Golf in the Garden of England
Mention the county of Kent and several images may spring to mind: beer and hops, charming oust houses dotted everywhere, Canterbury Cathedral, the White Cliffs of Dover, seaside towns and colourful beach huts, orchards, historical homes, castles and gardens. But, for the golfer, there's a lot more to the 'Garden of England'.
Within a varied landscape of mature woodlands, rolling hills and open coastal regions, Kent boasts over 90 golf courses, including the most famous stretch of links golf in southern England - the 'Cinque Ports' at Deal, with Princes, Deal and Royal St George's the stand-out championship tests... There are the new championship layouts by two of the game's greatest players turned designers - the Nick Faldo-inspired Chart Hills, with its American-style greens and Florida-style bunkering, and the Jack Nicklaus 'Heritage' course at The London Club, one of two outstanding courses that have made this the established parkland and wooded inland courses - the south east corner of England has all bases covered.
As an added bonus the county is not only within easy reach of London - making the capital's sights, attractions and nightlife just a short train or car ride away - but is itself well served with an arterial road network that enables the explorer to get about with ease.
A WALK IN THE PARK
It's a sunny mid-May morning at Heathrow Terminal 5, and after picking up our hire car and successfully negotiating the M25s southern section, leaving at junction 3 (following the signs to Brands Hatch), we drive along winding country lanes to arrive 50-minutes later at the The London Club, draped over the undulating hills of the North Downs of Kent. Greeted warmly at the main gate we are given directions to the bag-drop that awaits at the end of a sweeping mile-long drive to the award-winning clubhouse, and along which you enjoy your first glimpse of the Jack Nicklaus designed Heritage Course - the championship venue that has become home to the European Open. As you pull into the turning circle outside the imposing clubhouse you just know you're in for something special; everything about this place is top-drawer.
The course that Jack built:
Nicklaus is renowned for the
quality of his short holes
Two quality championship courses presented year-round in tournament fettle make this one of the most prestigious clubs within striking distance of the capital. The Heritage, by the hand of none other than Jack Nicklaus, is regarded as the tougher of the two, and over the last couple of years has staged the European Open to critical acclaim. Members have priority tee times but visitors can bag a slot if they go through the usual channels; the International (designed by Jack's company but not carrying his 'signature') is described as an 'inland links', and is a truly fabulous and entertaining layout that tests every department of the game - the short game particularly, as the greens and run-off areas are lightning quick.
Many of the holes on the International are true 'risk reward', the 532-yard par-five 13th being a typical example. A dogleg left, with two options. Big hitters can take on the bunker on the left to lay up short of the lake, then hit a risky long second shot across water to the green for a birdie or possibly eagle chance, or like ourselves choose two shots up the fairway on the right and then a short iron across the lake to the dance floor.
There's more daunting shots over water, this time from elevated tees at two of the International's terrific par 3s that have more teeth than a grinning crocodile. Usually played into a strong breeze, the 201-yard eighth has a huge lake in front of the tee with a very narrow green tucked away on the back left-hand side, and the 190-yard 12th (pictured on the previous spread), also plays over a lake onto an elongated green held back with boards so the green is angled sideways to the tee.
"Everyone seems to talk about those holes and they can be real card wreckers," says General Manager Heath Harvey, as we enjoy a beer in the bar after our round. He begins to tell us more about the London Golf Club. "These days more people are looking for quality golf and quality cuisine and here we offer 5-star golf with a 5-star menu. We like to support people on our own doorstep and our menu is based on the foodstuffs we can source locally, such as Whitstable oysters, Winterdale cheeses and ales from Shepherd Neame," says Harvey. "This winter we will be offering a deal for visitors that includes range balls, coffee and bacon roll, 18 holes on the International with course guide, a bowl of soup at the Halfway House and a 2-course meal. It's a top day out for £65 per player."
After our round at the The London Club we overnight at nearby Brands Hatch Thistle Hotel, which is well positioned for golfers and motoring enthusiasts at the entrance to the world famous Grand Prix circuit. Here we spend an enjoyable evening in the new Racing Bar, sampling some Kentish ales among history surrounding British Motor Racing legends such as Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Stirling Moss, whose photos adorn the walls of the bar.
Golfers who choose to stay in the immediate area have a choice of several other great courses to complement The London Club - Langley Park (1910, designed by J. H. Taylor) and Sundridge Park (1901, tucked away in the leafy suburbs of Bromley) in the 'highly recommended' category, both of these welcoming courses more than good enough to host Regional Open Qualifying, along with the wonderfully named Wildernesse Club (1890), located at Seal, on the outskirts of Sevenoaks - "Arguably the finest inland course in the county" - according to respected golf course guide Following the Fairways. To this trio locals would also nominate Knole Park, a truly unique heathland golfing experience, the course standing, as it does, within 1000 acres of outstanding parkland, with outstanding views of one of the National Trust's most magnificent properties, Knole House.
Next time. On this visit our itinerary was taking us south, via A20 towards Maidstone, leaving the motorway at the turn-off for Leeds Castle (a day out in itself for all the fascinating history contained within its walls) before following the twisting and turning country roads to Chart Hills, near Biddenden, in the northern reaches of the Weald of Kent. From the London Club it's the better part of an hour, and as fields blend one into another, it's a road-trip that underlines Kent's status as the 'Garden of England'. The promise of setting eyes on one of the most talked about new courses to have opened in the last 20 years only adds to the sense of adventure. For Chart Hills, as you are no doubt aware, represents Sir Nick Faldo's first ever golf course design venture.
And you won't be disappointed, either. Chart Hills, which opened in 1993, is a fantastic examination of golfing ability, a strategic challenge (what else would you expect from the six-time major champion?) that demands you pay attention to what is spread before you. At a shade over 7,000 from the tips (four flights of tees provide flexibility to suit all golfers), the course is not overly long, and yet it's not a layout that can be over-powered, the rolling terrain featuring mature oak woodland, swaying golden grasses, strategic water hazards and a staggering collection of bunkers - 140 of them, to be precise. No two holes are even remotely the same, and Chart Hills will test every facet of your game. Whether it's the 'Anaconda' bunker that snakes almost the length of the par five 5th or the ladder-like series of traps that hits you face first as you look up towards the green at the short par-four 9th, avoiding the sand can be a major headache.
Suffice to say Nick
Faldo didn’t exactly
skimp on the bunkering
at Chart Hills,
a gorgeous parkland
layout tucked away in
the heart of the county.
Making the turn is an event in itself, worth the green fee alone to sample the delights of the Halfway House, the epitome of a British cafe with its red-checked tablecloths and sauce bottles - in a glorious woodland setting. Down-to earth Sheila has our number. Barely have we sat down and two mugs of steaming hot tea arrive, along with a plate of tasty bacon and tomato rolls. We tot up our scores for the front nine, and remind ourselves that it's times just like these that explain why we so love the game.
Chart Hills asks even more questions over the return journey, a terrific par-five at the 11th (the fairway dissected by a ditch 100 yards or so from the green) followed by one of the toughest holes on the course at the 12th, a curling right-to-left dogleg with water all down the left flank. Yes, Sir Nick tests and teases you, but it's actually very satisfying in that the design of the course (if you're smart!) dictates your strategy - it's as if the man himself is there on the bag, advising you of club selection and to leave angles to the green. The S-shaped par-five 16th will long be remembered, as too will the oh-so-tricky 147-yard par-three 17th, where you find yourself staring at a virtual island green.
For some more relaxing golf with a twist we leave time for a few afternoon holes at nearby Leeds Castle Golf Club, a pretty parkland 9-holer set against the beautiful medieval castle and moat. Rising from two islands in the centre of a lake, and considered one of the most romantic castles in England (check out details of concert dates - there's nothing more dramatic than an evening performance in such a setting), Leeds Castle has been a Norman stronghold, a royal residence for six medieval Queens of England, a palace of Henry VIII and a retreat for the powerful and influential.
The course itself is not going to challenge for a place in England's top 100, but the views of the castle alone make for a memorable experience.
AND NOW FOR A BREATH OF SEA AIR
From Leeds Castle it's time to make the short journey to the Kent coast and our base for the next few days, the Royal Hotel in the charming seaside town of Deal. Steeped in history this early 18th century hotel has been a haven for famous people such as Lord Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill and is the perfect base for the region's world-class seaside courses. It's also close to the medieval market town of Sandwich and only a short car journey to the cathedral town of Canterbury and seaside favourites of Whitstable, Dover and St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe.
The prospect of our first taste of links golf has us up bright and early next morning. A strong sea breeze whips the tangy scent of salt and seaweed into our lungs as we loosen up beside the par-four 1st hole at delightful Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club. We have been invited to join club members Peter Ebden and John Reynolds to tackle this historic James Braid design that sits atop Dover's famous White Cliffs with fantastic views across the channel to the distant French coast.
Established in 1909, the course was officially opened with a match between two of the 'Great Triumvirate', James Braid and Harry Vardon, with Braid emerging the winner by 3&2. A Braid-designed course tends to bear distinctive hallmarks, and many are evident here. Not one to meddle too much with the natural lie of the land, Braid instead preferred to go with the flow, as it were, and allow holes to rise and fall with the contours he had to work with (anyone who has played at the terrific links of Perranporth in Cornwall can testify to the effectiveness of his style). As for the greens, Braid - as my hosts explained - would look for natural green sites or 'bench' the greens and tees into the slopes, creating some really unique and quite spectacular green sites, such as the downhill par-four 8th and the difficult dogleg par-four 7th, known as the 'Sea Hole', with out-of-bounds on the right and a sweeping fairway towards the cliffs.
With the benefit of Peter and John's local knowledge we quickly learn how to tackle these distinctive greens, feeding the ball in and using the slopes to our advantage. "The key here is to allow the ball to run over the steep edges and into the greens," says Peter. It's a very different style of golf to the parkland variety - and we are reminded that a tour of Kent offers such diverse variations of the game. "So you're playing Royal Cinque Ports tomorrow, are you," says John as we enjoy a pint in the clubhouse. "You'd better take your A game, it's probably the toughest course on the coast."
Historic Prince’s is composed
of three loops of
Just up the road from Deal, Royal Cinque Ports - along with Prince's and Royal St George's - is one of a cluster of three links of the very highest order. It's as good as it gets. Within 10 minutes of each other, you have original, characterful links golf with all the ingredients you hope for: blind shots, terrifying pot bunkers, fast, tightly cropped running fairways, lightning-fast greens, typically persuasive winds and the taste of salt in the sea air. Not only that, you are following in the footsteps of the game's greats - all three of these golf clubs have hosted the Open Championship.
Royal Cinque Ports can lay claim to this honour on two occasions, staging the Championship in 1909 and again in 1920. While it may have hosted the Open just once - in 1932 - Prince's is proud to be included in the exclusive club of just 14 golf clubs to have staged the game's oldest major. And it wasn't just any old Open. On that single occasion, the USA's Gene Sarazen emerged the champion - and attributed his remarkable play to the strangely shaped iron he brought with him to tackle the bunkers. Thus was born the modern sand iron (and you'll need your's, too).
With the announcement in August that specialist golf management company Troon Golf has been engaged to consult and manage on all aspects of agronomy and green-keeping, there has never been a better time to pay a visit to this most treasured and authentic of British links, which will - under Troon's watch - be turned out in five-star condition with service to match.
As far as Open venues in these parts go, of course, they don't come any better than Royal St George's, which will welcome the world of golf in 2011. To prime ourselves for the final round on this epic tour of the South East, we jump into the car and drive out of Prince's - which literally backs on to the par-five 14th (Suez) at Royal St George's - to a vantage point on the shoreline. The famous old course is deserted, and as the late afternoon sun casts longer and longer shadows across the crumpled linksland, defining every undulation, bump and hollow, our thoughts go back to the historic scenes that have unfolded here - Sandy Lyle's victory in 1985, Greg Norman's phenomenal last-round 64 to win in 1993, Mark Roe's disqualification in 2003, the humbling of Tiger Woods that same year (remember that lost ball after a wild opening drive), Thomas Bjorn's bunker woes on the 16th and the surprise winner Ben Curtis, who couldn't believe his luck as he was handed the Claret Jug?
We couldn't believe ours, either. A tee-time at Royal St George's is the highlight of this superb trip, and we'd be up before dawn with excitement. The good news, of course, is that the world's oldest and greatest major is due back here in 2011, with a strong supporting cast, including Prince's Royal Cinque Ports and nearby Littlestone (another premier links we simply didn't have time to visit) staging Final Qualifying. For golf fans like ourselves who love to follow in the footsteps of the game's greats, it just doesn't get much better than this. So why not do yourself a favour, and make a visit to Kent your next golf stay-cation?