Q&A With Martin Ebert, Part 1

The consulting architect for Royal St George's discusses course improvements to the 2021 Open host

Martin Ebert is The Open…physician.

Consulting at key rota courses—Troon, Lytham & St Annes, Portrush, Carnoustie, Hoylake—and two currently on the outside looking in (Turnberry and Deal), Ebert has brought more sensitivity to historic links than some of his predecessors. Combining a knowledge of the rules, reverence for golf history and a desire to showcase good play, he’s already made a lasting impact on Open rota course setup.

Ebert takes his inspiration from a variety of sources, first as a longtime membership at Woking and later shaped by a year-long Cambridge University Golf Club tour of the United States in 1989. And as an Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society member, he’s had no short of exposure to the great links and of particular interest this year, Royal St George’s.

The Quadrilateral: When did you start working with the club and what has been your role?

Martin Ebert: The earliest correspondence I have on my laptop for Royal St. George’s is from June 1998 from Donald Steel to Gerald Watts, the wonderful Secretary of the Club at that time. Donald was to meet up with Michael Attenborough and Johnny Salvesen (both R&A Captains) to discuss the 14th hole. I was fortunate to be involved with the redesign of the hole while working for Donald, taking the green back and to the right and adding two central bunkers to the approach area. The old hole was famous for its crossing of the “Suez Canal” but there was no need to flirt with the out of bounds with the tee shot to get the best line to the green and the second shot played away from the out of bounds. With the new green location, all sorts of questions are posed to produce a classic out-of-bounds hole. This was played in the 2003 Open.

When Donald Steel closed down his company in 2005 and Tom Mackenzie and I started Mackenzie & Ebert, I was interviewed to see if we would continue advising the Club. Fortunately, we were appointed in January 2006, and I have been advising ever since.  

The focus between that appointment and The Open in 2011 was on the 5th to tighten up the short par 4 for those long enough to clear the dunes from the tee by the creation of hollows to the right of the approach and reconfigured bunkers at the 9th and 17th along with new tees at the 3rd, 6th, 7th, 9th and 15th holes. The other recommendation was to widen the 1st, 17th and 18th fairways as the percentage of the world’s best golfers finding them was ridiculously low. That was getting the course a reputation for unfairness. The fairway undulations at Royal St. George’s are some of the best to be found anywhere but the fairways themselves need to be wide enough to accommodate the links bounces which result. The proposals at the 18th also involved the adjustment of the fairway bunkering.

Following the 2011 Open, we were asked to look at the bunkers and that led to a historical review of the course. It was fascinating to see the old holes such as the blind 3rd and the 8th with its huge Hades bunker.

This led to some bunker work including the reconstruction of the huge Himalayas bunker at the 4th, but with the removal of the sleepers and the restoration of its rough edged look from year’s past.

In 2017, thoughts turned to this year’s Open, with The R&A commissioning a report on a few key areas such as the 5th and 18th again along with an upgrading of the Open practice facilities. The very flat area of thin rough to the left of the 5th was viewed as a weakness of the hole and the old photographs showed that this was a bare, sandy area around the time of the Second World War. That has been restored.

GS: How much of your consulting there has entailed going back into the records and learning about RSG’s evolution?

ME: Historical research has formed an important part of the advice we have provided since being appointed in 2006. As time has gone on in our professional lives, we have felt that this has become more and more important. It is only right to respect the great work and features of yesteryear without being completely tied to them. However, no proposals for new features should be made until as full an understanding as possible is gained regarding the evolution of any course enjoying great heritage.

GS: The 18th fairway was pretty tough to hit in 2003 when things were firm. The course was more lush in 2011 and the hole seemed to function better. What do you anticipate for the finishing hole this time around?

ME: With the 18th, it was decided to reconfigure the two cross bunkers—there were previously three—to produce more options from the tee. These had not really been reachable years ago, but the cross bunker feature had become a real obstruction with almost everyone in The Open having to lay-up in still or downwind conditions. Now there is a dangerous opportunity to take the tee shot on and that, in turn, will allow the flag position to be tucked away at the front left if The R&A want to set the hole up that way.

With the 18th in particular, there is a huge sand hill taking up a large proportion of the left side of the fairway at the landing area. In the old days, the golfers struggled to reach it but, in 2003, so many balls kicked off it into the rough on the right. The fairway was widened to the right in 2011 and, as you say, the softer conditions helped too. However, the cross bunkers, while reduced from 2 to 3, were still a road block.

In 2003, 24.3% of drives found the fairway on the 1st, 29.5% on the 17th and 24.7% on the 18th compared to an overall average for the course of 45.8% and that overall average was obviously reduced by the low figures for those 3 holes! As described above, that was giving the course a reputation for being unfair as, on occasions, drives hit straight down the middle ended up in the rough. Hence, the reconfiguration of them for this year’s Open. The right hand bunker is still in place but the left hand one has been moved on and to the left to provide a temptation for long drives if the conditions are right. So I hope that there will be more variation of strategy adopted for this key hole.

Part 2 will include much more from Martin on Royal St George’s and golf on the Kent Coast.

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