At 1,083 feet Cleeve Hill is the highest point in the Cotswolds with commanding views over nearby Winchcombe to the north, Bishops Cleeve and Wales to the west and Cheltenham some four miles distant to the south. Indeed, the renowned Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run on Cleeve Hill from 1815 to 1855 before moving to Prestbury Park just north of the town. Plenty of horses being exercised are still seen about the common.
Covering some 1,000 acres, Cleeve Common was cleared of trees about 6,000 years ago and is the largest unenclosed wold on the Cotswold escarpment. The land has been used for farming, grazing and quarrying. Much of the iconic golden Cotswold stone used for nearby buildings was quarried in and around Cleeve Cloud (a lower summit of Cleeve Hill and the name of the members’ club attached to the course) and has been for at least two millennia. It is these quarries which give so many holes their character.
There was little heed paid to eliminating blind shots, but this is likely a product of minimal construction rather than a purposeful design element. There are perhaps eight blind tee shots, surely too many for any course, however, these are not overly hampered with harsh penalties for inexactitude. So, we have quarries, blind tee shots and a knowledge that things come in threes. It may sound very strange for a common land course leased out by a borough council (Tewksbury) to exhibit anything of an exceptional nature, but true it is. On several occasions it is nothing less than dreamy after cresting a brow; for the green sites are one after another, exquisitely placed. Critics write of second shot courses with great frequency, but in the case of Cleeve Cloud it is nearly as perfect a description of a course as there can be.
Whilst delving into the provenance of the course at Cleeve Hill, we enlisted the help of Melvyn Morrow Hunter, the great great grandson of Old Tom Morris, who provided a newspaper clip from the Cheltenham Chronicle dated 11th July 1891 which stated: “the course was laid out by that veteran of St Andrews, Tom Morris, who was himself enraptured with it, declaring that few golf links in the kingdom are equal to those on Cleeve Common. From the point of view of a golfer such as Mr Morris, the links ‘offer plenty of variety, and a sufficiency of difficulties and dangers’.”
David Brown, designer of another Cotswold beauty, Painswick, was engaged in 1891 to "arrange for the preparation and keeping of the greens”. Mr Brown was famous as the teacher of Queen Victoria and for winning The Open at Musselburgh, his home green, in 1886. He later became the professional for Cheltenham GC (wound up in 1935) before his departure to the United States. He would finish second in the 1903 US Open. Sadly, David Brown went bankrupt in the Wall Street crash and was deported back to Scotland where he died penniless.
The course must have been a bit rough and ready for Braid's comments after losing a match to Harry Vardon over the Cleeve Hill design in 1902 were short and sharp; "You get a great view of Cheltenham." Additional big matches were held in 1905 and 1924. The international match in 1905 featured Vardon and Taylor against Braid and Herd; all three members of The Great Triumvirate and the much loved would be fourth member, Sandy Herd. In 1924 two well-known British professionals, Abe Mitchell and George Duncan (recent winner of The Open in 1920) played a match to celebrate the opening of the newly extended course. As it happens, the 18-year-old Alf Padgham was recently hired as the Assistant Professional. Of course, Mr Padgham went on to become a premier British player, winning The Open at Royal Liverpool in 1936.
The card of the course can be deceiving due to its 6,083 total yards from the yellow tees, however, upon closer inspection we note there is only one par five, resulting in a course par of 69. Like Woodhall Spa, Cleeve Hill is a rarity among courses in that it is easier to play to one’s handicap by stepping back to the medal tees which measure 6,400 yards with a par of 71.
After two back and forth holes sharing a sloped fairway and the uphill 3rd, the world opens up on #4. Despite appearances of being wide open, this is a very testing hole with a good wind off the left. The green is severely sloped from back to front making it difficult to accurately judge the approach. It is thought The Good Doctor re-designed this hole (along with #s 5, 7 & 9) previous to WWI. There does seem to be an added touch about these greens which indicate the work of an experienced designer. The 5th introduces the golfer to the first run of quarry holes. This hole too is deceptive in how much space there is for the drive, but the aggressive play must be accurate. The sixth takes play directly over a quarry for an excellent short hole. The long and testing seventh also utilizes a quarry for its green.
Despite the many fine holes on the front nine, it in no way outshines the returning nine holes. The gently rising two-shot 12th is stern yet not as demanding as the following hole. Once again the drive is wide open and uphill. A few sand-free hollows short of the hillcrest give the golfer an indication of the line, but not what follows! Coming over the hill the entire town of Cheltenham lies in waiting. Once the spectacle of this view diminishes the ordeal of the second shot comes sharply into focus. The green rests in an iron age ring known as the Camp which runs toward Cheltenham at such a slope that success in holding this green can only be achieved with a great deal of luck.
The 14th is yet another fine hole, but we now hit a trio of holes which are of such excellence that it is a wonder Cleeve Cloud isn’t much better known. Back to back par threes, fifteen plays over a quarry and uphill sixteenth runs through a gap. A total of six strokes on these two holes will do any golfer. Not to be outdone by any of the previous quarry holes, the penultimate hole is both fascinating and perplexing. Yes, the drive is blind, nothing new there. The fairway is more an up-side-down V than a humpback. The drop down toward the mother of all quarries is sharp and without mercy. On the other hand, this downhill par four can be driven if one finds the slot and is long enough.
The 18th is a tad disappointing, but that is no slight on Cleeve Cloud. If one likes adventurous golf with lovely views, yet plenty of space to play the game, Cleeve Cloud is a must play.Article by Sean Arble.
Let’s make no mistake here, Cleeve Hill is municipal golf. The course is scruffy and tatty, basically being shared farmland where sheep graze and maintenance is minimal. The greens are very poor with most surfaces suffering damage from animal scratchings, there are even heavy tractor tracks to the right of the 11th hole.
I say this not to criticise the course but manage potential visitor’s expectations. Cleeve Hill is not a premium product, nor is it trying to be. And for £12 per round on a Saturday afternoon in February, you’re getting what you’ve paid for. Actually I’m being unfair, I’ve had lesser experiences for far more expensive green fees. If you look past the on-course presentation, you have the very definition of a rough diamond. The bare bones of a great course are all there.
Set high above the Cotswolds’ countryside on Gloucestershire’s highest point, prepare to be joined across the course by more than just golfers. Due to the breathtakingly beautiful scenery and pleasant hike, you’ll have to hold back from hitting your tee shot at various points through the round to wait for a fell-runner to pass or a group of walkers to cross the fairway with their dogs. If you’re able to put course conditioning aside….and a really pleasant walk with gorgeous views, amazing green surrounds and clobbering your ball across ancient quarries sounds like your thing, then come and visit Cleeve Hill.
The fairways are generous and that’s putting it mildly. Due to what I assume to be a small maintenance budget and some greenstaff disguised as livestock, the rough and fairways are both cut to generally the same height. The course sets itself up well for creativity rather than placing a premium on accuracy and whilst the course is in no way a links, it shares many characteristics with links golf; the soil is free draining, there are blind shots aplenty, the land is clear of trees and gorse bushes are scattered here and there. The high winds I experienced were also verging on the extreme, so the playing strategy lends itself to keeping your ball low and bumping it along the ground.
When the highlights of the round come, they’re of extremely high quality. The 2nd has a wonderful stepped green, sculpted into the side of the hill and the long drop-shot par three 10th across gorse is a great test of your long iron accuracy. The signature 13th has a bell-shaped green sat between earthwork ruins, themselves surrounded by treacherous moat-like gulleys; this is all set before a beautiful panoramic view of Cheltenham in the distance. 15, the first of two back to back par threes has the most noteworthy of canyon carries, don’t scuff or top your tee shot here. 16 was an amazing yet bewildering hole where I gazed around unknowingly for longer than I ought to before I finally figured out where the green was located; perched over a hill, semi blind with two quarries separated by a grassy spine above which to keep your ball aloft, this is a hole to intimidate even the best of amateur golfers.
Take the time to breathe in the views whilst walking Cleeve Hill, golf doesn’t have to be a rush. The views are truly outstanding and both the triangulation marker at the pinnacle of the hill and the isolated tree doubling as a memorial to loved ones passed at the 13th should offer the wandering golfer a time to reflect.
Despite the sheep poop and scratchy greens, I liked Cleeve Hill. Some heavy investment in combination with the engagement of a top course architect could make this place pretty special, but maybe it already is, maybe upgrading the course would ruin the experience that the likes of Cleeve Hill provide. It’s a course that’s at one with its community and environment and the type of golf that people go on a pilgrimage to play at places like Askernish, so just maybe this is golf the way it’s meant to be? Personally I’m not there yet, but my inner eco-hipster wants to be.
Hopefully positive & engaging reviews like this will encourage more of us to visit places like Cleeve Hill.
This is surely helpful for the future accessibility, sustainability, and soul of our game - and it sounds like you’ll have fun there too.
More Golfers should embrace their inner Eco-Hipster!
Cleeve Hill certainly covers a large acreage, the views are very good and the yellow gorse was in bloom (although didn't actually affect play much). Clubhouse is old, parking not great, but sheep poo and walkers on the day no problem. Fairways are wide, and after driving over a couple of marker posts the novelty wears off and there is a certain similarity off the tee. There was no great advantage in being straight off the tee and I agree that it is very much a second shot course. Played in May 2017 after a dry spell and as a result the greens were bumpy and very hard; not only was putting a lottery but because the greens were not receptive to any incoming shot you had to play short and take the luck of the bounce off the natural hazards and slopes. My favourite holes were the par 4 5th (partly because the drive was actually framed by the gorse) and the short par 3 15th over a quarry. The 13th I found disappointing because off the yellow tee I was left with a blind shot over the hill to the green. Overall I thought a better course than Painswick, but probably not as good as Minchinhampton Old and certainly not as good as Kington. I actually played Church Stretton the day after Cleeve and this was far better in most respects including views, quirkiness, interest and green condition. In fairness to Cleeve it would probably sit nicely as a holiday fun course and I think it may play better in wetter conditions with softer greens. Overall an average course for me with (on the day) very poor greens, however I am actually putting it in the 3 ball category because looking at the Gloucestershire rankings I would actually still prefer to play it ahead of The Players and The Kendleshire
Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire was selected as a stop-off course to break up the five hour journey down from West Yorkshire to Devon.
As my ears popped on the drive up to the club the wind must have been gusting to at least 60mph and a storm was fast approaching.
The weather was such that any sane person wouldn’t have stepped foot on a golf course yet alone one situated over 1,000 feet above sea level and as exposed as the most desolate links.
The conditions were such that the professional simply laughed when we walked into his shop and said that we wanted a couple of green-fees. We didn't ask for it but I think he felt obliged to discount the price for us because of the wind. I estimated we had a three hour window of dryness before the deluge arrived. We certainly had the course to ourselves because even the members who had arrived for their regular roll-up remained in the warmth of the clubhouse.
Because of its lofty position most people would say that Cleeve Hill is possibly the worst course to play in gale force winds. I would argue that it’s one of the best and this is because of the amazing width that the course allows from the tee. There is a real spaciousness to the course and I suspect that it was actually one of the few courses playable in the country on a day when the UK took a battering from Storm Katie.
The Cleeve Hill golf course, commanding truly stunning views of the surrounding countryside, is a municipal with the attached members club being named Cleeve Cloud. It’s one of those rare and unique courses which I wish there were more of. It is quite a quirky course but lots of fun played on a common with a number of blind shots and some significant slopes.
The simplicity of its design speaks volumes and whilst it won’t really test you from the tee there are some sublime green locations that are not only a joy to play towards but present all sorts of difficulties around them should you miss due to the contouring.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Cleeve Hill is a course that will surely polarise opinion. The Marmite “Love it or Hate it” effect was coined for antiquities like this. I’ll put my cards face up on the table… I loved it. Thank you Sean Arble. Your recommendation put a smile on my face (although it took me ten years to get to play it) and your main article above is bang on. It’s magical to play a course for the first time with no great expectations and leave feeling delighted to have made the trip.
We got lucky with the weather – a glorious November blue-sky day with a three-club wind blowing from the southwest. We were wrapped up like Eskimos, I even had to wear my jumper and I’m a northerner. The proprietor, Hugh Fitzsimons, who joined us for the round, elevated the experience. Now in his mid seventies, Hugh not only knows Cleeve Hill like the back of his hand, but he was also great company and a fine player who still strikes it solidly.
Having played Kington for the first time earlier in the year, I was expecting a certain level of sedate orienteering at Cleeve Hill but, despite Sean’s innocuous comment, “covering some 1,000 acres,” nothing, and I repeat nothing, prepared me for the sheer scale of this golfing property. At one point on the front nine (I forget which hole we were on), Hugh pointed to a lone tree on the horizon in the distance, “We are going over there, that’s by the 12th” he said. I looked at him in amazement, “Really?” I replied, “Isn’t that tree in a different country?”
Yes it’s hilly and yes there are number of blind, uphill drives (and some thrilling drives from elevated tees, for example the 9th), but surprisingly the walk doesn’t feel especially taxing and the holes are routed cleverly around, up and down the hill. It’s largely a second and third shot course – the wind was so strong that a number of par fours were unreachable into the wind. We played it from the tips, which as Sean pointed out, are definitely easier to play to handicap (or even below handicap as Brian achieved yesterday).
I loved Cleeve’s greensites every bit as much as I loved Kington’s greensites. The difference is that Cleeve has enormous scale and even vaster, jaw-dropping vistas. After putting out on the 12th, take a moment to walk up to the stone that marks the highest point on Cleeve Hill, where there’s also an etching that points to landmarks in every conceivable compass direction. The views are truly gobsmacking and genuinely 360-degree.
Nothing prepared me for the approach to the signature 13th (the backdrop is pretty spectacular too) and the image will stay with me for the rest of my life. At first glance it appears as though the green is set in an opening that’s ringed with dunes. The false-front to the green bridges the gap, but the entire putting surface is set inside an Iron Age fort. The ramparts of the ancient settlement are fronted with a dry moat-like ditch from where any short, misaligned approach shot will end up, leaving a recovery that even Phil Mickelson would find tricky.
The back-to-back par threes at 15 and 16 are excellent, where a couple of the property’s numerous old Cotswold quarries are used to wonderful effect. I’ve never seen a par three quite like the 16th (“The Grip”), which requires a forced-carry to a blind green (you can see the flagstick) that is set in a narrow gap between two steep hills.
Overall there are many elements at Cleeve Hill that I’ve never witnessed before. It’s a bit rough and ready due to the gazing stock that keep the grass munched down to a level whereby you can find your ball if you’re off the fairway. Thankfully the sheep and cattle had been removed from the common for the winter and the electric fences from around the greens had also been taken down.
Don’t expect a manicured walk. Expect some poo (actually expect a lot of poo) and then expect the unexpected.
I’m placing my credibility on the line by awarding Cleeve Hill a 5-ball rating, but I don’t care, I liked it a lot. Keith Baxter