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The Challenge of The Belfry

By John M. Ross,
Belfry Golf Course
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For the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, The Belfry stirs up some bad memories. (.)

The Belfry, which will be the setting for the 34th Ryder Cup Matches in the next fortnight, doesn't stir much enthusiasm among the Americans who will go forth to battle there. It's but a stone's throw from Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare found inspiration for all those thoughts that stir heart and soul. But for the Yanks, The Belfry simply stirs up some bad memories.

It was on these same grounds, which have significant history dating back to medieval times, that the U.S. team suffered its first Cup defeat in 28 years by a lopsided 16-1/2 to 11-1/2 in 1985. And when it returned four years later seeking revenge, the best it could get was a 14-14 draw. Success finally came in 1993, 15-13, but The Belfry remains a sore spot for Yankee golfers. And it's not a tough course!

The layout the U.S. will see when it takes on the European team Sept. 28-30, will have many changes, the result of a redesigning and face-lifting project over the past year. But, according to early reviews, the Yanks have nothing to fear. If anything, the alterations should only help the American long-ball hitters.

Considering the wide array of ultra-challenging courses in the British Isles, it seems strange that The Belfry has been tapped so many times as a Ryder Cup site. Perhaps that's why British officials decided to spring for $3.5million for a thorough revamping of the course in 1999. They brought in player-turned-designer Dave Thomas, the well-known Welshman who had played on four Ryder Cup teams over the years and twice had come this-close to winning the British Open.

Thomas produced the original course with Peter Allis, also a former Cupped, and long a popular British broadcaster. They opened it in 1977, and almost immediately the critics opened fire. To begin with, The Belfry was on land that was not suitable for a golf course. For centuries it was the base for Moxhull Manor, and its huge castle, Moxhull Hall, dominated the scene. With the passage of time, the land ultimately was taken over by a farming operation when it was realized that good potatoes could be grown there.

While the land in this Midlands country was good for a potato crop, it did nothing for a golf course. Unlike Britain's famous linksland courses, with sand-based grass, rolling fairway and huge dunes everywhere, The Belfry was incredibly flat, and the soil was a red-colored clay which contained endless stone and became cement-hard in the hot, dry weather of summer. From its earliest days, tournaments had to be played with the local rule for lifting and replacing.

Thomas' revamping was hampered at times by some of Britain's problems that involved a terrifying outbreak of Mad Cow Disease, a fuel shortage and various transportation crises. But he got the job done by mid-2000, and the reopening was marked by the presence of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, the Royal Family's resident golf nut.

In consideration of the effects of the new technology on clubs and balls, the course has been lengthened slightly. But, again, since it isn't a long course this isn't going to bother the Yanks' big belters like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, et al. The Europeans, however, who, as a team, aren't as long, might find the alterations troublesome. Most of the changes were made on the front nine, which many, including Thomas, rate as a lesser test.

One veteran player at The Belfry, which is not far from Birmingham, the industrial center of England, summed up the overhaul this way: "Before, we had just a few holes that were good. Now, there are good holes everywhere."

American players will recognize the numerous spectator mounds scattered throughout the course, an innovation introduced to courses on the PGA Tour a few years ago. They'll also see that the bunkers have been resculpted, just like the artful designs back home. Most British courses simply let nature take care of the size and shape of the bunkers.

Thomas also did some tricks with the water holes, enlarging some ponds here and there, and creating other bits and pieces of water for strategy purposes or simply to pretty up a dull area of the course. They don't do much for the course, some reviewers report.

A legitimate highlight of The Belfry is the par-4, 473-yard 18th hole. Some rate it as one of the game's best finishing holes, and it has been the setting for the dramatics of the three previous Cup matches. This has gone largely untouched by Thomas, and it promises to give the Cuppers fits as it has in the past.

Indeed, the storied finishing hole has been a significant factor in all three of the earlier Cup showdowns. Two-thirds of all the final day matches went the full distance, and, overall, 36 of the 84 individual matches went to the18th. Europe held a distinctive edge in both statistics. Of all the foreign ports visited by the American Cuppers over the years, The Belfry has been the most difficult for them. While the won-lost record stands at one win and one loss, and a tie, the U.S. is second best in the matches tally, 43-1/2 to 40-1/2.

No one is complaining about the hot competition from the Europeans. Before the format was changed in 1979 to allow the European nations to join Great Britain and Ireland in Ryder Cup play, the biennial meeting was a large yawn. The U.S. had won 18 of the previous matches, starting in 1927. Since the changeover, however, the American edge has been narrowed to 6-4-1 in the 11 ensuing events. And the competitive fever is even closer.

On paper, the U.S. always seems to have a distinct edge, based heavily on its command position in the world rankings. But when the flags are flying and the gallery gets its partisan juices bubbling, some of these factors can be quickly cast aside. And this has been the focal point of Curtis Strange's ongoing pep talks to his team. The American captain's chant has been, "Let's play up to our strength. Let's win really big this time."

In support of this rah-rah, he has chosen Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank as his captain's picks, apparently to play to the emotions of the team. Azinger has made a remarkable recovery from cancer, while Verplank has been successfully battling a serious diabetes problem. In fact, while wearing an insulin pack on his belt to balance his blood sugar levels during play, he has lifted his game to a high point in recent months.

Strange's choices could be precisely the inspiration the Yanks need to reach their peaks at The Belfry. Go Yanks!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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