The course at Dunstable Downs sits at an elevation of nearly eight hundred feet above sea level and it occupies a spectacular setting in the Chiltern Hills with commanding vistas across several counties, from Surrey in the south to Northamptonshire in the north.
Twenty-four years after its formation, the club acquired land at Downs Farm, close to where its course was set out on common land, before engaging James Braid to design a new 18-hole layout for the membership.
According to the book James Braid and his Four Hundred Golf Courses by John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming, “by designing nine holes in the valley and nine on the high ground Braid maximised the variety of the terrain available while taking advantage of the views.”
It continues: “The course was opened without ceremony on 26th September 1931, its yardage being 6,579 yards, longer than today. The course today is virtually the same, only the numbering changed, to fit in with the changed site of the clubhouse.”
The modern day configuration of the course sees golfers tackle the only two par fives on the card at holes 1 and 3. Later on, they face the most difficult hole on the course at the 452-yard 8th (“Braid’s Best”), a long, left doglegged par four.On the back nine – where holes 10 to 17 are all par fours – the round concludes with a very testing, 170-yard par three (“Death or Glory”), where the home green is encircled by no fewer than nine bunkers.
I do rather like Dunstable Downs, though it does definitely have some quirks. It’s a course of two parts; 1 to 9 are down in the valley, 10 works it’s way to the top and then 11 to 18 are played around the clubhouse. The last 8 holes will generally be windier than the front 10, though anything from the west south west will be a test all over the course. The key quirks relate to the routing - two par fives in the first three holes, and then none from 4 onwards.
Played on a breezy day at the end of a dry May the challenge downwind was to stop the ball, the challenge upwind was to get there at all, and the challenge crosswind was to work out how far left or right to aim.
1 is an inviting downhill par five; there’s plenty of room left, but that leaves a harder approach over a bunker and downhill; stopping the ball on the green required a better player than me. Take risks of the tee to go right and you have a better approach. 2 is an uphill par three, with club selection key as it’s often also into the wind. 3 is a very long par 5, but probably reachable in two for better players as it’s all downhill, including the green. Our morning and afternoon groups found the back quite easily in three; which was not so good with a pin at the front. 4 is a dog left left; a good drawn drive will leave a short approach; go out right for safety but longer second which can get dragged downwind to the left bunkers and hedge. 5 takes you away from the lowest point on the course, so is an uphill par three, followed by an uphill and often into the wind par 4 6th. The latter is a pretty straight hole, with not much excitement.
It’s back downhill on 7 after which you are greeted with 8. It’s uphill, dog leg left and 450 yards. The green is a small tear drop, widest at the front. It’s in a bowl so shots should gather if hit high enough up the banks, but if bouncing onto the banks they can stay up there. It’s a great long and tough par 4 and actually somewhat out of keeping with most of the rest of the course as it’s only challenge for difficulty is the much plainer 11th.
9 follows, as a very short par three to another small green, but this time it’s surrounded by thick grass and bunkers. In reality one should be able to hit a target from 120 yards, but I suspect many don’t. 10 takes you up to the high ground; blind tee shot and don’t go right off the tee or with your second.
11 is uphill, long, but in my view lacking character. The trouble seems to be off the tee and with your second ( in both cases avoid the fairway bunkers), but not really around the green. 12 comes back in the opposite direction with a nice pearl of bunkers which tempt you to cut the corner and wait for the sliced tee shot. As you are often now downwind the key here will be to work out where to land your second, when we played quite a long way short was the right answer. I feel that 8 to 12 are the heart of the course; four quite tough par 4s and one stroke index 18 par three which will catch out many. If you’ve got a score by the 13th tee you should be able to keep it; if you haven’t there is opportunity to get a bit back. So none of 13 to 18 are really challenging, though like anywhere mistakes can be made. 13 is on the same line as 12, though rather shorter and less protected off the tea and on the green.
14 is a nice challenge which could be made a lot nastier by keeping the grass on the left side bailout short enough to let the ball run out and then long enough to make the second a tough ask. I can understand why it isn’t: blind tee shots which require very precise drives are rarely appreciated, but the hole could be made harder if needed. The green itself is one of the tougher as it’s a big front to back slope.
There’s lots of room off the tee on 15 as in 16. Both are played over the same gully, and both reward a shot struck to the higher end of the fairway, be that the right on 15 or left on 16. 17 and 18 head back past the clubhouse on the same broad line, with 18 being the nicer hole and a reasonably tough finish to a green firmly surrounded by bunkers.
As I said earlier the source was running quite fast. The greens were true and of a decent pace. Some fairways clearly has suffered with last year’s drought and like most green keepers in the south east my guess is that Dunstable’s are praying for rain.
Of the clubhouse the visitors’ locker room was poor: too hot, no towels and rather weak showers. The bar facilities are all upstairs: the food was decent, but I must question the committee’s decision to up the price of drinks and then increase the members’ discount. £5 for a pint of beer is a London price, not a Bedfordshire one. Charging shandy as beer invites the rather perverse decision to buy a pint of each and come away with a third glass to do one’s own mixing so saving over £1.50.
I don’t know Bedfordshire’s golf courses, so can’t compare in County. For me if you are heading down or up the M1 it’s worth a diversion; if you’re heading down the A1 or M40 it isn’t.