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The Old course at Sunningdale is one of the British Isles’ most aesthetically pleasing inland courses. Arguably, it was the first truly great golf course to be built on the magical Surrey/Berkshire sand-belt. The land was (and still is) leased from the freeholder, St John’s College, Cambridge. It is a Willie Park Junior masterpiece and opened for play in 1901, becoming known as the Old after the opening of the New Course in 1923.
Lined with pine, birch and oak trees, it is a magnificent place to play golf. The emblem of the club is the oak tree, no doubt modelled on the huge specimen tree standing majestically beside the 18th green. It’s incredible to believe that originally the golf course was laid out on barren, open land. Harry Colt was a big influence at Sunningdale; he was Secretary and Captain in the club’s early years and redesigned the Old course, giving it a more intimate and enclosed feel.
In 1926, during qualification for the British Open, amateur Bobby Jones played the Old Course perfectly, scoring 66, made up of all threes and fours (taking 33 putts). This type of scoring was unheard of in those days. Bernard Darwin brilliantly summed up Jones’ round as “incredible and in decent”. “Few joys in this world are unalloyed”, wrote Darwin in Golf Between Two Wars, “and though Bobby was naturally and humanly pleased with that 66 he was a trifle worried because he had 'reached the peak' rather too soon before going to St. Anne's.” Jones went on to Royal Lytham & St Annes and won the 1926 Open by two strokes, beating fellow American Al Watrous.
If you have already played the Old course, you will surely remember the elevated 10th tee, a fabulous driving hole and one of our all-time favourite holes. By the time you have putted out on the 10th, you will be ready for refreshments at the excellent halfway hut that sits welcomingly behind the green. What sheer delight! The 5th, a lovely par four, is beautifully described in The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes: “From an elevated tee, the fifth is clearly defined. The fairway is bordered by heather, golden grass and dark green forest. There are two fairway bunkers in the right half of the fairway; a small pond and four sentinel bunkers protect the green. Success calls for two pure shots…” The 15th is also featured in the same book; it’s a superb par three, measuring 226 yards.
Many people regard Sunningdale as the perfect golfing venue. The Old and New courses taken together are probably the finest pair of golf courses anywhere. On a sunny autumn day, walking on that perfect heathland turf, surely there is nowhere better to play golf with a few friends. “If we have not been too frequently ‘up to our necks’ in untrodden heather—nay, even if we have—we ought to have enjoyed ourselves immensely,” as Darwin said in his 1910 book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles.
I don’t need to be told how fortunate I am to have even walked through the gates at Sunningdale Golf Club. The fact that my best friend and brother are members, that I caddied here for 2 years and played for the Radley College Golf Team vs Eton College may have helped my case.
I am ashamed to say that I have played both courses at this slice of Surrey paradise too many times to count. It may sound cliché, but the sheer beauty and mystique of the place does not lessen in any way – if anything, my appreciation for it grows.
Caddying for some of the game’s greats (and not so greats) afforded me a completely different perspective when assessing and experiencing both courses. To be able to stop, look up, survey and not worry about swing thoughts makes you appreciate how stunning Sunningdale is. I really do recommend even just walking a course, or at the very least breathe between your shots and cherish where you are.
There is probably no-where else in the world where you will have a better 36-hole experience than at Sunningdale. I believe there are only two other locations on earth that are able to boast the prestige of having 36-holes within the world’s top 100 golf courses – Royal Melbourne and Baltusrol.
Sunningdale Old (ranked #28 in the world – Top100GolfCourses.com and ranked #1 in England – Golf World Magazine) was designed by Willie Park Jr. in 1901 and was tinkered with over the years by H.S. Colt, secretary at Sunningdale. Entering through the Sunningdale gates, it feels like a sanctuary and you are already aware of the essence of the club before you even step into the famous clubhouse and read the names and see the faces adorning the walls of the bars and locker rooms.
Sunningdale is comfortable, hospitable, traditional and has character that you only get through graceful ‘old-money’ – unlike its neighbour Wentworth – more on that later.
Heathland courses such as Sunningdale were developed primarily because of the underlying land’s resemblance to seaside links courses – sandy soils. Most of the area around London has a clay base and thus is not ideally suited for golf. Sunningdale, in the Surrey heathland, is one of the brilliant exceptions.
The course is surrounded by deep woods and is idyllic and peaceful. Its scenic beauty stacks up against the world’s best. The combination of the natural terrain, sand, birch trees, heather, gorse, pines and water come together beautifully to create a unique environment. It feels like one big classic English garden.
I would argue that Sunningdale has one of the top routings of any golf course ever built. The shot variety, change in direction, change in elevation and mix of holes is sublime. Aside from the routing, the other defining features are forced carries over heather and scrub and the very well-placed cross-bunkering.
The well-stocked halfway house off the tenth green offers an array of traditional treats and if you don’t ask for a sausage sandwich – who are you? Dogs are welcome at Sunningdale, all most a concrete requirement for becoming a member. The canines are treated just as well as the players by the lovely ladies at the halfway hut.
You cannot finish your day at Sunningdale without spending at least an hour in either the Members Bar or ‘other’ bar. A change of shoes will be necessary, but you won’t mind as both member’s and visitor’s locker rooms are some of the most modern and functional, I have seen.
I have had few finer experiences than sitting in the Sunningdale clubhouse after the round of golf with a pint reflecting on a brilliant day’s golf and company.
Bobby Jones sums up the club in one succinct statement that perfectly captures my sentiments:
“It’s a wonderful course, Sunningdale, I would I could carry it about with me. I wanted to bring it back home.”
Sunningdale is the best of British heathland golf and it’s an absolute delight to spend a day here. A visit to Sunningdale is widely considered to be the best single club golfing day in Britain, perhaps even the world, and whilst it’s an expensive day, please do yourself the favour and treat yourself, you will not go away ruing any lack of value for money. The facilities available at Sunningdale are all-world level wonderful. A tremendous practice area, well stocked pro-shop and mouth-watering food on offer at one of the most majestic clubhouses in the game all combine to make this the grandest of days out, but the standard of golf here is just pure unadulterated joy from start to finish. Whilst the New course is excellent and rightly considered one of England’s finest in its own right, the Old has to be considered the club’s showpiece.
Each hole across the Old is crafted superbly through towering trees and sprawling heather whilst being set amongst perfectly undulating ground. A wonderful combination of varying green complexes are positioned at the end of fairways with jaw droppingly beautiful curves adorned with heather topped mounds and sculpted bunkers that fit effortlessly into their surroundings.
It would be easy to lavish praise upon each hole in a love letter to this golfing land that borders on perfection but in an effort to not bore readers who I already congratulate for making it this far, I’ll start with the magnificent view from the 4th green which gives a beautifully elevated vantage point straight down both the 5th and 6th holes. This view through two holes slotted through a treelined corridor summarises the essence of Sunny Old for me. 7 is another triumph. If you can get over the fact that the tee shot is completely blind, when you climb to the crest of the hill, the most audaciously rolling land is presented in front of you. A wide fairway is gentle recognition to the fact that you’ll be unsighted from the tee, and the green site is sublime, set naturally into the seat of the hill, it’s one of my favourite green sites in Surrey.
The 10th tee at the highest point of the course provides likely the most memorable outlook across the eighteen. This tee overlooks another sweeping fairway that’s pitched way below the tee, but I may prefer the short yet strategic 11th. Is there a better short par four in England than Sunningdale Old’s 11th? A wall of heather and a cavernous bunker set into the hill are intimidation enough from the tee where you’ll have to commit to your line over the marker post whilst guarding against leaking a drive to the right, for deep heather awaits as well as the likelihood of being blocked out by the row of pines that hide the upturned green. If 10 and 11 aren’t enough to have you in raptures, surely the 12th will win over the most ardent of cynics who hasn’t yet been won over by Sunningdale’s beauty and diversity? A softly curving hole where line and length from the tee are paramount before a string of diagonal bunkers and a tricky raised green attached to the side of the hill make this probably the toughest test on the back nine.
I must also mention the magnificent end to the round with the view along the 17th fairway earning comparisons with the earlier scene from the 5th tee where you are once again gifted a glorious vista through the next two beautiful golf holes. This time the view is the homeward stretch to another beautiful piece of rolling land that’s littered with bunkers like golfing landmines before a final green that’s set under the shadow of Sunningdale’s iconic grand old oak tree.
If I was to reach for a weakness to Sunningdale Old, there are only two par fives on the course and both are comfortably reachable in two. And as a whole, I wouldn’t consider Sunningdale’s Old course a genuine championship test (not necessarily a negative) and I was struck by the step-up in difficulty when playing the New which I found to be much more demanding of my game. Otherwise, Sunningdale Old is virtually flawless. Conditioning plays an unfairly weighty roll in the opinions of many an amateur golfer’s appraisals, but Sunningdale ticks this box as it is always in impeccable shape. Sunningdale Old represents my first 6-ball rating for a course that’s set away from the linksland, but it strongly competes with any other course I’ve played. This is one of golf’s most magical places and the only question you’ll be asking yourself when finishing a round here is whether there is still time for another eighteen? 36 holes at Sunningdale – what a treat.
Having played Sunningdale many times over the years, I was blown away by the condition of the course this week. The glorious weather helped but it was absolutely immaculate and a joy to play.
Of all the courses I have had the pleasure to play, the ones that I would love to be a member of are Sunningdale, St Georges Hill, Hankley Common and Royal St Georges. They all pull off the brilliant trick of making you feel like a member for the day and Sunningdale is probably the best example.
From the moment you arrive, everything is first class. The staff are brilliant, the clubhouse welcoming and the food is a delight. A good wine list too!
And what of the courses? This review is for the Old so I will stick to that and say I think it is probably the best golf course in England, with the caveat that it is difficult to compare links and inland courses. I do think there are a couple of slightly weaker holes, the 8th and 11th for example, but the rest is sublime. Pure golfing joy.
It is not cheap to play golf at Sunningdale yet I would say that the cost represents outstanding value for money for what will be a very memorable red-letter day for any keen golfer. It is a wonderful place to be and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Of the top three private golf clubs in the world with two courses, I rank them as follows: Royal Melbourne, Sunningdale, and Winged Foot. Baltusrol is a bit farther behind. Then come clubs such as Saunton, The Berkshire, Olympia Fields, Walton Heath, and Oak Hill.
Sunningdale does not offer the challenges at the same level as Royal Melbourne or Winged Foot, but it offers something as important – fun and joy as you play two excellent golf courses. Sunningdale has two outstanding heathland golf courses due to the blessings of great land.
I first played both courses on April 26, 1995, returning in 1997, playing in a scramble charity event in 1998 and back again after twenty years on June 14, 2018. The courses had not changed much with the exception of slightly better conditioning. Every time I have been there the course was busy. Sunningdale is a club where the players very much like their golf and the terrific clubhouse.
The London area is blessed with many outstanding courses due to a geological quirk of alluvial deposits of sand that created the Surrey heathland. The land in the Surrey and nearby counties to London supports gorse, heather, bracken, silver birches, pines and many other tree and plant variety (think of the mighty rhododendrons at Wentworth), creating the perfect landscape and terrain for inland golf. All of this comes from the sand which allows for growth, albeit slow growth, that creates near perfect firm, smooth lies in fairways and fast draining subsoil. The area is also blessed with variation in terrain, of which Sunningdale, Swinley Forest and St. George’s Hill are the prime beneficiaries. Many of these heathland courses are also blessed with water features whereas the seaside courses have burns. The inland courses have ponds and streams. The inland courses obviously feature more trees which create a sense of serenity and calm. Of course, the heather is always beautiful…..to look at….but not to play from.
For some golf purists who believe that only seaside links can be the truly “best” golf courses, I would refer them to Sunningdale, Wentworth, Swinley Forest, St George’s Hill, Walton Heath, Woking, The Berkshire, New Zealand, The Addington, Worplesdon, and Hankley Common as the perfect counterpoints to that point of view.
An architect’s mission is to take advantage of the land to locate the tees and greens to offer the most interesting vistas as well as correctly balancing the challenges with the ability to make par or better. Mr. Willie Park, Jr., with sizeable changes from H.S. Colt did a masterful job of doing this at Sunningdale Old. They did a near perfect routing to take advantage of the elevation changes and land forms on the course that leads to a wonderful variety of holes and shots.
In particular, I like the courses that achieve a balance of challenge/strategy/playability/visual appeal. For me, many of the celebrated new courses by the minimalists go too far with overly generous fairways only to be rendered numb by very large, contrived undulated greens. Some of the minimalists are able to disguise this “trick” because the settings have been so splendid and their wild/rugged bunkers are placed and built wonderfully (albeit some are strictly “eye candy”). In effect, they often provide us too many holes with no strategic decision to be made from the tee.
Sunningdale Old is perhaps the best example of two architects who got it exactly right as both courses are playable for golfers of indexes certainly up to 18 if they choose the correct tees. They are a visual delight. The terrain and routing offer an incredible variety of holes. There are challenges on every hole from the tee shot all the way to the route to the green and the green surrounds/surfaces. There is a good mixture of easier and harder holes. Length is an advantage here, but skill, clarity of thinking, and ball striking are equally valued. While the heather is beautiful to gaze upon, it is almost always a dropped shot if one enters it. It is also about 50-50 whether you will find your ball.
The Old courses was designed by Willie Park Jr. in 1900 when the club was founded by T.A. Roberts and his brother, G.A. Roberts who acquired a lease from St. John’s College, Cambridge. The built an opulent Edwardian clubhouse with an understanding that if the club failed, one of them could live in it. Housing was built nearby creating perhaps the first instance of property development alongside the building of a golf course. H.S. Colt, who built the New course in 1922 was a guiding figure during the first two decades of the club, serving as Secretary, Captain and ultimately architect. Royal patronage came in 1904 when the Duke of Connaught became president. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and the Duke of York (later George VI) were once captains.
Mr. Park, Jr, built a course primarily with the use of horses with scraping boards for the amount less than 4000 pounds. Mr. Park was an excellent choice due to being twice an Open champion, with a thorough understanding of classic features of the great courses. Yet he was aware that the game was changing and courses would need to be built for “modern” times. He built larger greens and added several cross bunkers. At the time when built, the first and seventeen were a double green. The greens have since been reduced in size which occurred during the wars in order to save on maintenance costs.
Harry Colt did change several of the holes. Bernard Darwin was very critical of the par 3’s, when first built were seemingly too blind to the eye. The fourth sat in a bowl, the eighth behind a fold in the land and the thirteenth behind a hill. Mr. Colt moved tees and greens and improved the sight lines into these holes. Later he also removed a blind shot on seven and relocated the twelfth green to its current shelf. Six of the greens are due to Mr. Colt and twelve are due to Mr. Park, Jr. Holes one, seventeen and eighteen were slightly altered by Mr. Colt to provide room for the New course. The current tee for the first on the Old course when first built was nearly under the great oak behind the eighteenth green.
The club has hosted many top amateur and professional events, with the first significant event being held in 1903, the PGA Match Play Championship, won by James Braid. However, the top event is likely the Sunningdale Foursomes where amateurs compete with professionals in a week-long knockout event match play event.
There are legendary stories here.
It was in 1926 during qualifying for the Open that Bobby Jones scored a legendary round of 66, unheard of for its day, with 33-33 including 33 shots from tee to green and 33 putts. His scorecard showed only 3’s and 4’s. He missed only one green in regulation – the thirteenth. Bernard Darwin referred to the round as “incredible and indecent.” In his round of 66 he did not putt well, but was able to land on the green ten times from 180-225 yards away with hickories. The next day, Mr. Jones scored a 68 with one 5 and a 2. Following the second round, he said, “I wish I could take this course home with me.”
James Sheridan, a caddiemaster, who survived trench warfare in WWI, was nearly killed in WWII when Germans dropped a bomb next to the eighteenth green. He saved himself by diving into a bunker on the left. The bomb made a crater on the right side of the green which was turned into a second bunker which the members considered to be reparations from Germany for starting the war.
Gary Player won with a 64 in 1956 which was his first important international victory.
With regards to the Old course, is there any course as enchanting, charming, and spellbinding? The course is not long but offers endless challenges stemming from its subtleties. There are driveable par 4’s, par 5’s that can be reached in two, and there are a few blind shots. There are downhill tee shots, uphill tee shots, multiple uphill greens and several downhill greens. There are incredibly sculpted green surrounds. When one walks off the seventeenth green, is there anything as sublime as approaching the eighteenth with the oak tree behind the green and the clubhouse just a bit further on?
George Pepper and the editors of Golf Magazine once listed the fifth hole as one of the top 100 golf holes in the world. They listed the fifteenth as one of the top 500 holes in the world. While these two holes being recognized is not surprising, many consider the tenth to be the finest hole.
Those holes I like the most are three, four, five, six, seven, ten, twelve and sixteen.
The yardage from the scorecard for visitors are listed at Championship tees at 6660, par 70 rated sss73 while the White tees are 6318 sss 72 and the Yellow tees are 6085 sss 70. I have always played the Championship tees. I will list only the Championship and White tees. When I first played Sunningdale Old in April, 1995 both the second and tenth holes played as par 5’s from the Championship tees.
1 – par 5 501/492. Possibly the weakest hole on the golf course as the hole is a gentle downhill short par 5. Yet the tee shot occurs close enough to the tree line on the right that it is a danger. For those trying to play away from the trees there is a single bunker on the left that is also part of the eighteenth’s defense. Little mounds and patches of heather await the approach or second shot on a fairway running to the left. From there one has to navigate a bunker on the left side of the green and a green that runs gently away from you and to the left. The best shot lands just short of the green or at the very front. There is a bit of a fall-off right and behind the green. If not for this being the starting hole, it should be an easy par or potential birdie. Longer hitters are definitely thinking of hitting the green in two perhaps with as little as a wedge on a dry, windless day. However, go too long over the green and one can end up in the trees behind.
2 – par 4 489/470. When this played as a par 5 I felt is to be too easy, but now it is a good hole as a par 4. This plays as a dogleg left with taller grass and some heather down the left side. There is a small ridge that reminds me of the “cops” at Royal Liverpool used there to define the interior out-of-bounds. Go left of this ridge and one will be lucky to find their ball in the heather on the ridge or in the tall grass. A road runs through the fairway which longer hitters likely fly over or run a ball over. The safe shot is down the right side but it leaves a longer second shot to another green running away from you. You definitely want to land your ball short of the green on this hole. There is a bunker on the right of the fairway that really should not come into play. The more difficult bunker is the one on the front left of the green that blocks almost half of the green.
3 – par 4 318/292. Now the fun really begins with the third hole. The stretch of holes through seven are simply amazing. What should be a straightforward, certain par is anything but certain. Longer hitters will likely try to drive the green, which sits uphill and lengthens the hole. You tee off from a chute of trees with trees lining both sides. The trees on the right seem to be a bit closer to the hole, perhaps because they are fairly close to one of the primary defenses of the holes – the many bunkers down the right side. One has to drive over heather and two bunkers with the optimal line being the right side closest to the five other bunkers scattered up the fairway. The green is the second smallest on the course and tilted strongly left to right towards five bunkers that wrap around half of the green. This hole is yet another visual sensation with the heather at the backside of the bunkers and small bumps scattered across the hole. Behind the green is a series of clumps of heather which make them appear as if they are in play. The fairway bunkers are only 2-3 feet deep but if you are near the lip then you will have a difficult chance to reach the green. For me this short par 4 belongs with the best in the world, probably not as good as the tenth at Riviera but it would hold its own against many others.
4 – par 3 156/146. This is a fairly steep uphill shot and reminds me of the eleventh at Shinnecock Hills due to the shape and slope of the green. Tall purple heather goes nearly to the two bunkers fronting the green while the hole is backdropped by trees. A third bunker is on the left side and creates a problem for recovery given the slope of the green creating by a tier which makes it speedy going back to front. The green is relatively large for the length. It is a gorgeous golf hole and improved by Mr. Colt who moved the green to higher ground.
5 – par 4 419/400. Having climbed the hill to the fourth green, you have an elevated tee shot to a beautiful vista and golf hole. The tee shot needs to carry heather but it should not be an issue with the fairway beginning with another “cops” of raised heather. This hole plays straight although the two bunkers on the right-side trick one into thinking they need to stay left. Going too far left will result in landing in the trees. There is more room off the right but go too far right and one is in tall grass. In addition, the line into the green from the right side could either be slightly blocked or certainly more intimidating due to the defenses that lie in front of a player. There is a pond on the right well short of the green yet it appears to be creeping up to the edge of the long green. At the green there is one of the most perfectly placed and constructed knobs with numerous bushes on it. As if the pond and knob are not enough, the green has two bunkers the entire length of the left side while there are two bunkers front right. Behind these bunkers on the right are some bumps with heather. I was told this was the first use of an pond on an inland hole in England, but I do not know if that is true. Regardless, this is about as perfect as a golf hole can be in balancing defense against opportunity due that pond and magnificent green complex. Thankfully, I have always had hole locations that have given me a good chance at birdie or to save par.
6 – par 4 433/386. Rather than place the heather down the sides, on this hole the heather is placed horizontally in two areas, where the fairway begins and farther up when the longer hitters are forced to stay short of it. The second set of heather which is about 60 yards long crosses the entire fairway with the exception of several walking paths. These paths almost create the effect of the church pew bunkers at Oakmont, albeit going at a more vertical angle than horizontal. We joked that the paths were angled to ensure not even the most accurate, long tee shot could ever roll through them. You tee off in the shadows of trees and look down the fairway at the raised heather crossing the fairway. There is ample room on the fairway with a preferred line being the right side due to a right-side bunker 15 yards short of the slightly uphill green. At the long green is a bunker front left and two front-to -middle on the right. The green slopes sharply back to front with some micro-contouring near the edges. It is a very good golf hole, and for me the best of the stretch of holes 3-7 although my playing partners each picked a different hole, some choose three, others five, and others seven.
7 – par 4 406/393. A blind tee shot starts one off on an excellent golf hole. One has to clear a ridge filled with heather and a long, large bunker. There is a blind bunker on the right side of the fairway. But if one finds the fairway, upon arriving at one’s ball there is a wonderful view as the hole reveals itself on a rolling fairway framed by heather, raised/wild bunkers near the green, and tree lines on either side. The tree line pinches in from the left nearer the green making the preferred line off the tee being the center of the fairway but one might overcompensate and go into that right fairway bunker. There is a roughish looking bunker about 50 yards short of the green on the left ringed by tall heather. The approach shot goes to perfectly sited green that slopes to the right where a fall-off behind the green has a line of bushes. There is a bunker about ten yards short on the right rand then two bunkers greenside left to a somewhat thin green. These are some of the deepest greenside bunkers on the course. For me there are not many better views on an inland golf course better than the approach shot to a terrific green complex. Having played this hole multiple times, I still cannot determine if it merely a straight hole, a dogleg right working back to the left, or to play left but hit another draw into the green. Mr. Colt relocated this green to its current higher ground to offer a more compelling green site. The land and green placement make this hole a superb one.
8 – par 3 193/168. An uphill par 3 with two long bunkers on the right side and two on the left. This is another green moved by Mr. Colt to higher ground. He also moved the tee higher up the hill to provide a view of the green. The previous hole designed by Mr. Park, Jr. played as a blind shot to a green located in the valley before the current green creating a blind par 3 tee shot. Bernard Darwin said of the change, “The eighth is quite a good hole now (it used to be bad and blind and stupid). ” The green is raised and the drop off to the bunkers on the right is higher than most drop-offs on the course. The green has good undulations and slope in it. Landing short of the green will likely result in one’s ball coming back down the slope but putting is likely an option. While I like the hole, for me this ends the great stretch from three to seven. Perhaps it is because the heather is only present on the left side?
9 – par 4 272/267. For longer hitters there is a chance for eagle. For all other players a chance for birdie before the difficult tenth hole. I have witnessed bogies and double bogies here if one misses the fairway or green as it is easy to find a lie that is difficult to execute a good recovery shot. There is a short stretch of heather and three bunkers that are merely for visual purposes as they should not be in play. Three cross bunkers angle across the fairway short of the green providing only a narrow gap into the middle of the green. A pair of bunkers guard the sides of the green which is angled left to right. If the pin is between those bunkers or near the beginning of the back right on the higher tier then a drive down the right side becomes problematic as the green appears to be very thin between those two bunkers. I hold my breath a bit before the approach shot. There is also the possibility of going out-of-bounds to the right into the tree line if one overswings. The green has some nice inner contouring but is pretty easy to judge despite the two tiers. The first two times I played the Old I hit my tee shot to my preferred distance with my gap wedge which is 82 yards. Both times I was rewarded with birdie putts of less than five feet. The more recent round I tried to get closer off the tee, then hit too far over the green and made a bogey. I mention that only to show that there is real strategy to this short hole which is to try to play to one’s strengths.
10 - par 4 488/467. My favorite visual hole at Sunningdale's Old course is a visual feast from the elevated tee looking down the hill to the green and halfway house behind it. Trees line both sides of the cross-hatched fairway but are set back fairly far although the hole narrows to the green. One hits their tee shot and watches their ball soar down the fairway, landing, and running out a bit on beautifully mowed and manicured grass. Longer hitters get to see it run a long way. There are two fairway bunkers on the right edge of the fairway with a single bunker on the left edge. There is a centerline bunker much farther up that is very much in play for the longer hitter. The second shot plays uphill with a bunker on the left lying about 20 yards short of the green while a bunker protects the front right. The green is oval but angled a bit right to left. It has good slope to it and is the largest green on the course so a two putt is not a given.
It’s amazing to me what “par” can do to one’s strategy. When this hole played as a par 5 I had chances at birdie, but once it converted to a par 4 I doubled it. Or perhaps I simply got shorter off the tee as I age.
Willie Park, Jr. should be congratulated for finding the higher teeing grounds for the fifth and tenth holes. I am certain his routing very much considered how to make holes that would lead to these two spots.
At the halfway house you get a chance to discuss the wonderful front nine over a refreshing drink and the famous bacon sandwich. The view of ten going back up the hill to the tee is nearly as good as the view from the tee.
11 – par 4 324/298. Another blind tee shot with seemingly endless heather in front of you and two large bunkers built into the heather. This feels like a longer carry than it is. Longer hitters might have a try at the green which is set off to the right. For the average length hitters there are two bunkers on the right placed in front of an area where the trees come back to the fairway. Anything hit down the right side that misses the fairway is likely going to require a pitch-out back to the fairway, if one finds their ball either in the trees or the heather. There is a single bunker inside of the left edge of the fairway for those trying to play safely. The raised green is “straight” with the tee but the angle of the hole makes the green seem right to left where a single bunker awaits on the left middle. For a short hole, much like the third hole, it is genius the amount of defense that actually provides the average length player perhaps more of an advantage to the longer hitter who is wilder off the tee. As a relatively straight hitter, this hole plays relatively easy for me but I have seen players pick up their ball and not complete the hole in order to keep up with the pace of play.
12 – par 4 451/416. This is another hole where Mr. Colt relocated the green by lengthening the hole 70 yards and moving the green up the hill and to the left which brought the hillside into play creating even more natural defenses. In terms of challenge, I think this is the hardest hole on the golf course playing as a slight dogleg left with fairway bunkers on either side of the corner. For average length hitters they will likely focus on the three cross bunkers that begin about 70 yards from the green with the first bunker having a few mounds of heather to its left. There is a large bank of heather off the left side of the fairway where the cross bunkers begin. The heather curves behind the single bunker on the left front only to be followed by tall grass and gorse on the hillside hard against the hill. The cross bunkers all have heather at the rear of the bunkers creating an additional hazard to clear. The plateaued green features a false front and a fall-off on its right side with a bit of heather on a raised mound at the right front of the oval green. It is not as visually spectacular as the tenth, but this is a terrific golf hole and possibly the best on the golf course.
13 – par 3 185/173. Playing downhill from elevated tees, this hole features two fronting bunkers about ten and five yards short of the green. The green slopes away from you and has good inner contouring. The best part of the hole is the heather one hits over and walks through. Mr. Colt moved the tee to higher ground to create the more dramatic tee shot.
14 – par 5 503/477. The second and final par 5 offers a half dozen cross bunkers cutting across the fairway from right to left. Before the fairway begins there is a short, forced carry over heather and cross bunkers surrounded by heather. Farther up for the shorter hitters there is a single fairway bunker on the right at the point the fairway narrows before widening again. Next there are five cross bunkers. Longer hitters will favor the left side although the truly long hitters might attempt to bounce a ball over the bunkers on the right. Heather is on the back sides of these bunkers which creates an additional lip to consider, likely resulting in one choosing a higher lofted club that will not go as far. The front of the green is open, but there are two bunkers left and one right both about ten yards short of the green if your approach shot comes wide/short while a fourth bunker sits on the left middle of the green. If there is a weakness to Sunningdale Old, it is that both of the par 5’s play too easy if one hits a relatively straight shot, no matter one’s length. The fourteenth is a better par 5 than the first simply because visually it is a very pretty golf hole and has more defenses if one is wayward.
15 – par 3 239/222. A long par 3 with three bunkers left and a single bunker front right. There is an “ocean” of heather between the tee and the green although it stops well short of the green. This is a flat hole that offers little to me although my playing partners liked the hole.
16 – par 5 434/423. After being a bit let down by thirteen and fifteen, the finish is very good with the sixteenth the best of the final three. There are sets of bunkers on either side of the fairway after another carry over heather. Longer hitters definitely have an advantage on this hole as they can find the flatter ground leaving a very lofted club for their approach. The green complex is fabulous, in this case it extends back about 50 yards where a near circle of cross bunkers cuts across the fairway extending to the edges of the front of the green. These bunkers do not have the thicker heather at their backs but instead offer wispy, tall grass making a recovery shot of some distance more of a possibility. These bunkers, like most at Sunningdale, offer upslopes that will help a ball out of the bunker, but likely reduce the distance the ball will travel. There is another bunker middle left of the green. This is another excellent golf hole.
17 – par 4 425/417. I like the seventeenth. It plays as a dogleg right. After you make the dogleg, you have a long view back towards the clubhouse. The fairway tilts to the left of a dogleg going the opposite way which I think is an underrated design feature that many architects ignore or try to eliminate. There are two scattered bunkers down the inner corner for those trying to shorten the dogleg. More importantly there is a line of trees down the right side. About 25 yards short of the green is a large cross bunker blocking the route to the opening to the green. This is followed by two bunkers to either side of the green with a green running away from you and sharply sloped as you play towards the lower part of the valley. While this is a good hole, it lacks the visual appeal of what came before.
18 – par 4 423/411. One has to be aware of not wanting to hit into any players on the seventeenth green off to the left. This gentle dogleg right feels out in the open given the first fairway to the left and the starting and finishing holes of the New course to the right. There are flanking bunkers on the fairway that are definitely reachable but the tee shot is not the real danger. The challenge is the cross bunkers cutting across the fairway about 60-30 yards short of the green with another bunker short left and then two large bunkers to either side. The cross bunkers have heather at their back sides increasing the challenge of a recovery shot. The hole plays uphill for both the tee shot and the approach which I think is the only hole to do so on the course. The famous oak hovers over the back of the green. One wants to go have a drink and consider how they will fair on the New course or wants to have another round on the Old.
Sunningdale Old is a gem. For the inland courses, I rate it just ahead of Ganton which I believe offers more challenge. It is a course that has stood the test of time despite the improvements in golf technology. While Swinley Forest. St. George’s Hill and the courses at The Berkshire are in the running for being nearly as beautiful, they are a touch below and do not offer the variety of holes as well as the great green surrounds. They also do not have the wonderful tee locations and vistas of the fifth and tenth. I would rank Sunningdale Old slightly higher if the two par 5’s were a bit stronger and the par 3’s on the inward nine were more interesting. But in terms of playability, memorability, and mixing challenge with fun, Sunningdale Old is perfection.
It is the rare course that one wants to keep playing as long as there is daylight.
Sunningdale goes about being great in such an unassuming way, you get tricked into wondering why all golf courses aren’t like it?
No pomposity at all that you sadly can get at clubs just outside the top bracket, who’s members for some reason feel the need to be unwelcoming and jobs worth’s.
Greens were fabulous and consistent. Tee boxes perfect. Numerous pretty shots, particularly approach shots. Bunkering clever and in great condition.
It’s not overly difficult but still a challenge. Just a great golf course and club.
I enjoyed as much sitting in the club house afterwards with a beer just looking over the various holes as the land falls away from you, with the fantastic putting green with all beautiful foliage around it.
Only possible thing I would say would add to it would be if there was a more water in play, would be the icing on the cake visually on a few holes.
As for whether it represents “value” that’s a subjective thing as the green fee is frankly insane.
Get someone else to pay or wiggle on through work somehow and you won’t be disappointed.
Note. Having two courses, and therefore the luxury to make one a two ball course for the day really works.
Simply put - a day of 36 holes at Sunningdale is one of the best days in golf. From the time you pull into the car park you sense you are somewhere special. The hospitality, facilities, food and of course golf are all first class. Once inside the gates you no longer feel like you are in a major metroplex but rather a world apart. Such is the ambiance of Sunningdale. As a Yank I have to say I love the customs and traditions of the English people. It's a pleasure to experience such civilized formality, and Sunningdale has it in spades.
Now on to the golf. We started off with the New course, which was of course excellent. Then we had the included light lunch that was just as high quality as the golf. After playing the New one wonders can the Old really measure up to the high quality of the New. Absolutely it can. The Old course is at such a high level. Between Willie Park, Jr. and Harry Colt they created in my opinion the best inland course in the UK. The flow and sequencing of the holes is outstanding. The short par 4s particularly stand out to me. 3, 9 and 11 are all excellent in design. That is not to say that the longer par 4s are of lesser quality, because they aren't at all. 7 may be may favorite hole on the entire course. I love the blind tee shot and the heaving fairway. From there it's a challenging approach to perhaps the prettiest green site on the course. 10 is an unbelievable par 4. What a view from the tee! Make sure to stop by the excellent half way house after holing out. The previously mentioned 11th hole has one of my favorite green complexes I've ever played. I could go on about every hole. Needless to say 12-18 is chock full of outstanding holes. I particularly want to highlight the view as you round the dogleg on 17. What a view it is past 17 green, through 18 all the way to the famous clubhouse! It's as good as golf gets and we were honored to play there.
The members at Sunningdale are very fortunate to have two such wonderful courses at their club. Not only are they excellent quality but both are walkable in under 3:30. English heathland golf is truly special. Sunningdale is the crown jewel.
Lovely course and very accessible. I have played several times including as a guest at a corporate day. Id say the course could warrant 5.5 if you look at each hole in isolation as a varied test of the game. I gave it a 5 for 2 reasons - as an inland course, the views are never breathtaking and more importantly, it is a stuffy place (by design). Over the knee socks are required and there are too many rules in my view for a club in 2020. I have had more enjoyable golfing experiences at courses further down the list but among the best 18 holes of inland golf outside the US.
Enjoyable review . Interesting perspective on the inland vs links course debate. While I agree that it would be hard for any inland course to have the equivalent of Ailsa Craig (Turnberry), the Irish Sea ( Portrush) or the Pacific ( Pebble, Cypress Point) I am not sure that should really factor into the ranking of the golf course. Whilst I enjoyed Turnberry and it’s view when I played it a couple of years ago I don’t think it’s a patch on Birkdale, RSG or Birkdale. Over the knee socks? Nope. Over the ankle white socks are all that is required. It’s a rule grant you but not the most onerous. Would be very curious to know what other rules you found stuffy? Club is pretty relaxed these days.
Thank you for the correction on the socks. I was certain that I was told that was the requirement when I first played in 2011 or 2012 after I had just moved to London (and distinctly remember wearing trousers because of that) but the dress code is right in plain sight on the website. It was also a bit instructive to see your reply to my review because it led me to re-read it and the day after it reads more critically than I wish it had. You can see by my memberships (Trump National and Beaverbrook) that i prefer a style of club with relaxed rules (no jackets in the dining area, etc), however the jacket requirement is prevalent at many courses that I have played in the UK&I. As luck would have it, I changed jobs and moved to a different company 6 months ago where we host our annual golf outing at Sunningdale in June (but of course this has now been postponed with the lockdown), so I am certain to play it again soon and will post a second review.
Those of you who have read my review of the New Course, will know that I prefer the Old. The Old is spectacular, and has everything you look for in a great golf experience.
Starting off the course, the clubhouse, the locker room, the lunch, the pro shop, the range and the halfway hut are all world class. There are few places that combine all of these things with 2 truly world class courses. Royal Melbourne, Winged Foot, and maybe Merion are the others in the discussion.
The real strength of Sunningdale is world class architecture, mixed with variety and fun. The course isn't hard or long, but it doesn't have to be. You aren't playing in a major, you're playing a casual round at a great golf course, and its nice to make birdies sometimes.
A bit like its younger sibling, the Old starts off a bit slow, with 1, 2 and 3 all being really good holes, but lacking compared to the next 15. 1 is a nice friendly par 5 to start, whilst 2 might be the hardest hole on the course. 3 is a lovely short par 4 which is really well bunkered. The course comes alive at 4, a beautiful short uphill par 3 over heather which begins perhaps the strongest 4 hole stretch anywhere. 5 is gorgeous downhill par 4 where you must negotiate heather, water, bunkers and mounts. 6 is an equally beautiful par 4 with a forced carry over heather off the tee and on the approach. You then come to 7, which is my favourite hole on the course, and one of my favourite holes in the world. You hit a blind tee shot over heather and a bunker, after which the hole double doglegs through tall pines, heather and fescue. 8 is a lovely par 3, but not a standout, whilst 9 is a very underrated short par 4. 10 is the most famous hole, a long downhill well guarded and all round spectacular par 4. 12 is one of the best designed hole you'll ever play, with outstanding cross bunkering. The same can be said for the cross bunkering on 14. 13 and 15 are nice par 3s, but maybe the courses weakest holes. 16 is a great par 4 with crazy bunkering, whilst 17 offers one of the best views in world golf up to the clubhouse. 18 finishes off the round with a stout par 4 towards the famous Oak Tree.
The genius of the course is the half par holes. You will probably make more birdies than you usually do when playing the Old, but this will likely be offset by more bogeys too. The reason for this is there are lots of half par holes (short par 5s, long par 4s, short par 4s, long par 3s), which make it a fantastic matchplay course. These holes are 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 18.
Sunningdale Old is truly deserving of its rank inside the worlds top 30. A 36 hole day here is hard to beat.
Nice review Peter. Personally I think this is the best course in England and I prefer it to the very wonderful links at Royal St George’s which is also a very fantastic track in my opinion. Perhaps I prefer inland heath to seaside links though. Although not as difficult, perhaps this is still a course that most club golfers would find challenging especially from the longer tees although at 6,000 yards off the visitors tees I feel it will yield a score with accurate ball striking. Would love to try and play the course off the very back tees which I think would be very challenging with so many bunkers right in my hitting areas.
Nice review by Peter and interesting response by HDM. A couple of years back I wrote very long reviews of both courses at my home club and find them hard to separate. I do think that it is worth repeating that had the Old not existed the New would be far more highly ranked - to that extent I disagree with Peter’s review about the New’s place in the Top100, it should be far higher. How you compare the best links in England with the best heathland courses I simply have no answer! I personally prefer Birkdale over RSG but rather like England’s heathland courses, its links are very underrated, not just within in the U.K. but globally. I have had the pleasure of taking some of my US friends to Sunningdale. (and recommending the likes of West Sussex, Woking, Swinley, Berkshire etc) and on mini-tours to play in Kent ( RCP, Princes, Littlestone) and Merseyside (Birkdale, West Lancs, Formby) and they have been universal in their praise of the quality of the experience. Perhaps as part of our effort to boost golf tourism in the England when lockdown eases then EGU can be encouraged to market our finest courses more aggressively in the US.
Hi Timothy! First off I should say I am very jealous of you being a member here! However I do disagree with your position the New would be higher if the Old didn't exist. It is already above Portmarnoch, Swinley Forest, Lytham, Cal Club and Woodall Spa to name a few, and is in the same territory as Seminole, Tara Iti and Riviera. Whilst I love the New course, I struggle to see how it ranks amongst these, with holes like 2, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 that would;t look out of place on a course not even in the Top 100. They aren't bad holes, and 15 and 16 are more to do with the more parkland feel, but are good enough to be on a World Top 50 course?
Read your comments with interest.
One of the main issues tied to English golf -- especially those clubs not on the Open rota or those located along the coast is overall exposure. As an American who has been to the UK and Ireland countless times spanning 40+ years the primary reason for ignorance on the other side of the pond stems from the constant and most successful efforts tied to Tourism Ireland and Visit Scotland in their overall promotions for their respective areas.
The English side of the story is just not told that well. No doubt, the upper crust of golf aficionados is fully aware of several of the courses you mentioned and no doubt others of equal or greater pedigree. I know I have played a representative sampling and concur with your thoughts.
The issue is one of having a clear and sustained marketing effort that truly touts the virtues of English golf -- beyond those in the immediate metro area of London and those along the coastal areas showcasing a links intersection.
It's amazing in my global travels how sometime you find courses that are quite inferior from a golfing standpoint but the marketing / branding effort has been nothing short of brilliant. Case in point places likes Hawaii and Thailand come quickly to mind. I make my golf plans not based on what magazines say -- but what a limited network of key people provide me in terms of what they have experienced.
I dare say -- if you ask most Americans when contemplating a visit to the UK / Ireland the main focus will center on going to Scotland and Ireland. There's no question about the virtues of English golf -- in all its varied settings.
Sad to say, but true, a number of English clubs have failed to capitalize on their strengths and in a number of ways have been too insulated -- too disinterested in raising their profile. Perhaps a new generation of members and a much more coordinated effort that really showcases what's available can make a difference. All they need to do is copy the playbook Ireland and Scotland are doing now.
It may look like a missed opportunity for a fast buck, but if English golf wanted more American visitors, would they not already have focused their marketing efforts in that direction? London isn’t exactly a naive commercial backwater.
The English courses Timothy lists surely already have full tee sheets and healthy memberships. An influx of American visitors may just reduce members playing options & inflate green fees -with increased revenues balanced by the cost of better conditioning. Maybe it’d be an attractive option for second tier clubs, but then I’m not sure golfers will cross the Atlantic using up precious holiday allowance for that. Would be interesting to know the English Golf Inion’s view on this.
It’s not a strategy I’d wish my club to pursue (tempting as it might be to have additional visitors subsidize my annual dues). Likewise, I’m sure many Sunningdale members are very happy to have their two enviable courses - for the most part - to themselves
You missed the points I raised. The issue is NOT whether Sunningdale needs more players -- from America or anywhere else for that matter.
English golf has the product -- it's the amplifier that's missing. That's especially so -- as I point out -- regarding what Tourism Ireland and Visit Scotland consistently do so well. You'd be surprised to know that the efforts of Tourism Ireland and Visit Scotland have been quite successful in opening up the eyes of visitors -- Americans and others -- on the qualities of courses that are even more fun and playable than those at the very top of the heap. Tourism Ireland and Visit Scotland understand thoroughly how golf can play a role in opening up other points of emphasis. As a media member, I can tell you how active each is in getting information out on what's happening.
My comments were not about the elite few clubs already in fine shape -- both membership and balance sheet wise. The missing element, which Tim stated, was how he personally mentioned an assortment of OTHER courses in England that fly considerably under the radar and are fine golf options to pursue. I can remember being advised to play Littlestone during a visit to the Kent area a few years back because I could not secure a tee time at RSG. The recommendation was most welcomed and quite enjoyable.
There are Americans -- and likely avid golfers from other countries too -- that would like to play more than just the upper, upper tier of courses. One of the clear strengths of top100golfcourses is how it provides a depth of information exposing the full array of golf options worth considering. As you are likely aware -- far too much time spent by the biggest media outlets is concentrated on the .01 percent of golf courses.
Hi M James, if your point was that the amplifier for English golf is missing - and that Ireland & Scotland have done a great job is this regard - then I agree. That's kind of why I made the first comment to try to explain why this might be the case.
I feel that this is comparing apples & pears. The key question is "does English golf need or want this amplification"? To use an example from your own back yard, does Shinnecock Hills need or want this kind of amplification from marketing? The answer is no. Many Irish & Scottish golf courses presumably both need and want this. A large part of their total revenue comes from those visitors, so of they've invested in marketing to maximise that opportunity.They even sell lifetime memberships to Americans.
Does a course like Sunningdale need this amplification? As with Shinnecock, no. Do they want it? - to some degree yes - they are welcoming to visitors - which is wonderful - but not to the extent that they wish to spend significant sums on marketing. They are already in a healthy financial position and presumably they look after their members first. For a variety of demographic & economic factors, English golf is therefore different. This difference - perhaps with a dash of good fortune - helps promote sustainability and resilience. There will be exceptions - perhaps more remote tracks Silloth & St Enodoc would welcome a significant increase in visitors from overseas.
I am in no way disparaging the approach of those Irish & Scottish clubs - necessity is the mother of invention - and I really hope they can weather the impact of no American visitors this summer. They have found an effective economic formula that enables them to persist, thrive, and therefore be enjoyed by everyone.
Luckily for English golf, I do not speak for English golf - but the economic reasons they do not match the marketing efforts of Scotland & Ireland seem very clear to me. And my own view with regard to perceived quality, I don't need to see convoys of minibuses to validate English golf. The congnoscenti opinion from the likes of Tom Doak, Ran Morrisett, yourself, and many other contributors on this website, is enough for me!
You can’t really beat this - everything is just perfection. From the lovely clubhouse to the halfway hut - and more importantly the course.
Whilst every hole is strong, a few of my favourites are worth mentioning. Par 4s 6 and 7 are great fun with a blind approach on 6 and a blind drive over the bunkers on 7. The approach to 7 is simply stunning.
10 is one of the best holes on the course. Fantastic drive and a long uphill approach to a huge green before reaching the haven of the halfway hut.
11 is a great short par 4 with a blind drive into what looks like an ocean of heather. 12 is a solid par 4 with some good cross bunkering short of the green. 15 is a lovely long par 3 to a green surrounded by heather and 16 is brutal with an uphill approach needing to cover what seems like dozens of bunkers.
You can’t beat the view on 17 and 18 with the traditional oak tree and clubhouse in the distance.
Really cannot wait to get back here.
Whilst Sunningdale Old is very very good, and I would not say, probably that it is overrated, I do think that it does have the inevitable bandwagon effect whereby it is lauded as flawless perfection whereas I do not think it is that. I think its best par 4s are of exceptional quality. For me 7,10,11,12,16. There are a good gathering of very good holes not far behind. However, whilst fine I do not think for instance that the par 3s are as good as say the par 3s on The Berkshire Red. I also think that the land the course starts and finishes on which effects 1.17, and 18 is not the same as the land on the rest of the course and this puts is at a disadvantage in my mind to The Berkshire Red which is a more consistent journey. In general I do not find the land as peaceful, special and pretty as the Berkshire or Swinley. Nor am I a massive fan of the clubhouse or its views. I also think that there are too many short par 4s, 2 or which are unexceptional. I think the high points being its best par 4s are exceptional and I think that is what cements the courses reputation. There are average holes like the 1st, 3rd and 18, and I do not think that the round is as consistently strong as The Berkshire or Swinley... its high points however are higher... but who I am I kidding... our heathland courses are our crown jewel and Sunningdale Old is probably rightfully the top of the pile.