Like Shangri-la beneath the summer moon …
There were three courses I particularly wanted to play before starting the pilgrimage. The two courses at Sunningdale comprised one of these three. The courses around Virginia Water and Sunningdale held some sort of mystique, a playground for the elite and way out of touch for yours truly honing his skills at Hurst and Billingbear. I had this notion that playing Sunningdale was an impossibility but time passes and nowadays its fairly straightforward, a hefty fee is enough to secure a spot at one of the world’s elite clubs. There is a slight discount if you decide to play both courses in a day and this was the route we took. This was the last of the UK heathland courses in the top 100 we were scheduled to play so excitement was palpable. Luckily the sun was out on the day so off we went to finally fulfil a lifelong dream.
First things first, I love John Sabino’s account of his Sunningdale experience, link is here. We arrived bright and early, punched the security code on the gate and what is often commented as the best 36 holes in the UK in front of us. Our names were emblazoned by the entry to the clubhouse welcoming us for the day. After a bacon butty we were ready to go.
Harry Colt was invited to design the New Course to cater for the increased numbers playing golf. Course was built and opened for play in 1923. From the guide, the New Course is considered to be the more rugged with less bunkering and tree lining than the Old. In Colt’s design, he preferred to feature longer carries over heather onto tighter fairways amongst the backdrop of stunning heathland views. The first hole is a long par 4 requiring accuracy from the tee, with my nerves I pushed the shot right but we were off and about to enter one of the promised lands of golf.
The 2nd hole is the first Par 3 of the course measuring only 152 yards from the yellow tees. Two bunkers guard the front of the green which narrows severely at the back.
Next hole is a great mid length Par 4 which doglegs right, best line to attack the green is from the right of the fairway. Approach shot is played to a well protected green complex with established trees forming a captive audience to the right. Great hole.
The tee-shot from the 4th is another stunner. This is one of the longest Par 4s on the course played to a narrow fairway. Any shots offline will be snaffled by heather, making the task of reaching the green in two very difficult. The green is slightly raised so length and accuracy from the tee is needed.
The 5th hole needs little introduction, its one of the most famous short holes in the game. Measuring 162 yards from the yellow tee, shot is played over a ravine. Anything short will end up in a very imposing bunker, anything long will disappear into heather. Green is two tiered and slopes from back to front and one you really must hit to attain par. Look forward to the day when I can play this one again.
6th sees the first Par 5 and doglegs right. Distance is short from the yellow tees and reachable with two well struck shots. Tee-shot is played over gorse and heather to a fairway that narrows the more aggressive you try to hit. Good risk reward here.
The 7th and 8th are similar holes featuring blind tee-shot over heather. There is a glimpse of fairway which is of course your line. Both holes are fairly straight mid length par 4s. The 7th is protected by a well placed bunker (not much sand in it on the day!), a small tucked away green protects the 8th.
The final outbound hole requires another blind tee-shot where the optimum line is left to make use of the sloping fairway. Hole is long but significant run can be had if you make it over the ridge.
The 10th is another great Par 3 played from an elevated position. Its a hard green to hit from 181 yards, green is protected by four bunkers. Hit one of them and there isn’t much green to play with. Another very pretty hole.
The 11th is a long Par 4 that favours a draw from the tee. Caution is needed though as a well placed tree offers protection from this strategy. Approach is played to a narrow green making this a devilishly hard hole.
The 12th is another Par 4 which favours a draw. Again you’re flirting with danger and heather by going this route but left of the fairway is best way to attack the long narrow green. A large false bunker to the right provides a bit of an illusion.
I think the word majestic best sums up the 13th, a long Par 5. This hole requires some thinking in situ of the narrow fairway and a well placed bunker about a 110 yards out protecting the approach. A large tree (believe its an Oak) sits behind the green providing a great backdrop. Has to be one of the best Par 5s I’ve played on the pilgrimage.
The 14th is fourth Par 3 on the course and played from an elevated position, safe line is to the right of the green.
Course then starts to traverse over a different part of land that feels a little disconnected to the earlier routing. The 15th is a tough Par 4 featuring the first water on the course to the right of the fairway. Hazard certainly comes into play for those trying to steal some extra yardage. Second shot is played to an uphill green complex protected by bunkers front left and right. As you would expect the hole plays long.
The 16th is a pretty Par 4 played downhill and snakes to the left. Fairway is fairly generous and the hole only 355 yards so no need to be too aggressive here.
The 17th is the fifth and last Par 3. Green complex is raised but again generous to hit. Only danger here is the two bunkers to the right.
The New Course finishes with a short Par 5 coming in at only 461 yards. The hole is narrow and straight and dare I say it slightly disappointing. All shots are played to the famous clubhouse but the only danger here really are the three bunkers to the front of the green. Yes I did hit one of them!
So how good is the New course? Well the greens and fairways were immaculate as one would think. The bunkers perhaps needed more sand but I’m probably knit-picking here. The opening and closing two holes were slightly bland but the rest of the course is first class. As with many English courses you’ll be playing and the locals will be walking their dogs in the most picturesque of surroundings. There is a similar tranquility to Swinley Forest, many of the holes feel like mini amphitheatres. This is a golfing experience of the highest quality. Personally I have both Swinley Forest and St George’s Hill above it so onto the Old course. How would that compare?
Best Hole – For me its the Par 3 5th
Hardest Hole – 11th