Every once in a while a report is published detailing the rapidly diminishing numbers of people playing golf in Britain. Any number of reasons are proffered for such an occurrence but there tends to be a general theme that the sport is too long and too expensive, particularly for youngsters, in a society ever more time poor. Alternatives to stem the haemorrhage are also readily proffered on how to solve a problem like golf.
Spend a day at the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club in northern Surrey and one would perhaps be a little perplexed by such claims. By and large, attendances at the European Tour’s flagship event top 20,000 on all four days of tournament play whilst the practice and Pro-Am days attract impressive numbers of spectators. In comparison to many events on the tour, which are often played in front of spartan audiences, the PGA Championship would indicate that interest in the sport at large remains strong in Britain. Hence, participation would surely be healthy. Unfortunately, sport is rarely so simple and oft capricious. Spectating at sporting events is fast becoming de trop in favour of punters expecting to be entertained. Simply turning up and enjoying the play is no longer fashionable. The ‘E’ word is now bandied about with abandon as society ventures down a more selfish road.
Such a shift in attitudes is arguably highlighted as soon as one ventures through the entrance gate and is greeted by an al fresco lounge area and giant screen broadcasting the play. One ponders why the average punter would part with almost fifty pounds for a ticket and then choose to watch a television screen instead. Indeed, the general smattering of fripperies in and around the venue and the tournament at large does prove a little galling when one has parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash. Could the event organisers just not invite the various bands and reduce admission prices? No sooner has such a thought entered one’s mental recesses than one rapidly concludes that the bands and other fripperies are essentially catering for those not really interested in the golf. The Lindt shop in the tented village dolling out free samples does prove rather pleasing though.
Naturally one is intensely keen to venture out onto the course and sample some of the day’s play but we wander across the first hole toward a single storey building topped by a tiled roof. The high netting beyond said building provides an obvious clue as to the nature of this construction. At any professional tournament two of the most intriguing locations are the driving range and the practice putting green. Neither actually play a direct part in the actual tournament itself but both provide an ideal opportunity to see the variety of different modi operandi on view. Golf may be a game of technique and orthodoxy but even at the highest levels there are examples of players who have enjoyed great success with less than regular styles of play. Those nearing their tee time move to the practice green where one can snap a few up close and personal photographs.
Our day undertakes its annual sense of familiarity as we wander down the opening hole toward our first stop. Nevertheless, our stroll down the first provides one of live golf’s unique occurrences. Standing adjacent to the fairway provides an opportunity to witness a scenario or three which one cannot enjoy when watching a tournament on television. Viewing from the comfort of one’s armchair may provide a number of creature comforts but one is very much at the behest of the program’s producers as to what they see. When watching live and in the flesh one is able to fully enjoy and peruse how a player goes about their business, to listen to conversations between player and caddie that are not witnessed on television about yardages or lines on the green. Such scenarios are interesting to see played out. The ogre of slow play is never far away from such scenarios though and one soon concludes that there is a fine line between thoughtful preparation and slow play.
Understandably, the short second hole is a popular vantage point. Little more than a flick with a wedge or nine iron for most players, the green sits in a small amphitheatre, providing excellent spectating opportunities. After the long stroll through the tented village and down the first hole the second also provides some immediate respite. Par 3 holes naturally attract their fair share of visitors. As is the case with much on offer at the Championship, one is perhaps hoping for polar opposite experiences: a hole in one or tee shots drifting into the cavernous greenside bunkers so as to witness some of the world’s best extricate themselves with aplomb from such perilous positions that would readily flummox most ordinary players. Germany’s Max Kieffer is the first golfer to deposit his tee shot into one of the sandy hazards soon after our arrival, his effort drifting into the back portion of that which guards the left side of the putting surface. With the hole positioned on the front portion of the green just a few yards from a steep bank one ponders whether the German will opt for a conservative escape. Nevertheless, Kieffer demonstrates why he and his peers playing the West course are amongst the best playing the game, deftly extracting his ball amid a puff of sand, his shot landing just on the putting surface and acquiescing to the topography, coming to rest just a foot from the target to set up a brilliant par save. Three groups later we witness our first birdie of the day courtesy of former Masters champion Trevor Immelman; the diminutive South African playing an audacious tee shot that finishes in the narrow portion between the pin and the front edge of the green, Immelman confidently rolling in the birdie putt.
We watch another three groups before heading back along the first hole with the aim of completing a new experience. Three previous visits to this tournament had not yielded any time in the gargantuan stand that dominates the eighteenth green. Seating three thousand punters we had not managed to take a pew courtesy of the initial upgrade only policy in place for the first two years only to discover that the small section handed over for free entry to the plebs among the crowd was packed when we returned twelve months previous. Somewhat gallingly, the vast swathes of reserved seats remained unfilled. Thus, our plan today is to arrive as the first groups were reaching the conclusion of their rounds, hoping that the hoards would be watching more prestigious groups. Thankfully our gamble reaps dividends and we enjoy a pleasant spell looming over the final putting surface. Our patience is rewarded as the champion of three years previous, Korea’s An Byeong-hun, strikes a majestic second shot from the middle of the fairway, his ball pitching flush into the putting surface and rolling to within six feet of the flag. Almost nonchalantly, An rolls the putt into the heart of the hole for a superb eagle. Ten minutes or so later fan favourite Ian Poulter produces a moment of short game wizardry from behind the green and the decision of those few soles sat in the capacious stand has been vindicated.
Our general meander soon takes us away from the West Course’s denouement as we head toward another of our favourite places to watch the play. Navigating oneself around the course could prove a tricky business but one purchase renders the task a mere bagatelle. One of the subtle nuances of the day that proves impressive is that of the daily program. Just a couple of shekels in price the journal is bijoux in size, akin to a small notebook allowing for easy storage in a bag or pocket and quick to locate for the useful course map. The West course itself proves an intriguing venue. Rather than occupying a plot of land solely used for the sport the course winds its way through the eponymous estate akin to a river. Hence, the West Course is not the easiest for spectators to navigate around but bimbling from one section of the course to another can involve wandering through the residential sections of the estate, affording an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful houses on show. Nevertheless, an alarming amount of work appears to be taking place. Houses originally constructed in decent sized plots of land so as to not look incongruous or overbearing are rapidly disappearing and being replaced by significantly larger equivalents. Wandering around the course another aspect of witnessing the event at the venue becomes apparent. When watched on television the West Course appears spacious with capacious greens. In reality the greens are diminutive with significant undulations, the fairways claustrophobic with bunkers rising dramatically to provide distractions on the tee. From such a point it appears as if the players are required to thread a needle through the hazards.
Our vague wander is ultimately heading in the direction of the sixteenth green and the equivalent at the fourteenth. Both holes feature spectator seating. Aside from the gargantuan stand overlooking the final green seats are in scarce supply, small equivalents behind the first tee, the fourteenth green, the sixteenth green and adjacent to the seventh green the only options once one’s legs are beginning to ache. Locating a pew requires some thought and a modicum of tactical acumen though. Those in the know are cognisant that arriving at a selected stand just prior to Rory McIlroy’s group arriving on the tee will almost certainly culminate in great disappointment. Rather, a careful perusal of the draw sheet included in the program is obligatory and a vigilant judgement of when to mosey across the estate to one of the seating areas required; at least half a dozen groups prior to a major name arriving normally a minimum buffer to avoid waiting hopefully in a queue. Those already ensconced in a seat are all too aware that possession is ten tenths of the spectating law.
Spend a reasonable amount of time at Wentworth and one begins to realise that the experience is that of polar opposites. Those in attendance generally fall into two categories: those golf fans who will happily watch the play whether it is the top professionals on view or their brethren struggling at the lower echelons of the rankings and the event types in pursuit of a good time, expensive, poor quality food and watered down drink and a sight of Rory McIlroy amongst the enormous flotilla of followers that will gaze at the Northern Irishman’s every move. The former will gaze and peruse, thoughtfully assessing the nuances of the play, aware that a professional would much prefer to find his ball in a greenside bunker than a patch of thick, tangly rough. The latter are intent on simply indulging themselves, rarely staying in one spot for any longer than a few seconds before searching for the next mobile phone spot, the next beer outlet or the next superstar name. The former will applaud lustily at excellence, regardless of which player executes such brilliance, the latter is more likely to holler some slack-jawed attempt at a bon mot on each tee, one of those guttural eructations that have become so de rigueur in the United States. The two opposites are a microcosm of the modern sporting world for the lay spectator, those who arrive to simply watch the play and those who adopt the ethos that they have paid their money so they can do as they please. The irony is that neither are really required in the modern golfing world. Tournaments staged in the United Kingdom and Ireland are almost always heartily attended but many events on the European tour, offering high prize money and a bundle of world ranking points, are almost deserted or watched by a few cognoscenti. Reality dictates that the key to modern day golf tournaments is attracting significant sponsorship rather than coaxing impressive numbers of spectators through the gate.
Such irritations aside we spend some time to the left of the seventeenth green, a quiet corner almost bereft of spectators, before watching a few groups from the stand behind the sixteenth equivalent. Our grassy pew to the left of the seventeenth is an idyllic locale from which to enjoy the play and is about as close to the green as one can edge anywhere on the course. The general flow of spectator traffic tends to drift down the right hand side of the hole and on to the eighteenth tee, thus leaving the left-hand side of the penultimate hole almost in splendid isolation. Unlike the final hole, where birdies and the occasional eagle are abundant, the seventeenth, stretching in excess of 600 yards and featuring a reverse camber fairway, proves more of a challenge. Most groups pass through content with a par but Englishman Eddie Pepperell threatens a brilliant eagle whilst playing partner Rafa Cabrera Bello almost holes his chip from the clinging rough just a few yards behind the flag.
The sixteenth proves the furthest we wander and one group after Ryder Cup stars Lee Westwood and Andy Sullivan, along with a considerable entourage, have drifted through we make an about turn and head back toward the West Course’s denouement. For the lay golf spectator there are a number of general irritations regarding watching at Wentworth, irritations that are unlikely to be experienced at other events that are not the Tour’s flagship event or part of the event crowd social calendar. Nevertheless, there is plenty to be enjoyed, particularly if one is prepared to navigate around the course on different routes to those chasing the more famous players. One may only witness the merest snap shot of the actual day’s play and certainly would see more on television but the experience of standing just a few yards from the play and capturing those moments that are discarded by the television broadcasters offer a different, more insightful experience. Watching sport at the venue itself has a habit of proving infinitely better than from one’s arm chair. Fortunately, unlike golf tournaments in many other countries, that balance is very much alive and well when the highest levels of the professional game reach British shores.