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Fraser Thomson handicaps the Belfry and Forest of Arden

By Fraser Thomson,

BIRMINGHAM, England - The Benson and Hedges International Open, the English Open (now the British Masters) and, of course, the Ryder Cup Matches. There was a time when the heart of England never had it so good.

Three huge golf events on the doorstep of Birmingham, the so-called Second City of England.

And the two courses who most prospered from such major (with a small 'm') tournaments were naturally the host venues.

The rivalry too was intense.

The De Vere Belfry (the B&H and Ryder Cup Matches) vied each year with The Marriott Forest of Arden (the English Open and British Masters as of 2003) for the attention of thousands of golfers from throughout the world.

First they would come as spectators but then, armed with their shiny golf clubs, they would take to the fairways in the hope of emulating their heroes whom they had followed around two of the best tracks in England.

The renown of the mighty Brabazon, veteran host of the 2001 Ryder Cup Matches -- they refused to re-Christen it the 2002 Ryder Cup Matches after the postponement forced upon the organizers by September 11 -- extends far beyond the shores of Great Britain.

The Belfry, sadly, has lost the B&H International. The Government ban on tobacco advertising in sport has put paid to that and, so far, no replacement has been found.

With the Ryder Cup Matches unlikely to return to The Belfry within the next 10 years, De Vere must be anxious to find a prestige event with which to continue luring the dollar and yen of some of the world's most affluent golfers.

Meanwhile, the Forest of Arden, is benefiting from the absence of a significant event at its more esteemed neighbour.

Home to the English Open for many years, The Forest now hosts the British Masters which had moved up from Woburn in the summer.

For now, by virtue of the big names its tournament attracts, The Forest of Arden has the edge over its rival -- but The Belfry remains a hugely popular destination for golfers.

Its lure, naturally enough, is The Brabazon over which Sam Torrance's bravehearts fought a thrilling battle with Curtis Strange's American team.

Those who follow in the footsteps of the European heroes would do well to remember this: the opening two holes lull you into a sense of false security.

Untroubled by either, it is easy to stand on the third tee thinking life is good. Not necessarily so.

The third is a long 538-yard par-5. Get a good drive away and you are still faced with a daunting approach shot of more than 220 yards ... over water!

Too many amateurs and pros alike have found a watery end after overestimating their prowess with three or five wood.

Five and six too force you to navigate lakes, while seven has perhaps the most intriguing bunkering design seen on a British golf course.

The ninth is a grandstand hole. The par-4 hole measures 433 yards, but the green-side lake demands respect with your second shot, as does the two-tier green. Get it wrong and your ball rolls lakewards and into oblivion. Get it right and it sets you up for the glorious 10th.

During the Ryder Cup Matches, young bucks like Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood debated long and hard before taking out their drivers. At 311 yards away, albeit downhill, the tiny green looks like a postage stamp.

Tall trees stand sentinel over the green while a lake will catch out those who are short. The Americans called the European pair foolhardy -- it should have been a 6-iron lay-up and a short pitch on to the dance floor.

Garcia and Westwood, to the thrill of the crowds, wanted to tango rather than waltz and I challenge anyone playing just for fun not to copy them, particularly from the forward tees.

Few dangers lie on the back nine of The Brabazon but care is still required on every hole - until the 18th.

Now it is extreme caution that is needed. So many players, Torrance included, have made the hole famous. It has to be one of the best finishing holes in world golf. Many a match has reached its denouement here.

The pros blast it over the treetops and water, taking care not to run out of fairway. Then a pinpoint shot is needed to cross more water on to another two-tier green.

The Belfry boasts two other courses in The PGA National and The Derby. All three are fashioned out of farmland and it is impossible to escape the feeling of something that is entirely man-made.

The Arden Course, at the Forest, is different. While the front nine is hewn from farmers' fields, the back nine is woven through some of Warwickshire's prettiest parkland.

It is easy to allow oneself to become lost in the beauty of the countryside. Deer and wildfowl roam freely across the fairways but this merely forces upon the player a degree of patience that can only benefit his or her game.

The outward nine holes demand good course management rather than outright flair. Again like its neighbor, The Belfry, the first two holes are simple enough. The third is a long par-5 into a shared green, but avoiding the trees on the left will provide a straightforward second shot.

It is not until the ninth that the trouble starts although errant tee shots on any of the previous holes will spoil a card.

The ninth is daunting. Uphill for a full 476 yards with trees left and right and a lake further right still -- perfect to swallow that slice of a right-hander from the tee. A good start might leave you soaring after the first eight holes. The ninth can bring you quickly back down to earth.

If your card is intact, the homeward nine holes can be a joy just for their beauty. Or a nightmare thanks to their difficulty.

The 10th poses no real threats; the 11th is another uphill challenge and the 12th can be a killer.

Sharing a green -- and a lake -- with the 17th the two holes measure 547 and 516 yards respectively. Both require a long drive to give you a chance of making the green over the water.

High-handicappers would do well to play for the bogey rather than be brave. One over on either hole is ample reward for those with less confidence.

Of course any confidence that might have been lingering at the 17th tee may already have been wiped out by the par-4, 431-yard 16th. More water and a right-hand dog-leg might have rendered your round a washout already.

There is something about spectacular finishing holes that is both enthralling and terrifying. That is their magic.

The 18th at The Arden remains one of the most daunting I have ever played. Raised tees mean you cannot rid your mind of the deep chasm which leads to a lake formed from a water-filled quarry.

Depending on the weather it can be anything from a 5-iron to a 3-wood. With the wind in your face, best go for the wood. Clutch the club tightly and pray.

Darren Clarke, the Irish hero, has won twice here and he still shivers at the thought of the final hole at the Arden.

The Forest also has a fine secondary course - The Aylesford. Far less punishing than its 7,213-yard big brother, but popular among local members and visitors alike.

It is difficult to grant either The Belfry or the Forest of Arden a favorite tag. Each course has its own demands and signature holes. For both finishing holes I have nothing but praise - tinged with a touch of fear and always bags of respect.

Where to stay

The obvious places to stay - if you can afford the obvious luxury - are the De Vere Belfry, or the Marriott Forest of Arden Hotel & Country Club.

Both have extensive facilities - pool, health club, tennis and restaurants - but both lean towards the more expensive end of the market.

However, this area of the Midlands is strewn with hotels and bed & breakfasts to suit all budgets as there are many attractions nearby -- you won't struggle to find somewhere to put your head down and relive the hole that cost you a 72.

Where to eat

Again, the hotels at the two courses offer a choice of restaurant and menus, so you needn't leave the confines of your hotel unless you want to.

Nearby Birmingham has a vast choice of restaurants and it would be churlish to visit and not try Indian food in one of the heartlands of such cuisine.

And you could do worse than try Cafe Lazeez in Wharfside St. However, with so many to choose from, you will be unlucky if you find one that's not to your liking.

The Bank Restaurant & Bar, in Brindleyplace has been receiving some fine reviews and was placed 12th -- The Independent -- newspaper's '50 Best Restaurants Outside London' feature.

Waxy O'Connor's in Broad Street, Birmingham, has fine, reasonably-priced food with DJs and live music if that is your thing.

Off course

It may not be the most picturesque part of the UK, but the countryside around Birmingham has some charms -- and there are plenty of places to visit.

All of the following are within 30 miles of Marriott Forest of Arden Hotel & Country Club - Cadbury World; Drayton Manor Park; National Exhibition Centre; National Sea Life Centre; Royal Leamington Spa; Shakespeare's country/Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle; and West Midlands Safari Park.

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