The British Masters has been a great boon for British (well, English) golf – returning to old favourites and helping us discover new courses. This week, the event goes to Walton Heath. Hopefully this will inspire more people to discover the great courses in this region. So often we Brits organise trips to foreign parts, forgetting we have some of the very best courses in the world on our doorstop. I finally put that right last month when I visited Surrey for a few days. The area makes for a great trip.
The good news is that you can get access to most of the courses you would want to play on a trip to the Surrey/London area. Wentworth, Queenwood and The Wisley are notable exceptions but, if truth be told, these are not the strongest courses anyway.
If you are looking to focus on the highest ranked courses in the world then your picks should be Sunningdale Old (30th in the world), Sunningdale New (46), Swinley Forest (49), St George’s Hill (57), West Sussex (83) and Walton Heath Old (94). However, if you want to venture beyond that list, then you could add Berkshire, Woking, Worplesdon, New Zealand without really dropping the quality much.
I have written reviews of the courses I have played in the area, including some things to consider when planning your trip. If you want the full review, click on the link to reveal all.
Walton Heath is a name inextricably linked with heathland golf. It was a perfectly pleasant course and, as the round went on, got better and better. But I would struggle to rank it in quite the same league as some of the others we played on the trip.
The first few holes didn’t do much for me. The par 3 1st hole may be the least inspiring opener of any top course I have played. Four of the next five were fairly long, tight holes as we headed towards the ever-louder M25. But, from the reachable par 5 8th, it really picked up with some lovely holes coming in.
And then it blossomed, bloomed and didn’t fade. The holes got more interesting - a few doglegs, well placed bunkers, more imaginative placing of heather. There was a lovely mix of short par 5s (from the members’ tees at least), strong par 3s and clever par 4s. The course had come into its own and became a real delight to play.
I would recommend playing this at the beginning of your trip. We played it last, and while a really good track it didn’t quite hit the (ridiculously high) heights of some of the others we saw.
You can play the course all year around, 7 days a week (although understandably there are some times reserved for members). Unlike the other courses, I could only book a tee-time a couple of months out which provided a logistical challenge when planning the trip.
West Sussex is about an hour away from the other courses, but well worth the trip. This is real old school. They didn’t particularly want visitors, (you wont be able to tee it up as a fourball) and I have never seen as many naked octagenerians in one room as I did here (and I’ve seen a few)! However, the welcome was warm and the course was lovely.
Of the courses we played I would say that this was the tightest, the heather was more in play here than anywhere else on our trip and my score would definitely benefit from a repeat playing. But this is a course you will remember fondly.
Tim, the pro of over 30 years, told us that he describes the course as a ‘long short course’ and that made a lot of a sense after we played it. It is a par 68 but even from the yellow tees, at 5,961 yards, it is a real challenge with only 1 par 5 and and some long par 4s. The run of three par 3s in 4 holes on the front 9 is both a novelty and a delight!
There is plenty to keep you entertained on the way round - superb bunkering with gorgeous sand to hit out from, and challenging greens with everything from punchbowls to false fronts to take on.
So I would really encourage you to make a visit to West Sussex if you’re in the area. Is it really a world top 100 golf course? For some it will be, for some not. But it would be hard for anyone not to enjoy it.
Green fees, from £80, are available for 2 or 3 balls, seven days a week throughout the year.
Sunningdale – Old and NewWith 2 courses in the world’s top 50 it has been said that Sunningdale has the best 36 holes of golf on one property you will find anywhere. I am delighted to say that those rankings are completely justified.
The New Course is the tougher challenge – I would recommend playing it first to give you an easier walk in the afternoon on the Old Course. The New plays through more open moorland than the Old, with some sweeping vistas.
Although the course is tough, it is playable from the tee as long as you choose an appropriate set for your ability. There are some carries required, but, from the yellow tees, if you can get the ball out 200 yards, you should be OK. And while there is plenty of heather to gobble up errant shots, it doesn’t come into play on every fairway and sometimes is a good distance back from the fairway line.
The front 9 on the New Course is particularly wonderful - the 4th, 5th and 6th a real highlight. The 5th is a great Colt par 3, with carry over heather and a vast bunker to a two-tier green with trouble all around.
Some rank the New Course higher than that Old but, for me, the Old Course took things up another notch. The course winds its ways through the trees and we barely saw another soul all the way round - it became an almost spiritual experience. Swinley Forest and Morfontaine would be the only two to give this course a run for its money as my favourite inland course.
This is a course you can score on. There are short par 4s and 5s and often there’s no need to take a driver off the tee - finding the fairways with something shorter will probably help you score.
The course looked fantastic when we played. The heather eyebrows on the bunkers and the cross-bunkering on several holes were real highlights. The colours of the trees contrasting with the fairway and heather offer a visual feast. There is quite a lot of elevation change, with tees and fairways swooping down towards greens. All round, it’s just a magical place.
The green fees here are steep for sure. It’s £350 for 36 holes in the summer and access is only on selected weekdays, but you will never forget playing here. From the breakfast in the Critchley room to the sausage roll at the halfway house, the memories keep coming!
Swinley ForestI have saved the best for last. Mike Clayton put it very well when he said recently when picking his favourite courses, ‘It’s beautiful, masterfully built by Colt and one of the game’s great treats. And it’s the ultimate proof there is no need to make golf difficult to make it great.’
Until recently, a tee time at Swinley Forest was a thing of myth and legend, but a new Secretary has meant that it is now possible for a visitor to get a tee time. An email is all that is needed and, like everywhere else we visited, the welcome was warm. There are certainly a few foibles - we weren’t allowed to see the hallowed toilets inside the main property for example! – but they can be easily forgiven.
This is a par 69 course - 5,900 yards from the white tees - but it doesn’t feel a short course to play, or a long short course like West Sussex. It is just right!
As Clayton says, it is really. The magnificent pines are almost always in view but they sit well back from the holes and act more as a backdrop than hazard. There is plenty of heather but, again, from the tee, it doesn’t impinge too much. There are few carries to worry the average golfer. Sunningdale New this is not.
The par 3s here are wonderful, often cited as the best set in the UK, but the course has far more than that to love about it. If you can play only one inland course in the whole of Europe - make it this one!
WHERE TO STAY
If you are looking to minimize travel then Bagshot would be a good place to base yourself. There is a perfectly serviceable Premier Inn there or the more glamorous PennyHill Park nearby. You are close to Swinley Forest and Sunningdale, with Walton Heath and St George’s Hill within 45 minutes drive.
If you are looking for a little more nightlife, then Woking or Guildford may be a better bet, but you will be doing a little more travelling to the courses.
WHEN TO GO
Trying to second guess the English weather isn’t an easy challenge. We went in September and had pretty good weather. If I were pick the ‘safest’ time, I would go for June or July. These are usually the warmest and driest months, though nothing is ever certain. The courses had all suffered through the drought this year which meant that we probably didn’t see them at their best, but that is a relatively rare problem!
However, if you are willing to take a bit more of a risk with the weather you will be rewarded with cheaper green fees. The trip we did cost £850 for the five green fees, the same trip in November would have been closer to £550.
I’m definitely going to be making a return trip before too long. St George’s Hill and Woking were two big misses on our trip and there are plenty of others to add in. And I couldn’t drive past Swinley Forest without teeing it up there again!