Where is the greatest concentration of the world’s top golf courses?
The answer doesn’t take the level of Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction as his creator would agree. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the founder and first president of Hindhead, a glorious heathland course on the edge of the Surrey Sandbelt. He was such a golf enthusiast that he persuaded Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to join.
Hindhead is one of the many superb golf courses which are little-known outside of the UK by comparison to its neighbours, Wentworth, Sunningdale and Walton Heath.
They are big names because of the professional competitions which have been held there. Wentworth, now strictly a private members club requiring an invitation to play, is the headquarters of the European Tour and its West Course is the venue for the PGA Championship. It also hosted the Ryder Cup in 1953 and World Match Play Championship from 1964 until 2007.
Less than three miles away is Sunningdale whose Old and New courses are among the world’s top 100. Playing all 36 holes in one day, split by a sumptuous lunch while celebrity-spotting on its veranda, is a thrill to any golfer. This fabulous venue has been home to the British Masters, Walker Cup, Women’s British Open and the Senior Open Championship and visitors are welcome. Sunningdale’s Old Course epitomises Sandbelt golf. In parts, it feels like links with steep green roll-offs but it is heathland at its heart and the clusters of heather must be avoided if a score is to be preserved.
The New Course at Sunningdale, designed in 1923 by the club’s secretary, Harry Colt, is quite a contrast with fiendish bunkers and longer carries off the tee.
Colt went on to be one of the world’s most renowned golf architects and his imprint can be seen across Surrey with two of his most famous examples at Swinley Forest and St George’s Hill. They sum up the traditional qualities of members’ clubs in the Home Counties – they seem a million miles from the hubbub of London, have a genteel feel and are both in England’s top ten list.
Swinley Forest is famously idiosyncratic. It isn’t a member of the World Handicap System, preferred lies are all year round and it only began printing competition cards in the 1990s. But the Swinley Forest course is stunning and the lunches are just divine here.
Meanwhile, hailing, the fir trees, sand and heather, famed golf writer Bernard Darwin claimed: “The prettiest courses are also the best and certainly one of the best is St. George’s Hill.”
This is another oasis of tranquillity and one can roll back thoughts to when the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) was voted in as captain, just two years before the abdication crisis. It was not the only club in the area which benefited from his patronage. He had already been captain at Royal Wimbledon.
Pimms could have been invented for a gorgeous summer afternoon at this historic club whose course is designed by Willie Park Junior and, in my opinion, is one of the toughest on the Sandbelt.
Limited tee times are available at Swinley Forest, St George’s Hill and Royal Wimbledon and they can be booked through the respective secretaries’ offices.
The Prince of Wales continued his captain’s tour at Walton Heath – one of the most famous names in Surrey whose membership has also included Prime Ministers Churchill, Balfour, Law and Lloyd-George.
This is also the site of the 1981 Ryder Cup, the European Open in the 1970s and 80s and regular prestigious professional events.
Its two golf courses stretch out over a great swathe of heathland. The vista is remarkable because it is virtually uninterrupted by trees. But, in common with the other Surrey courses, the heather is fiendish, the bunkers are testing and the greens are subtle.
Visitor access to Walton Heath is easier than some of the other courses in the area and the best value is arguably in the winter.
The three Ws – Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon are well-loved in this neck of the woods. Superb courses and clubs that all have lovely quirks.
Woking’s 14th stands out for me above all because the veranda and even the clubhouse are considered part of the course. Indeed, until recently there were ladders up to the roof from where an errant ball could be played. Outside drinkers are warned that they are supping at their own risk.
Among my favourite golf clubs to play our great game is The Berkshire whose Red and Blue courses make up truly wonderful 36 holes.
The Red is one of the few tracks which is made up of six par-fives, six par-fours and six par-threes. It gives players a chance to score well but beware of the purple stuff – it is dangerous and plentiful.
Let’s be honest, playing golf at a visitor rate in Surrey is not cheap but it may be worth venturing slightly outside of the big names to the other Colt courses at Hankley Common, Camberley Heath and Blackmoor. These are all top-notch venues with hospitable clubhouses and feature on many top 100 lists.
Of course, it is impossible to guarantee the quality of inland golf all year round because of unpredictable weather but the Surrey Sandbelt drains almost as quickly as links and all the top courses offer better value rates between November and March.
Regardless of when or where, enjoy the Surrey Sandbelt – there are few better places to play golf and remember the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and “accept success modestly and defeat bravely.”
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