9 Golf Courses Around London That Matter, And Why
Exploring London's golf-rich suburbia.
Along with New York, Melbourne, and (maybe) Philadelphia, London––specifically the suburban counties of Surrey and Berkshire, in the south and west—possesses the densest concentration of great golf of any city in the world. London’s clubs are remarkably diverse in terms of history and atmosphere, but their uniting element, indeed their defining feature, is Calluna vulgaris, or common heather.
Travel in England is often marked by unexpected brushes with history, and golf on the heathland, in its way, is no exception. After wandering off-piste to marvel at the monstrous Atlantic Wall, where Canadian troops held their D-day dress rehearsal, a visitor to Hankley Common Golf Club (greens fees from $150; the Clubhouse, Farnham; 44-12/5279-2493; hankley.co.uk) would be forgiven for imagining the acres of the stuff beyond the golf grounds as remnants of an untouched primordial world, but the opposite is true. The heathland is an ancestral inheritance.
“By the time the Romans arrived, the Britons had been grazing cattle and sheep on these lands for 2,000 or 3,000 years,” says Simon Chapman, a former greens-committee chairman at Walton Heath. “Once the animals reduced the nutrients from the soil, just about the only plant that could survive was heather.”
When golf was ready to move closer to England’s population centers in the late 19th century, heathland sites, like the coastal linksland where the game originated, were chosen in part due to their lack of agricultural value. (Note: There are many heathland pockets throughout England; the Surrey/Berkshire belt is merely the largest.) For the clubs, heather has many virtues. “It’s low maintenance,” Chapman says. “We’re not pouring unlimited chemicals through the soil. We cut it once a year, and some years not at all. It’s also beautiful to look at, and it has a high hazard value.”
Indeed, the texture and color of the Calluna—mottled brown steel wool in June, explosive purple-pink in August—lend a timeless quality to the game. And while it’s easy to find one’s ball in the stuff, neophytes quickly learn that attempts to extricate it with more than a wedge usually end in disaster, as its strong stems often grab the heel of an iron and send shots 20 yards sideways.
The heathland environment is special, but London’s golf culture is what makes it an essential destination. The game is taken seriously, to be sure, but not overly so. There’s a gentle good humor to it all, an embrace of peculiarity that stems from deeply felt tradition and an assured sense of place in the world.
Philip Truett is an exemplar of this spirit. The quintessential English gentleman, Truett, a retired executive with Lloyd’s of London, lives a hedgerow away from the clubhouse at Walton Heath (greens fees from $235; Deans Ln., Walton on the Hill; 44-17/3781-2060; waltonheath.com), where he has been a member for 51 years. Some time ago, he decided to collect every notable golf book published between roughly 1850 and 1920. His (private) library brings the world of Old Tom Morris and the Great Triumvirate to life, with signed volumes demonstrating the real friendships and camaraderie among now-legendary figures.
Truett turns out for golf (preferably fast-paced alternate-shot play) in tweed and corduroy plus fours, armed with a shooting stick and a quiver of hickory clubs manufactured by James Braid. “I like to support the local professional,” he says. An amusing line, for James Braid—a titan of the Edwardian game, winner of five Open Championships between 1900 and 1910—was also the head man at Walton for nearly half a century, playing foursome matches with the likes of Winston Churchill and dispensing swing tips to Edward VIII. It’s hard not to think of matching strides with such figures when chasing the ball around Walton’s vastness—the club’s pair of interwoven 18s cover some 800 acres—or, more recently, those of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and their victorious 1981 Ryder Cup comrades, arguably the greatest team that the U.S. has ever sent into global golf competition.
Sunningdale Golf Club (greens fees from $165; Ridgemount Rd., Sunningdale; 44-13/4462-1681; sunningdalegolfclub.co.uk) is the heathlands’ other elite tournament venue. What Braid is to Walton Heath, Harry Colt is to Sunningdale—the club’s first secretary made key alterations to the Old Course, which opened in 1901, and, after leaving his role to pursue golf design full-time, was hired to create 1922’s New Course. In terms of quality, there is no daylight between Sunningdale’s layouts. The Old is brilliant rough-and-tumble golf from an era in which earthmoving was a major undertaking, while the more refined shaping of the New—greens feature sculpted wings and sideboards, and perch in delightfully natural situations—reflects the elegance of the Golden Age.
The greatest of all golf writers, Bernard Darwin—grandson of Charles—is one of the spirits who continues to animate Woking Golf Club (Greens fees from $85; Pond Rd., Hook Heath, Woking; 44-14/8376-0053; wokinggolf club.co.uk). Prior to his long career as the golf correspondent for the Times, Darwin was a lawyer, and Woking to this day is known as Surrey’s “lawyer’s club.” A visitor can quickly get a sense of this milieu’s prevailing humor by scanning some of the suggestion-book snippets framed in the men’s locker room. One favorite, from 1896: “Concerns are expressed at descriptions in the candidate’s book. Is it possible to follow the occupation of a Stockbroker and Barrister at Law?”
Woking lacks the sweep and grandeur of Sunningdale or Walton Heath, but it compensates for its more ordinary surroundings by offering some of the most compelling hole strategies and ingenious greens in the game. Tom Doak modeled the eighth hole at Oregon’s Pacific Dunes on the third at Woking. Any design aficionado is likely to come away as inspired.
Five miles away on the opposite side of the town of Woking is New Zealand Golf Club (greens fees from $235; Woodham Ln., Addlestone; 44-19/3234-5049; nzgc.org), a posh establishment, one with its roots in astonishing affluence—lore has it that its founder, Hugh Fortescue Locke King, Esq., could walk from the golf club to the English Channel without leaving his own property. New Zealand is some 50 miles from the coast.
King hired Samuel Mure Fergusson, a pal from White’s (the gentlemen’s club in St. James’s Street), to design New Zealand. Around the turn of the 20th century, though, King’s passions turned to auto racing. After spending some $21 million (in today’s terms) on the development of the world’s first banked motor racetrack, his resources were finally stretched thin enough to sell the golf club to the membership, who subsequently brought in the great Tom Simpson to renovate the layout. To this day, the course has no fairway irrigation, but the greens are surprisingly slick, and almost every hole (many of which are framed by high walls of riotous rhododendron) has some antique feature that will charm.
New Zealand is the kind of place where every water fountain has a dog bowl at its base, and where the membership prefers amiable alternate-shot matches to grinding medal play. Perhaps the detail that best captures the place, though, can be found in the locker room, where members’ names dating to the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (and beyond) are painted on the slats of the old wooden lockers. When one dies, his name is not removed, just crossed out—gone, but not forgotten.
While New Zealand’s flat grounds could comfortably be walked by an octogenarian, other heathland courses tackle wilder terrain. The Addington Golf Club (greens fees from $95; 205 Shirley Church Rd., Croydon; 44-20/8777-1055; addingtongolf.com) is just 12 miles from Charing Cross, but its surrounds take one’s breath away. Indifferent swings can be severely punished—P. G. Wodehouse once suggested his mail be directed “c/o the 6th bunker,” a sandy, vertical-walled prison some ten feet below the fairway.
St. George’s Hill (greens fees from $210; Golf Club Rd., Weybridge; 44-19/3284-7758; stgeorgeshillgolfclub.co.uk) is another tough yet rewarding walk. Developed by master home builder W. G. Tarrant a century ago, the club is part of one of Britain’s first golf–real estate communities. The properties have endured as some of the most desirable in suburban London—John Lennon and Ringo Starr both lived here at the peak of Beatlemania. These days it would not be unheard of for a Russian buyer to purchase neighboring houses for $30 million and knock them down to construct a megamansion.
Harry Colt built a pair of superb courses here—nine holes, however, were lost during World War II. All three nines return to the imposing red-brick clubhouse. From this commanding hilltop position, the long views of great golf holes unfurl in three directions. For this reason, and because this is a much busier club than many in the area, there may be no better place in the heathlands for a postround cocktail than the patio at St. George’s Hill.
Many clubs have at one time held royal connections. Edward VIII was a major fan of Worplesdon Golf Club (greens fees from $165; Heath House Rd., Woking; 44-14/8347-2277; worplesdongc.co.uk). After his abdication, he even tried to buy a house on the club’s 15th fairway. He failed, as the homeowner refused to sell to him because he would be cohabiting with “that woman”––Wallis Simpson. Worplesdon’s course, in which Willie Park Jr. (of Sunningdale Old and Long Island’s Maidstone Club) built bunkers and greens over a J. F. Abercromby routing, remains mostly unchanged. It’s a classic.
Modern royals and other English society members sometimes find occasion to unwind at Swinley Forest Golf Club (greens fees upon request; Bodens Ride, Ascot; 44-13/4462-0197). The undisputed queen of the heathlands, for decades Swinley Forest was almost impossible for visitors to access. The club has, to an extent, recently relaxed that policy; even so, those fortunate enough to gain entry are likely to have it almost to themselves. They will be rewarded, in this place of long morning shadows and tiny, half-tame deer, with a Harry Colt design that he described, with characteristic modesty, as his “least-bad course.” Measuring just more than 6,300 yards against a demure par of 68, it doesn’t look like much on paper—and there are a couple of quirky short holes that can be confidence builders. But its demanding (and surpassingly charming) set of five par-threes are sure to steal a stroke or two, as are the bruising par-fours at 12 and 15. Regardless of the difficulty, though, the course is charged by an ineffable magic throughout.
Climbing the incline to the 18th green, Swinley Forest offers a final grace note—a perfectly composed vista of the brick Tudor clubhouse. This view is not available from the entry drive and parking lot; the business of changing shoes and visiting the pro shop takes place in a squatter, more utilitarian structure. This club isn’t interested in making a first impression. One is tempted to call it a characteristically English expression of reserve, through architecture—the full beauty of the place is revealed to those already on the inside.