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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.
The Old. Park seems to have agreed with Colt about easing the golfer into the round. The 1st is certainly a birdie chance but clever use of slope means that those for going for the green are severely punished if too straight with balls being sucked into the left hand bunker. The green is seemingly relatively flat but subtle borrows from 100 years of settle mean that two putts is often a stroke gained. The work on moving the tee slightly further back (the hole is now 501 yards) and to the right has made the drive tighter and more challenging. The ditch (on the left in the heather – and seemingly the original field border) and heather hillock at 110 yards out from the green either side of a narrow strip of fairway provide visual interest and hazards for the shorter hitter with his second. As I have said in response to another review the apron of the green is always lush because it forms part of the original 17th green complex. At the Second you probably have the most difficult hole on either course because each shot (drive, approach, putt) tests you to the limit. The drive is semi-blind in that you can see the fairway but not the finish of your shot. Take the dog leg on and should you overcook your draw heather waits. More conservative drivers will find a much longer shot and a short fade started too straight will find further heather. The change of elevation is clever here because as you stand on the tee and look at the fairway you don’t realise that you need to carry it at least 220 yards to get it onto the flat area short of the road. The bunker 150 yards short of the green on the right is deep and a real hazard to carry if you have played more conservatively and are short and right with your drive (and down the right off the tee gives you the ideal line) but if you have hit a longish drive, say 250+ yards, you still face a 200 yard plus shot to a green with deep bunkers on the left, a flag that you will only see the top 2 feet of at best because of the change in elevation downhill , and a green complex that slopes from back to front. The best approach shot you will ever hit to the Second is probably the first time you ever play the hole as you won’t realise how difficult it is. In the summer when the course is hard and fast you must run the ball up from sometimes as much 30 yards short of the green. The third is the first of the three short par 4s. Driving from an elevated tee into a valley and a landing area over an enormous bunker Park’s use of the lay of the land is again to the fore. The flattish landing area is in in fact slightly sloped from left to right meaning that any well struck straight shot or with a slight fade landing on the right half of the fairway will be drawn towards two bunkers around 50 yards short of the green and any shot from the fairway will have the player striking a ball below his/her feet. The green is surrounded by bunkers and appears flat but isn’t. A terrific hole in that from the medal tee it is 292 yards and thus most golfers are thinking on the tee, ‘drive (or even drive the green), wedge, birdie chance’ but there is a high demand for precision on each shot so that being slightly off line means a bogey is inevitable. The fourth is terrific. An uphill par 3 of 155 yards where the player can see the flag but not much of the enormous two tier green that slopes from back to front, trouble lurks left (bunkers) and right (drop off with heather everywhere). At IFQ 5 years ago the R&A cut the flag too close to the front of the green (not much further than half way) and when a no of pros putted off the green they were forced to stop the competition, recut the hole further up the green and allow it to be replayed. You must be below the hole to make any sort of putt but anything beyond 10 feet requires an amount of weight in the putt that it is hard to imagine when standing over your ball.
The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh are trio of contrasting par 4s that many members agree are the best stretch of holes at the club. Fifth and Sixth involve drives into valleys but the topography of the Fifth means you see the expanse of heather in front and to the left of the fairway and the two bunkers on the right hand side of the fairway with the lake (the first artificial lake on any course in the World) in the foreground. Putting a drive in the fairway gives the player confidence as he walks down the valley but the straight shorter hitter is faced with 2 problems, the lake around 30 yards short of the apron and a heather bank around 20 yards short of the green – it is arguable whether these hazards are really in play but they have a definite psychological effect. Park gives options to that player in that he can play to fairway running up the left almost to level with left-hand green side bunkers but the psychological effect of the hazards the player perceives are in play means the SI of 2 is well justified. Longer players have the fairway bunkers to contend with should they go right and should they choose to go left the fairway narrows past the bunkers and towards the lake. The green is enormous and again seemingly flat but runs from front to back in the last third – meaning a well struck shot often runs off the back. The Sixth has a drive where the bottom third part of the fairway is out of sight and the longer driver gets less value because the tee shot will be landing into an upslope. Even in the summer the longer driver can be punished as the ball will run through the fairway and into the heather. The second shot is a real challenge. A deep bunker around 70 yards short of the green will gather any mishit second shot and, deep bunkers surround the green left and right. The green itself is undulating and demands an approach which is beneath the hole. Seven – a blind drive over an enormous crest filled with heather leads to a glorious valley with trees at the bottom. The shorter driver who goes right has heather and a bunker to worry about and the longer driver has the downhill slope, lie and being blocked out by trees to contend with. Standing and looking at the green from 160 yards out is one of the pleasures in golf. Bunkers short right and left of a raised green mean a safe shot using the contours of the bank to the right is the best option. The two tiers of the green are relatively flat and of the trio of holes it is the one that provides the best birdie chance. The tee shot divides opinion. Clearly a product of its time, it is extreme because of the change of elevation from tee to top of crest – something like 20-30 feet in less than 100 yards.
The Eighth is stroke index 18 but the green is arguably the trickiest on either course. Large for a par 3 of 160-190 yards it has a severe slope from left to right and back to front. Tees shots struck left are unplayable in the banked area of the 9th tee or in the bunkers whilst a seemingly straight shot will be gathered in by the right hand bunkers as the camber of the apron pushes the ball right. The ideal shot is a high fade. The Ninth is the second of the short par 4s. Driving across a valley of heather to a fairway that is slightly above the tee and thus largely unsighted the player can see the flag on the green. At 267 yards it screams birdie and yet with bunkers on the left for the overcooked draw and right for the slight fade the safest shot is a fairway wood or long iron off the tee. That wise choice though is met with the challenge of playing to a green which is set at an angle to the fairway with bunkers to play over and lurking behind. When they put the hole on the upper tier the pitch to the green requires surgical precision because the landing area to keep the ball on the putting surface is only a few feet.
The Tenth. Looking down the valley from the tee towards the green with the Halfway House behind it is simply the best view in golf. The tee shot begs you to smash it is as hard as possible and whilst bunkers on the left and right at around 210 from the green (the hole is 470 yards) gather their fair share of balls the fairway’s natural contours tend to gather shots towards the middle. Another bunker around 150 yards from the green is only a hazard for the shorter hitter, the mishit second or a certain T. Watson (who drove into during the Senior Open in 2009). The second shot is played to an enormous green at least 6 feet higher than the level of the fairway at 210 yards out and that change in elevation takes a numbers of times playing the hole to appreciate it – it is always ½ a club more to reach the green. The Eleventh is the best short par 4 I have ever played. A blind drive over heather and sand with bunkers left and right of the fairway, is followed by a wedge to a small green raised on a shelf and guarded by a bunker on the left and trees short to the right. When the Ladies were last there to play the Ricoh Women’s British Open it more than held it’s own. It’s almost driveable but a ditch inside the line of the trees to the right short of the green and heather to the right of those trees mean that a draw cannot succeed. Twelve is beautiful. Driving from a deliberately unraised tee over heather onto a relatively flattish fairway a large bunker pertrudes into the left side of the fairway at around 200 yards while heather and bunkers dominate to the right side. The second must be played over a line of cross bunkers around 80 yards from the raised green. Again a large green where you must be below the hole to give yourself a chance because of the slope from front to bank and right to left.
Thirteen is a downhill par 3 over heather to a green with a distinct ridge running through the middle at an angle of around 120 degrees. Bunkers in front and right gather the mishit or more often mis-clubbed tee shot. Again the change of elevation is more severe than it appears. The nature of the green’s ridge means that depending on the hole location the landing area for the tee shot is a lot smaller than you expect unless you are content to be putting 20-30 feet over a ridge…. Fourteen again is clever in that the drive over heather to a flat large fairway seems more difficult because the teeing area is slightly lower than the fairway and what can only be seen is the single bunker at around 220-230 yards which is situated in a part of the fairway gradually rising up to the highest point on the hole where cross bunkers lurk to catch the mishit second by the shorter hitter. Because of a natural spring underneath the fairway from around 70 yards short of the green in the Winter there is less run than there should be for second shots from longer hitters trying to set up an eagle chance but in the summer the topography of the hole ( green around 5 feet lower than cross bunkers at 140 yards) means running the ball on the green pitching 20 yards short is the norm. The green is flattish but always plays faster than it appears. The fifteenth is a brute of a par 3 that is 220 yards from the Medal Tee and 239 from the back Tee. Driving over heather and bunkers short right and greenside left the challenge of the right club selection is ever present. You can’t hit 3 wood or driver? It’s a Par 3…. Actually with the prevailing wind always against and a soft apron) it is always 1 to 1 ½ clubs more than you think. If you make three par 4s to finish on the Old you are playing some good golf.
Some reviewers have expressed disappointment with the finish but in terms of challenge they have a variety (change of elevation, sight line, hazards etc) which make them a terrific test of any golfer who has played 15 good holes and starts to think he has cracked the game. Sixteen is always into the wind and thus plays at least 15 yards longer than it is 420 yards. Although eventually the fairway slopes into a gentle valley most of the carry after the inevitable heather is over flattish ground and thus there is little natural assistance. Tee shots hit slightly right are sucked in by bunkers as the valley is more extreme on that side of the fairway. Overcooked draws find deep bunkers left. The second shot must carry a ring of bunkers around 80 yards short of a green which is a good 15 feet higher than the landing area of the tee shot . Again these are not really in play but the psychological effect on the golfer is deliberate : Park is challenging you to take him on. The green is subtle but rewards well struck shots in seemingly gathering shots closer to the hole than would seem possible given it is relative flatness. Seventeen is the counterpoint to Sixteen. Playing from an elevated tee, most of the fairway can been seen (although not bunkers on the right side), and more importantly the green too. The golfer knows although he has the heather to fly over the further he can go the more of the downhill slope he can catch and the shorter his second will be. The trees at the bottom of the valley were only planted 25 years ago but are a great example of a modern enhancement in that the aggressive longer hitter who over-does his draw will have to shape a hook or be far enough back to go over them to reach the green. The enormous bunker crossing the fairway at around 100 yards is again more of a visual hazard than a real one but after a mis-hit drive deserves attention. The first third of the green and apron slope from left to right and thus any second shot that is too straight or hit with a fade will end up short or in in bunkers on the right. The green flattens out in its back third and of the three holes provides the best birdie chance. The view from the tee of the Eighteenth is of the whole expanse of the hole with the oak tree and clubhouse in the background. At this point the heather has largely gone (it’s absent for half of the adjacent First (Old),
Eighteenth and First (New) too ) and the drive onto a rising fairway is over lush thick bladed grass. The rising fairway means that the longer golfer gets less value from a well struck drive unless he can fly the ball over 250 yards to find a flatter part of fairway. The right hand bunker at 190 yards from the green is deep enough to mean splashing out is the only option. The cross bunkers at 80 yards out are more for visual effect but their angle from left to right (across and up) means that the second shot pushed slightly right and heavy can often be gathered in and getting to the green from there in nye on impossible. The green has a surprisingly severe slope left to right and front to back in its first third but gradually flattens out and even gathers well struck shots in close when the hole is cut towards the back. Even in the winter the second shot should be played at the left hand bunker and short to use the natural contours to run the ball onto the green. Like the Sixteenth the 420+ plays longer by at least 20 yards. The one criticism of the design is the tee shot on the Seventh. I have no problem with blind drives but it is unfortunate that the teeing area is so close to the Sixth green (it is directly behind). Ideally if the land were available raising the tee area a few feet and moving it back 15 yards and further away from the Sixth green would be the solution. Criticisms by others seem to centre on the opening and closing holes (on both courses) which I believe relate partly to the fact that the heather does not grow naturally in that part of the land and thus does not form part of the natural framing of the holes. I agree that the Eighteenth might benefit from heather from a visual perspective but the club are adamant (I think rightly) in not introducing heather where it does not naturally grow. Tim
The criticism I could give the Old Course, if you could realistically find any, has nothing to do with the architecture, which is fantastic, but the softness of the turf. I realize that there had been a fair amount of rainfall recently however, the common misnomer is that heathland courses are all on sand-based ground with brilliant drainage and this is simply not the case. There may be some pockets of sand at Sunningdale but as confirmed by a few members of the greenkeeping staff most of the course is clay based and this certainly has a large affect in wetter times. While this did provide me with some disappointment, it certainly doesn’t take away from the wonderful architecture at Sunningdale and the overall beauty of the property. With the exception to the turf it lives up to every expectation I had.
I was debating with my playing partner why subjective opinion on favourite courses varies from golfer to golfer. I take his point about playing ability being key, and the Old Course seems that it can accommodate the shorter hitter, whilst in no way indulging the professionals. What it does do is find you out if you think you are a better golfer than you actually are, attempting to conjure up magical recoveries. Better take your medicine with humility.
I personally felt that the course you grew up playing the game on sets the blueprint in your mind for what that elusive ‘perfect’ course might look like. I grew up on a real goat track, and have always found myself most excited by traversing some serious terrain. Maybe that’s why I’m slightly underwhelmed by the Carnoustie’s and St. Andrews’ of this world, but able to see pure magic here, especially from the 2nd to the 14th. It’s probably also why I felt the final stretch was a tad anticlimactic (the 16th aside). Lacking that barnstorming finish, it just took away that feeling that I’d found my perfect golf course. But it’s damn close ….. Matt Richardson