At Play on the Fields of the Lords

A new course, built on the former estate of the earls of Clarendon, may well be England's first truly great

It is my firm opinion that there has not been one occasion in living memory when anyone has mustered up a single good reason to visit Watford, a crushingly dingy Hertfordshire town 18 miles north of London's Hyde Park Corner. It was therefore with considerable brio that Daniel and Stuart Levy, a pair of wealthy London property developer brothers, chose the fringes of Watford on which to build The Grove, a $180 million project touted—by the Levys at least—as England's first full-fledged world-class golf resort.

On paper The Grove did not appear particularly promising. Why suffer traveling to Watford when some of the finest holes in Europe—Sunningdale, The Berkshire, Wentworth—lie tantalizingly within reach of London? (The chief hurdle, of course, is that these grand old courses are private, and membership is extremely selective.) The fact that The Grove would be open to the public was another seeming minus to golf aficionados. By every measure, public courses in England generally fall well below the standards of private ones. So when the Grove course opened last year, the skeptics were all the more surprised—and gratified—to discover it was equal in quality to many of Britain's finest private golf clubs. In fact, the course and facilities are superior to those of some of world's most famous resorts, including many top European and American operations.

The 7,152-yard par-72 course is laid out across 165 acres of parkland, which surrounds the grand former home of the earls of Clarendon. It was designed by Kyle Phillips, an American who spent 16 years working under the celebrated father-and-son design team Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Robert Trent Jones Jr. In 1997 Phillips opened his own firm in Granite Bay, California, and fast established himself as one of the world's foremost golf-course architects. His specialty is transforming unremarkable landscapes into aristocratic courses that give the impression of having been around for years. He is best known for his work at the Kingbarns Golf Links, next door to St. Andrews on the Fife coast in Scotland. There Phillips turned unprepossessing farm fields into a classic links course with undulating fairways and billiard table-like greens. Kingbarns was voted Best New International Course by Golf Digest in February 2001. Among his other projects are Dundonald in Troon, Scotland, a hilly links course built on the site of an old military camp, and Eichenheim in Kitzbühel, Austria, a mountain course with masterfully utilized natural hazards.

Phillips's work is especially impressive when one considers the glut of largely regrettable golf course construction that has taken place in the past two decades, a series of bleak, bulldozed, off-the-peg venues that bear no relation to their surroundings and provide neither vigorous aesthetics nor sporting challenge. Phillips is championed by golfers, amateurs and professionals alike, for openly railing against this trend, and many consider him the nearest thing the game has to a golf-course haute couturier. "I look back at classic British course architecture," says Phillips, who cites as chief inspirations golf-course designer Harry S. Colt's legendary swales and Colt protégé Alister Mackenzie's greens, "and try to create great courses whose artificial landforms are indistinguishable from natural ones."

Having played the course myself on several occasions and studied photographs of the estate's grounds, which were pancake-flat before Phillips arrived on the scene, it is evident that the designer has managed to do far more than merely fit his course into the landscape. He has sculpted from scratch a world of mellifluous fairways (studded with heathland-style bunkers, swales, and grass hollows), swooping vistas, copses, bridges spanning babbling brooks, and lakes. "The difference between me and many other designers is that I create the landforms first, then fit the golf course into them," Phillips explains. "Building a course is like peeling an onion. Beneath an overall inspiration—which I've drawn in this case from playing the great English parkland and heathland courses—are layers and layers of detail."

While many observers have remarked on the sheer beauty of The Grove's landscape architecture, Phillips's achievement is not solely a visual one. "A good design should help players experience the course with all their senses," he says. "They should feel a little intimidation mixed with a little triumph." The intimidation aspect is immediately apparent to golfers when they step on the course. To help with the triumph part, The Grove—like many new venues—has four sets of tees spaced progressively closer to the greens, to accommodate what British commentator Henry Longhurst once termed "players of lesser attainment."

It took four years to build the course at The Grove, with two additional years set aside to allow the 260,000 cubic yards of shifted earth to bed in. Further time was allotted when excavation revealed the presence of numerous Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, and Saxon artifacts, along with a significant cluster of well-preserved Saxon houses. As construction progressed, the Levy brothers enlisted U.S.-based Troon Golf, one of the world's top golf management companies. The estate's stables were converted into a clubhouse and pro shop and decorated with decidedly stateside flair (dark green walls, wide-plank wood floors, and arresting vintage black-and-white golf photographs). And while the dressing rooms of most British clubs resemble the muddy changing rooms of an English boys' boarding school, those at The Grove feel quite luxurious, with their bleached-wood lockers and Portland-stone floors.

Attention to interior design is not the only American touch at The Grove. After golfers hole out at the spectacular 18th, an attendant whisks away guests' clubs for a thorough cleaning. (Such service is now relatively common at smarter clubs in the States but is virtually unheard of in Britain.) One can also rent a golf cart there, a rare amenity in England. Granted, these are small gestures, but they illustrate the lengths to which the Levy brothers have gone to bring American-style service to a traditional British golf setting.

"We have real hopes that this course will eventually become a world-class venue for competitions," said Spencer Schaub, The Grove's head pro (also an import from across the pond), as we teed up to play The Hoggery, the 446-yard par-four third hole. Considering the course's many challenges, the club should not have any difficulty achieving this goal. The Hoggery is fairly typical of The Grove. Its beautifully tended, wavy fairway hugs the Grand Union Canal on one side; an exhilarating lake in front of the green stands ready to gulp any nervous approach shots. There are no ironing board-flat fairways around the course. Like many of the other holes, Rustic Seat (the 435-yard par-four eighth) features grassy bunkers and hollows that catch you unawares, while the mighty Green House (the 537-yard par-five 11th) has cunningly placed snagging mounds and hungry bunkers. One is constantly reminded—every time a drive lands in a gully leaving a downhill lie or behind a mound obscuring the green—that Phillips has left nothing to fortune.

The angriest contour is Devil's Gulch, a fiendishly deep hollow that skirts the front left-hand side of the green at Malayan Hut, the 499-yard par-five 17th. The Grove's answer to St. Andrews's Valley of Sin, it is as steep as a double-diamond ski run. Over the years it is certain to imprison many hapless players.

Whether intentionally or not, the features of The Grove course mirror the nature of the Levy brothers' bold gamble. It has bravado and finesse in equal measure. Finally, a reason to go anywhere near Watford.

Greens fees, $155-$240. At Chandler's Cross, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England; 44-1923/807-807;

Staying At the Grove

The former home of the earls of Clarendon, THE GROVE is a grand 18th-century mansion surrounded by manicured gardens and idyllic paths. While still a private residence, it saw an illustrious mix of weekend guests, among them Queen Victoria and her son, the future King Edward VII, as well as literati like Vita Sackville-West. The original structure had only 27 rooms, so a large wing was constructed, bringing the total number to 211.

Sixteen suites are now in the old house, each outfitted with a clear Lucite four-poster bed and a velvet-edged throw. The interior decorating was done by Martin Hulbert, the design director of Fox Linton Associates—the company behind the newly opened Carlisle Bay on Antigua. (The designer's other projects include The Berkeley in Knightsbridge and the royal yacht Britannia.) Hulbert has integrated modern with classic at The Grove. The result? Decidedly mixed. Some find the combination of Art Deco pieces, 18th-century French antiques, and works from The Grove's collection of contemporary art impressive; others find the decor on the chilly side and more than a bit odd. Rates, $440-$1,650; 44-1923/807-807;

The Spa
The Grove is outfitted with a spa, which is large and attractive enough (if rather generic and impersonal). THE SEQUOIA by E'Spa has 12 rooms where one can partake of an array of treatments, among them Ayurvedic sessions, which are based on the ancient Indian practice of healing. A lovely indoor swimming pool, lined with black tiles and housed in an oak barn, proves the ideal place to relax after a rigorous round of golf. Rates, $110 for a one-hour massage; 44-1923/294-294.

Where to Eat
There are three restaurants at The Grove. COLETTE'S (dinner, $190; 44-1923/294-222), located in the former mansion, is the best of the bunch. The dining room has lofty ceilings with original 18th-century cornicing. Head chef Chris Harrod was previously at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and manager Denis Novaria, a protégé of Alain Ducasse, was at Spoon Byblos at the Hôtel Byblos in St.-Tropez. Highlights from the menu: terrine of leeks with langoustine and truffles; roasted Gressingham duck breast with date-and-tamarind sauce. THE STABLES RESTAURANT AND BAR (dinner, $85; 44-1923/294-288) serves typical brasserie food—perfect if you're in the mood for steak frites, a club sandwich, or wood-oven pizza. The toffee-apple pudding is exquisite. (This is my favorite spot for a quick after-golf bite.) THE GLASSHOUSE RESTAURANT AND BAR (dinner, $120; 44-1923/294-277) is in the new wing in a light, airy space with glass walls, overlooking the formal garden and golf course.