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.
Date: February 13, 2019