It’s all change at Liphook. A club I’d previously considered to be relatively set in their ways has made the bold and progressive step to make some major course changes at one of Southern England’s most beloved heathland courses.
I’ve always found there to be a charisma and allure to Liphook that’s unrivalled in this region until you get to Surrey and Berkshire’s top heathland courses. I’d sight one of the prime reasons for this sentiment to be the twisting lane that you drive down that meanders past parts of the course and alongside some beautiful houses before you arrive at the traditional timber-clad clubhouse. This really helps build up the anticipation before you arrive for your round.
Onto the course, and Liphook has charmed many a visitor over the years with its beautifully shaped greens, naturally shaped bunkers and its selection of attractive heather-lined holes, albeit it has lacked the contiguous nature that you find at most courses due to the road and railway that divides the course into different segments. This to the large part hasn’t been a detraction for me, whilst some walks are long, I always enjoy the surprise that comes with visiting a course as you enter a new part of the property and arrive at each new setting. But what has been the course’s main downfall in the past was the death-march across the busy B2070, particularly when crossing beside the blind bend at the back of the old 14th. And with that, comes the primary reason for the major course changes that have taken place. Whilst the road crossing after the 4th hole hasn’t been removed, the much more treacherous walk after the 14th has now disappeared. This results in some major rerouting, hole renumbering, two brand new holes and some major reshaping of some of the pre-existing holes. And to Mackenzie & Ebert’s credit, I think the outcome has been a genuine success.
The main area of change comes between holes 8 and 11. Outside of this, some of the holes have been re-sequenced but to the most part, they remain untouched. Before explaining the changes, I must make the point that I also had the good fortune to play Liphook earlier in the year when the changes were still taking shape. At that time, I quite honestly couldn’t figure out how the changes would fit together. But given the restrictions of this relatively tight property, I’m very impressed with how this complicated jigsaw has been assembled.
New holes have been added at 8 and 9 in the portion of land where the old 14th used to be. The old 14th always felt like an awkward hole and had the odd feature of a bunker that was placed in the rough between a gap in the trees. The short 8th that bisects the old fairway is now a genuinely top-drawer par three where the ground falls away to the right of a large, subtly sloped green. The new dogleg 9th will probably take more time to bed-in than the 8th where this par four hole is shaped around a small pond, but the green here is wonderfully undulating in the tradition of Liphook’s many other excellent greens, and could easily catch many an accomplished golfer unawares when the green is running at full Summer speed. Quite frankly though, it’s remarkable that they’ve found the space to create these two new holes of such quality.
As good as the new additions are, it’s the changes to the next two holes that are the course architect’s most outstanding work. The changes to the 10th, where the old 10th and 11th have been connected to form one long continuous hole are just tremendous. This is now a gorgeous par four that extends to 431-yards from the raised blue tee. A testing drive between the out-of-bounds and scrub to the right and a catchment pond to the left need to be negotiated before the wonderful former par three 11th green complex which is now used for the new green. There’s some masterfully reshaped bunkering around this green too that is the chef’s kiss finish to a wonderful, remodelled hole. Whilst “Two Counties”, the par five 7th (formally the 13th) to the raised green and carry over the diagonal stream is perhaps still my favourite hole at Liphook, the new 10th is now damn strong close competition.
The extended 11th, Forest Mere, is another excellent change. They’ve somehow discovered an additional hundred yards from the copse of trees through the back of the old green that now turns this hole into a testing par five where the fairway pinches in around the area where the old green-site used to be.
Whilst I’ve focused on the changes so far, I imagine that several readers will probably not have played Liphook before, so I must add that the original parts of Liphook that remain the same are best to remain that way as they’ve always been most enjoyable. The tough par three at the 1st is maybe a little awkward for a way to start the round, but after this, you have a genuine classic heathland that in my opinion is head-and-shoulders the best course in Hampshire. The par threes at the 3rd and 12th (previously the 7th) are perfect short holes, particularly the 12th that plays into a basin. The rest of the longer holes are all visually attractive, but also lend themselves to the golfer who can plot their way around a golf course as they by and large offer more than one way to play the hole - something I admit is not always present on tight heathland courses.
Going back to the recent changes, and after the unchanged 14th (previously the 9th), which is another highlight from the original holes with clumps of heather that separate the green from the fairway and leaves the golfer with a semi-blind approach, you now walk through a passageway under the arch of the railway to the newly aligned and driveable 15th. 16 in all honesty probably still needs some tinkering, as I think the route to the green could be shaped more naturally than it is at present, but 18 is thankfully left untouched. A birdie is very much in play with a good drive on the last hole, but the big undulations and beautiful shaping and bunkering approaching the final green always means your round finishes on a natural high.
I suspect the club will still be in observation mode over the next year or two as they’ll want to see how some of the changes play out, so they may develop some more contouring around the greens as time passes and as they react to how the new changes bed themselves in and are accepted by the members. But even without any further modifications, Liphook already compares well, and dare I say it, maybe even compares favourably with the likes of Surrey’s 3Ws. Given that there is some strong competition at the top of the England rankings, I’d make the case that the club could perhaps now go on to cement a place within England’s top 30. Admittedly, that’s never an easy nut to crack, but Liphook is now making a very strong case for its inclusion.
Date: November 18, 2020