Ernie Els managed to avoid the volcanic ash to arrive here from Florida on time yesterday morning – but the South African knew he was flying into an eruption of views concerning his radical overhaul of the West Course. "I'm in the hot seat," he said. "I'm here for the guys to fire their arrows at me."
Despite the Big Easy providing an ample target, his back seems safe enough. On the whole the opinions from his fellow pros were favourable. On the 18th hole they were less so. The climax of Harry Colt's famous layout will look different to the point of being unrecognisable to all those who tune in for the BMW PGA Championship, beginning tomorrow.
Do not adjust your sets as that genuinely is a brook running in front of the green. And no, this is not the latest effect of global warming.
Since Paul Casey's classic battle with Ross Fisher last year, the bulldozers have been running up a £6.5m bill and no hole has been as costly as the last. While many traditionalists will undoubtedly be unimpressed, Els yesterday revealed he had actually persuaded the new owner not to put "a big lake in front of the green". The three-time major winner did confess, however, that there were arguments he did not win. "He pays the bill," laughed Els.
"He" is Richard Caring, better known as an restaurateur who happens to have The Ivy and Le Caprice in his portfolio. As an avowed "golfing nutcase" Caring bought Wentworth in 2005 and set about on a programme of modernisation. He employed Els' design team to undertake the work, but as he told the Financial Times last month, Caring was to play a hands-on role himself. "Ernie's a great guy; he's not cheap, because he's one of the world's finest golfers," said the keen amateur. "But I would also at the same time insist on the things that I wanted to do. I know the game pretty well."
The tale of the owner who comes in with his own ideas on the playing side of affairs is a familiar, some might say a "depressing" narrative in big-time football. In big-time golf it has been unheard-of. Until now. Caring, as Els says, is "an avid golfer with some great ideas".
But even Els is not too sure if the new 18th is one of them. "I lost the argument over the green," he said, before explaining how he wanted it "a little bit lower" to "hold the ball a little bit better". Els is evidently concerned that many of the players here will not be tempted into going for the putting surface in two. "The green really does look small from the fairway, I must admit," he said. "I think you will get 75 per cent of the players laying up unfortunately. That's one of those arguments we had – how difficult do you make it when you want to entice the player to go for the green, or are you going to scare the player away? My opinion is that you are going to scare the player away a little bit for now until they get more courage the more that they play the golf course."
If Els is right then this week's action will be contrary to the ambition. Caring's vision was of a dramatic finish. He saw balls going splash and title hopes sinking. Is this delicious scenario more or less likely now? Well, the jury is out and will likely remain so until at least Sunday evening.
Yet Els figures the former 18th was not the tension raiser it seemed. "We wanted a little bit of drama – with the old green everybody was putting for eagle and it was basically a bit of a soft par five," he said. Padraig Harrington concurred. "We are going to see all sorts of drama from the players at the last," said the Dubliner. "They are going to want to take on the water and by doing that they are going to bring eagle threes and double-bogey sevens into play. Which is exactly how it should be."
Yet Graeme McDowell is not so sure. "It was one of the more dramatic finishes in European golf and it's sad in a way that guys are going to have to lay up," he said. "It used to be a great three. Now it's a good four."
McDowell sounded even less impressed with the par-five 17th. "It is not worth taking on in two, but then that's because they ruined the tee-shot a few years ago," he said. In his mind this new, tougher stretch means that players will not be able to make the giant leaps which were always so tantalisingly possible on Wentworth's Sunday leaderboard. "We won't be seeing a finish like Ben Curtis's again, when he finished with five threes last year," he warned.
Nevertheless, McDowell was largely positive about the alterations. "Fourteen holes of improvement, with three or four question marks," was the Ryder Cup man's assessment. Like everyone, he approved of the greens. In fact, they are the reason so many of the big European names are in Surrey. Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter were among the stay-aways, making no secret of their dislike for the putting surfaces; they quickly returned when they discovered all 18 were to be dug up. While there is an injury doubt over Poulter (he was in the physio truck yesterday having treatment on his neck) there are five out of the world's top 10 in situ. Els believes they now have a test to match the billing of the Tour's "flagship event".
"This is our fifth major in Europe and it needs to have a bit of teeth," said the world No 7, who himself will be trying to end his PGA drought this week. "Players will have a little bit of a shock for a while, but they will find a way to score around here. And when they master this golf course they will have a lot of confidence going forward into events like the US Open where the courses would intimidate them."
McDowell agreed with Els' US Open comparison and is one of many here praying the West Course's personality revamp will work in their favour. In seven appearances, McDowell has not registered a single top 10. "I haven't got the best record here, but then your record here is inconsequential," he said "Because this is not Wentworth. This is Wentworth Mark II."
Thrilling finale - or a brook too far?
The most notable change in the £6.5m makeover of the West Course is on the 18th where a 100-yard brook now winds it way in front of the raised green on the par five.
Elsewhere the brook has been extended around the green on the eighth, the 12th has been shortened to a par four but made decidedly trickier in the process, while the 16th now features a huge fairway bunker which commands attention.
In fact, no hole has escaped the radical overhaul. All 18 greens have been completely rebuilt to USGA specifications with the latest underground drainage systems installed to ensure the greens perform to the highest standards.
The greens' surrounds were remodelled to add more shape, with colonial bent grass on the putting surfaces and rye-grass surrounds.
All bunkers were also completely reconstructed and in some cases, made deeper and repositioned.
On the card the par is now a 71.
James CorriganReuse content