BIGGA National returns home

BIGGA National returns home

Thirty years ago Chris Carpenter MG played in the very first BIGGA National Championship at Verulam.

This year he will welcome the association’s top golfers back to the course for the competition’s 30th anniversary, having taken on the course manager role at Verulam, the ‘Home of the Ryder Cup’, in 2005.

“Back in 1987 the course was set up slightly differently,” he recalled when speaking to GI ahead of this month’s championship. “Back then we started on the 1st and 10th tees, but it is half a mile to the 10th tee and so they were taking them down there in a trailer.”

The BIGGA National used to be a three-day event, although golf was only played on two days.
Chris added: “A lot of people used to make it their week’s holiday.

“I remember getting an 11 on the 11th, which scuppered my chances. I can’t remember how I got that, it must have been awful!”

Chris went on to play in six nationals, and despite never claiming the top prize, he has some fond memories of the events. The most remarkable was at
Lyme Regis in 1989 when fog interrupted play.

“We were on the 10th hole and this fog came through,” Chris recalled. “And that was it for the day. From the 10th tee you couldn’t see the green and when you got to the ball, you couldn’t play on.”

Chris previously worked at Porters Park in nearby Radlett, a club with a long history of its own, dating back to 1899.

He also spent 14 years as head greenkeeper at Brookmans Park in Hatfield, before returning to his home town of St Albans to take up the head role at Verulam.

He was brought in to succeed Geoff Smith, who had been at the club for 30 years and signed off in 2005, the club’s centenary year.

“That was his swansong,” said Chris of Geoff, who passed away in 2010. “He made a really big effort for the centenary and you could see that with a little bit of extra effort, the course could be made into something really special.

“Geoff had been here for 30 years, so the job didn’t come up very often. I was looking for a move closer to home and Verulam is a nice course that needed a little bit of tweaking around the edges. What I thought would be a nice project, 12 years later and we are still upgrading.”

Verulam has a lofty name, taking its cue from the Roman name for St Albans, where it is the city’s only private members club. It also has a prestigious history, laying claim as the birthplace of the Ryder Cup.

Former club pro Abe Mitchell is reputed to be the man immortalised atop the Ryder Cup. He was the personal coach to Samuel Ryder, who first conceived of a match between American and British professionals while a member at Verulam.

With such a prestigious history, the pressure will be on when the BIGGA greenkeepers head to Verulam for the national championship, 30 years after the first competition was held there.

“I won’t say I’m not nervous,” said Chris. “But I’m just loving it. I’m sure we will be twitching two weeks beforehand though.”

Chris also praised BIGGA for the role it has played in his career, and for developing greenkeeper education over the past 30 years.

“I love the job,” he added. “It’s a fantastic lifestyle, helped by the better education and the money is improving. BIGGA has improved greenkeeping standards and we can now speak to golfers and the committee and explain why we are
doing things, or why they shouldn’t do others.

“The structure is also now there for juniors to move up and there’s a real clear career path. To any young greenkeeper I would say take advantage of this opportunity. Go out and see the world and get as much experience as you can.”

At 6,429 yards Verulam is restricted in opportunities to expand due to the compact nature of the 125-acre site, and the boundaries that surround it.

However, this has preserved James Braid’s original vision for the course, making Verulam one of the finest examples of the legendary course architect’s work in the country.

If you are aware of the club’s heritage, which few can rival, then the entranceway is rather understated. The road takes you underneath a railway and you turn left into a cul-de-sac housing a small business park. Ignoring the distractions and heading straight down the drive and you see a brick entranceway welcoming you to Verulam Golf Club, the ‘Home of the Ryder Cup’.

The 125-acre site features 25 acres of woodland, making it a typically compact James Braid design.

Away from the modern clubhouse, at the furthest reaches of the course, across Cottonmill Lane, and you find the location for the original pre-Braid holes. These are built onto a clay subsoil, while the newer holes are built on chalk and flint, making for two very distinct maintenance requirements.

Over the years the club has spent a large amount on irrigation systems.
A further recent development has been the enlistment of architect Kenneth Imrie, who specialises in restoring James Braid designs.

“Apart from the trees, this is a good example of Braid’s work,” said Chris. “The greens are pretty much as he designed them.
But obviously things change and if Braid came back, he probably wouldn’t build the bunkers like he did then. They were very big, with very steep faces, making them very difficult to maintain, and so we have modernised them.”

Some of the oldest parts of the course date all the way back to St Albans’ Roman past, such as the ditch and banking on the 15th hole. Other improvements in recent years have sought to make the course more difficult for the modern golfer.

Chris added: “We have put most of the bunkers back where they were. The design was in the right place, we just tweaked the design for the modern golfer.

“The other defence of the course is small greens, which are sloping and most of them run away from you, which is very much a Braid design. I always keep within the confines of the architect in respect for what he was trying to achieve.”

A James Braid classic, the home of the Ryder Cup, and the location for the first BIGGA National Competition 30 years ago: Verulam has a long and distinguished history.

In October, BIGGA members will write their own chapter in the annals of Verulam.