The course at Royal Winchester Golf Club doesn’t date back quite as far as the city’s famous 11th century cathedral – which features the longest knave and greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe – but it’s been around for well over a hundred years, nonetheless.
The club was founded in 1888, with members playing on a course located at Morn Hill, near Chilcomb, to the east of the city. One of the club’s earliest professionals was Andrew Kirkcaldy, who lasted only six weeks before heading back to Scotland, with J. H. Taylor replacing him.
Royal Winchester moved to its present location on Teg Down in 1901, although J. H. Taylor had already left to join Royal Wimbledon before subsequently moving on to Royal Mid-Surrey, he was brought in to set out a new course that was modified some time later by Harry Colt.
The Royal prefix in the club’s title had been used in good faith since 1893 when the Duke of Connaught became a patron and apparently granted permission for its use, however the Home Office intervened twenty years later to inform the club that no official authority had ever been given by the monarchy.
A hastily composed letter of request, along with details of the club’s financial status, was submitted to the Secretary of State and on 2nd January 1913, a letter was received confirming that King George V had granted the club its royal title, allowing everyone to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Royal Winchester has overcome a number of challenges down the years; the lady members kept the club solvent by joining the men’s club and contributing their financial reserves in the 1940s, then the old clubhouse was sold and a new one built in the mid-1960s but this was lost to a fire in 1994, resulting in the construction of a new building.
Stretching to 6,387 yards from the back tees, the course plays to a par of 72, with fairways laid out across pleasantly undulating downland. A bunker renovation programme was completed in 2017, with in-house staff installing EcoBunkers to deliver badger-proof banks and a gentler sand profile which is resilient to sand wash down.
Highlight holes include the par three 7th (played to a sand-protected raised green), back-to-back par fives at the 9th and 10th, the long, stroke index 1 par four 15th (though many think the left doglegged 13th is the toughest hole on the card), and the 355-yard 18th, where a “bomb-hole bunker” guards the front of the 3-tiered home green.
Looking at my notes post round it was clear to me that the course at Royal Winchester gave more observations than any other I have played this year - a course that had been on my want to play list for a while. Plenty of positives, a few talking points and a number of observations from me. The course is downland-style and if using the natural land to shape a course is important (and it is), then this course has achieved it in a big way. On the flip side to this, there will be some serious quirkiness along the way but why not I say.
An elevated tee-shot opens the round, driving into a valley and then turning uphill to a table top green that has to be carried all of the way to reach the putting surface. It actually this approach shot that gives the first talking point – here you cannot see the bottom of the pin on approach; and for a few reasons you don’t see it either on any of the opening four holes. The second a par-4 at 374 yards only shows the green that is way downhill from about 80 yards out, so a seriously blind shot to the green. The 3rd – a decent 201-yard par-3 but again because of the land gives a semi-blind tee shot. The 4th hole, an uphill par-4 just under 400 yards to an offset raised green is a good test and a stroke index of 5 says so. Like I said at the start, natural courses will throw up the oddity every now and again but this keeps interest levels high.
The first par-5 comes at the 6th and is strong; after a lovely walk from the 5th green, the opening shot on the 6th is one you can take on; there is fairly generous landing area and no bunkers to deal with. The hole gets tougher as you play it though – two central bunkers around 120 yards short and then two more just shy of the green are proper hazards and will punish.
The front-nine ends with a shorter par-5; at 482 yards and as it is also from an elevated tee is an obvious opportunity to play to or better your handicap here. There are a couple of subtle twists in the fairway and two greenside bunkers but with a 16 stroke-index, the 9th is scoreable for all.
The third par-5 in just five holes opens the back-nine and is my least favourite on the course – the drive from an offset tee also the second shots are ok but it is the green position that is one of the biggest ‘marmite’ moments ever for me. The green is around 40 yards wide but is only a maximum of 12 yards in depth – nothing too un-common there but is way upon high, perched too high and there is far too much of a premium on hitting the green with the perfect shot. Given golfers who hit an average length, approaching will be from around 120-160 yards and only an exact shot will work here and more importantly any miss, short of the target will need a flop-shot of the highest order to recover – the 10th will dish out some big scores. A far more suitable plot for the green would be left of the current site on flatter ground – the hole would be much improved and playable for all.
Just a few holes later, I played my favourite – the 13th is a ‘big’ par-4 at 451 yards and SI-3. Another elevated tee invites a strong tee shot, just the lone bunker around 220 yards on the left to avoid here. The hole dog-legs a little to the left and strong bunkering up near the green is really good; one 60 yards out and one just short either side of the green frame it perfectly.
You can get close to the par-4 14th – a little up-hill and 261 yards with a stroke index of 17 – this is playable and scoreable for – a nice little break between some tough holes.
The course ends well; the 17th is the shortest hole at 144 yards and with some decent variable lengths of par-3’s on all four of them, meant that it was four different clubs for my tee shots, which is always good in my book. The home hole will only be a short approach as the 335-yard hole from a high-tee dictates this, find the fairway and avoid getting stuck in the bank to the left of the fairway and all is well. The famous bomb-hole bunker (not really in play) is 20 yards short but it is the three-tiered green that is the hole’s biggest protection.
I recommend the course and would be a ‘grower’ with more rounds played, I think. I would say scope for a county Top 10 place too.
A pleasant down land course that is generally very well conditioned with lovely springy fairway turf all year round. It has some very good holes. I love the stretch from 7 to 10 although some people find the par 5 10th a bit silly with a green perched up on a shelf well above the end of the fairway and with a very slopey green that is hard to putt on when the greens get quick. The 13th is a lovely 450 yard downhill par 4 hitting into a valley that plays shorter than it's yardage - take a lot less club than you think for the approach to the green. The 18th is also an especially enjoyable finishing shortish par 4, again driving into a valley and where the approach to the correct tier on a 3 tier green is key to reducing the risk of a 3 putt. Some nice views to be had also from the higher parts of the course. The club house balcony is a lovely place to sit on a Summer afternoon after your round. Unfortunately pace of play can be slow here and the members are not good at playing faster groups through in my experience. The club has a relatively large membership which makes it very busy a lot of the time also. I would happily play it again (at a quiet time). I enjoyed the course and the club and it's definitely much better than most other more highly rated clubs in the winter as the chalk based turf drains so well. It has a good argument for being in the race for the title of best course in Winchester although Hockley and South Winchester have their strong points also.