We make no apology for declaring that West Sussex Golf Club is one of our favourite inland courses. It is sheer delight to play golf on this charming sandy outcrop of heathland. The course occupies a priceless, stunning, undulating site on the northern edge of the South Downs.
In the scheme of things, West Sussex is a relative youngster, dating back to 1930. Commander G W Hillyard who moved down to Sussex from Leicestershire originally discovered the site. Sir Guy Campbell and Major C K Hutchison designed the course; these two architects created one of the most natural and aesthetically pleasing golf courses in England.
On the surface of it, West Sussex is a short course, measuring 6,355 yards from the tiger tees. The first hole, a short par 5, is the only easy birdie opportunity. After that, you’ll have to negotiate seven par 4s measuring over 400 yards. You will do very well to play to your handicap and it’s unlikely that you will get the impression that the course is short.
Clearly, this isn’t a championship golf course but it will provide a challenging and thought-provoking round for the very best golfers whilst remaining enjoyable for the higher handicapper. The holes wind their way through enchanting woodland, with oak, silver birch and pine providing a pretty backdrop and the heather and the cunning bunkering providing the definition. The colours, especially in autumn, are breathtaking.
Each hole demands thought and holds attention, there is a great deal of variation to the holes and many are memorable. There isn’t a signature hole as such, but we especially like the 6th, a 224-yard downhill par three with a pond lurking 40 yards in front of the green; to make matters worse, the whole area of pond is out-of-bounds.
In Golf Between Two Wars, Bernard Darwin wrote the following: “The day on which to see Pulborough, if not to play our best on it, is one when the wind is blowing hard, for the sand is wafted in great puffs, like white clouds across the course, so that we can scarcely believe that the sea is not round the corner… it is a little sandy jewel set in the Sussex clay… what more can anyone desire?”
One of the things I loved about the set up of West Sussex upon arrival was the fact that the clubhouse, driving range and warm up facility was just right there. The clubhouse was quaint and understated for an old private club and fit perfect into the setting.
I found it interesting that the course had been set up as a two-ball course but understand that often the members also play foursomes matches. My initial instinct was to think the course was really quite short and would therefore be quite easy and require a bit more target golf. However, quickly I came to realize that while it certainly required hitting the right targets, with a par of 68 the course was anything but a pushover. We were lucky to catch the course on a perfectly sunny day but with a nice breeze in the opposite of the prevailing direction.
The course starts rather gently with a short par 5, however, that quickly became my should of , would of, could of hole for the rest of the round as it’s perhaps the only real “easy” scoring opportunity and the ONLY par 5. I failed to score on it after hitting two 3 woods pin high.
To the naked the eye the holes seem very wide and spacious until you start taking away space covered by heather and bunkers which is certainly a beautiful site but a bit less fun to try and play out of. I didn’t end up in the heather too much and was fairly fortunate when I did but I’m use to hacking the ball out of the rough at my home club de Noordwijkse. I guess if you are hacking the ball back to the fairway it’s really all the same. The heather served it’s purpose.
This will sound strange to most and familiar to some but I always face this challenge of being an American (although having spent 20 years in Europe and learned to golf here) who plays golf each week in meters and then attempts to go play in the UK or US in yards and ends up with all distances being wrong. Sure I know it’s a 10% difference in favor of meters but how come my 7 iron that goes 150 meters only seems to manage 50 yards? This was hugely challenging for me at West Sussex, I calculated the distance over and over and kept coming up short all the time. I think that’s something you have to get use to on a particular course and it wasn’t until well into the back 9 I was getting the hang of it on this day.
Notable on the front 9 is the fact that there are three par 3’s and only one par 5. The par 3 5th is a shortish 158 yd par 3 requiring a well struck tee shot. The green being guarded by 4 bunkers in front and on the left side. The 6th is a tough long par 3 of 226 yds with a carry over water with heather to the left of the green. The right side has a bit of a bail out but to well placed bunkers to catch errand tee shots. The chip from the right as I learned is also rather tricky with a steep slope to maneuver and the added challenge that I’d short-sided myself on the day in question. The 8th was another example of a testing par 3, at 185 yds and playing almost straight into the wind, slightly uphill with bunkers protecting the left and right side front. Walking off this hole with par felt like an accomplishment on that day.
The rest of holes were par 4’s, I wouldn’t say any of them were easy although I believe I only hit one driver from the back tees. My playing companion hit a nice little draw on every hole and I’d have to say most of the holes on the front 9 seem to favor a draw. Certainly 3,4, 7 and 9. 1 and 2 can go either way although on 2 I was hitting a light fade into a right to left cross-wind which is not ideal on a fairly long par 4. It worked. The 7th was playing really tough at 441 yds with a blind tee shot and straight into the wind. We played this as a par 5 and both walked off with par.
The back 9 started with another draw hole, I faded my driver instead but ended up with a very playable lie all be it longer approach. The par 4 11th really set up perfectly for me so it was a shame to watch my drive carry 247 of the 249 yds required to carry the 2nd bunker leaving me with a lay up instead of a very short iron in. The green is protected by a large bunker on the right side so requires a middle to left of the green shot to be safe.
The 12th is another challenging short hole at 227 yds. Since you don’t want to miss right due to heather and bunkers, I thought I’d play right to test this theory. Confirmed, keep your tee shots left. 13 was a short par 4, although it was playing straight into the wind so it served up quite a challenge but that did make the long (433 yds) and tricky 14th which set up well for my fade a lot easier to handle. 15 was a beautiful little short hole of 145 yds over water to a two tiered green which fell off to the front and right sides.
16,17 and 18 present a great and challenging finish to a course full of par 4’s. 16 had a blind tee shot with a hit or miss second over a bit of a hollow for lack of a better word. 17 was a long par 4 of 440 yds that set up for a slight fade, even wind helping it was a challenge to get home in two while avoiding both the fairway bunkers to the right as well as the greenside bunkers protecting the right side. 18 was another challenging hole playing straight into the wind at 414 yds. The tees shot as well as the approach needed to be carefully placed do to the bunkers.
A couple points I think are worthy to mention. Several holes reminded me of holes that I could of encountered on the famous sandbelt courses of Melbourne. I noticed that West Sussex seemed to be experimenting with some different bunkering shapes in terms of having some clean cut more modern bunkers with sharply cut edges which remind me far more of American courses mixed in with the classical more natural bunker forms. Personally I would strongly encourage the course to maintain the classic bunker shapes that aesthetically blend into the course and add to the charm. It would be a shame to “litter” the course with these American style bunkers and greatly take away from the beauty and history of West Sussex. If you ever have the chance to go play this gem by all means do. It’s well worth the trip. I certainly look forward to having another go at it one day.