I've heard the whispers: "The best Florida course in golf is splashed down in the Welsh countryside it's going to host the 2010 Ryder Cup."
Admittedly, the flattish, lake-studded holes in the mid-section of Celtic Manor's Twenty Ten course look like they were airlifted straight out of West Palm Beach. My response to that? Big deal. The oft-maligned Twenty Ten course may lack the rumpled seaside splendor that graces its neighbor, Royal Porthcawl, 40 minutes to the west, but so what? I sampled the Ryder Cup layout in late April and found that while the Americanized design won't make you forget Shinnecock Hills, it's certainly a stronger course than Ireland's K Club, the venue for the 2006 matches, and offers more drama than both Chicago's Medinah No. 3, home to the 2012 Ryder Cup, and Gleneagles' PGA Centenary course in Scotland, site of the 2014 event.
This Frankenstein's Monster of a layout boasts nine holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 1997 for a track known as Wentwood Hills and nine new holes (1-5, 14, and 16-18) crafted by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design, the architecture appendage of the European Tour. McMurray smoothed out some of the hill-climbing and amped up the risk/reward quotient on the 7,378-yard, par-71 spread, creating both superior spectator vantage points and enticing match-play holes. To steal a phrase from Bruce Springsteen's 'Thunder Road' Twenty Ten, you ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright.
Two rugged, watery par 4s, the 433-yard 5th and the 422-yard 6th stand out on the front nine. Both holes are playing 20 to 30 yards shorter than their limits, so as to inject additional excitement. The 5th sports a cluster of bunkers up the right side, enticing the big hitter to attempt the carry on this dogleg right. However, a stream slashes the fairway just short of the green, and with the greenside bank shaved, timid approaches are punished with a gurgling sound.
The 6th also arcs to the right, with contours or lack thereof and shot values reminiscent of a mirror-image TPC Sawgrass 18th, right down to the hard edge along the lake.
Still, it's the back nine where memories, both good and bad, will emerge. The brilliantly crafted 485-yard, par-4 14th sports pay-me-now, pay-me-later options on both drive and approach, with water again the chief nemesis. The ballyhooed 377-yard, par-4 15th is a tad overrated, but will certainly provide loads of drama. A shortcut through a notch in the trees means that virtually all of the pros can drive it, so there's not much percentage in hewing to the dogleg, which turns into an awkward, and frankly poorly designed route for the Average Joe.
The par-5 18th is another scorecard wrecker for the higher-handicap player, thanks to a third shot that must be struck from a downhill lie to an elevated green fronted by a sheer slope that deflects every shot into the water. Depending on weather, the hole might play shorter than its 575 yards, as organizers clearly want to entice the game's best to go for the green in two.
If the 499-yard, par-4 16th and 211-yard, par-3 17th aren't aesthetic winners, at least their vast hillsides to the left will offer stellar viewing platforms for spectators. As for the 18th, while one may question its playability, it's undeniable that a lot can happen there provided any given match reaches that juncture. I hope 18 sees a ton of action, because its amphitheatre setting serves as a remarkable stage for galleries and players alike.
Unfolding over more than 1,400 acres of Welsh countryside, Celtic Manor Resort is the brainchild of telecommunications billionaire Sir Terrence Matthews. Sir Terry made his financial mark in Canada, but he was born in a maternity ward on the grounds of the resort, an edifice he eventually transformed into the cozy 70-room Manor House that serves as an integral part of Celtic Manor. Its adjacent companion is an airy, modern, 330-room hotel that boasts all the creature comforts, from gourmet dining to a state-of-the-art spa. Whether you're into sipping a Penderyn single malt at The Crown restaurant, produced by Wales' only whiskey distillery, or quaffing a pint at the character-filled Cellar Bar at the Manor House, Celtic Manor will quench your thirst in every way.
Roaming Among the Ruins
History buffs looking to be schooled in ancient civics after breakfast yet still be back in their hotel rooms before lunch are in luck. Less than a 10-minutes drive from Celtic Manor's front door is a startling doorway to the past. The Caerleon Roman Fortress site absolutely dazzles, not only in its historical displays, but in its seamless integration into the modern town that surrounds it. Along with York and Chester, Caerleon was one of just three fortress settlements in Britain built for the Romans' elite legionary troops and excavations, and subsequent preservation efforts have provided a remarkable window into life from 2,000 years ago.
It's an easy stroll through the above-ground attractions that include an amphitheatre, barrack blocks and fortress defenses. However, most impressive is the excavated bathhouse complex where Roman troops could while away the hours in barbaric Britain via sports in the exercise yard, massage, hot and cold baths, and dining and drinking. In other words, your basic day-spa package. Artifacts and life-size replicas of soldiers await in the adjacent Legionary Museum.
Thanks to its definitely-within-reach location, a two-hour straight shot due east from Celtic Manor along the M4 Motorway, London makes an ideal side trip either before or after the Ryder Cup. You'll need some cash, or at least a credit card with some breathing room, but a weekend in London is absolutely worth the splurge.
There's no better place to hole up in London than The Dorchester. Given its location, charm, history and service levels, The Dorchester may very well be the finest city hotel in the world. Situated on the edge of Hyde Park in fashionable Mayfair, The Dorchester provided the ideal base for my wife and me to explore. A 10-minute walk to the southwest brought us unparalleled shopping in Knightsbridge, at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. My wallet is still smarting from that excursion. Another 10-minute walk, this time to the southeast, found us at Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards. Imagine our surprise when the military band finished its first three traditional numbers, then launched into a selection of Beatles and Abba tunes. All that was missing on "Dancing Queen" was a dancing queen.
Of course, to see London's attractions, you have to leave the hotel and nobody really ever wants to leave The Dorchester. From the vases to the Chippendale chairs in the bathroom to the flawless presentation and overwhelmingly English ambiance in the Grill, the trappings were sensational. Toss in service that was superior, not stuffy, and you have a package that's second to none. Hey, I'm all for double-decker busing it to Westminster Abbey, or hopping in a black cab bound for the Tower of London. Still, as prime London attractions go, I'll take my room at The Dorchester anytime.