If you ever cut your approach to the tricky 11th at onyria palmares and finish up 50 yards short and right of the green, it is me you will have to thank for not being in a bunker. instead of stuck in nasty sand, your ball will be resting on friendly grass and among pretty yellow flowers in what i sincerely hope will come to be known as ‘clive’s hump’. Given that at 62 the chances of my winning a string of majors is receding faster than my hairline, having a modest earthy protuberance on the western end of the algarve named after me is, sadly, the closest i’m ever likely to get to achieving golfing immortality.
the extremely welcome opportunity to leave a more or less indelible mark on golf’s great landscape came when the rebuilt course was opened recently. perhaps consumed with guilt at denying me the talent to fulfil my dream of becoming world number one, the golfing gods chose me from amongst the many worthy guests attending this happy and historic occasion to not only put me in his fourball but also to sit me in the buggy alongside the legendary robert trent jones ii. having previously approached his handlers and pleaded for 10 minutes with him, i was now looking at somewhere in the region of five hours in the company of the man who, more than anyone in the modern era, has literally shaped the golf courses we love.
What was already fast developing into a truly great day, acquired an almost surreal state of perfection when i learnt that my group was to commence the shotgun start on the 19th. sadly, the vision of a couple of swift beers to kick-start the round evaporated in the portuguese sunshine when i discovered that there was, indeed, a 19th tee on this 27 hole layout. having played here a number of times when it was just plain old palmares, was of no help whatsoever as the place was unrecognisable. only the bar, terrace, pro shop and locker rooms have survived and their days would appear to be numbered as the ambitious plans of the wealthy owner for a hotel et al are fulfilled.
a smiling figure approached that was surely able to locate the 19th tee quicker than most.
“robert trent jones,” he announced, proffering a hand. famous people, i suppose, have to introduce themselves just like us ordinary folk or risk appearing somewhat presumptuous. he was relaxed, cheerful and friendly and, despite the innumerable hazards he’s created in the nearly 300 courses he’s built in more than 40 countries around the globe, i instinctively liked him.
standing on the elevated tee as we awaited the gun, he explained to me and our two playing partners, Dave and nick, that the project here was a ‘blow-up’, which is architect-speak for starting again. as he surveyed the breathtaking panorama of hills, beach and atlantic, he declared with the relish of a victorious fieldmarshal looking out over a battlefield, “nothing survived.”
the only downside to playing in the ‘stand out’ group was that we attracted more attention in the way of spectators and cameramen than my dodgy swing could comfortably handle. Despite the pressure, i struck a tolerable drive down the 19th and scrambled a creditable double bogey, only one shot more than rtj2, who was once a very serious golfer and is now a steady 13 handicapper.
We crossed one of the only features that has survived the ‘blow-up’, the railway line, and began a delightful stretch of lovely links. the four holes that were there before were pretty but rather flat and unremarkable. the two par fives and two par threes that rtj2 has created are beautiful and dramatically demonstrate what can be done if you know what you’re doing.
thousands of tons of sand have been shifted to give shape, create interest and produce attractive holes that are both aesthetically pleasing and genuinely challenging.
although somewhat preoccupied in looking for my ball, i was nevertheless able to appreciate their appeal. What i might have missed, however, had the course architect not been sitting alongside me, was the unusual appearance of the teeing grounds. instead of rectangular, perfectly flat and with straight sides, they were much less regular, sloped slightly in places and were a bit rough around the edges. rtj2 described them as “crumpled ribbon” and explained they were in keeping with what he called the more ‘informal’ section of the course.
as the round progressed and rtj2 explained, my appreciation of the art of course design grew even as the tally of lost balls rose. for example, i don’t think i would ever have been consciously aware of what is known as the principal of harmony where, for example, the outline of the mounding behind the green mirrors the silhouette of the mountains in the background. and how the use of diagonals creates greater visual appeal and more interesting holes than does straight lines.
Like me, rtj2 is a sensitive and creative individual but, unlike me, he likes poetry. evidently passionate about what he does, he explained the rhythms and rhymes that he endeavours to develop when creating a course. he’s a sort of landscape poet crafting stanzas within the parameters laid down by nature and the discipline imposed by the rules and conventions of golf. and because he likes rhymes, he took pleasure in the fact that the four links’ holes went 5-3-5-3.
the only character flaw i detected in him was his evident delight when one of our group (including him!) hit into a bunker. it was a sort of vindication, i suppose, of his decision to put the bunker where it was. but did it reveal a slightly sadistic streak in an otherwise extremely friendly and charming man? “no, my brother inherited the sadistic gene. bunkers act like lighthouses. they tell you ‘don’t go there’. they aren’t always hostile,” he explained. “When sited on the edge of a ravine, for example, they can stop you’re your ball rolling into deeper trouble. and there are other problems besides the ones we designers create. the wind, for example, is an invisible hazard.”
somewhat surprisingly for an american, he used a ‘soccer’ analogy to describe the job of a golf course architect. “the golfers are the strikers and we’re the defenders. an easy defence is to make the course long but it’s more satisfying to be more subtle.” What sort of striker/golfer does he have in mind when designing a course? “a 10-handicapper. if he enjoys it, he’ll act like a bell-cow and attract others to follow.”
now 71, is he considering retiring? “my friends ask me that and so i ask them why they retired. they say so that they can travel and play more golf. travelling a lot and playing golf is what i’m doing now, so why on earth should Iretire?”
after crossing back over the railway line, we climbed gently up a hill and the character of course changed to heathland/parkland. The gallery shrunk to one American journalist called Craig. A senior writer with Bloomberg News in Paris, he’s a non-golfing friend of RTJ2’s and, as we reached the turn, he expressed a desire to hit a drive. Since no-one seemed terribly eager to volunteer, I generously lent him both a reasonably good Titleist and my beloved Ping R5 driver. What was immediately apparent as he shaped to hit off the 10th tee was that he most certainly wasn’t lying when said he wasn’t a golfer. Maybe RTJ2 could compose a poem that captured the idiosyncratic nature of his friend’s swing but I wouldn’t attempt it in prose. A literal and metaphorical blur followed after which an embarrassed and apologetic Craig handed me a broken driver before disappearing into the clubhouse. Given the calamitous nature of what had just occurred, I could almost forgive him for not looking for the ball that had trundled down a hill and into deep rough.
Because what subsequently proved to be the final drive I ever struck with my now shattered driver was imperious, which at least means my last memory of it will be a fond one, I had only an unbroken wedge to the green. Battling private grief, I courageously parred the hole.
Although I mostly played the course in a way that he surely could never have envisaged, RTJ2 nevertheless seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts and opinions of it. And so I wasn’t altogether surprised when he asked me whether he should put a bunker on the right-hand side of the fairway just short of the 11th green. Still feeling rather emotional, I didn’t hold back and boldly stated that the pretty mound should under no circumstance be sacrificed for yet another bunker. So emphatic was my advice that RTJ2 seemed genuinely impressed and assured me that ‘Clive’s Hump’ (a name that reflected both my mental state after the loss of my driver as well as the topography) would not be touched.
Perhaps after my final putt has sunk, I shall have my remains, and those of my beloved G5 driver, buried beneath it. But there’s no guarantee that Robert Trent Jones III won’t come along and shove a bunker in there after all. If that happens, I suggest it be christened ‘Craig’s Folly’ and be left for at least a thousand years.