British Open: Coming back home to Woburn
It’s strange to think it but the Marquess course at Woburn wasn’t even open the last time the Women’s British Open visited this corner of Buckinghamshire in 1999.
The following year Peter Alliss, Clive Clark, Ross McMurray and Alex Hay’s woodland design began its relatively recent but impressive journey and this year the club, which has hosted over 50 professional tournaments, breaks new ground by hosting its first Major.
Nobody knows more about the club’s three superb courses – the Duke’s, Duchess and Marquess (the only trio to feature in the Top 100 UK Courses) – and the 700 acres under his watch than the personable course manager John Clarke.
Originally from the Lake District, his career has included stints at none other than Winged Foot, home to five US Opens, nine years at Hanbury Manor and now Woburn.
How different a course will the Marquess be to the one the members and visitors to the club get to play every other week of the year?
At some courses they will make the fairways tighter for big tournaments but we have never done that. If the course is of the right design and quality then you don’t need to trick it up.
The winning score at last year’s British Masters was the same as the winning scores in the 1980s on the Duke’s despite the moves forward in technology and fitness.
We like to think we hold the same high level as to the course that visitors play, it is just a case of polishing the trophy just a little bit more for the tournaments. And that means mowing everything more often. On a normal week that would be three times a week, for a tournament it will be two or three times a day.
You will top dress the greens that bit more often and rake the bunkers that bit more often. But the actual course you see in terms of shapes will be as close to a normal season.
How many people work on the the iconic par-5 7th at the Marquess three courses?
I manage a team of 40 across all three. At Wentworth or The Belfry there are around 60. For the event there will be 80 guys just on the Marquess.
That will be 10 fairway mowers in a line as you see at Augusta, fleet mowing. There will be eight guys doing something called ‘double-freaky mowing’ on the greens which is where you get the nice stripe and then turn around and mow back over it to lose the stripe.
That really shows up the undulations and topography the best. The LGU will ask me to protect areas on tees, otherwise we will discuss pin positions during the week.
How quick will the greens be?
At times the greens have so much movement in them. To get a really accurate Stimp reading you need a really flat piece of green and there aren’t many of them.
You will need to really position your ball well, the greens are big but they are very Augusta-like in their movement, so being below the hole is often the way forward.
We’ll be aiming for 11-11.5 on the Stimp. The 13th is one hole which has so much shape in it. There is no greenside bunkering but, if on the wrong side, you’ll face a really tricky putt.
Which is your favourite course of the three?
The one I’m stood on when you ask me that question. They are all so different. They will never build another Duchess, which is short and tight, and the greens are 0.6 of a hectare. The Marquess’ greens are 1.2 so twice as big as the Duchess. If you have members playing in a match they take the vistors to the Duchess. It’s a thinking golfers’ course.
What sort of a player do you expect to do well?
People will say a hitter will prosper but we didn’t see that at the British Masters. You will need a good short game. The bracken will be six feet in some areas and being in the trees at times can seem like there are 30 trees in front of you which can be like a brick wall. So you will also need to be creative.
How stressful a week is a tournament week for you?
The British Masters was the best week I have ever had. If you haven’t got it it right with two weeks to go you will be stressed. If the The magnificent Tavistock short-game area preparations are good, and I’ve got a brilliant team around me, then it is a brilliant week.
I get to go and have dinners with players and Poults was amazing. In my first year for the Seniors I didn’t have a smooth run in and that was one of my most stressful weeks. I should have been more stressed for the British Masters but the preparations for last year were spot on.
I have worked at a few Opens and Wentworth but I’ve never been in the hotseat. It is quite a close community in the work we do and you want to work the big tournaments. I enjoy the course before the crowds and players arrive.
When the sun is coming up and the course is looking crisp and there is not a soul out there then it is absolutely beautiful.
What was the best compliment the players paid last year?
Nick Dougherty said in commentary that it was the Augusta of Europe and Matt Fitzpatrick said the short-game area, that we built two years ago, was the best outside Augusta. Myself and my boss Jason did that from bare ground all the way through, so when you’ve owned that from the start, that is the hairs on the back of your neck stuff.