Chart Hills Golf Club is set in the peaceful rural heart of the Garden of England where old oak trees stand guard and where there is sand, lots and lots of sand.
This is Nick Faldo’s first European design and the discerning American designer, Steve Smyers, supported him, opening for play in 1993. They have created a big and attractive golf course with acres of water and sand to trip up the very best golfers, or as Steve Smyers said: “You feel a great course; it thrills you and sometimes frightens you. But in the end, it will challenge the best in you.”
Despite the English rural location, Chart Hills feels like a commercial American golf and country club complex. The service is first class – they are geared towards corporate and society golf and naturally, it has mandatory buggy paths weaving their way along each of the holes.
The design is bold and uses the natural contours of the land to good effect. The fairways twist and turn in every conceivable direction, heading towards the huge and frighteningly undulating greens. The bunkering is daring in the extreme, extravagant and exceptionally varied, ranging from small deep pot bunkers to the huge serpent-like “Anaconda” bunker on the par five 5th that wiggles along for more than 200 yards. Water hazards feature extensively at Chart Hills. These, too, come in all shapes and sizes and are frequently in play, especially on the short par three 17th where the green is an island.
At the end of 2019, Chart Hills became part of the Ramac Group, which is controlled by the McGuirk family who also own Prince’s in Sandwich. A large rebuild operation took up most of 2020 as new drainage was installed across the course and fairways sand capped with 32,000 tonnes of sand spread in a four inch layer throughout. The old bentgrass fairways are now composed of hard-wearing ryegrass and a course reopening date of March 2022 was brought forward a year because of progress made during the covid crisis.
By sheer chance and luck I played Chart Hills on the first day when play was permitted from the new fairways without the use of a mat. I haven't played the course for a number of years and my overall feeling was that clear improvements had been made but with massive potential for further improvements, which are close to being realized. The fairways require more time to 'bed in' and the greens were true even though clear signs of recent renovation were evident.
I enjoyed playing the course but it was a very humbling experience for my golf game. Waste high rough presently lines both sides of every fairway which is so thick that looking for a golf ball is a complete waste of time. It seems the rough has been left to grow wild while the greenkeepers focus on tee's, fairways and greens. This is far longer and thicker than the rough at The Open and unlike the Open us club golfers don't have the benefit of ball spotters on every hole! In its present condition it is effectively like having out of bounds along both sides of the fairway on every hole which, after a while begins to suck the enjoyment out of the round in my view.
That being said, the course design is fantastic and I don't think that has ever been in question. The quality of the surfaces are starting to become very good and in time they will undoubtedly return to the standard of old.
I would recommend playing Chart Hills but the course set up is currently far too penal for the average club golfer. In its current condition it's the toughest test of golf I have ever played and one that my golf game couldn't match. If you do visit, bring loads of very average, second hand golf balls and play off the front yellow tees.
Chart Hills now gets my fourth posted player review in the last fifteen years – not just because I am fan but mainly as the course has been on such a journey from very good to very poor and now seriously back on the up. From one of the very best modern courses to one of the worst conditioned courses in such a short time has been the extent of how Chart Hills has been presented over not so many years.
The quality course design remained and the many strong holes have never gone away but the playing experience has gone from, great to not particularly nice at all!
The new owners (Ramac Holdings) closed the course in July 2020 for a 12 month facelift to attend to all 18 holes. The biggest plan has been to take every fairway back to bare soil, install irrigation, drop tonnes of sand and then re-seed and fertilise. The results in just a year are pretty impressive; and after being one of the first to play from the new fairways it is clear that this is a serious project and is clearly working. I feel that as time goes on and the bedding-in process continues, the playing surfaces will be very strong all year round.
There is still plenty of work to go – the greens are the next big project with all of them also getting a make-over – add in the many off-course upgrades and it will not be too long before the course and club will be very well thought of again.
For me, the many ponds, lakes and ditches at Chart Hills are a huge feature and right now, need a fair bit of attention to tidy them up and to enhance the holes that they are on. This work is definitely on the to do list and rightly so, the fairway and greens have taken the initial priority.
It is rare to see a course be on such a roller-coaster of highs and lows but just goes to show that with the right people and decent investment, then the move from the bad times to being a success story once again can become reality.
The course is always going to have big, bold and plentiful bunkering but it is much more than that; many holes are such a big test, with my favourites being the 2nd, 4th and 8th on the front nine, with the 13th and 14th on the back. These are what can only be described as very tough par-4’s…
Really good to see the recovery here.
Such a shame to see a course with so much potential and a great design to be missing one of the most important parts of a golf course. THE FAIRWAYS ARE WOFUL, a complete lack of grass just thick squelching wet mud. Disgusting. Imagine Nick Faldos face if he could see the state of it now. Like I said great lay out but a lack of funding and a banning of pesticides has lead to grubs eating the fairways. Hopefully the new owners can restore it to its former glory.
I am often curious to see a course designed by an accomplished golf professional. Sir Nick Faldo and Steve Smyers co-designed Chart Hills on a better than average piece of land. I have both talked and played with Steve Smyers, who had a good amateur career in the USA, was on the USGA Executive Committee and has designed a few courses in the USA that I like such as Old Memorial outside of Tampa. I have also met and talked with Sir Nick Faldo and was very curious as to what he might incorporate from his career as England’s finest golfer (apologies to John Ball), into his designs.
I do not pretend to know who did more of the routing, design, and work at Chart Hills, but I would guess that it was Sir Nick Faldo. The overall routing is fine as the course moves in all directions and flows with the terrain. However, I do think the routing suffers from contrived doglegs and weak par 3’s.
There are many courses in the USA that have “template” holes – Eden, biarittz, Cape, Redan, etc. Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor are the better known golf architects for including multiple template holes in their courses. While Chart Hills does not borrow from the historically famous template holes, it does seem to include just about every thing one would see on “newer” golf course. For me, Chart Hills feels like a “check the box” golf course. Want a long par five? - first hole. Want acres of sand? - nine and fifteen. Want a punitive golf course? - four and thirteen. Want wispy, high rough? Check. Want severe doglegs? - four and thirteen. Want water in play as a primary defense? - two, four, five, thirteen, seventeen. Want a long par three? - seven. Want a tight driving hole due to trees? - eight and nine. Want a short par 4? -six. Want slippery, sloped greens? - fifteen and a few others. Want an island green? – seventeen.
I often wonder why template holes are built so often, today even as a homage to the past. There are times I see a template hole on a course that is clearly manufactured and unnatural to the land and I wonder what the designer and shaper were thinking. Perhaps it is not the fault of the designer; perhaps the owner required it. But for me I would rather play on a course where it is more natural as opposed to “forced.” Maybe that it why I do have a bias towards links and links-like golf courses, followed by parkland courses, and then followed by a course such as at Chart Hills. Due to the “check-the-box” feeling that I had, Chart Hills gives me a feeling of trying too hard, almost as if the designers did not think they would not get a chance to design another course.
However, make no mistake, Chart Hills is a championship course designed more for better players than it is for the average player. If kept in good condition, it should host professional events as it has done for mini-tour pros.
I heard that the amount of bunkers and usage of sand has been reduced. There is still plenty of it. I do not know what percent has been reduced since it opened but another reduction of 10% would make the course both more playable and enjoyable while still presenting a good challenge for the professionals.
I played the course twice the same day from the member tees and found it to be relatively easy for the tee shot, but more difficult for the approach shots. The greens are appropriately sized although a few are overly sloped and too many are sloped back to front which is why I liked the par 3 third green sloped right to left and front to back and the short par 4 sixth sloped front to back.
The sixth hole is the short par 4 of 306 yards that is meant to be the driveable risk:reward hole for the longer hitters. Yet there is a pond on the right side of the green which probably discourages many from trying to drive the green. It seemed odd to mean to have an unbalanced risk:reward hole.
The hole I did not like for both rounds was the seventh, the long par 3. I thought it had too much sand for the length of the hole combined with a narrow green.
I did like the par 5’s on the course even if I played the first hole very poorly despite its enormous green. I felt these holes were more straightforward and not contrived to be overly difficult. I did not care for the Anaconda bunker on the fifth as it seemed to be overkill to have a bunker 200 yards long beginning from a stream and crossing the fairway. I also thought the ninth and the fifteenth to be the better of the par 4’s. The fourth hole is overly difficult.
I did not care for the par 3’s, particularly the seventh as mentioned above. The seventeenth, the island green, does not belong on this type of golf course.
Overall, Chart Hills is not a course an overseas visitor or someone travelling more than 200 miles should go out of their way to play. It is similar to me to The Oxfordshire as a course that if one were to play it, I think they would not be disappointed, but I am not certain they would walk away with many “fun” memories.
I have played many times at Chart Hills since the opening in the early 90’s and have actually posted two player reviews on Top 100 before. I gave a 5-ball on 27th March 2006 and then a very different 3-ball (just) rank on August 5th 2014. The time around 2014-2015 saw the course at its poorest, un-recognisable in places and around 70 bunkers out of action – on that day in the summer of 2014 my jaw hit the floor in horror with how it had become. This was all done to lack of investment and also some lack of interest as the club was about to be sold.
New owners have been in place now since 2016, so my recent visit this November was to see how things were doing. I am happy to report that the course is on the mend and is making decent progress to return to one of the stronger inland modern courses in the south-east of England. The focus in the last couple of years looks to have been correct with concentration on the tees, the greens and surrounds and also the many bunkers. The tees look really smart now and the bunkers are looking really good and consistent – around twenty of the original number have been strategically removed too. The green-sites have seen the biggest improvement for me and in time could well be better than at their previous best. What I like now is that the aprons, the approaches and the definition between the grass-cuts is spot on – originally there was not really the run-up option to the greens – there is now.
Not too sure where the course will end up in the rankings over the next few years but previously when it was in top notch condition, I would have had this ahead of both courses at The London Club and I imagine that is the first goal in terms of being judged – whether we have a re-entry into the country top 100, that remains to be seen but well done to the new owners and the current team for starting the turnaround.
Is the same amount of crazy bunkering on the 9th still there? It looked like Faldo just spewed up sand all over the fairway when I played there some years ago.
Yes some may say crazy bunkering and the 9th is an example of this, just a sea of sand from the tee! In all honesty if the course was being built today the idea of 128 bunkers just would not happen. The new look brings this number down to 100 - not everyone's cup of tea I know but pleased to see a decent course on the way back.
Chart Hills is a flamboyant Sir Nick Faldo designed layout located in tranquil Kent countryside that contains some excellent holes amongst its bold and lavish bunkering.
During 2017 the course has undergone some major course refurbishments. The striking bunkering in particular has essentially been redone and looks very smart. Most of the sizeable sand traps are back in play now and they undoubtedly help give Chart Hills a unique character.
Admittedly, the condition of the fairways wasn’t great but I suspect this is more to do with them being neglected whilst man hours are spent on the mammoth task of returning all of the bunkers into play. The greens, however, were excellent and ran nicely. The course was more than playable on my visit and I expect everything will be back to top spec for the 2018 season.
We are immediately drawn to the impressive scale and style of bunkering at the opening hole; a grand par five that dog-legs to the right and allows you to decide how much of the desert you wish to chew off. All of the par fives feature a lot of sand and although it is obviously preferably to avoid the fairway bunkers there is still a good chance of playing out of them with a long enough club to advance the ball a fair distance. The 16th in particular is a sandy feast with traps to avoid at every step of the way.
I also enjoyed most of the par fours where a diverse mix of mature oak trees, water hazards and of course more bunkers help defend the holes.
In my opinion, the weakest aspect of the course is the set of short holes. Not that they are poor but I simply didn’t connect with any of them. The third, seventh and 11th just didn’t grab my attention like the other holes did whilst the island green at the 17th is undeniably charming it’s slightly out of character with the rest of the course.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.