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Storied London: There’s Golf Here, Too

by John Steinbreder. - December 9, 2013

It used to be that when I considered golf in the British Isles, I never thought of London. To be sure, the English capital has long been a favourite destination of mine, for its plays and parks and also the churches, galleries and museums.

When it came to teeing it up, however, I only saw London as a place to pass through on my way to golfing points farther north. Like Glasgow and Edinburgh. Shannon and Dublin, too.

But as I stood on the second-floor veranda of the white-walled clubhouse at Royal Cinque Ports and gazed across the windswept links where Julius Caesar’s Roman legions once marched, I realized I was now of a very different mind. I had just spent a week exploring the historic heathland courses just west of London.

Then, I played several rounds at this marvelous course on the English Channel, only 90 minutes by train from the city, and also nearby Royal St. George’s. The courses were excellent, the clubs as convivial as any as I have known, and I could not help but ask myself: How did I miss this area for so long?

A day later, my journey ended with a round on the Old Course at Sunningdale with John Baldwin, a part-time London resident and well-résuméd golfer who has won the British, Irish and Welsh Senior Amateurs. And I asked him the same question I had posed to myself the previous afternoon to myself.

“Don’t feel bad,” he says. “London is a place that often is easily overlooked, and that’s a shame, because it is one of the great golf regions in the world.”

At the start of my trek, I would have found that last pronouncement difficult to credit, as the British might say. But hearing it at the conclusion, it made perfect sense. John was exactly right.

The track we had just played at Sunningdale, the rugged Old Course designed by Willie Park Jr., was an architectural triumph routed through rolling hills and swaths of heather I liked how it takes advantage of the well-contoured land and provides a block of tee times for non-members.

Though I did not get to play the second course there, dubbed the New and laid out on similarly interesting terrain by Harry Colt, the first secretary in the club’s history, club members told me it was just as good, if not better.

A week or so before, I had played Swinley Forest, another Colt masterpiece where a few holes run along the ovals where thoroughbreds are trained to run at Ascot, maybe the most celebrated racetrack in the world.

Swinley was an awesome layout, with only one par-5 and a quintet of three pars. It was also one of the most scenic I have ever seen, with fairways lined by vast stretches of rhododendrons, their magenta blossoms making me feel as if I had walked into a Claude Monet painting. Not far from Swinley is Worplesdon, which was routed in 1908 by J. F. Abercromby, with Willie Park Jr. handling the green designs and bunkering. The land was replete with stretches of heather and copses of pines and broom, and I adored the way the back nine started, with a par- 3, a pair of five-pars and another par-3.

What was a little less pleasurable, however, were the harrowing road crossings golfers must twice endure during a round there, and the near death experiences that come from having to occasionally dodge cars and lorries that are speeding by.

Then, there was the Old Course at Walton Heath, host of the 1981 Ryder Cup. Five-time Open Championship winner James Braid was the longtime golf professional at that club, Winston Churchill a member and the Duke of Windsor served for a spell as captain. In describing Walton Heath, the great British writer Bernard Darwin once wrote: “There is no more charming place on a fine sunshiny day, none where the air is fresher and more cheering, none where the sky seems bigger.” He was also a big fan of the Old, and lauded it for the way it provided a feeling of playing a seaside links, with its frequent wind and firm fairways, even though it was an inland course.

From there, I headed east to a couple of actual links on the Kent coast, where Royal Cinque Ports and Royal St. George’s are located. I relished the change of venue. Deal, as the course at Royal Cinque Ports is known, is a classic out-and-back layout frequently buffeted by stiff winds. Founded in 1892, it hosted Open Championships in 1909 as well as 1920, and was slated to have the tournament again in 1939 and 1949.

But those last two opportunities were lost when the linksland was flooded by high tides.

The course design alone makes Deal a must-play, and it was in superb shape when I visited, in large part because it was going to be the site of the British Amateur just three weeks later. And the club’s history only enhances the experience.

King Edward VII often played there in the early 20th century, and for two years served as club president. In later years, Kings George V and Edward VIII were frequent guests. I also marveled at the sight of an old World War II machine-gun turret on the course, which my playing partners called “the German clubhouse,” as well as the road built by ancient Romans that runs through the property and is still in use.

Royal St. George’s, aka Sandwich, may be an even more impressive place, having been the site of 14 Open Championships, 13 British Ams and a pair of Walker Cups. The course is open and treeless, with the holes running in all directions, meaning that players never have to grapple with the same wind for very long. Gnarly dunes give the land terrific character, and the pot bunkers quite ably protect par. Three thatched-roof starter huts by the first tee add a quaint flavour, and the spacious clubhouse feels like a golf museum, with its displays of trophies, framed scorecards, photographs and other memorabilia that lay out the club’s rich history.

It was a terrific place to tee it up, and one more reminder of how remiss I was not to play around London before. I determined I would not make that mistake again.

A Perfect Day

It is always a good day in merry old England when the sky is clear and the air just crisp enough that I have to don a cashmere jumper, which is what they call sweaters over here. And it evolves into something pretty perfect when I schedule games on a couple of top-light courses near this village – and make plans for a night on the town in London.

I start at the Old Course at the Sunningdale Golf Club. Willie Park Jr. designed this classic heathland track, and it is a gem. I appreciate the great variety in the length of the holes, with par-4s ranging from nearly 460 yards to just a tad over 260, and enjoy the relaxing ethos of a place where many members play their rounds with their Labradors and spaniels in tow.

Some dogs are tethered to their masters’ pull carts, and the canine culture is so strong that the club leaves out dishes at water fountains, so both players and pups may quench their thirsts during rounds. A short drive away is Swinley Forest, which is a superb Harry Colt track that opened in 1911. At first glance, the par-68 course looks like a cupcake, measuring a mere 6,019 yards from the tips. But Swinley is a tough layout, and you need to be a real shotmaker to score there.

My golf day is done by 5 p.m., and after a shower and a rather bracing Whisky Mac, I hop a commuter train to Waterloo Station in London. Half an hour later, I am in a cab, on my way to the Globe for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is Shakespeare at his best, at a theater built near the site of the original Elizabethan playhouse that staged so many of the Bard’s pieces in the early 17th century. And I can’t help but think that seeing one of his works there is the theater equivalent of teeing it up on the links of St. Andrews.

Once the curtain comes down, I head off to dinner at the stylish Pearl Restaurant on High Holborn Road, where I sup on briny Breton oysters and spring lamb and sip glasses of Sancerre and Shiraz until it is time to return to Sunningale. It is tough tearing myself away from the city. But I have more golf on tap the following morning. And I can always jump onto that train again if I want to return to town.

Sounds like the makings of another perfect day.

Local Knowledge

  • One London-area course I wanted to play but could not find the time to on this trip was Stoke Park, which has 27 holes designed by Harry Colt. His work there is highly acclaimed, but what really intrigued me was its being where the golf scene from Goldfinger, in which James Bond and Auric Goldfinger played a spirited match, was filmed. Maybe next time.

  • There is a pub called The Chequers located along the ancient Roman road that runs through the links at Royal Cinque Ports, just to the right of the 15th hole. The owners of the establishment hang a checkered lag outside to let people know when it is open. They see it as a service to club golfers who might be a tad thirsty, or inclined to leave the layout for the bar if they are having a particularly bad golf day.

  • If you are looking for a place to stay in Deal, I highly recommend the Number One B&B. It’s a small, bright, well-run establishment with four rooms, a terrific breakfast and a pair of wonderful hosts in Mark and Nicky Chaplin. A former London police officer who was a tactical firearms commander for Scotland Yard before retiring recently, Chaplin is a member of Royal Cinque Ports and Worplesdon. Which means he knows and understands golfers quite well. Every room has a king-sized bed, Wi-Fi and a lat-screen TV, and the inn is only a five-minute drive to Deal, and a mere 15 minutes to Royal St. George’s.

  • Another place to stay in Deal is the King’s Head, just down the road from the Number One. Located on the water, it boasts 14 clean but rather Spartan rooms and a very hospitable staff. It also features a cozy if somewhat cramped pub with a fireplace and serves up good food and drink.

  • For those inclined to mix in a bit of horse racing with their golf, there is the fabled Ascot Racecourse. Located just six miles from Windsor Castle, the massive, 11th century abode that serves as one of the residences of Britain’s royal family, it is also near to several of the best heathland courses outside London. Ascot hosts 26 days of racing each season, including the weeklong Royal Meeting in June, which is usually attended by Queen Elizabeth II and other members of her clan.

  • In the Ascot area, I found a first-rate place to dine at the Thatched Tavern. The savory lamb shanks fell off the bone, and the after-dinner plate of local cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s cheeses worked brilliantly with the glass of vintage port (Dow 1963) that the owner of this eatery so generously sent over. One warning while walking around the 400-year-old beamed building in which this eatery is housed: watch your head as you amble in and out of doors and entranceways, as this place was constructed at a time when men and women were much shorter.


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