Canons Brook Golf Club is synonymous with Sir Henry Cotton. The golfing maestro was familiar with this corner of Essex; his inaugural 1962 design was at nearby Abridge Golf Club before he turned his attention to the Algarve, laying out the region’s very first golf course at Penina in 1966.
David Hamilton, former member of the editorial staff at Golf Illustrated, wrote the following passage about Canons Brook, published in The Golfers Guide to East Anglia:
“Henry Cotton’s handiwork is written indelibly on this long, tough course situated just outside Harlow New Town. Cotton was commissioned by the Harlow Sports Development Trust back in the early 1960s to provide a course for the fast expanding new town in north Essex that was built to accommodate the overspill from London. The three times Open champion was provided with 112 acres of undulating agricultural land and his aim was to design a layout with large greens, plenty of bunkers, and no rough. This, he felt, would assist with the speed of play, ensuring few balls would be lost, thereby cutting down on the time spent searching for them.
Over the years the greens have become somewhat smaller, a number of Cotton’s many bunkers have been removed, and the rough has been allowed to grow. However, the course is just as difficult as it ever was and plays every inch of its 6,700 plus yards from the back tees with a par of 73. The first nine holes were available for play in 1964 and the second nine a year later when the official opening took place. On the day, Cotton played an exhibition match with fellow Ryder Cup men Lionel Platts and Peter Townsend along with Michael Bonallack, then the leading amateur of the day and Essex based…
The club’s name comes from the ancient area in which it is situated and from the Canons Brook, which runs through the course, notably across the first hole, ahead of the 17th green, and down the side of and in front of the 18th green. The par four 3rd at 454 yards is the toughest hole despite not having a single bunker. But it is a slight dogleg where the approach to a two-tier green has to be threaded between two guarding trees. The short 15th at 201 yards is invariably into the wind and slightly uphill to a green protected by four traps and with a bank at the back to catch the overhit shot. The other signature hole is the 332-yard 17th where the tee is back in an avenue of trees while a ditch crosses the fairway 70 yards from the green and Canons Brook lies just ahead of the putting surface. Bunkers guard each side of the green while there is deep rough off the back. Little wonder this is called “Death or Glory”.”
Canons Brook is definitely a challenge for any golfer. The first hole opens up this challenge well as any shot slightly right off the tee makes the second shot over 'Canons Brook' challenging (as I found out)! I did also enjoy the 18th hole which requires two good shots to open up the green so you can hit over yet another brook! The course takes lots of directional changes and does make you think about your shots particularly as water is in play on a number of holes. I played in early October in an annual matchplay event. It is a popular local course and prides itself on hospitality and good food. I thought that overall the course condition was moderate and not dissimilar to previous visits which is good considering the difficult weather conditions this year. Greens were true but a little slow for my liking. My overall view is this is a pretty decent and challenging course, with a nice interesting layout and a few memorable holes.
It is around 30 years since my first round at Canons Brook and I have returned a couple of times each year since then. I like the course in places a lot and there are the inevitable holes that just need a little more thought – in saying that, this is a course that still has to be one of the premier courses in the region and also the county but does need a little TLC to be a contender for a high position in the Essex rankings. The club has a strong membership and in times of dwindling numbers is still a sought after place to play.
My least favourite part of the course comes at the first two holes; the opener is a par-4 at around 390 yards but the tee shot required is too exacting – nothing more than around 210 yards needed and the fairway narrows so if you choose to lay back a bit, then around a 200 yard second is then required that crosses the brook on the left and has plenty of trees encroaching on the right – if the hole came later in the round, then it would bring a different feel as this as an opener brings in too much pressure to protect against bogey or even worse. The second hole is a shorter par-4 with bunkers and out of bounds to the right – a hole of this length should have the fairway bunkers on the left side, which would put a premium on hitting the short grass - at present there is any easy bale out to the left which makes the key shot the approach to the green rather than from the tee.
The third hole is very strong and the best on the front nine. A long (450 yards) dog-legging to the left par-4, with no bunkers at all – any cut shots from the tee makes reaching in two nearly impossible. A nice run of holes from the 4th to the 7th; two par-5’s and two par-3’s (alternating), with the downhill 6th the best birdie chance as this par-5 is under 500 yards and many reach in two shots here as there is a lot of run towards the green coming in from the left.
The 8th is a decent par-4 with perfect fairway bunkering; two are on the corner of a dog-leg on the tempting line but the safe play is go slightly right from the tee, which opens the green up too. This hole in my opinion could be the opening hole on the course with a couple of tweaks (a little more detail later). The 9th hole is a sharp dog-leg but due to health & safety reasons the cutting the corner option is not available, therefore an approach of around 200 yards is the shot for most, it is slightly blind too so this is not a favourite hole of mine.
The green on the par-4 10th hole has moved a little right in recent years as the original was very close to property at the course boundary – I like this hole a lot and the tee shot gives a chance to really go for the big one and it is the start of a very solid back nine. The 12th hole is the shortest on the course – just a flick really at only 125 yards but plenty to think about.
The 14th hole like the 10th has changed – the club have added a huge mound on the right-side that is now out of bounds which really makes a previously easy tee shot now much harder as the landing area is smaller and the hole takes on a slight dog length shape.
The last four holes are on the clubhouse side (those first fourteen are across the main road) and are great fun to play. The 15th is my choice as the best short hole, slightly uphill and around 200 yards with great bunkering on the left of the green. The 16th is a par-5 and like the 6th can be seen as a decent chance to beat par – a strong driving hole were a slight fade is an advantage but then a slight draw to the green will help get the best out of the right to left camber of the latter part of the fairway. The 17th hole is my favourite on the back nine – a short par-4 with a turn to the right and crossing the waterway that the course takes its name from twice. The smart play is a rescue club to about 200 yards out (great bunker protecting that shot though) and then a short iron to the green – this needs to be spot for distance as short or long is trouble – this hole is named ‘Death or Glory’ and it is obvious to see why. The last hole is a par-5 which is very straight except at the green; the green is placed just over Canons Brook which runs the length of the hole – only the very elite golfers can consider this as a ‘reach in two’ long hole, so most birdies will come from a smart third shot.
Overall I would recommend the course and with a few improvements, a positive move in the Essex rankings is possible. The biggest change could be that the holes are re-numbered and played in a different order to get away from that less than perfect hole that is the current opener. I would say that the 8th could be a new 1st hole, then play to the current 14th - move then to the existing 1st and 2nd they then become the new 8th and 9th. The ‘new’ back nine would start at the existing strong 3rd hole and could continue to the 7th (becoming the 14th), then play the last four holes ‘as is’ this would complete the back nine. Just a thought…