortened from 234 to 204 yards and is now guarded by a lake.

An abundance of water hazards will never delight the traditionalist, but ponds and lakes do spice up a round, and they certainly increase pressure in match-play golf.  Like it or not, the 10th and 18th holes on the Brabazon Course don’t just photograph nicely, they have also staged some of the most gasp-inducing turnabouts (as we hate to remind Mark Calcavecchia and Fred Couples) in recent memory.

For the strong attacking player, the 10th encapsulates risk and reward. Measuring a little over 300 yards (but shorter from the more forward fourball tees), its stage-like green is partially concealed by trees and guarded by a creek-turned-pond to the front and left. From the tee a good player must decide whether to lay up or go for the green. In stroke play, the latter option courts disaster—the potential reward being a putt for an eagle—but of course in match play, where with eight holes to play failure is less ruinous, the temptation to go for it can be tough to resist and truly the appropriate play.

The much longer, left-angling 18th, with its vast, three-tiered green, is a very demanding hole at the best of times; in match play, when it is always pivotal, it has the capacity to break hearts. In Ryder Cups it has witnessed many humbling moments—the great and the good succumbing to a watery grave with either the drive or the approach—as well as one or two career-defining shots. Most notable of those is Christy O’Connor’s magnificent 2-iron to two feet that ensured Europe’s retention of the trophy in 1989.

Of course, the fact that two of the Brabazon’s holes have orchestrated so many thrilling moments in a relatively short period of time will not appease the purists. “Pure golf, or pure theatre?” they ask. And while they wouldn’t demean themselves by showing up at The Belfry, be assured that even the fiercest critics of the course will be glued to their television screens when the drama unfolds. Moreover, thoughts as to the architectural merits of the Brabazon Course will hardly be foremost in the minds of the American and European players when the curtain rises in late September: On stage or off stage, they will be quaking in their spikes.

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