Beau Desert Golf Club
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Following his acclaimed work at the Old Course of Walton Heath (1904), a redesign of Westward Ho! (1908) and a few less well known courses such as Yelverton (1905) and Delamere Forest (1910), Herbert Fowler then created Beau Desert. Commissioned by the Marquess of Anglesey whose family was gifted the land by Henry VIII shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1551, it is thought the course cost some £18,000 to construct. For sure this was a huge sum of money, but not beyond the means of Charles Henry Alexander Paget who was one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Evidently, the Marquess was satisfied with the course for once Beau Desert was completed in 1913 Fowler was commissioned to design Bull Bay in Anglesey, not far from Plas Newydd, the main family residence of the Pagets.
Beau Desert sits at over 700 feet on Cannock Chase, land that at one time was a royal hunting forest then used as a hunting ground for the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. The Bishop created a deer park and hunting lodge named Beaudesert, Norman French meaning beautiful and lonely place. Beau Desert Golf Club was formed from the remnants of the Hednesford and District Golf Club in 1920. After leasing the land at a nominal rate for many years from the Marquess, representatives of the club purchased the golf course at a 1932 auction for £4000 despite only having a mandate to bid £2500. It is rumoured that the two agents were in their cups after a luxurious lunch and bid against each other! A heavy tax burden and generous disposition led the Marquess to eventually knock the price down to £2400 and the completion of the sale was finalized in 1936.
Despite original representations to the Forestry Commission insisting that trees should not come within 30 yards of the fairways, Beau Desert is today a heavily treed course. The lower reaches of the Chase were extensively mined and the trees served to block the views of industry. Unwittingly, this program of tree planting destroyed several thousand acres of heathland which the Forestry Commission is now partially re-establishing. The club too seems to be embracing its heritage by encouraging heather to re-populate the course with the removal of some trees. Due to the mining, subsidence has been a continual worry for the club. “Unruly” greens and the occasional appearance of uninvited hollows prompted the club to call in golf architect F.W. Hawtree. His plan to tame some greens was never fully carried out because the members feared continued subsidence would negate their efforts.
A glance at the card will reveal how the relative shortness of the course is balanced by a par of 70. This sort of configuration was common for courses built 75 or 100 years ago in the UK Many think a course of just over 6300 yards as not much more than a pitch and a putt. Yet, the long game is tested with three par 4s that are drivable, four par 4s which often require a long club approach and the two par 5s which are reachable in two shots. The R&A appreciate the merits of Beau Desert for competition and used the course for regional Open qualifying seventeen years on the trot.
It may be surprising to some that a course so neglected by rating panels could feature no less than four All England candidates in #s 5, 7, 9 & 12. The fifth is a one off and one of the great holes in England. The downhill drive swings hard left and back up another hill, over a large cross bunker, to a narrow green which is low on the ends and high in the middle! The mound front right is a curious feature which impacts the strategy of the hole far more than the framing mounds which were coming into vogue at the time Beau Desert was built. Walking toward the 6th it is apparent that Beau Desert is a hilly course with approximately 100 feet of elevation change and the observant golfer will notice there are distinctly advantageous sides of fairways to play from so as to counteract the effect of sloping green sites. Utilizing grade level entries to the front of the greens combined with raised backs is a trademark of Beau Desert. If Fowler left these as purely grade level greens, they would not be puttable at practically any speed. The confounding slopes and contours, aided by the subsidence, make up what this author considers one of the best sets of greens in England.
The 7th is comfortably the best short hole on the course. The green sports a false front with the middle section being the highest part. From the middle, the green slides hard to the back left, very reminiscent of North Berwick’s Redan, with a bunker waiting on the left far below the green surface. Fowler would have known that the instinct of most people would be to leak their tee shots right. Fittingly, the up and down from the right is treacherously difficult. An aspect of Beau Desert which can be easily overlooked is the varying tees. #7 is one of several holes in which an alternate tee changes the angle of play without creating added yardage.
The back nine features several very fine essays in design, but I will confine my comments to #s 12 & 18. The incomparable12th is a double dogleg gambler’s paradise. The idea is to sling the tee shot to the far right side of the fairway to avoid as much as possible the trees on the left of the fairway. There is a swale just short of this front to back sloping green which acts as dead ground making the running shot that much more difficult to judge.
Beau Desert finishes with a birdie opportunity. Two bunkers and rough bisect the fairway and create the dilemma of whether or not one should have a go at squeezing by these hazards. For the courageous that pull it off, the green is set well below the fairway and reachable in two. However, Fowler doesn’t let the golfer off easy. A large area of heather which is a deceptively long carry must be negotiated before the keys of the green are handed over. Finally, once on the immense green, certainly one of the largest in England, it is no certain guarantee that a two putt is in order.
There can be little doubt that Beau Desert is one of the very finest courses in the Midlands. Bernard Darwin heaped praise on the course; “Here might be one of the very best of courses for the turf is excellent and there is a flavour of Gleneagles about it. It stands high and is pleasanter in hot weather than cold, for the wind can blow there with penetrating shrewdness.” If one is intrigued enough to visit Beau Desert, be sure to look at the many photos in the clubhouse which highlight what the course looked like when Darwin wrote the above words – absolutely magnificent.
The Birmingham are is not known for golf, but several under the radar courses of high merit surround the city.
Edgbaston GC: A fine parkland Colt course with excellent greens in the centre of Birmingham.
Harborne GC: Yet another parkland Colt course not far from the centre of Birmingham.
Little Aston GC: A distinguished club featuring a heavily bunkered parkland course which drains exceedingly well.
Sutton Coldfield GC: A fine heathland course set in majestic Sutton Park with some Dr Mackenzie bones remaining. The course is especially rewarding in winter months when the rough is down.
Whittington Heath GC: A Colt heathland gem routed around and through an old racecourse.