Greenkeeper turned scapegoat

Tim Glover meets a perfectionist victimised by the weather and the Tour
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The English Golf Union had no qualms about staging a national squad coaching session at Collingtree Park. England's leading amateurs were welcomed with open arms and this week it is the turn of the senior professionals. Collingtree needs all the friends it can get.

This is the same course that nine months ago was savaged by Europe's leading professionals after the dramatic deterioration of the greens. "They were the worst I've ever seen," Ian Woosnam said. David Feherty described them as "scarier than my ex-wife". The reaction could not have been more hostile had the players been asked to putt on a minefield.

In a troubled season, it was the darkest week for the European tour. Not only was a new sponsor, One2One, footing the bill at Collingtree for the British Masters but the course, on the outskirts of Northampton and designed by the American Johnnie Miller, is partly owned and wholly managed by the Tour.

"Collingtree was a disaster that happened because a very experienced greenkeeper tried to create fast, firm greens," Ken Schofield, executive director of the Tour, said after the debacle.

"He cut them too low and in the weather that then prevailed they disintegrated." The Tour apologised to its members and offered a refund of their entry fees. The following week Seve Ballesteros refused to talk to Schofield. "I suspect," Schofield said, "he was still very, very hot about Collingtree, being the champion and perfectionist that he is."

The strange thing is, the greenkeeper in question, Alistair Connell, is also considered a perfectionist. "What happened to me," Connell said, "I wouldn't wish on anybody. It was soul- destroying and it's left a scar. It'll take me a while to recover. Hindsight is a great thing. We cut the greens at tournament height and then everything conspired against us.

"The course was built on pure sand about a metre deep. It doesn't have the capability of retaining nutrients. We had rain and when the weather became really warm the sand baked and the grass died. We didn't cut the greens too low. The Tour said they wanted fast greens. I think they became too obsessed with speed. We had a trial run and everything was fine."

Connell was vilified for the fiasco despite the fact that he has the responsibility for overseeing all seven of the Tour's courses. The Tour not only blamed him publicly but put Collingtree on a blacklist, announcing that the British Masters would be held at the Forest of Arden this year.

However, the Seniors Classic is being staged at Collingtree, beginning on Friday, and the club feels the Tour has over- reacted. "It is terribly sad that Alistair was picked on," Caroline Randall, Collingtree's general manager, said. "They like to find somebody to blame. They protect themselves. What happened was an absolute fluke. The growth on the greens soon came back and everything is fine. The course is better now than ever and the greens are first class. The members have supported us and business at the club has not been affected. We are absolutely worthy of hosting a tournament and the decision to remove the British Masters was premature." When Schofield struck Collingtree off the regular Tour he indicated it would not be considered for another three years.

Connell, 49, joined Collingtree, which opened in 1990, in March 1995 from the Cawder Club in Glasgow. He began his career as a 16-year-old apprentice at St Andrews. He was recently offered a job at The Belfry which is the venue for the Ryder Cup in 2001.

"After what happened I couldn't walk away from Collingtree," Connell said. "It would've been easy to hide but pride is a great thing."

Connell, a keen golfer, plays off a handicap of five. "The next time I play on a course where the greens aren't right I'll bite my tongue before making a comment.

"What happened at Collingtree has taught me to look at the broader picture."