Royal Blackheath Golf Club curiously appeared in a UK magazine's World Top 100 list in 2005. The publication made it clear that their ranking was not based purely on the merits of the course, it was much more about the experience: “England’s oldest club has a stunning clubhouse and a fascinating museum containing hundreds of years’ worth of golfing memorabilia which is worth the visit alone.” We could leave it at that, but we think we’d be doing you and Royal Blackheath an injustice.
It is thought that the Scots formed the Society of Blackheath Golfers in 1608 after James I reunited the thrones. While there is no reason to doubt this, it’s difficult to substantiate as records were destroyed in a late 18th century fire. The earliest remaining facts point to a silver club that was presented to the Honourable Company of Golfers at Blackheath in 1766.
“Now I come to the course of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, the premier golf club of the world,” wrote Bernard Darwin in his 1925 book The Golf Courses of Great Britain, “and I come to it with a heavy heart because this historic club plays no longer on its historic heath. Hordes of vandal boys playing football have kicked the sacred turf to pieces and made golf impossible. The holes are now no longer cut and the club has moved to Eltham. The Eltham course is in a pretty, park-like spot with admirable greens and a fine old club-house, but it is of course not the heath.”
Blackheath was originally a 7-hole course with competitions usually consisting of three rounds, over 21 holes. As traffic built up on the main A2 road into London, it became impractical and dangerous to drive tee shots across the road, so the club upped sticks and moved to a leafy suburb.
In the book James Braid and his Four Hundred Golf Courses, authors John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming write: “The appreciation for his talents earned him a commission from the oldest golf club in England, the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, which in 1923 decided to amalgamate with the Eltham Club. Braid had played in a tercentenary tournament on the original course in 1908, and had taken 97 shots over twenty-one holes, one more than J.H. Taylor and the same as Harry Vardon.
A minute of the green committee meeting held on 13th
November 1926 refers to the inspection of a plan submitted by Braid and the
necessity for him to make a further inspection. Basically, the plan called for
modification of the “hummocks” throughout the course and alterations to bunkers,
enlarging some, reducing others. This work was entrusted to John R. Stutt.”
In more recent times, a five-year renovation plan developed by architect Ken Moodie and implemented by MJ Abbott and John Nicholson Associates was completed in the autumn of 2019. The work involved building or remodelling seventy-seven bunkers, constructing two new greens, extending another five putting surfaces, creating several new tees and managing the tree inventory with a program of tree thinning/felling.
Highlights included extending the 1st hole to a par five with a new green added; incorporating diagonal drive bunkers on the 2nd; creating a new ditch on the 6th to replace a line of leylandii conifers; reshaping the par three 8th to allow more pin positions; and adding a new green on the par three 16th to make the hole more aesthetically pleasing.
Moodie commented: “To create definition in the
fairways, fine fescue rough was cultivated via a cut and collect policy to
lower the nutrient levels and give the course an older and more rustic
character in keeping with the origins of the club on the heath.”
Undoubtedly the 17th century Eltham Lodge is a worthy and fitting clubhouse for Royal Blackheath Golf Club, providing a decorous ambiance for such a historic club, and the course is enjoying a 21st century renaissance. But if you don't want to play, visitors are welcome to visit the museum, which is probably the finest club museum to be found anywhere in the world.
Royal Blackheath starts off fairly well. Teeing off by the clubhouse is nice, it’s surprisingly open, the greens ran very well for the time of year, some diagonal bunkers look good and test early tee shots. It ended up feeling rather uninspiring though.
If you strip away the history, the clubhouse & the conditioning (which you’d expect for such a high green fee), it’s a rather mediocre set of holes. Whilst pretty ‘true’ the greens weren’t particularly interesting, some holes felt like you’d played them before and some holes like you were just playing the adjacent hole in reverse. There’s only so much you can do with a mostly flat, rectangular piece of land but unfortunately that makes it one of the less intriguing 18s in the area.
It’s also the least friendly of the royal clubs I’ve visited, and the frequent commuter trains going along the bottom perimeter detract from the experience. That’s not the club’s fault but I never felt I was playing anywhere special, so I’m glad I didn’t pay the nearly three-figure amount they charge in summer.
I liked the finish. 16’s a short hole with the best green at Blackheath, 17 has the deepest bunkers on the course then 18’s a reachable par 4, over a hedge and finishes yards from the clubhouse. It doesn’t justify the green fee though, if you are local there are better options within a 15 minute drive. If you’re visiting London and want a one-off game then a trip to Surrey’s worth the extra effort.
Royal Blackheath is quite a grand club. It’s also a decent golf course, to my mind with a better back nine than front nine. A little unusually the course is essentially rectangular, with a bit of a bulge to the north east corner. It’s also quite open, particularly on the 16 holes to the south of the clubhouse. Consequently the course has to work out how to make holes difficult.
It does this by the use of ditches, by the use of bunkers (which are universally good) and, in a few places by the use of water. It doesn’t do it by length, and when compared to a couple of course recently played in the West of London it certainly doesn’t do it with lightning quick greens. Indeed I was perhaps least impressed with the greens, though after a very bobbly first they did tend to run true.
I liked the back nice more because it had holes which required genuine thought, off the tee and for the second shot. This was especially the case with 10 and 11 and then 17. But 17 caused me grief. It’s a broadly straight hole, though favouring a draw off the tee. But a fade or a straight shot does not automatically end up off the fairway. So why, why, do I get faced, on a 390 yard hole and after a drive of maybe 220 yards, with an impossible second shot? I was on the fairway. I could not go up and over the large bunker 140 yards away as the nice Scots pine was overhanging the fairway making the lofted shot too high risk. Trying to hit a low skimmer under the tree would mean finding the bunker. It’s not called the fair way for nothing. If I’d been on the first or second cuts then fine. But I wasn’t.
Royal Blackheath, Englands oldest club is one of the closest golf clubs to central London. The course has nearly completed a 5 year plan to remove trees, renovate the bunkering and move the 1st green. The first hole which is now a par 5 is a nice opener teeing off right outside the grand old clubhouse. Holes 2 - 4 are strong holes…the 2nd is a really nice uphill left to right par 4 to a raised green with a false front. Holes 5 - 8 are decent but 9 is the standout hole for me on the front 9. The hole which rises slightly uphill has a bunker protecting the left side of the fairway before the fairway rises up over a ridge onto a second level. The green again is set above the player with a false front protecting the slightly miss hit shot and this clever green runs away from the player. The back nine starts with a straightaway par 4 which has a pond situated in the middle of the fairway. Holes 11 - 14 are nice enough before you hit 15 which has a very nice green setting protected by bunkers left and right. Hole 16 is a slightly odd hole the green is not in keeping with any others on the course which is shame as more could have been made of the pond situated to the left of the green. Hole 17 is a brute, uphill around 440 yards over a well crafted bunker complex to a green that slopes severely from left to right. The 18th a short drivable par 4 is nice way to finish the round but be careful with the approach shot as the clubhouse is literally 15ft from the back of the green. I have been playing RB for many years and I like the changes which overall have improved the aesthetics and the playability of the course.
Played a few times this summer and although not the hardest course in the world it was beautifully looked after and a lovely place to play golf at the weekend. However played today and discovered they have cut down loads of beautiful old trees all around the course, making it completely defenceless. Just because older members don't like going in the trees what gives them the right chop down old trees. Apparently they are spending £5 million on a five year plan. How about leave the trees and stick in great bunkers and some wonderful water holes!!!!!!