While the Solheim Cup may have become the metaphorical jewel in the crown of women’s professional golf, the venue for this year’s match between the cream of the distaff side of the American game and their European counterparts has a genuine and truly astonishing historical link with inestimable riches: The English crown jewels were hocked at St. Pierre in the early 15th century to finance a war!
Before Christopher Columbus was even born, England’s King Henry V determined in 1415 to take an army across the English Channel to subdue Gaelic opposition once and for all and fulfill his ambition of laying claim to the French crown. Even in those pre-Stealth Bomber days there was a reasonably sophisticated intelligence system in existence, and good King Henry knew long before he set off on yet another of his expeditions that the opposition would be fierce and that his trusty archers might be seriously outnumbered, particularly at the Battle of Agincourt.
Large sums of money were required to recruit, feed and pay for an army and navy large enough to launch his empire-building foray. However, he was somewhat strapped for cash as a result of previous endeavors to subjugate the French. Having been born in Monmouth in South Wales, just a few miles up the Wye Valley from the site of this year’s Solheim Cup encounter, the English King knew the area well and also knew that a local nobleman, Sir David de St. Pierre, was of the well-heeled variety.
The King and his trusty—to say nothing of wealthy—knight reached an accommodation. Sir David, who had been a loyal soldier under King Harry, would lend finance for the latest expedition provided His Majesty handed over the Crown Jewels as security.
It is now part of England’s rich history that Henry’s bowmen inflicted a hugely embarrassing defeat on the numerically superior French forces and he became, after a fashion, King of France and England before dying, in France, in 1422. The Crown Jewels were still at St. Pierre, but exactly where is lost in the mists of antiquity. It was probably in the vault of a house which long preceded the present buildings. Indeed, it was not until comparatively recently, 1950 to be precise, that written records of the amazing transaction were discovered. Ironically the forbears of the said Sir David de St. Pierre were themselves French, having come the other way across the English Channel from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066.
A few of them found their way westward to Wales but even those invaders, sent to keep the peace on the turbulent Wales-England border by Henry I, were Johnny-come-latelys to the region. Roman centurions had marched through the area in the first century B.C. It is the case, however, that civilized settlements have been in existence for around 1,000 years on what is now St. Pierre, just a few miles south of Chepstow on the estuary of the fast-flowing River Severn.
In many respects the world, and all its upheavals, wars and plagues, passed it by. Peace and tranquillity reigned at St. Pierre as century succeeded century and generation after generation went about its business, and successive owners of the estate and the vast deer park built, extended and modernized the ancient mansion with its attendant church. Then, after 13 years as a Boy’s Club training center, it lay empty for two years until a hotelier from nearby Tintern, whose ruined Abbey was immortalized by the poetic genius of William Wordsworth, realized the potential for creating what was to become Britain’s first American-style golf and country club, complete with swimming pool, restaurants, bars and bedrooms in what were once the stables.
Bill Graham was driving home from golf at nearby Newport Golf Club when a bank manager friend suggested he buy St. Pierre, which was uninhabited for the first time since the 1400s, and build a golf course and country club. That was on a Friday evening. Go-ahead Graham inspected the premises the following Monday and bought them on Thursday of that same week. That was in 1960 and the first annual golf subscription was the equivalent of $10—a far cry from the Crown Jewels.
The late C.K. Cotton designed what is now the Old Course—the new was opened 15 years later—and he routed it through some of the oldest trees in Britain, uphill, down dale, across streams and natural lakes and across parkland where deer had roamed for centuries. Some of the trees are truly majestic, and the massive chestnut which dominates the drive from the second tee is close to 400 years old and has a girth which would make Henry V’s rotund gourmand descendant Henry VIII, he of the many wives, look positively puny.
By 1971 the course, while still a little on the immature side, was ready for tournament play, and the first PGA European Tour event to be played over it was the now-defunct Dunlop Masters in the autumn of that year when St. Pierre and its trees are in full and glorious technicolor. Maurice Bembridge, who once shot a 64 on Augusta National at the U.S. Masters, triumphed that year. Among others winners of the Dunlop in its years at St. Pierre were past European Ryder Cup captains Tony Jacklin and Bernard Gallacher (who beat the redoubtable Gary Player in a playoff), Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman.
Langer’s 1980 victory was a significant one. It was his first, and he has won at least one tournament every year since, including two Masters. The course also provided another little slice of golfing history in 1986. That was when the first of four Epson Grand Prix match play events was staged on the Welsh course and the victor was Ove Sellberg who became the first Swedish winner of a European PGA Tour event. He was succeeded the following year by countryman Mats Lanner, so the indications are that Swedish players like St. Pierre. One wonders if Swedish members of the Solheim Cup team, such as Liselotte Neumann, Helen Alfredsson and Annika Sorenstam, may be inspired during the matches.
Other Epson matchplay winners over the course were Langer and current European Ryder Cup captain Severiano Ballesteros, while Masters champions Ian Woosnam, a Welshman, and Jose Maria Olazabal were successful when the tournament switched to the more conventional 72-hole stroke play format in 1990 and ’91.
Such winners are eloquent testimony to the quality of play required by St. Pierre. That standard of excellence was underlined last year when Laura Davies won the Woodpecker Welsh Open on the WPGET tour last year. If Davies was politely diplomatic about St. Pierre’s condition that week, diminutive Solheim Cup teammate Alison Nicholas was less so. She was harshly critical of an 18-hole layout burned to the consistency of broken crackers by Britain’s uncommonly hot summer. Her criticism was justified and her words were not lost on Richard McKevitt, director of golf operations for the Marriott hotel chain which now owns and operates St. Pierre.
The result is that more than $1 million will have been invested on the course and the hotel in preparation for the fourth Solheim Cup. A completely new irrigation system will encompass every tee, fairway and green, while an international-standard practice putting green has been prepared and a practice range specially designed for the two teams. In addition, eight new tees have been constructed while no fewer than 40 bunkers will have been remodeled by the time the matches tee off. An enormous amount of landscaping work has also been completed as well as a program of tree surgery. The 400-acre site should be in prime condition.
The numbering of the holes has been altered for the Solheim to bring the original 18th more into play in the match play format. It is a longish and difficult par-3 across a lake then uphill to an elevated green with an out of bounds wall on the left and a cavernous bunker on the right. It has ruined many a medal round but is thought to be too exciting a hole to be left to the very last in the cut and thrust of matchplay when many matches are over before the 18th tee is reached. Hence for the Solheim Cup it will be played as the 16th, a much more strategic position.
All the par-3s at St. Pierre offer their own challenges but the 16th, as it will be for the cream of ladies golf, is by far the most daunting. Merely to put the tee shot on the green places as many demands on the nervous system as it does on the physical acts of making a good swing and solid contact.
The opening hole parallels the half-mile-long, tree-lined driveway to the hotel and is a comparatively benign par-5, so long as the drive and second shots are not pulled behind trees, while the main problem at the par-4 second is that giant, 400-year-old chestnut tree which menaces the right side of the fairway. The short third is played uphill and, with the bottom of the flag often hidden from the player, demands precise club selection.
The fourth is a strong par-4 as the course climbs high above the Severn Estuary while the major threat on the downhill fifth is a large depression short and right of the green. The short sixth plunges off an escarpment to a green well-guarded by bunkers to the front and either side and which slopes away severely at the back.
Moving to the incoming nine, the 13th hole is one of the most challenging on the course. Not a long par-4, the tee shot has to be placed with care to set up a pitch to a green set, it seems, in the middle of a lake. The 14th, like No. 2, is completely dominated by one of the largest trees in all of Wales, right on the corner of the dogleg right par-5. The tree is a magnificent specimen well deserving of careful preservation but countless golfers over the years have cursed its very existence.
The next hole comes doglegging right down a hill, a strong par-4 again, to a lakeside green with a watery grave awaiting the less-than-pinpoint approach. The 16th (the original 18th) could prove pivotal to many matches and might well be the hole where the Solheim Cup is won or lost. The remaining two holes may appear somewhat mundane after that but they are no pushovers and are capable of dramas of their own.
St. Pierre’s Old Course is not one of the sternest tests of golf in Wales, never mind the British Isles, but it has all the ingredients for a stirring Solheim Cup, while the resort more than meets all current criteria of comfort and relaxation. The building reeks of history, as does the entire area, but the American team may find some hint of home comfort as they approach the estate. There is a sign at the gateway which welcomes guests and golfers to “The Marriott St. Pierre Golf and Country Club.”
An island of modern luxury in an ocean of antiquity. There is no need to dream of digging for hidden treasure during the matches, however. The Crown Jewels were eventually redeemed by Henry VI and restored to the Monarchy— exactly what the European team hopes to do with the Solheim Cup.