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Walton Heath GC: Old Course

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To think of Walton Heath must raise the memory of two men; the great James Braid and one of the best architects to ever practice the profession, Herbert Fowler.

In the first eleven years of the 20th century Braid’s divine fury hit the mark as much as not.  Taking up the position as Walton Heath’s professional in 1904, the rise of Walton Heath coincided neatly with Braid’s rush to legendary status. It is difficult to imagine how the course of Braid’s life and the status of Walton Heath would have been altered had Braid accepted the offer as Keeper of the Green at St Andrews shortly after the retirement of Old Tom Morris in 1903. As it was, he won The Open on five occasions, four while serving as the professional for Walton Heath Golf Club. Additionally, between 1903 and 1911, Braid won the News of the World Matchplay four times and a lone French Open. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if not for the Great War, Braid may have won his elusive sixth Open, thus catching Harry Vardon and sharing the honour of most Open victories.  

By war’s end Braid was 50 years old, but there was still good golf ahead during James’  “sundown splendid and serene”.  It is entirely possible that Braid’s most magnificent tournament was marked by a resounding defeat; such are the vagaries of top class golf.  Braid easily qualified for the 1927 News of the World matchplay stages hosted by Walton Heath.  After winning through four trying matches, The Times golf correspondent opened with “Braid is in the final!  I believe there is someone else in it too!” Later, the scrivener stated “Whatever may happen now, Braid has done a great thing.”  Playing in unseasonably cold, rainy weather, the 57 year old Braid could summon no more magic and fell to the heavily favoured Archie Compston.  

On another occasion at the 1938 Open hosted by Sandwich, Patric Dickinson wrote “He had only a modest gathering.  But he gave us an exhibition of sheerly classical golf I shall never, never forget.  He was 68….But the ball seemed to go, somehow straighter than straight…and the putting was utterly steady.  Braid holed the links in 74 and the news that he was playing well spread…there seemed to be as many professionals as lay spectators round the home green and they gave him their applause with true respect and sincerity. Perhaps I am romancing, but the grand old man appeared to me to blush, and stumped off the green like a little boy who has just been given his colours.”  

While Braid may never have worked on Walton Heath, he did pen his name to a few courses which are a match for any architect’s resume: Gleneagles Kings & Queens, Pennard, Perranporth, Blairgowie and Hankley Common plus significant work at Carnoustie, St Enodoc, Brora, Wallasey and Sherwood Forest.  How Braid found the time to eclipse the architectural feats of his Great Triumvirate rivals by quite a margin may well remain a mystery.  It is, however, said Braid knew the train schedules uncommonly well up until the last day of his service to Walton Heath.

The admiration for James Braid was evident among the great and good of society.  By the time of his death on 27 November 1950, Braid was an honorary member of Walton Heath, a director and shareholder in the club, the only honorary member of the Parliamentary Golfing Society and most cherished of all, elected as an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Club. Despite Braid’s ability to easily move between social classes, it was never held against him by the working class.  Not too dissimilar in being a founding member of the British PGA, it was Braid who insisted the local villagers (Walton-on-the-Hill) organize to petition for formation of an Artisans Club associated with Walton Heath GC.  One of the recipients of Braid’s generosity of spirit was Max Faulkner.  As a member of both organzations, Faulkner was the Champion Golfer of the 1951 Open held at Royal Portrush. As a measure of the Artisan’s gratitude, Braid held the position of Honorary Captain of the Walton Heath Artisans Golf Club from its founding in 1906 until his death.

Herbert Fowler first came to the fore as a county cricketer for Somerset.  An unusually sizable fellow, Fowler’s reputation was as a banger just as it was in golfing circles.  Born in 1856 to a family of substantial means, Fowler eventually took root in Somerset living as an honourable banker come farmer.  During this time in Taunton, Fowler was introduced to golf at Westward Ho! and eventually became proficient.  I say proficient, but truth be told, Fowler reached the final 16 of the 1891 Amateur held at St Andrews.  Before the Walton Heath commission, Fowler had steadily made a name for himself as a fine golfer and became a member of the R&A and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.  

At the same time Fowler was climbing the golf hierarchy, at some point in the 1890s the family fortune dwindled to the point where Cosmo Bonsor, Fowler’s well off brother-in-law, advised Herbert to declare bankruptcy.   In addition to this advice, it seems obvious that Cosmo was the driving force in eventually hiring Fowler to design the course for the newly formed Walton Heath Golf Club.  It is also clear that Fowler was given time (he moved to a villa across from the club in 1902), money and ample land to do the project proud.  In 1903, before completing the project, Fowler’s immediate money worries were relieved.  The directors of the club appointed Fowler to the posts of Managing Director (he held this position for nearly 40 years) and Club Secretary.  With his connections, it isn’t surprising that work continued to come Fowler’s way, though one doesn’t get the impression that he ever completely conquered his financial difficulties. Fowler eventually designed some of the most revered courses in England and one in New England, yet his first effort remains the most iconic despite perhaps only six holes remaining as originally designed.  In addition to a much altered Walton Heath Old, Herbert designed Westward Ho!, Saunton East, Berkshire Red & Blue, Beau Desert, Delamere Forest, Blackwell, Walton Heath New and appropriately, Eastward Ho! Not a bad resume for cricketer!  

Darwin thought Herbert Fowler “an instinctive despot with a touch of genius”.  Though part of the great class of British architects which emerged in the early years of the 20th century, Fowler stood apart from Park Jr, Colt, Mackenzie and later Alison and Simpson.  Bernard Darwin thought Fowler may have been the most audacious, skilled and creative of all the golf architects.  His courses have an intensity all their own, none more so than Walton Heath.  Some might say the course is austere, but that would be a disservice to the beauty of Walton Heath.  It is easy to see why the heath was chosen as a site for golf even if it took Fowler a few years to tease the character from the terrain.  Of particular interest are the bunkers (Fowler’s graves).  Once again Mr Dickinson said it best.  “A remarkable feature of Walton Heath is the way its bunkers, particularly those placed strategically in the fairway – rear their ramparts up.  They are curiously, aggressively artificial looking…They are uncompromisingly BUNKERS… These bunkers are positive, direct, and need make no comment upon such as enter them.”

In 1904 a ceremonial match featuring who else but the golfing royalty of Braid, Taylor, Vardon and Duncan, opened Walton Heath in grand style. Originally some 6400 yards in length, Walton Heath was long, but the Haskell was just coming to the market and soon the course wasn’t considered unnecessarily protracted, yet, one could never mistake Walton Heath for a pitch and putt!  Walton Heath is nearly as famous for its membership roll as it is for the courses. Royal and parliamentary connections include a multitude of dukes, lords, knights and honorables, a rather large contingent Members of Parliament, leading lawyers, clergy and four Prime Ministers (most famously Winston Churchill). In 1935, King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, became the club’s first Captain and held that post the day he abdicated the throne on 11 December 1936.  All the above incredible as it is, surely, the golfers of Walton Heath would have considered the retiring, unassuming, Ernest Holderness as its most prized member. During his 55 years of membership and while holding down a quite senior civil service post, Holderness won the Amateur in 1922 and 1924 (the year he became a baronet).  Because of work responsiblities, Holderness only played in three Walker Cups, all on home soil.  

Walton Heath has hosted a plethora of high profile events including the 1981 Ryder Cup, nearly two dozen News of the World Matchplay Championships, five European Opens and over the previous nine years, US Open Qualifying.  In the inaugural 2005 event, Michael Campbell qualified at five under and went on to win the US Open at Pinehurst. After focusing mainly on professional golf for most of its history, Walton Heath as recently embraced the amateur game by hosting the 2002 English Amateur and the 2012 Brabazon Trophy.  Hopefully more high profile events will come Walton Heath’s way for there can be few more suitable venues.  Despite the club’s illustrious past, which in many ways is incomparable due in no small part to the close association with James Braid, Walton Heath should rightly be most proud of its courses.  Not having played two critical holes in the Old Course lineup, I however, remain convinced that Walton Heath is among the cream of English golf.  I look forward to some day playing The New which isn’t much younger than its older sibling.  Be that as it may, it is fitting that Fowler’s first design is now designated as The Old Course for surely this is in some small way a tribute to his love of the Old Course at St Andrews.

Holes To Note:

Walton Heath isn’t overly wide, but one would get that impression standing on the second tee.  As is often be the case, first impressions can be misleading.  Originally, the fairway was broken by blind heather, bracken and other unholy vegetation thus requiring a long approach up the other side of the valley. Today, the fairway in the dip is narrowed and it is quite possible to reach the upslope near the 150 marker. That isn’t to suggest the hole is easy.  Yes, it is easier, but never easy.

Measuring less than 300 yards, but requiring a straight drive no matter, at the third we get our first taste of Tolkein-like earth works which is prevalent mainly on the front nine.

#4 is another long par 4 in the range of 440 yards.  While not strictly a cross bunker, there is very little room to manouvre left or right of the capacious bunker some 275 yards up the fairway. The hole jiggers slightly right to an almost impercebtibly raised green.  More provacative earthworks combined with bunkering adorn the fairway.

The 5th is lauded as a beautiful and very good hole; rightly so.  This could well be the first hole built without the input of Fowler.  Captain Tippet took the helm in 1938 after Fowler suffered a heart attack.  In 1939 he essentially combined the 5th and 6th to make a new 5th.  Sliding downhill and a tad left, the greensite looks quite turbulent.

Truth be told, except for a few stand-out holes, the front nine is merely good. Walton Heath picks up the pace considerably on the holes coming home and the golfer is set on notice immediately with the desperately good 10th.  This hole as it is known today wasn’t created until 1938, along with wholesale changes to 11, 12 & 13 (with the 11th being an entirely new hole).  Bending right just enough to entice the golfer into thinking what if I bomb one down the right…If Walton Heath is about anything, it is about simplicity. Its best to keep to what can be seen and all signs point toward staying left, but no so far as to be stuffed by the bunker.  It is worth noting the adept bleeding of fairway to green.  Trying to discern just where the hole is located on the green is one of Walton Heath’s best defences.  

Perhaps the best short hole on the course, #11, offers a tantalizing tee shot between or over sand.  

The 14th commence a fine stretch of golf which showcases the two best par 5s on the course sandwiching the strong two-shotter 15th, true and steady straight.  A cross bunker cuts the fairway in two, but in truth it should only harass the second from a poor drive. However, the bunker does obscure the view of a very dicey front to back green.  A very well placed bunker will grab loose approaches to the right.  The 16th is a well known and much loved three-shotter. If the green cannot be reached in two it is likely best to lay-up to the middle of the fairway at the bottom of the sharp incline.  Approaching from the left at an oblong angle to the uphill green requires skill that most golfers lack.

The 17th is an attractive hole that formerly featured a large fronting cross bunker until recent changes.  The bunker was cut to create two wing bunkers as was the original design intent when the hole was built in 1936/37 to replace the old 12th.   

The  difficult home hole  has been closed for fairly serious work and is sheduled to re-open in early 2014.  Under the guidance of Donald Steel, the green was raised a few inches to help with drainage and narrowed.  The flanking bunkers have been rebuilt as well.  I suspect only the most discerning member will be able to notice the changes in a few years time.  What remains, however, is the trademark cross bunker.  

Knole Park GC: One of the few gems left to us by J Abercomby.

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.

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.

Walton Heath GC: New Course – Fowler’s younger sibling which remains true to his vision.

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.