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Rockliffe rises to the big occasion just four years after opening
AS the trolleys carrying Tour bags rolled around the fairways and members of the public turned out for a glimpse of some experienced golfing talent on a County Durham track, Rockliffe Hall was in the spotlight.
Forty-two years have passed since the 18th Century Grade II listed building's grounds in Hurworth were used as a backdrop for some of the scenes in Michael Caine's blockbuster movie Get Carter. This time the cameras were back, for sporting stars.
Ever since the clubhouse doors opened at Rockliffe Hall for the first time in July 2009, the expectation was for Tour golf to arrive at the five-star venue. Few believed it would have arrived quite so soon.
Fittingly the course designer, Marc Westenborg, was here to see it. The South African is on the bag of compatriot Steve van Vuuren throughout the English Senior Open, so is getting to see at first hand how the pros treat it.
“When I first saw this place, it was just a field, nothing here at all. Look at it now - it's pretty good,” said the modest-talking golf course architect for he reputable Hawtree.
The fields formed part of Lower and Higher Rockliffe Farm, which had stood proudly for decades. Then Steve Gibson, the chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club, had the vision of a three-year building project to form a 150-hectare complex.
“It was never part of the brief to design a course for a European Tour event,” said Westenborg. “It was a hotel and a golf course. That was what I was told we were looking at. One thing led to another, I designed it quite long, and that has developed in to what we see here today.”
The original plans for Rockliffe Hall date back to 1774 when it was known as the Pilmore Estate. With time, and different owners, it became known as Rockliffe Park, where the main mansion became a hospital in 1950 until Durham County Council compulsory purchased it for use as a community centre.
For years it stood derelict and was was targeted by vandals, but yesterday such problems seemed such a long time ago and the Tour golfers and European Tour organisers only had positive vibes about the place.
“It's an amazing feeling to see where it is now,” said Westenborg. “When I first heard the event was coming here a couple of months ago I was so proud. For me, now to be here and to see how the pros all play the course, is brilliant. It's in such great condition. It's magnificent and I haven't heard anyone say they don't like it yet.”
Westenborg witnessed van Vuuren shoot a steady 70, two under, around the course to give himself a strong chance of being in contention come Sunday night with overnight leader Peter Mitchell sitting on six under.
While there were bogeys at three and seven for van Vuuren, playing with Mike McLean and Gerry Norquist, the man behind the hazards faced on the 6,949-yard course did notice one or two flaws.
“I learned how bad I am at golf and how good they are,” he said. “And none of our guys went in to a greenside bunker, that can't be a good sign. Either they were playing very well or those bunkers are placed too easily for them.”
If the greenside bunkers were too easily placed, former Ryder Cup captain Mark James did not think so. On his very first hole, as the mid-morning rain got heavier, James picked out the sand with his approach from the left rough.
But he redeemed himself with a quite brilliant save to start with a par, which set him up nicely for the rest of a round which included five birdies and has him four off the leader.
The intention of the design was always to encourage creativity and provide opportunities to be heroic. That was exactly what Barry Lane found when he redeemed himself after what should have been a draining quadruple bogey at the sixth.
When his iron from the tee landed just in the water. He took off his sock and shoe, took one swipe and missed. His next rolled back in to the water. Drenched, he went back to the drop zone, landed on the green and ended up with a seven at the 190-yard par three.
Graeme Storm, the club's touring pro watching the action, was on hand to give the former Ryder Cup player a Rockliffe shirt to wear and he somehow managed to follow his nightmare with an eagle at the next. That was on his way to a brilliant 71, in the circumstances.
Such highs and lows made for an exciting first day and it could be the next 48 hours have even more drama in the pursuit of the English Senior Open title. And the cameras are here to capture every moment.
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