Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Ranked Courses Around London

There are three of the world's top 100 courses located immediately near London: Sunningdale, Walton Heath and Wentworth (pictured above).

We begin our discussion of the heathland and parkland courses around London with a test.

Please rank in order of difficulty the following three walks:

1. The Bataan Death March in 1942
2. Napolean army's retreat march from the Russian campaign in 1812
3. Walking the Wentworth West Course

The Wentworth West Course (ranked #78 in the world) is part of the sprawling Wentworth estate in Surrey. Originally owned by the Countess de Morella, the development rights for the housing estate and golf course were acquired in 1923. The West course was designed by H.S. Colt in 1924. Today, Wentworth has a large golf footprint with three 18 hole courses.

The Wentworth housing estates are large and occupied by the jet set, to borrow an expression from the 1960s. Among today's leading European golf pros who live or have lived at Wentworth are: Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Colin Montgomery. One of the attractions of Wentworth is its proximity to Heathrow airport, but it is also one of its pitfalls. I never take a golf cart and always pride myself on my ability to walk. When I played Wentworth it was on the spur of the moment on a trip to London. I was literally driving by the course and stopped in and asked if I could play. To my surprise, I got right out and carried my own bag. The terrain is demanding and the course is long and the walk wore me out. The estate grounds are idyllic especially the giant rhododendron plants and the way the roads and houses are set back around sweeping drives.

H.S. Colt is one of the architects whose designs I enjoy the most, but I wasn't enamored with Wentworth. Maybe it was the constant droning of planes overhead, maybe I was tired, but I found the course to be monotonous. Maybe my expectations were also set high after seeing the course so many times on TV during matchplay events; I suppose I expected more.

Wentworth also serves as the home of the European Tour and as a result the overall feel of the club is more like a resort or large corporate entity than a private club, which it also is. My preference is for more intimate clubs.

Walton Heath - Old (ranked #82 in the world) counts among its members four prime ministers including Sir Winston Churchill. The course has a rich history linked with the English aristocracy, founded by well-to-do Edwardians, the successful upper class, an elite of titled gentleman and prosperous businessmen. The atmosphere has always been one of high rank and impeccable social standing. Among its former members it counts: 26 dukes, lords, knights and honourables. In the early days nobody could be proposed as a member who was not 'received in general society'. It is the only English club that has had a reigning monarch serve as captain.

Green detail at Walton Heath

Walton Heath also hosted the 1981 Ryder Cup. The course itself is a lovely heathland course. It really shines around the greens with its contouring (pictured below). The course has no water or water views and limited greenside bunkering, which leads to a lot of bump and run shots approaching greens if you so desire. Like its more famous English course Royal Lytham, Walton Heath starts with a good par 3 and has a particularly good set of finishing holes.

The rough hewn land at Walton Heath

Walton Heath is on the world's top 100 courses due partly to its affiliation with five time open Champion James Braid who served as club professional between 1904 and 1950.

My preference for heathland courses strongly favors Sunningdale (click below to read the full review). If I had to choose among 10 rounds of golf to be played in the London area I would play Sunningdale eight times, Walton Heath once and Wentworth once.

By the way, the correct answer to the quiz is: 3, 1, 2. The last two holes at Wentworth play a combined total of 1,102 yards, enough to put your knickers in a twist. It's no wonder the nick-name of the West Course at Wenthworth is Burma Road.

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