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.
Date: July 20, 2020