How Walton Health Golf Club has been preparing for the 2018 British Masters
- Credit: Charles Briscoe-Knight
From October 11 to 14, the great and the good of professional golf will tee up at Walton Health Golf Club for the 2018 British Masters. We shine a spotlight on the club as it ends an extraordinary year
Since its foundation in 1903, Walton Heath Golf Club has projected an intoxicating fusion of history, tradition, elegance and charm. To that mixture, add a dash of world class competition, and the latest chapter in the club’s rich and distinguished history is ready to be penned.
Located near Walton-on-the-Hill in Tadworth, Walton Heath, as its name suggests, occupies a large swathe of glorious heathland, encompassing two 18-hole golf courses. Bursting with an explosion of vibrant purple heather, the Old and New courses are consistently ranked in the top-100 in the world.
However, 2018 has been no ordinary year for this very unordinary golf club. Already, two leading events for elite professional and amateur players have taken place at Walton Heath and this month comes the season’s finale; the club is bracing itself for thousands of golf fans descending on the venue to watch one of the biggest sporting events in the UK the British Masters.
From October 11 to 14, the great and the good of professional golf will tee up on a composite course comprising 16 holes of the Old and two of the New to create a tournament layout designed to test the world’s best. The British Masters is the culmination of a packed competitive calendar which tests every one of the attentive staff and greenkeepers working on presenting Walton Heath as one of the jewels in the crown of heathland golf courses in this country. Adding a touch of style and class to the £3 million event is the fact that the ‘host’ for the week is none other than Justin Rose, the reigning Olympic golf gold medallist from neighbouring Hampshire.
Club secretary, Stuart Christie, is relishing the return of a European Tour event after a 27-year absence. “It certainly keeps us on our toes, preparing the two courses for tournament golf at different times of the season,” says Christie. “In early June, we staged the European Qualifier for the US Open Championship for the 14th successive year; then in July we were blessed with superb weather for the annual Walton Heath Trophy for elite amateur golfers. Now we have a world class professional tournament in mid-October.”
The tournament is expected to feature many of the highest-ranked players in the world and they will encounter an eye-catching part of Surrey countryside, which once enjoyed the patronage of four Prime Ministers, including Winston Churchill, and which remains the only Club in England to have had a reigning monarch as Captain – King Edward VIII in 1935-36.
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With the agreement to host the tournament only rubber-stamped last October, Christie appreciates that it has been a tight time-scale to make all the necessary changes, big and small, to the club’s facilities.
“We would normally expect a few years to prepare but it wasn’t the case for the British Masters,” he explains. “Fortunately, we have a strong track record as a tournament venue and we are confident that the players, spectators and a global television audience will enjoy the tournament enormously,” he says.
Rose had no hesitation in selecting Walton Heath as his preferred location for the event, and he has underscored his desire to help deliver a high-class product by making a series of personal visits to the club, interacting with officials, media and even a class of star-struck Year Five pupils from Walton-on-the-Hill Primary School, who participated in a putting clinic before checking out Rose’s Olympic medal.
“This is one of my favourite places to play golf,” the 38-year-old enthuses, “and it’s going to be amazing when the big crowds come out. I had plenty of venue options to host the British Masters but I was pretty resolute that this is where I wanted to take it. It doesn’t get any better than this, especially when you get out on the course. The views across the heath are stunning. The British Masters comes just two weeks after The Ryder Cup in France and it would be great to come here off the back of a European victory. Believe me, I will be campaigning in the locker rooms to get as many of our team to come and play Walton Heath.”
Preparing the course
Michael Mann, Walton Heath’s course manager, endured understandably mixed emotions over the prolonged summer heatwave, which turned the famous Surrey heathland into a ribbon of parched golfing territory.
The Scot, who oversees a close-knit team of around 20 greenkeepers – and many more volunteers during event week – admits that preparing the tournament course has not been assisted by several weeks of high temperatures and very little rainfall.
“Since moving down from Scotland in 2004 I’ve never seen conditions as dry as we’ve experienced this summer,” says Mann, whose career path took him via other notable Surrey courses in Wentworth, West Hill and Farleigh before winding up at Walton Heath.
“The extreme heat and almost no rainfall for eight weeks has created some challenges in terms of how we prepare the courses. Our priorities have changed from what we might normally do around this time of year and certainly in the hot weather we were focussing on the high and dry spots on the greens and making sure moisture levels were kept at an optimum level.”
Fortunately for the club, they can draw water from a reservoir located on the heath. Mann adds, “Water is a precious resource, but we are fortunate to have the reservoir, which gives us a ready supply to irrigate the courses. We use an automatic sprinkler system that is programmed to come on through the night and complement this with hand hoses through the day to get water to the areas that really need it. Bowsers are used to water the fairways. I would call it responsible water management.”
The club, after liaising with the European Tour and Justin Rose, has added two brand new tees to add to the challenge of the tournament course while the 60-odd bunkers have been overhauled with around 300 tonnes of new sand replacing the old variety.
“The big thing that the pros always ask for is consistency in all the bunkers, so we we’ve worked hard to achieve this,” Mann explains.
With play commencing at 7.30am each day, the greenkeeping team will certainly be kept on their toes, beginning course preparation well before dawn. “We’ll be starting in pitch darkness, around 5am,” says Mann. “We’ve set up mobile light towers and installed lights on the machinery to buy us time before it gets light. Whatever happens, we’ll be ready!”