Located a mere 20 miles to the north of the capital and close to leafy Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, lies Brocket Hall Golf Club. With two courses named after Prime Ministers who used to reside at Brocket Hall, the Palmerston is the new kid on the block, opening for play in 2000.
Designed by Donald Steel and measuring a whopping 7,080 yards from the championship tees, the Palmerston is a real test. The course winds its way through the undulating estate where majestic specimen trees, including hornbeam, beech and pines create a feeling of intimacy and pose as impressive hazards. Steel’s design philosophy was to provide a top quality course with the least possible intrusion on the site. We think he has exceeded his objective with the Palmerston course and it’s probably just as well, because this is top quality land.
Unlike the older Melbourne course, the River Lea doesn’t come into play on the Palmerston course. Instead, there’s bold bunkering to contend with and, of course, avenues of trees. Steel has created a thinking man and women’s course where the golfer is presented with options. Central bunkers divide the 3rd fairway and the 4th tempts the big hitters to drive left, over a small hollow and across the corner of the dogleg. The short par five 9th is also tempting to attack in two shots, but cleverly positioned greenside bunkers await anything but the best struck approach shot.
Your approach shot on the par four 12th must negotiate an unusual chalk face which lies some 100 yards from the green. This really is a delightful hole, which requires pinpoint accuracy from the tee.Without doubt, Brocket Hall Golf Club is a classy and stylish place to play golf and the Palmerston course is a delightful contrast to the Melbourne. In many ways the Palmerston is reminiscent and almost as good as Woburn’s Marquess course. Add in the famous Auberge du Lac restaurant and you’ve got a tasty venue.
Without doubt, the course was immaculately presented. This has been one of the worst years in my memory for getting courses up-to-scratch in the early- to mid-Spring season, when many courses are usually emerging from winter much improved during April and with plenty of colour and growth. This year has been a stinker and, talking to many people and reading lots of reviews, and by my own experience, very few courses were in good nick at this time (25 April). Both courses at Brocket were certainly exceptions. The greens and their surrounds were almost velvety in texture and extremely true and consistent. Likewise the fairways – they were a touch long but beautifully consistent and carpet like, and better than most courses at their peak. The greens had been tined and prepared several weeks earlier but they were already smooth and instilled a lot of confidence.
There are some really strong holes on the Palmerston course, the pick of the bunch being par 4s 2, 4 (SI2), 7 and 12 (a really unusual crater-type hollow awaits if you are too long off the tee or mess up your approach). Holes 15 and 16 were also nice tree-lined holes in the lower part of the course, although I am struggling to remember them as they were very similar. There are 2 very nice par 3s, the 5th and the 14th, both being very similar downhill holes facing the same direction, although 14 is the longer. I thought the other two par 3s (8 and 17) were quite average. Two of the best holes on the course were par 5s: 6 and 13. Hole 6 goes uphill and left at the top before falling down into the valley and rising back up to a raised green: positioning is crucial throughout, as the hole is also cut from the forest, and will punish any errant shot. The 13th is one of the most intimidating, long and difficult par 5s I have played, which is reflected in its SI3 rating – I think it was the most difficult hole on the course: the drive and approach shots are very tight and at over 550 yards even from the yellow, you can’t afford to play too cautiously if you want to get up in three; with a well-bunkered approach, I can’t see too many people reaching in two.
The course is a good challenge and is well designed with plenty of variety with some quite strategic holes. The bunkering could have been a touch more strategic (or intrusive) to tighten things up a bit but, overall, a very fair and varied challenge that will reward good, straight, golf. The setting of an ancient aristocratic estate lends itself to creating a special aura or ambience. While this was certainly true, I didn’t get the same sense of occasion as some places when driving in, for instance Stoke Park – although this is a better course than Stoke – or Wentworth. It is a long drive into the estate with plenty of speed bumps; you pass several buildings and estate cottages and it takes a while to wind your way through to the walled car park – it is then a further trot past the on-site car valeting service to the court-yarded pro shop and entrance to the club house.
The club house was nice, although it did feel a little bit on the corporate side and none of the staff were particularly chatty or welcoming, which contrasts with, say, the reception my party received at St George’s Hill where the Marshall/ Starter welcomed us over coffee and outlined the plans – times/ layout/ payments/ sandwich selection for lunch/ tips etc. Nevertheless, it was not bad, just not as special as it could have been. The food – breakfast/ lunch and dinner – was OK/ not bad, but again, nothing fantastic. The one place I thought looked really special and gave off a real sense of style and occasion was the highly acclaimed Auberge du Lac restaurant, which sits on the banks of the river opposite the clubhouse and in-between the bridge where you drive in and the bottom of the 18th hole on the Melbourne, near the ferry – it is the most delightful looking building, formerly a 17th century hunting lodge – doubtless the meals are not cheap! The visitors changing rooms were small with few lockers and not very appealing compared to what you might expect, but were functional with showers and towels provided.
Overall, our visit lacked the personal touch in the clubhouse and the pro shop, although the starter was friendly. In conclusion, the course is well worth playing if you get a chance, as they don’t take casual visitors, only societies. At a guess, in my experience, it is not a top 100 course but a ranking of around 150-200 in GB & Ireland seems about right, maybe slightly higher due to its exceptional conditioning. PN, Wokingham.