|The historic Wentworth Club in Surrey has hosted champions such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin. (Courtesy photo)|
VIRGINIA WATER, England - Golfers from America have been coming to the Wentworth Club to play the famed West Course for quite some time.
There is a partial list in a place of honor on a wall in the clubhouse ... Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Hale Irwin, Bill Rogers, Corey Pavin and Mark O'Meara.
They all won the original World Match Play Championship (brainchild of American super agent Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group), which has been played at Wentworth since its inception in 1964, when Palmer won the first of his two titles on the West Course.
O'Meara was the latest, in 1998.
"I played Tiger (Woods) in the final, kicked his butt, too," O'Meara said with a chuckle, recalling the victory over his good friend and No. 1 player in the world that capped a year in which O'Meara also won the Masters and the British Open. "That's a great, old course."
Tapes from some of those historic matches at Wentworth, which also included Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Bob Charles, Lee Trevino, Tony Lema and Tony Jacklin, can be seen periodically on Golf Channel Classics.
Wentworth is perhaps the only club in the world that hosts three prominent professional tournaments every year: the Cisco World Match Play Championship, the Volvo PGA Championship and the Energis Senior Masters, which is played on the newer Edinburgh Course (1990) that was designed by John Jacobs, Gary Player and Bernard Gallacher.
The newest course is named for Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth.
The East Course, which opened in 1924, and the West that followed in 1927, were designed by the renowned Harry Shapland Colt, even though the Wentworth Golf Club board was appalled that the second course cost 5,000 pounds to finish.
The West Course became known as the Burma Road course during World War II when German prisoners of war from a camp nearby in Egham were brought in to clear vegetation that had overgrown the last six holes while the course was closed.
"The Burma Road is one of the few courses with a capacity to extract continually the best from the best," said Ballesteros, who won the World Match Play title in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1991 to tie the record set by Player, who won in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1973.
"I rate Wentworth at the very top of my list of favorite places alongside Augusta. The Club is warm and friendly and has always treated me well. I might add, the West Course is, for me, the ultimate examination."
Wentworth's three championship courses and nine-hole executive course are parkland layouts that wind through rolling, heavily wooded terrain 25 miles southwest of London. The West Course measures 7,047 yards from the championship tees and its five par-five holes help bring par to 73. The Surrey landscape is studded by oak, birch and pine trees.
If you are playing Wentworth during the winter, you might bring a lightweight golf bag because no carts or trolleys are allowed on the West Course.
The club has also hosted the Ryder Cup, the Curtis Cup and the Canada Cup, which is now known as the World Cup.
In fact, the Ryder Cup grew out of an informal match between Americans and Britons that was played in 1926 at Wentworth, where Bobby Jones shot at immaculate 66 with 33 shots and 33 putts, taking 33 shots going out and 33 coming in.
"We should do this again," Samuel Ryder remarked later in the Wentworth bar, so he donated a trophy and a tradition was born, even though the formal Ryder Cup was played at Wentworth only in 1953.
"But there is no question that the World Match Play Championships put Wentworth on the map, with Player, Nicklaus and Palmer," said David Rennie, club professional at Wentworth. "Now we have the Volvo PGA Championship being shown on television in America, so people over there certainly know about us. Michael Jordan has played here, and Ahmad Rashad, among others.
"We think there are 18 great holes out there (on the West Course). To describe the course briefly, all of the par fives are reachable, even for amateurs, with two adequate shots and a pitch to the green. There are four very long par fours, Nos. 3, 5, 9 and 13 where you must hit two very good shots to reach the green, and there are four very tricky par threes."
The Millennium Oak grows alongside the fairway on the 473-yard par-five first hole, the first of the par fives, and Colin Montgomerie hit a miraculous recovery from next to the tree to make birdie during the 2002 Volvo PGA Championship, which he has won three times.
No. 17, a 571-yard par five which doglegs sharply left through the trees, is the signature hole at Wentworth. The drive is difficult because there is out of bounds left and the fairway slopes dramatically to the right, taking many tee shots into the deep rough and trees on the right.
"There are no bunkers on this hole but it is still difficult," Rennie said. "You have to keep a tight line to the left side of the fairway on the tee shot, but if you don't get past the corner, you have to lay up on the second shot. Then you have to hit a draw off a hanging lie to a deceptive green. Sometimes, it's almost impossible to get the ball close to the hole."
The West Course finishes with another par five, 531 yards, which makes it possible to pick up ground in a hurry. Angel Cabrera of Argentina jumped into contention at the 2002 Volvo PGA Championship when he finished eagle-eagle in the third round.
The monstrous, 481-yard par-four 16th hole also contributes to a daunting finish on the West Course.
"This hole actually borders on a par five," Rennie said. "You want to stay left on the tee shot because the hole doglegs slightly to the right but there are three bunkers there if you pull your tee shot. You want to try to cut your tee shot into the green because there is a bunker on the right, and the green slopes from right to left. Par or even bogey can be a good score there."
The picturesque and challenging par threes include the 154-yard second, which requires a tee shot that must carry a creek and avoid the Spanish Oak guarding the green; the uphill 191-yard fifth, where the green is surrounded by four bunkers, and the 179-yard 14th, where the tee shot is virtually blind to an elevated green.
But Rennie favors the 184-yard 10th.
"It's the prettiest of them," Rennie said of the hole, on which the tee ball must carry a ravine and avoid a stand of trees that guards the right side of the green. "There are bunkers front and back, and the green has some funny slopes and angles."
"Like all of the par threes, club selection is important because hitting the green is vital. It's difficult to pitch and putt for par on all of them."
Americans aren't the only ones who feel at home at Wentworth and in the Surrey area. Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Sam Torrance, Retief Goossen and Darren Clarke are among the European golf pros who have homes in the area.
But Sam Snead, an American golf icon, said Wentworth was more like a country club in the United States than any British golf club.
"We have many visitors from the United States," said Michael Duffy, business promotion manager at Wentworth. "They come for business and mix in some golf, or they just come on holiday. Some have likened the golf course to Augusta because of the way the wind swirls.
"We also have a large community of Americans living here and they become members because they have had the country club experience at home. It's like a home away from home for them. Because Wentworth is well known in America, many of them purchase a club membership when they move here.
"We're fortunate to be close to London. Because of that, we have a very cosmopolitan club."
Visitors can stay in the exclusive hotel at Wentworth, which features eight lavishly furnished guest rooms and one luxurious suite upstairs in the palatial clubhouse, which was refurbished in 1993.
Gourmet dining is available in the main dining room, with more fine food in less formal settings at the Brasserie and on the Terrace. Golfers at Wentworth for the day can drop by the Burma Bar for refreshments after their round.
Guests at Wentworth can enjoy the full-service spa, swimming pools, a health and fitness center and world-class tennis on four surfaces.
"During the Wimbledon fortnight, I had the pleasure of playing tennis at Wentworth," said American tennis pro Kevin Curren. "The pavilion with its wonderful setting, relaxed atmosphere and the variety of court surfaces made it a very special experience.
"It certainly rates as one of the best tennis facilities in Britain."
In addition to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament and other sites in London, there's plenty of sightseeing around Wentworth, which is close to Windsor Castle, Royal Ascot Racecourse, the original Legoland, Hampton Court and Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Wentworth is only 15 minutes from Heathrow Airport and about an hour from Gatwick. Trains from Waterloo Station in Central London stop at Virginia Water Station, minutes from the club.
July 10, 2002
Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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