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.
April 17, 2007