BRIDGEND, WALES | A pleasurable surprise befell me last week. I knew that the Senior Open was to be held at my golf club, Royal Porthcawl near Bridgend in South Wales, and I wanted it, one of the most outstanding links courses in the United Kingdom, to look at its magnificent best. To my pleasure, it was. There was not a hair out of place nor a grain of sand nor a strand of grass. “Your club looks great on TV,” a friend texted from the US. How right he was.
Darren Clarke last played the course nearly 40 years ago and had forgotten about it. “It’s [expletive] exceptional,” he told me on Friday. “I love the shape of some of the holes and the movement. It reminds me of Royal Portrush. It’s a little short for an Open, but it is good enough to have one, and the length issue could easily be sorted out.”
Television cameras 100 feet high captured the ebb and flow of play on the golf course and occasionally swung away to look up or down the coast, and at those playing on the adjacent beach. In a previous Senior Open, one in calmer, sunnier weather, comparisons had been made with Pebble Beach, which were in no way demeaning to Royal Porthcawl.
Its practice ground, rather like its atmospheric wooden clubhouse crouched down near the sea, is a thing of beauty. Lined by flags and by the TV compound and the physio truck that is a staple at all events these days, on Saturday, when it was bathed in sunshine, it resembled an empty battleground, an empty boxing ring, a perfect place to warm up in the calm before the storm. That is exactly what it was.
To be a member of a golf club staging an event such as the Senior Open is to be aware of how much work goes on in advance. In the run-up to the event, grass mats were issued to members to protect the fairways. Volunteers regularly went out onto the course and replaced divots.
Saturday was a typical day at the seaside, one when sailors would rub their hands, and faint hearts who play their sport on a more protected inland course might prefer to give golf a miss. There was enough blue in the sky to repair a sailor’s uniform, as my mother would say. Rain threatened but did not appear. At the beginning of the day, a gentle wind brushed the links, but by teatime it had risen to 20 mph or even more. Flags were flapping vigorously. For the players, it was a battle against the elements and the course, and given that no player in the field was able to break the par of 71, it could be said that the competitors lost the battle.
Peter McEvoy, the amateur and links enthusiast, told the story of he and a friend playing a links course in links-like weather – windy, occasionally wet and perhaps a little chilly. Standing on a tee late in the round, McEvoy remarked to his companion: “Aren’t we lucky? We could be playing in 95 degrees in southern Spain.”
To be a member of a golf club staging an event such as the Senior Open is to be aware of how much work goes on in advance. In the run-up to the event, grass mats were issued to members to protect the fairways. Volunteers regularly went out onto the course and replaced divots. Members were advised they needed passes to enter their own clubhouse and car park. “No ticket, no passes,” was the stern admonition in one recent correspondence sent to members.
There were pleasures, though, not least seeing top players practising their chipping on the very chipping green I use. I felt a frisson of excitement when Miguel Ángel Jiménez failed to get out of a bunker on the 11th. “I’ve been in that bunker, too,” I thought to myself as Jiménez’s ball did not reach the putting surface and slowly dribbled back to his feet. “And I couldn’t get out of it, either.”
I was struck by the fact that I didn’t feel as though I knew the course I thought I knew like the back of my hand. A grandstand here made a hole look entirely different. So did a new path slicing its way through rough. A little village of vans selling coffee and ice cream out in a dell on the course was unfamiliar and added to the confusion. As did the fact that, as at Hoylake in the Open the week before, the rotation was not as we the members play it. Our 17th became the 18th just as Royal Liverpool’s first became the Open’s third.
Peter Evans, our estimable head pro, received a phone call at 9:28 on Saturday morning. “Peter, we need a marker please. You’re on the tee at 10 a.m.” He had time to hit a couple of drives, a chip and a putt before he made his appearance on the first tee of his own club to play alongside Switzerland’s André Bossert. What happened then was the stuff of dreams. Playing into a strong wind, he struck two magnificent shots with a driver to 12 feet.
Considering that less than an hour before he had only just left his breakfast table, that was some effort. So was his score of 76, 5-over the scorecard’s par but given the difficult conditions probably only 1- or 2-over. “Now I can say I have played in the Senior Open at my own course,” he said, beaming.
At the end of a week of fairly brutal weather, the golf course had stood up to the best. Indeed, given some of the scores, it had well and truly beaten some of them.
All week the talk had been of whether, if and when Royal Porthcawl might stage the Open. Wales is the only one of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not to have held this venerable event. Mark Drakeford, Wales’ first minister, wearing his usual grey suit, white shirt and red tie, was on the first tee on Thursday talking up his government’s enthusiasm for an Open in Wales – and the sort of financial commitment the government might make to such an event.
The week before, the New York Times had run an article headlined “Wales Has a Prince, But It Has Never Hosted a British Open.” The difficulty is the amount of land needed for an Open’s infrastructure and that Porthcawl’s current shape limits the number of spectators. Daily attendances for the Open at Hoylake during the previous week were more than 40,000. Royal Porthcawl, as it currently is laid out, can accommodate only a fraction of that total.
At the end of a week of fairly brutal weather, the golf course had stood up to the best. Given the scores, it had well and truly beaten some of them. Colin Montgomerie's fourth round, for example, was a 17-over 88. Its merit as a possible Open course is not in doubt; its current layout is. I wonder whether in my lifetime I will see the game’s oldest championship played on one of the game’s greatest links?
Top: Royal Porthcawl says goodnight.
DAVID CANNON, GETTY IMAGES