My Ryder Cup: Alejandro Reyes
“I could say the preparation started six years before The 2018 Ryder Cup because that's when we started to plan the main changes on the golf course.
“Ryder Cup Europe and European Golf Design were involved on the preparation of the golf course, which included the new drainage system together with 140km of sand slits, new irrigation system, reshaping of two greens, construction of five new tees, lake edges, new roads and moving 30,000 tonnes of sand that we put in our fairways over a six year period.
“But, if you ask me when we really started to prepare it, I’d say it was just after the Open de France in the summer of 2018. July 1st, 2018, when the last putt dropped, I looked to the team and I said: ‘Here it comes, The Ryder Cup…”
The pressure on a golfer to perform at The Ryder Cup is huge. But what about the pressure of preparing the golf course that will host golf’s greatest team event?
That is the task Alejandro Reyes, former Golf Courses and Estate Manager at Le Golf National, had in front of him ahead of the 2018 contest.
The Spaniard’s journey to Le Golf National is unique, with Reyes attending a high school for agronomy at 13 years of age, as opposed to “normal” school, before heading to Almeria’s University in Spain to study a degree in Agricultural Engineering and a Masters Degree in Sports Surfaces Technology at Cranfield University, UK. He worked from 2007 to 2012 on the construction and maintenance of a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.
Having taken charge of the golf course setup from 2013, Reyes would lead the course preparation for the annual Open de France, continental Europe’s oldest national open.
However, The Ryder Cup would offer a different challenge.
“The main difference between The Ryder Cup and the Open de France is the pressure and the difficulty to move around the golf course with thousands of spectators from 7AM in the morning,” Reyes said. “We host the Open de France every year at Le Golf National and if something doesn’t go as you want, it's not a major issue because we will be able improve it the following year.
“With The Ryder Cup, we had one shot to get it right.
“Everything had to be perfect. Le Golf National had to be the best maintained golf course in the world the last week of September 2018. We had a lot more pressure on us.
“Setting up the golf course at the end of September was different to how we prepare it for the Open de France in June. The grass doesn't grow at the same rate or the same way. The humidity is going to stay longer, days are shorter, different rainfall and temperatures, higher possibility of disease on greens and fairways.
“We had frost early in the morning for a couple of days so that put us on a different timeline compared to hosting the event in June. It was an issue because we weren't able to mow the fairways as we planned to. We had to wait until 60 minutes before the first tee shot.
“The Open de France setup is for 159 players but for The Ryder Cup, it is for the 24 best players from Europe and the United States, but you also have the rest of the world watching on.”
Denmark’s Thomas Bjørn captained Europe in 2018 and Ryder Cup Europe wasted no time in starting discussions with Reyes in regards to how Le Golf National should be set up that year.
“His (Bjørn's) first visit was shortly after he was named Captain, with David Garland, Ryder Cup Europe Tournament Director, and Eddie Adams, the European Tour agronomist, and we had a long chat about the course. He perfectly knew the Albatros course and the way he wanted the golf course to be presented in terms of the firmness of the greens, green speed, the height of the cut of the rough, the density of the rough, as well as the roll on the fairways. I was very impressed by his vision.
“Ryder Cup Europe really wanted a firm golf course with thin fairways. The rough had to be as tough as possible too.
“So that's what we did from day one. Another thing Ryder Cup Europe asked for were two new pot bunkers on the right hand side of the 18th fairway, because the four bunkers we had before in this area weren't far enough off the tee. Ryder Cup Europe wanted to be sure that we create two new very deep bunkers from which you couldn't possibly have a shot into the 18th green.
“Another particular thing I remember was that he was really conscious about the rough on the left hand side of hole 13. This hole is a short par four and he wanted to be sure that the rough on the left side was difficult to play out of in case of a ball landing in it.
“All in all, I think we captured exactly what he and Ryder Cup Europe were looking for and we were extremely proud of that”
Although the preparation started years before the first tee shot of The 2018 Ryder Cup was struck at Le Golf National, the event week itself is a different beast.
Staff and volunteers were brought in to help keep the golf course in order, not only as a necessity but to also share the experience with local greenstaff who had worked tirelessly throughout the year to make France one of Europe’s top golfing destinations.
“Our maintenance plan incorporated between 120 and 130 staff, but we brought in 190 turf professionals.
“For me it was key to open Le Golf National's ‘agronomy gates’ to as many greenskeepers as possible to show them what it is all about.
“It was the first time that The Ryder Cup had been played in France and we don't know when it is going to be back, so we wanted to share that as much as we could with greenskeepers, students and assistants who are the future of greenkeeping in the country.
“We had an early morning shift and a late evening shift - as soon as the golf course was empty. Our priority was to set the greens at the speed we had discussed with Ryder Cup Europe – who really wanted the greens running between 10½ and 11ft on the stimpmeter, which is not much for our Poa/Bentgrass greens.
“Our priority, and one of the most difficult things, was to keep the greens dry, firm and running smooth at the right speed all day long. And that speed is really low for a tournament, which was tough to do at that time of year. We had to mow greens at a higher height of cut than usual. This normally has a negative impact on ball roll, but we managed to present the greens exactly as we wanted.
‘’On Saturday morning, with frost, we couldn’t cut greens two, eight, 14 and 18, as they were at tournament speed due to the lack of growth during the night. Ball roll was still smooth and true. It was great to see so many long putts into the hole.
“We had around 25 greenskeepers just setting the greens.
“We were divided was into four teams with one team leader on each team. We then divided the golf course geographically into four areas. Each team was setting their own greens, tees, approaches and bunkers. We found that way to work was the easiest one and the fastest. There was a fifth team, dedicate to the practice area.
“We were worried about the gate opening because as soon as all the spectators get on site, it is very difficult for us to move around. We planned to do the entire set up of the golf course in 90 minutes.
“Our objective was that when the gates were open we needed to be back to the compound, meaning there were a lot of early mornings and a lot of late nights.”
After years of planning and preparation, it would be fair to say that Reyes and his team’s hard work more than paid off with Le Golf National offering the perfect setting for European victory.
“I was so very proud of the team at Le Golf National for everything we achieved at the end of the week. All the feedback, even from Team USA and the journalists attending - everything we could read regarding the set up of the golf course, it was fantastic.
“It was the best experience of my life. No doubt about that.
‘’The Ryder Cup changed my life. Moving from Spain to Paris in 2013, I met my fiancée, Lara, at The Ryder Cup in Hazeltine and we are now living in Rome together preparing for The 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone. Even the name of our beautiful dog is Ryder. Thank you."