Saffron Walden Golf Club was established in September 1919 and its Windmill Hill address conjures up an evocative image. The club is physically located in north Essex, within a short walk of the market town that changed its name in the 17th century from Chipping Walden to Saffron Walden after it discovered wealth by extracting saffron from the humble crocus. Although the golf club is located within Essex, it is affiliated to the Cambridgeshire Area Golf Union and hence appears in our Cambridgeshire Best In County rankings.
Nine rudimentary holes were originally laid out in Audley End Park, but the club moved to its present site in 1929 when Harry Vardon and Reg Cox (Saffron Walden’s professional) designed a new layout. The following year, Vardon and Cox officially marked the opening of the new course with an exhibition match.
The present course was extended to 18 holes in 1975 and the largest church in Essex, St Mary’s, is never far from view. Panoramic vistas over the ancient market town and across to Audley End House (take a moment to enjoy the view from the 5th tee) culminate in a country feeling that is quintessentially English.
Best described as a picturesque, mature, parkland course, you may be lulled into thinking that Saffron Walden might be a pushover. Measuring more than 6,600 yards from the back tees this is a challenging layout but also one that offers good scoring opportunities. The design is nicely balanced with four par threes (unusually the course closes with a one-shot hole), four par fives (three appear on the outward nine) and, of the remaining ten par fours, only four measure in excess of 400 yards. However, as with most good golf courses, the more challenging holes are left until the round enters the closing third.
The stoke indexes of holes 13, 15 and 17 (4, 2 and 6 respectively) suggest that you have your work cut out to score well on these three long par fours. In fact the homeward nine is 200 yards shorter than the opening nine, but with a lowly par of 35 you’ll be advised to make your score going out rather than coming back.
I’d heard from various sources about the quality of this Vardon designed course on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border, but I have to say, it more than exceeded my expectations and has been the surprise package in the courses I have played so far in 2021.
The course is an attractive parkland layout routed across Windmill Hill to the north west of the town amongst the rolling grounds of Audley End House. The trees across the hill are mature and the course well established in its surroundings. The routing is as testing as it is interesting and certainly plays more difficult than its relatively short yardage. Tricky greens mixed with a number of partially sighted drives and cross hill lies mean that no hole on this course is a pushover.
I was impressed with the front 9, particularly the 3rd and the expansive views from the 5th tee, but it is the back nine where the quality golf holes start to appear thick and fast. The run for home is varied and challenging with holes 11, 13 and 17 deserving special mention. Finishing with a downhill par 3 is a rarity and one that elicits fond memories of playing a course as a junior called Sicklehome in Derbyshire. That being said, this is a much better hole than that one further north and provides real last hole drama in front of the clubhouse veranda.
A little on the club itself; it’s clear this is a thriving members club with an inclination for constant improvement and a pride in the golf course. Work has been undertaken during lockdown to really add carefully to the existing layout, particularly in regard to bunkering and run off areas around the greens. The results are in keeping and have bedded in extremely well.
I am surprised that so few people have taken to reviewing the course on the site. It’s well worth a visit if in the area and in the condition I witnessed, must be pushing for higher accolades and attention.
Originally laid out in 1919 on land by Capability Brown you find a not overly long, by modern standards, a challenging yet fair course. Add in fantastic scenery, well maintained and fast tricky greens Saffron Walden is a genuine test. The signature 5th hole with views of Audley End House is just one hole that looks simple enough but is anything but. A warm welcome, super clubhouse and great practice facilities......A must visit for any Golfer.
Hugh makes a fair point above i.e. that maybe I got carried away when I rated SWGC with 6 stars. The reason I did was that I could not fault it on the day, so giving it less that 6 stars seemed wrong. Is the course better than Sunningdale, St Georges Hill etc ?.... of course not, but the welcome was (and that is also what moved me, as a one time reviewer, to post a review). I suppose it all comes down to what you give stars for.