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The rise and fall of the troubled Burma Road

21 March, 2017

The rise and fall of the troubled Burma Road

Will lost love return to the West course at Wentworth?

Ten years ago, Wentworth’s West course was ranked in our World Top 100. Looking further back, thirty-eight years, in fact, the Burma Road was listed in Golf Magazine’s inaugural world top fifty. Since 1979, the West commenced a gradual fall from favour before tumbling into world ranking obscurity.

The catalyst for its fall from grace accelerated after the renovation programme that commenced in 2006 under the guidance of Ernie Els. New tiger tees were built, stretching the challenge to more than 7,300 yards from the tips and around thirty new bunkers were added. This work was deemed necessary to make the course sufficiently challenging for the top professionals when they came to leafy Virginia Water for the annual PGA Championship – the European Tour’s flagship event.

The tee and bunkering changes were generally well received and one of our regular contributors posted the following comments in his 2006 review:

“The changes at Wentworth have certainly improved the course. From the back it plays a very long 7,300+ yards (circa 300 yards extension), and from the yellows it is more than 6,700. Therefore, there is no real change in the length for us normal folk – just the pros. The best changes, for me, are on 1 and 18, both of which are a lot better due to extra bunkers. The first hole used to feel very open and lacking in definition, combined with the fact that it was short (as a par five – not as a four for the pros) and the green was not too guarded. Now, two bunkers frame the fairway about half way down, around driving distance, and they add a much better sense of definition. Combined with extra bunkering around the green, it makes you think more rather than taking the hole for granted (provided you didn’t go into the trees).

The 18th is an even bigger transformation around the green, with no less than six new greenside bunkers, making a total of eight, and another a few yards short of the green. If that were not enough, Ernie has now decided to add another bunker around the green (which is currently being worked on), meaning that the green is almost completely surrounded. This makes an easy hole much tougher if you wanted to toy with the green in two. Apart from these two holes, the changes are subtler from the yellow tees, involving fairway and greenside bunkers on several holes – none of which make a huge difference to the feel of the course other than tightening things up, which, after all, was the intention.”

Despite these considered improvements, why did the famous West course continue to slide down the rankings? If we look a lot further back in time we might find an answer.

Referring to the West course as the Tiger course in Golf Between Two Wars, Bernard Darwin astutely pointed out that: “It is a little hard to assign the Wentworth country as a whole to any precise class. There is heather and there are trees and yet it is not quite of the same nature as its near neighbour, Sunningdale. It is set in park-like surroundings, and yet it is certainly not what is usually called a park course. It is a cross between the two, although the Tiger Course has about it least of the park and most of the heathery character.”

Back in the early 1930s, the West course was more heath than park. Over the years the trees have grown and the heather has declined. Nowadays the West course is much more parkland than heathland.

But does any of this matter as far as recognition and rankings are concerned? It depends is never a good answer, but it really does seem to depend on which side of the Atlantic a course is located.

Historically, world golf course rankings have been the preserve of American magazines, or to be precise, the territory of one US glossy, Golf Magazine. In the new millennium other publications, including our team at Top 100 Golf Courses, started to rank the world top one hundred. All these ranking lists are dominated by US parkland courses such as Oakmont (designed by the relatively unknown father and son team of Henry and William Fownes), Merion (fashioned by Hugh Wilson) and the Olympic Club (designed by Willie Watson). None of the aforementioned golf course architects are well known outside the cognoscenti.

How is it possible that the West course, designed by Harry Colt and host to the Ryder Cup, World Matchplay and far too many other important tournaments to mention, is very much inferior when compared directly to many American parkland courses?

There is no doubt that some courses will always be highly regarded due to their type, location and history. The cognoscenti will argue that it’s all down to land and design but the reality is that parkland courses are not in vogue, unless the course happens to be in the right bit of the USA. British and Irish links courses are permanent anchors in the world rankings, the heathland courses of west London and the classic Melbourne sandbelt courses predominate. If a non-US course has a seaside location then it’s in with a fighting chance, but if it’s set inland and has too many trees, simply forget it.

In June 2009, the West course at Wentworth closed for its greens to be rebuilt to USGA specification with the poa turf reseeded with colonial bent grass and, among other changes, the installation of a 100-yard brook lining the front of the newly raised 18th green. The course re-opened ahead of the 2010 PGA Championship following a £6.5 million project to establish it as one of the world’s finest inland golf courses.

Ahead of the 2010 PGA Championship, architect Ernie Els said: “Everyone knows that Wentworth is a place that is very special to me and that the West Course has always been one of my favourite courses in the world. My personal view is that the changes we’ve made have enhanced this wonderful golf course in every conceivable way; aesthetically, strategically and perhaps most significantly in the quality of the playing surfaces, especially the greens, which will perform and putt as well as anything you’ll see on The European Tour.”

The new-look Burma Road received mainly positive comments from the pros during and after the 2010 PGA Championship, but Paul Casey argued that the changes had stripped the West course of its character, while others bemoaned the quality of the greens.

During the 2011 championship Ian Poulter made his feelings crystal clear: “I don't like this golf course. Period. End of story.” He went on to say: “Some of the fun of the last few holes has been taken away.” Richard Caring, Wentworth’s billionaire owner at that point, subsequently stated that he had not quite got it right first time. Caring admitted, “the 18th was a dream I had, I wanted to give the spectators a bit of excitement, a bit of theatre. We might have gone slightly too far because it’s proven to be quite difficult.”

In September 2015, Richard Caring sold Wentworth to the Chinese conglomerate Reignwood Group for £135m and soon afterwards a public, acrimonious membership war ensued and the once inclusive Wentworth Club became exclusive.

Incredibly, the West course closed immediately after the 2016 PGA Championship for yet another major redevelopment.

Earlier this month, the team behind the multi-million pound revamp provided a glimpse into what the professionals can expect this coming May.

Ernie Els Design and European Golf Design led the extensive renovation programme, working closely with an advisory team which included Thomas Bjørn, Paul McGinley and David Jones, who represented the views of the Tour players, and Wentworth’s Director of Golf Courses & Grounds, Kenny Mackay.

All 18 greens were stripped of the old turf and re-seeded with a new creeping bent, improving both the appearance and playability of the putting surfaces, while four greens – on the 8th, 11th, 14th and 16th holes – were completely rebuilt and five greens – on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 12th and 15th holes – were partially rebuilt. A sub-air system was also installed on all greens to help make them firmer and faster, and new irrigation and drainage was also introduced.

Furthermore, all bunkers were redesigned and reconstructed, with 29 bunkers completely removed from play, helping to more closely realign the course with Harry Colt’s original vision, whilst also being cognisant of the demands of the modern game.

The renovation programme is due to be fully completed towards the end of April in time for this year’s PGA Championship at the end of May.

Els said: “It’s been a real team effort. It’s been hard work, but it’s been a wonderful experience. I think the product you’ll see this time will be something the players will really enjoy. The guys will have smiles on their faces again. Their bad shots will get punished, but not as badly as before.

“We’ve improved the greens and taken bunkers out, and restored holes to their former glory. Some holes won’t even have bunkers on them anymore. The crowds will enjoy it and the players will too.”

Bjørn also believes the European Tour’s leading players will appreciate the changes when they get the chance to see them for themselves.

“There was certainly a feeling to get this golf course back to where it was,” said the Dane. “It will still be a really tough test, but we’ve taken some of the tough obstacles out which we didn’t think Wentworth was all about.

“It is an old style course and it had probably been a little over-modernised, so we brought it to where we think it should be and back to the traditions of this golf course.

“We listened long and hard to the views of the Tour players. You have to when you have such a big event on a traditional golf course with so much history. The PGA Championship is a fantastic event, one of the best in the world, and now there is a golf course here which is really worth playing, and which is right up there with the very high standard of the event.”

McGinley said: “The players wanted to go back in the direction of the old Harry Colt design. They wanted the contours on the greens to be softened, and the bunkering to be changed. I certainly couldn’t see out of the bunkers before, and not many guys could. So those were the two big things we changed.

“We’ve also put in a sub-air system into the greens which will dry them out and get it back to a firm, fast golf course, which players have always loved playing in the past.”

Jeremy Slessor, Managing Director of European Golf Design, added: “The feedback from the Tour players over the last few years was so consistent about what needed to happen.

“Working with Ernie Els and his design team, and working with the advisory group of Thomas, Paul and David Jones, we were able to come up with a cohesive plan which will give the members and the Tour players a much more honest test of golf.”

It remains to be seen whether or not this latest programme of changes will rekindle the lost love. We can’t think of any other course in Europe that has received such a high level of investment over the last decade. Most British and Irish courses that undertake renovations enjoy recognition and perhaps even a rise in the rankings. Will the West course reap any rewards?

Only time will tell – golf course rankings are whimsical. My feeling is that if the West could be returned to its former “least of the park and most of the heathery character” it would be much more highly regarded. Or as Charles Blair Macdonald penned in Scotland’s Golf – Golf... "no course can be ideal which is laid out through trees. Trees foreshorten the perspective and the wind has not full play. To get the full exaltation playing the game of golf one should when passing from green to green as he gazes over the horizon have a limitable sense of eternity, suggesting contemplation and imagination."

Has anyone got a chainsaw?

Keith Baxter


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