Torrance: 'It's the home advantage'

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- This is the fourth time the Ryder Cup will be awarded at The Belfry, but it's not the same golf course that hosted the other three.

Several holes have been lengthened. A par-4 is now a par-5, and a par-5 is now a par-4. The trees have matured and narrowed the fairways. There's a little more water, and a lot more rough.

Even the "railway sleepers" -- old railroad cars -- that used to guard the front of the par-3 seventh green are gone, a victim of what course officials call "health and safety issues."

"I don't remember seeing this Belfry," said American Paul Azinger, who was 0-2-2 as part of the American team that beat the Europeans 15-13 nine years ago at the course. He also played here in 1989, going 3-1, including a fourball loss with a man named Curtis Strange, who's now his captain.

The Brabazon Course at The Belfry (there are two other 18s, along with a luxury hotel) was built out of 15 potato fields 26 years ago as an American-style test of golf in the midst of the English highlands near Birmingham. Designers Peter Allis and David Thomas spent a little more than 200,000 pounds -- the equivalent of roughly $300,000 U.S. -- originally on the project.

They've spent 6 million pounds -- around $9 million U.S. -- refurbishing the place for this year's competition, the first here since 1993. The European PGA, which co-runs the event with the PGA of America, is headquartered here, which is part of the reason the event has been here four times (it's a similar arrangement as the PGA of America has with Valhalla in Louisville, which will host the Ryder Cup in 2008 -- and the reason some derisively call this the Valhalla of Europe).

Much of the pre-tournament hand-wringing among the players and captains has centered on the 280-yard (or 311-yard, depending on who you believe) 10th hole, which has been a drivable par-4 in the past. European captain Sam Torrance told Strange that the 10th will play from the back tees. That will mean we'll see players mostly lay-up, rather than risk the water in front and trees surrounding the green.

"At the Benson & Hedges (tournament on the European Tour), some guys were playing 3-iron (and reaching the green)," Torrance said. "That's not a golf hole for a par-4. The technology has taken over. We've reverted back to the back tee, and it's possible to knock it on from there. The hole you have this week will be equivalent to the hole you had from '85 and onwards."

The Americans are disappointed, since most of them hit the ball far enough to reach the green. Torrance, who sets up the course as the host captain, says he didn't do it to give his team an advantage, though it undoubtedly will level the field.

"We have already pretty much decided ... that it's better to have two putts at a birdie than one putt for par (if you hit the ball in the water)," Strange said.

"I'll lay up every day," said Tiger Woods, the biggest hitter in the competition.

The rest of the course is more American than British. The fairways are lush, the sand in the bunkers is fluffy and the greens are fast, though not as quick as most of the greens on the PGA Tour. Torrance said there won't be much rough around the greens, taking away the flop shot that so many of the Americans like to hit.

"It's the home advantage," Torrance said. "I mean, there's nothing untoward out there. It's all perfectly fair. But as far as I can see, I've tried to set it up to suit the European players."

If matches come to the 18th hole, (and 13 did here in 1989, eight in 1993), look out. The 473-yard par-4 requires a pair of shots over water, including a drive that dares players to cut off as much as they can, plus a two-tiered green that flushes everything toward the water.

"It's a good golf course, a better golf course than it gets credit for," Strange said.

It has produced three intriguing Ryder Cup results. In 1985, Europe won 16½-11½ -- the biggest European rout ever. Four years later, the teams tied at 14, allowing Europe to retain the Cup. And four years after that, the Americans won 15-13 to retain the Cup they'd won in 1991 in the "War by the Shore" at Kiawah Island, S.C.

But not everybody is sure retooled is better.

"The way it was set up before, for match play, was fantastic," Azinger said. "I know Chip Beck and I made 11 birdies in one match against (Nick) Faldo and Woozy (Ian Woosnam, in 1989, when Azinger-Beck won 2 and 1). And I don't think you're going to see any matches like that."

"The course is quite a bit different than what I remember of it in '89, as far as how narrow the fairways are, and the fairway bunkering and things like that," said Mark Calcavecchia, who was 2-3 in five matches that year. "But it's the same for both teams. You need your straight ball out here this week, is going to be the main thing."