Huntercombe, along with Willie Park Jnr’s other groundbreaking masterpiece, Sunningdale, opened in 1901 and sparked a revolution in inland golf design. Walter Travis commented “I consider that Huntercombe is easily the best laid course that I have ever played over anywhere”. Harold Hilton agreed, “in links architecture his two great creations have been Sunningdale and Huntercombe and of the two I am distinctly inclined to look upon Huntercombe as the greater effort of the two”.
Bernard Darwin was greatly impressed with the course and wrote: “Although Huntercombe is still a comparatively young course, there is an agreeable quality about the golf that, for want of better word, may be called, very respectfully, old-fashioned. Exactly how this impression is produced upon the mind is hard to say. Perhaps it is that some of the approach shots have to played over cross-hazards, although those are not constructed after the old rampart pattern; perhaps it is that there are no deep and desperate pot-bunkers dug very close to the holes, or it may be the abundance of the whins, which somehow remind one of the unsophisticated golf upon the common. At any rate, the golf of Huntercombe has a very engaging character of its own; it is good without being too strenuous for the reasonably light-hearted player. Yet this cheerful person must not imagine the disaster cannot overtake him.”
Like most heathland courses, trees have invaded what would originally have been open land, though Park would certainly recognize much of his handiwork if he were to walk the course today. As one would expect from an older course, which has had few revisions, Huntercombe is on the short side at approximately 6,300 yards. The course stands nearly 700 feet above sea level, one of the highest points in the Chilterns and it is easy to imagine how wind would have played a significant role in stiffening the challenge. The few bunkers employed have in the main been placed to offer the golfer a choice of playing heroically or safely. As an alternative to bunkering, Park dug many hollows throughout the course which greatly effect the decision making of golfers. Not unusually, a road, The Ridgeway, one of the oldest roadways in Europe, divides the course. Unfortunately, the increase in traffic these recent years has precipitated the club to recently alter the 6th by planting trees down the right and filling in one of the hollows on the left side of the fairway.
Despite the great success of the course, due to financial difficulties caused by the failure of the planned real estate development, Park lost a substantial amount of money. However, high profile work continued to come Park’s way. His talents were further utilized for many more marquee designs; amongst which were Notts, Formby and Worplesdon. Ironically, the early financial difficulties Huntercombe suffered may be the very reason that the course is for the most part preserved. Unlike Sunningdale, Huntercombe is just far enough removed from London to have effectively become an historical footnote in golf architecture. Huntercombe fails to make any modern best of lists. Even Tom Doak didn’t visit while researching architecture for the launch of his career and subsequently, Huntercombe does not earn a mention in the first edition of the Confidential Guide. More is the pity because Huntercombe exemplifies concepts which were previously the domain of links golf. Variety, use of natural landforms and strategic merit are features which made the course justly famous over 100 years ago and continue to satisfy members and visitors alike today.
When the alarm went off at 3.30am yesterday morning I did question my sanity as I dragged myself out of bed, staggered into the shower and then jumped into the car for the 200-mile drive to Nuffield for a 7.30am tee time. Maybe I should have stayed locally the night before? Nah. I like a challenge.
Huntercombe has been on my to-play list for decades since Darwin first wrote about it, “once the home of Willie Park, and the pet child among all his golf courses”. I reread the mixed bag of reviews posted below and wondered why the reviews for such an icon are so few and far between.
Modern day architecture pundits wax lyrically about Huntercombe and I was intrigued by Tom Doak’s assessment in his latest edition of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses: “Modern designers would benefit from seeing how to create interest with sparse bunkering and a quirky, cunning set of green complexes… It reminds us more of Garden City Golf Club than any other course we’ve seen, and deserves to be better known than it is. Hopefully, one day they will gain permission to cut down the trees… opening up the long views of the countryside from the hilltop setting...”
When I pulled into the near empty club car park at 7am, the Red Kites were soaring overhead and the sun was shining. There is no indication whatsoever that the club is set on a hilltop. Glimpses down the avenues of trees suggested a flat parkland setting.
Grant Stewart the Course Manager greeted Fergal and I on the first tee. Poignantly Grant recently moved here from Sunningdale, so his connection with Willie Park continues. After the chat we were off. A short par three to start with a green of enormous proportions set the scene for the morning.
There’s nothing to get too excited about at Huntercombe. There’s no signature hole, there are no thrilling elevation changes to add drama, there’s no water and there are only thirteen bunkers (and three of these front the raised green on the quirky short par four 17th). Instead you encounter one solid but unassuming hole after another.
The excitement and interest centres on the greensites. Each and every green has complexity, either on the putting surface itself or at the surrounds. We were both wrong-sided on the outrageous two-tiered 4th where, if you end up on the punchbowl-like right hand side, it’s nigh on impossible to avoid a three putt. There are not many courses that I can recall which have such an amalgam of fascinating greens.
Grant caught up with us midway through the back nine and we talked about the greens and he also told us that he’s already removed 400 trees and pointed proudly to the reawakening of a long view. Many hundred more trees could easily be removed without compromise and this course would then comfortably be a very strong contender for the GB&I Top 100.
As it stands, Huntercombe is unpretentious, engaging and a genuine throwback to the Golden Age. It’s a club I’d love to join if I lived around the corner. It’s a course I’d like to get to know more intimately. It’s an understated charmer and in my opinion currently too low in our English Top 100 rankings.
Couldn’t agree more. I also played Huntercombe for the first time yesterday - at the other end of the day, on a lovely spring evening - and loved it. Definitely among the most interesting set of greens I’ve ever seen, certainly outside a links course. Why, when Willie Park was showing how to do it over 100 years ago, have so many courses with flat and uninteresting greens been built since? Huntercombe shows how an otherwise unexceptional hole can be transformed into something wonderful with a bit of imagination at the green.
I had the pleasure of playing Huntercombe on a temperate, sunny day in mid-April 2018. Fortunately for me, this perfect day was described by many locals as "the first day of Spring", since it was preceded by weeks of wet and chilly weather. Course conditions were surprisingly good, considering the lack of recent sunshine. There were a few soft spots in the otherwise lush fairways, and the greens lived up to their excellent-but-tricky reputation. I would describe the course as more parkland than heathland, as trees lining the fairways were much more of a shot-making and scoring factor than the modest patches of yellow gorse (which might be more prominent later in the summer). The level of challenge was perfect for my low double-digit handicap. A highly recommended course, and a convenient ~90 minute drive from LHR airport.
Lovely course with huge character and charm. The grass hollow features are a welcome change to the standard bunkering seen at the majority of courses with superb greens that are very challenging but in perfect condition. Every hole was enjoyable and varied with excellent par threes. The layout and overall feel of Huntercombe is unlike any other course in the county and it's easy to see why it bears a resemblance to the likes of Sunningdale. Will certainly be returning in the future.
After playing 36 holes in an open competition at Frilford Heath I decided to quickly dash across the Oxfordshire countryside to Huntercombe for an evening round rather than sit in what mostly likely would have been rush hour traffic on the M40.
It was a trip I’m glad I made although the course wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
The Club say on their website it is ‘one of the finest inland courses in England’. Unfortunately, I didn’t necessarily come away agreeing with this statement, however, there is no denying this is a course I would urge anyone to experience.
Huntercombe, located several hundred feet above sea level, is unique and different in many ways as well as it being a historically important golf course. Laid out in 1901, by twice Open Champion and creator of the Old course at Sunningdale - Willie Park Junior, what was then a pure and open heathland course helped shape the future of inland golf design over the next three decades.
Over the past 100 years or so this very natural course has changed little from its original design. However, today’s course is a much more claustrophobic affair with the majority of holes venturing through dense woodland and undergrowth. The course also played much softer than I suspect it did a century ago.
The two stand-out features at Huntercombe are the many amazingly brilliant putting surfaces that can only be described as tricky and quirky in equal measure, and the presence of several strategically placed grassy hollows in lieu of bunkers.
Huntercombe is a course I most definitely appreciated, and one worthy of further study, but sadly not one I fell in love with like I hoped I might.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Huntercombe is like going back in time, a traditional natural course largely unchanged where you can stroll round in 3 hours. Course condition was very good; although winter rules were on we had no need as the fairways were that good. The greens were definitely the feature of the course with fantastic shapes and contours, and of good pace and in excellent condition; as good as any I have played this year and it's November. Loved the natural features, with the hollows and humps and isolated gorse bushes. After the first couple of holes the course seemed pretty flat and without much elevational change there did seem to be a lack of variety of holes (although all holes were solid enough and certainly not poor). My personal favourite was the dog-leg par 4 5th, and the 18th up to the clubhouse was a nice finish. All greens were interesting with the big step in nr 8 and general surrounds to nr 17 of particular note. Maybe not demanding enough to improve all aspects of your game, however a delightful place for a friendly game of golf with excellent greens. Nearly a 5 ball but not quite. Definitely worth the visit