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Sunningdale Golf Club: Old Course

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Sunningdale
Surrey
SL5 9RR

Designed in 1900, Sunningdale was immediately praised as an innovative design.  Built on an expanse of heathland in the newly created suburbs to the west of London, Sunningdale features lovely, firm, well draining turf among heather and pines.  The original concept of heathland golf was to approximate playing a links as best as possible.  Instead, a unique genre of courses was born which rivals links as the supreme expression of architecture and many continue to believe Sunningdale’s Old Course to be the preeminent representation of heathland architecture.  The oft forgotten Willie Park Jr is credited with the original design.  Twice winner of The Open and a renown as a club maker, Park Jr was an excellent choice as architect.  He seemed to have an instinct for the changing times likely garnered from his playing days and knowledge of championship links.  Of course, Park Jr had some help. For instance, Mure Fergusson demonstrated that a course could be cut from the wilds of a heathland forest at New Zealand in 1895.  This enterprise which would today be seen as commonplace, must have set off alarm bells for the likes of other British architects such as HS Colt, H Fowler and Dr Mackenzie; for it is Park Jr, along with these men which propelled a revolution in design which is difficult to overestimate.  If one were to add CB Macdonald and T Simpson to that list it might be a reasonable claim that between these six men the canon of golf architecture is encapsulated.

In 1901 HS Colt was engaged as Secretary for Sunningdale.  He was to eventually transform The Old Course by making several changes.  By this time, the Haskell ball had made many well known courses play shorter than some pundits would have liked.  Unusually, Darwin claimed Sunningdale Old to be a fearfully long course.  “The two-shot holes were doubtless two-shot holes-for Braid, but they had a way of expanding themselves into two drives and a reasonable iron shot for less gifted players.  I cannot help thinking that the coming of the Haskell was a blessing for the course…”  Even so, part of Colt’s changes were to increase the length of the course as well as raise tees, select new green sites here and there and perhaps most importantly, replace heather with hundreds of trees.  That isn’t to say the trees crowd the course, but they do make themselves known.

Sunningdale has hosted countless top flight events including the inaugural Professional Matchplay Championship in 1903, The Women’s British Open, The Walker Cup and of course The Open’s first sectional qualifying in 1926 when Bobby Jones shot an “incredible and indecent” 66; 33 going out, 33 coming back, 33 putts and 33 other shots.  However, the club may well be most proud as the host for the annual Sunningdale Foursomes. Amateurs and professionals alike vie not for prize money, but for the distinction of one’s name appearing in gold letters on the handsome honours board.

Be sure to peruse the house before, after or better yet, between games.  There can be few more inviting outlooks to a course than from Sunningdale’s Critchley Room or better yet the veranda off the room.  Incidentally, one may think the namesake refers to Bruce Critchley, but that would be mistaken.  The room is in fact named in honour of Diana Fishwick, winner of the 1930 Ladies British Amateur (beating the mighty Glenna Collett-Vare at Formby) and two-time Curtis Cupper.   Since we are now looking at the course, it seems sensible to mention one or two of its highlights, however, it is best to experience The Old Course with new eyes.  And so I will leave the course just as I found it.

The word most often used to describe The Old Course is charming.  This is undoubtedly true, but The Old also requires some playing.  Such is the quality of Park Jr’s continuous counter clock-wise routing, that upon stepping on the 10th tee it is remarkable that we have climbed to such a height with so little effort. For the average handicap player there are likely seven holes (if we include the par 3, 15th) which will more often than not require wood play for the approach.  Add in the mid-iron par 3s to the mix and this 6300 yarder seems to play much beyond its listed length.  Surprisingly, Sunningdale has only two All England candidates in #s 7 & 12, but the course flows so beautifully over the Surrey countryside that any among many fine holes could be considered favourites.

Power is certainly rewarded on several holes, but it is adroitness which is rewarded most on The Old Course.  The full array of holes is on display, from exciting to subtle, but with the possible exception of #9, no hole is less than perfectly and sublimely beautiful.  Sunningdale is the closest approximation of the ideal course known to me.  This isn’t to suggest that a complete measure of anguish, tribulation and vexation isn’t skulking in every strip of heather, for certainly this is a hazard not to be taken lightly.  No, Sunningdale has a “flavour all its own, a sweet austerity like a really good vin rose.”  No wonder Bobby Jones wished he could take The Old Course home with him.

Sunnngdale could fairly be labeled as the epi-centre of one of the finest golfing locations in the world.

 

Bearwood Lakes GC: A modern parkland course set on a beautiful property.

Berkshire GC – Red Course: Famed Fowler course with 6 each of par 3s, 4s and 5s; combined with the Blue Course would make an admirable 36 hole day.

Camberley Heath GC: A hilly HS Colt course featuring a wonderful variety of par 4s.

Hindhead GC: Dramatic front nine playing through glacier valleys.

New Zealand GC: Surprisingly difficult shorter course with some of the finest bunkering in England.

St Georges Hill GC (Red & Blue nines): A beautiful rolling heathland laid out by HS Colt.

Sunningdale GC New Course: The tougher of the Sunningdales, yet a graceful HS Colt design.

Swinley Forest GC: Perhaps the most charming day’s golf to be had near London.

Walton Heath Old & New Courses: Properly austere heathland twins at which wind plays a prominent role.

Wentworth Club – West Course: The famed “Burma Road”!

West Hill GC: The often over-looked member of the 3Ws.

Woking GC: One of the ground zero courses for the the heathland design revolution.

Worplesdon GC: Graceful heathland course with some touches of brilliance.