The first tee shot of the day is nearly always nerve-racking, but nothing comes close to the nerves on the first tee at Wentworth.
I’d known for several months that I’d been lucky enough to get the invite to play on the historic West course, and there wasn’t a day that went by when it didn’t cross my mind, bringing with it a wave of giddy excitement.
Every session at the range had been focused on preparing for it, grinding away with the driver, just praying I could get a decent enough shot away – and not disgrace myself on one of the most famous tee boxes in world golf.
The drive up to the course did little to settle the nerves. Opulent mansions loom large along the winding entrance road, revealing themselves behind the foliage around every corner. Then there’s the place itself, stacked with parapets and castle-like towers high on the hill overlooking Wentworth’s three courses. It is the closest thing to a golfing version of Disneyland you’re ever likely to see.
The first tee box on the West course during the BMW PGA Championship 2023Luke Walker/Getty Images
A quick stop in the locker room and five minutes on the range to warm-up and we were wandering down to the first tee box, in front of the stunning clubhouse and past the pristine practice green. The tee box was in better condition than most of the greens I’d played in the past year, and the conditioning (even on a drizzly day in October) was one of the things that struck me most during the round – as you’d probably expect for a venue that reportedly commands a membership fee well into six figures.
Our tee time came around, and it was time to take the shot that had been playing on my mind for months. People watched on, the starter and golf professional Joe Kerry stood close by as I composed myself, went through my pre-shot routine and pulled back the club.
Looking up, I realised with some relief that I’d gotten it away, albeit pulled slightly into the left rough. But it was good enough and we were away down the dramatic first – a hole I’d watched the pros play for years. Wentworth’s West course is synonymous with the BMW PGA Championship, one of the most prestigious events on the European DP World Tour. It’s always stacked with the biggest names in European golf (and perhaps if more of the American Ryder Cup team had played it this year, they’d have been in better shape for Rome). New Zealand’s Ryan Fox clinched it in 2023, sinking a putt on the 18th to win his biggest victory yet on tour.
I watched greenside, as the pros played on the first day of the tournament this year, and it only built up my excitement for our round. Walking after my drive on the first, it was a pleasure to be on the same turf I’d seen the best players in the world walk just a few weeks earlier.
Wentworth West, which was designed by Harry Colt and opened in 1926, isn’t overly tight off the fairway but will reward good driving more than most courses given the thick rough and heather. The course itself is more a mixture of styles than expected, married together with beautiful design and immaculate conditioning. Some parts resemble a traditional heathland course.
The stretch between hole nine and 13 is the strongest, with treacherous heather beautifully framing the holes running along the railway. The 10th stands out as an idyllic, but exacting short par three. It looks like a beauty from the tee box, but miss it left off the tee and you’re in all sorts of trouble trying to chip back down the hill onto a sloping green.
Other sections, though, including the first and final holes, are more of a stadium-style parkland course, skirted by plenty of trees and designed to create spectacle and drama. It played host to the 1953 Ryder Cup, and it’s clearly suited to match play. Lots of fantastic ‘risk and reward’ holes that reward strong drives off the tee, and bold approach play. The well-protected, immaculate greens are guarded by treacherous run-off areas and fringes, waiting to catch shots left short and return them 100 yards back down the hill towards the tee box.
The third hole, one of the toughest out there, showcases the challenging nature of the West course. Hit the perfect drive to avoid the bunkers on the right, and you’re still left with a long iron around 180 yards or more into the green up the hill, which is split across three-tiers and is shouldered by bunkers. Once you’re up there, there are yet more challenges. We played on a decidedly damp October day, and the greens weren’t running at the speeds they were for the BMW PGA, when they were at their hard, summer peak. Still, they offered more than a flavour of their testing nature, with subtle breaks and enough speed to really keep you on your toes with the flat stick in hand.
The iconic 18th on Wentworth's West course
Perhaps the stand-out hole, and the one that undoubtedly produces the most excitement when the pros come to town, was the famous 18th. What used to be a charming, but more pedestrian par-5, was altered back in 2010 by Ernie Els and his team. The change saw the water that ran through the fairway moved up to the green, meaning players now had a real decision to make: lay up or take on the pin in two shots, and risk dumping it in the drink, but giving yourself an eagle putt if you hit the green. Though controversial at the time, the hole is now a central part of the BMW PGA experience, creating a dramatic risk-reward finish, and while most 18th holes in their nature tend to stick in the memory more than others, it’s the hole that stays with you afterwards.
The tee shot sweeps round to the right, suiting a fade, although the stodgy rough on the right side and the bunkers on the left of the fairway are lying in wait to swallow up anything too far offline. For all the controversy surrounding the hole – some are still irked by the changes made by Els well over a decade on – it provides a real statement on which to end the round. It must have added more spice to proceedings than almost any other course design change in the world of professional golf too. Watching from the 18th green as an observer during the championship was a thrill, and playing the hole was no different.
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
It’s not just the West Course that brings people here, either. The East Course was here many years before the West, which is a relative youngster by comparison. The East offers a different feel entirely; it’s famous for its par 3s and tighter fairways which offer more of a traditional heathland test. It’s possibly overshadowed by the West, but has its own identity entirely. The site also offers the third and newest course in the form of the Edinburgh, which is another demanding layout designed by John Jacobs with input from Gary Player and Bernard Gallacher.
These days, Wentworth is trying to do things a little differently. It’s still as exclusive as it comes, but any hint of the old school attitude is gone. They’re all about making members and guests feel as relaxed as possible here and there’s no intimidation factor, even at one of the most prestigious courses on the planet. There is no obsequiousness on show from the legions of predominantly young staff, whether in the bars and restaurants or relating to the important business of getting you on the first tee on time and well prepared. Friendly efficiency is the watchword, from the impressive (of course) pro shop to the ‘golf concierge’ service sorting out trolleys, buggies and tee times.
The East course at WentworthWentworth
A special word for Joe Kerry, ‘our’ pro who guided us around the West course: while he was concentrating on minimising his own score with some astonishing shots, he was clearly intent on ensuring we had the best possible time, and his diligent and patient coaching during the round was much appreciated – even helping to shave a few much needed shots off my first round back at my local course a few days later.
We had a light meal in one of the bars after our round, and one of our party was particularly impressed when the waiter understood his needs as a coeliac, coming back with the news that the chef was going to change the normal recipe of one of the dishes to suit, something that normally only happens at high end restaurants.
Full, and with the pleasant weariness that comes after a long round of golf at a special place, it was time to head home. Leaving the apprehensive excitement of the first tee behind and seeing the high parapets of Wentworth disappearing in the rear-view mirror, it was clearer than ever that playing here is one of the great privileges in UK golf – one impossible to forget.