The long and winding road ……
to play the world’s best golf courses began at Swinley Forest at 7am on Saturday morning. I’d arrived from Australia the previous night at 10pm and it was straight down to business. Luckily one of our friends knew one of the members and they were happy to play a round. Our host has played most of the top golf courses in Great Britain, the weather was holding up so everything was set for a great day.
Swinley Forest is located in Ascot amongst some pretty impressive and expensive real estate. Course was designed by the great Harry Colt in 1909 on the edge of the Earlywood Estate perched on the Surrey-Berkshire border. Colt was joined at the outset alongside long term colleague Alexander Davey as well as publisher Sir Hubert Longman and the 17th Earl of Derby to create a formidable combination. Lord Derby was a keen player and his networks along with his vast wealth saw the creation of this exclusive golf course. Rumour has it that Lord Derby was late for a race meeting at Royal Ascot as he was playing a round at Sunningdale which displeased Queen Victoria. In order to continue playing the game as well as placating his monarch, Lord Derby arranged for a course to be constructed in close proximity to Royal Ascot which hence became Swinley Forest. Those who’ve played the course will notice the train line on the second hole. The first time Lord Derby played the course, he was rudely interrupted when teeing off by a passing train. Lord Derby then proceeded to call the rail authorities and have the timetable re-arranged so his future games were not interrupted. If only I could pull a few strings to improve the M2 traffic in Sydney!
Initial membership was extracted from fellow aristocracy, fellow landowners, Titans of the Turf and politicians which has continued to form the fabric of the club ever since. So how to become a member? Well with great difficulty, you would need to have known at least two current members for 5 years and go through the nomination process. There are only around 250 members so not straightforward! There is a long waiting list (5 years+) if you would like to arrange a society day. Existing societies are given preference and as you can imagine reluctant to give up their annual spots. So the likes of you and me have to rely on our own networks to play which is a challenge as I’m no Lord Derby!
So what about the course itself? Harry Colt commented that this was his ‘least bad course’ and his craving remained after he moved to Oxfordshire. High praise indeed! There was a strong sense of aura and history standing on the first tee at 7.15, only one group was out before us and no-one behind so essentially we had the course to ourselves. The course guide states that Harry Colt had put together the outline for the 18 holes before a single tree was felled and this is evident from the first tee.
With that said, I must admit to some nerves when teeing off. Luckily I hit a straight long drive buried in the middle of the fairway then proceeded to screw up my approach though I blame that on the new Callaway irons I was using for the first time! Dad hit his tee shot slightly to the right and finally the pilgrimage was underway. And what an incredible place to begin.
We played from the white tees and the course totalled 5761 yards and Par 68. Short but accuracy needed as heather guarded the fairways. Our host commented to not go right, not go left and you’ll be okay, simple game isn’t it. Any stray shots which find the heather basically resulted in a dropped shot. The greens were in good nick and often guarded by well placed bunkers and moguls. As the yardage was relatively small, the greens were the course’s best defence and the course was a real challenge. It’s been often stated but the collection of par threes on the course were outstanding to play. I certainly started to feel palpable disappointment that the round was coming to an end on the 17th and could quite easily have gone straight back out and played the 18 holes again. But this is Swinley Forest and I’m ever so grateful to our host that the course could be experienced this one time.
Favourite hole – The 12th. Swinley’s signature hole, a good tee shot over heather leaves a 8/9 iron to the green. Green is well protected by bunkers and a mass of rhododendrons at the back. Would imagine this hole is especially beautiful in the spring when the flowers are in bloom.
Hardest hole – The 7th. Looks straight up and down but fairway narrower and green well protected.