Monday, 8 March 2010

Sky Caddie Launch

It’s an early start. Five bloody thirty. But the streets of Landan Town are free from traffic, and I blast through to the M4 and get onto the road to Celtic Manor, obeying the speed limits at all times, of course.

I’ve been invited to the launch of SkyCaddie’s new SGX, and the chance to play the back nine on the 2010 course. Who in their right or even their wrong mind could refuse?

I pay my £5.50 tax to get into Wales – the Severn Bridge Toll – and then head off at the next junction to work my way up the hill to the imposing building that looms over the motorway that is Celtic Manor. And then it’s all up hill to the main resort, passing by a fetching pink poster for their forthcoming Bridal Gown show.

It’s my first time at Celtic Manor, and I’ve not seen the like of it in England, Scotland or Wales for that matter. It has really has scale in a way that you’d only really think the Americans can deliver. I pass by the main, gargantuan, hotel and follow the signs to the 2010 course, which is a fair way, no pun intended, from the hotel and the two other courses - The Montgomery and The Roman Road.

I’m met by an imposing set of iron gates with the 2010 Ryder Cup course logo emblazed upon them. I press the call button, and am admitted to the brave new world of the 2010 course. I’m impressed, and even a bit intimidated – and I haven’t even seen the club house or the course yet.

The club house doesn’t disappoint, nor does the welcome. “Drop your clubs, and I’ll park your car sir.” In an instance I’ve been transported from the valleys of Wales to downtown LA. As I’m driving my dad’s old Mitsubishi Charisma, a car so utterly lacking in charisma that they had to try and inject some with the name, I hope that he gets it parked before any of the other golf journalists arrive and witness my wheels.

The clubhouse sits high on the side of a valley, next to a complete ruin of a building, which is apparently listed rather than just listing. I’ve no idea why, as it has no architectural merit whatsoever. Is it part of a cunning plan to confuse the Americans?

The Club House doesn’t disappoint, nor does the breakfast, which includes a fine piece of black pudding. They’ve got to keep this on the menu for the Ryder Cup; this could be a secret weapon. “You English / Welsh / British / Europeans- delete as politically appropriate-eat pig’s blood? Are you kidding? What are you guys made of?”

It’s then presentation time, and our introduction to the new SkyCaddie SGX. The message is that other range finding devices simply use satellite imagery, and haven’t actually bothered to walk the courses , so most of their information is a bit hit and miss, which is not exactly what you’re looking for from a golf range finding device. The SkyCaddie SGX is grown up stuff, not some dodgy iPhone GPS app, and it’s rich with features.

The new SGX stores up to 30,000 pre-loaded, ‘ground verified’ course maps, so it’s ready to use straight out of the box. One of the features they’ve worked particular hard on is the new ‘transflective’ TFT-LCD screen. This has been designed to provide brilliant colour images even in the brightest sunshine, which will be useful in the UK on at least two days a year.

The SkyCaddie SGX also has a new, intuitive user interface and has been specifically designed for single hand usage without blocking critical screen information with fingers and smudges. All in all it’s a pretty impressive package, and one that the SkyCaddie team is rightly proud of.

The main event is playing the back nine of the 2010 course, using the new SkyCaddie SGX to help us navigate this beast. And it is a beast. I’m actually quite grateful that we miss out on the 9th, as this is the course’s uber beast. 666 yards of the back tees; no one’s going to get on in two surely?

The back nine starts on the level, and then works its way uphill, so you have to manage water, slope, a bit of mature forest, some Welsh weather, plenty of distance and a whole load of risk and reward.

It’s a curious location in that you’re playing in a perfectly formed Welsh valley, with an ancient church atop one side, an impressive 18th century Palladian style mansion across the way, and dense mining village terraced housing to the west – a complex social history of wealth and relative poverty all in one vista.

Enough of that; back to the golf. The course divides into three different sections. A links like start, followed by lake dominated holes supplemented by the River Usk which flows through the valley, followed by the uphill section, which some say doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the course, but which I loved, especially the par four 15th.

The 15th was part of the original Wentwood Hills course, which was the foundation of the new 2010 course - the first course ever to be specially built for a Ryder Cup. There are two routes – route one requires you to carry 270 yards of woodland to make it safely over. So I take route two, and knock my ball into perfect position at the peak of the fierce dog leg right. Then I hit a six iron up to the green, which mercifully holds leaving me an eight footer, which I duly miss. But it’s a par, and I’ll take anything I’m given on these holes.

There will be some great spectating to be had on these hill holes when the Ryder Cup finally rolls into town, and you’ll get panoramic views of the rest of the course, but bring your binoculars as well as your SkyCaddie SGX.

The 18th takes you downhill from the side of the valley, and with a good drive you can get into position to make the green in two. But if you’re second shot isn’t long and perfectly judged you’ll hit into the steep slope before the green, and your ball will gently roll back into the water. Or if you’re not accurate, there’s plenty of bunkering to give you a headache.

My playing partner used his SkyCaddie SGX to great effect on this hole – he absolutely knew he had 132 yards to the pin for his third shot, and this knowledge translated into a really confidently struck 8 iron shot which made the middle of the green. We will be hearing about that shot for months to come.

With match play, who knows how many games will make it down to the 18th, but those that do will be a complete treat to watch. For the Pro’s it will be 613 yards, so it won’t give itself up easily. But this is a ‘who dares wins’ course, so be ready to hold onto your seats. I can’t bloody wait.

For more information on the SkyCaddie SGX check out