VIRGINIA WATER, England – Wentworth’s West Course might have Ernie Els’ official stamp on the redesign, but owner Richard Caring had a hand in the course on which Europe’s elite will contest this week’s BMW PGA Championship.
Maybe too much of a hand – which could benefit Els.
This tournament is the European Tour’s pride and joy, its flagship event. In BMW the Tour has a five-star sponsor willing to put up the €4.5 million prize fund with €750,000 going to the winner. It has a first-class venue in Wentworth, a course that Europe’s elite will find very different this year.
The Tour has held its marquee event at Wentworth since 1984. Harry Colt laid out the West Course back in the 1920s, but the course is now nothing like it was in Colt’s day. The only thing Coltish about the layout now is the routing. Els is responsible for the rest . . . or maybe Caring.
Every green and bunker has been rebuilt. The bunker sand is so white it looks like it has been imported straight from Augusta National. The bunkers are so deep they wouldn’t look out of place on a links course. They are way too severe for handicap golfers, much to the chagrin of club members.
As for the greens, they have been seeded with Colonial Bent grass and built to USGA specifications.
Thomas Bjorn, chairman of the European Tour’s tournament committee, praised the new design.
“I think it’s a brilliant golf course,” Bjorn said. “As a championship course it asks all the right questions. For this championship I think it is fantastic. It’s a much better test than it was – and my opinion is the same on and off the record.”
Off the record, players are not so lavish in their praise.
Most of the negativity about the course is thrown at the eighth, 12th and 18th holes. The 391-yard, par-4 eighth hole still has water in front of the green but the putting surface is smaller. The 490-yard 12th has been changed from a par 5 to a par 4, but the green is quite undulating.
The biggest change comes at the 539-yard, par-5 18th. An artificial water hazard – a stream – has been placed in front of the green. The putting surface has been raised and made smaller. Throw in cavernous bunkers and players aren’t going to be attacking this green with the same vigor as in days gone by.
You won’t find any player this week going on record to condemn the golf course; European Tour rules forbid players from criticizing courses. However, the off-the-record comments were not good.
“I think it’s a travesty,” said one player.
“The old course might have been a bit outdated, but this is a bit too severe,” said another.
At least France’s Thomas Levet was willing to offer some constructive criticism.
“I think there are a lot of good things about the new design, but there are some things I don’t like,” Levet said. “The eighth green is a bit too severe. The problem with 12 is it still has a par-5 green, and it is too difficult to hold the ball on there with a long iron.
“Eighteen I like except that there is no bail-out area for the second shot. Not many guys are going to go for this green in two because there is no safe place to miss.”
Els admitted he and club owner Caring didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the proposed changes.
“Mr. Caring got very involved,” Els said. “He obviously spent a lot of money on the reconstruction of it, he’s an avid golfer and he’s got some great ideas. We had some great arguments out there on a lot of holes.”
Els admitted that he lost the argument on the 18th.
“I saw it a little bit different . . . I wanted the green a little bit lower than what it is right now. I think it could have maybe held the ball a little bit better.”
The 7,261-yard course now plays to a par of 71 against the old standard of 72. Els is bracing himself for the criticism coming his way when players discover it is now harder to score on the West.
He has the perfect out, however. The South African can pass the blame onto the owner.
He might be doing a lot of that this week.