Swinley Forest - Berkshire - England

Swinley Forest Golf Club,
Coronation Road,
Ascot,
Berkshire,
SL5 9LE,
England


  • +44 (0)1344 620197

Swinley Forest is a charming golf course set on the famous Surrey/Berkshire sand belt. A few decades ago it was a club frozen in time, exclusive, unusual and totally eccentric. One commentator went as far as to say: “The inescapable impression is that the place fell asleep many years ago and slumbered on for decades, the Rip Van Winkle of golf clubs.”

In fact, you would be hard pressed to describe it as a conventional golf club; there was no captain and despite being in existence for nearly 100 years, little history, except in its members’ heads. However, in the 1990s, scorecards were printed, holes allocated par figures, and competitions introduced for Swinley’s distinguished members.

Harry Colt designed the layout and the course opened for play in 1909 – he modestly described Swinley Forest as his “least bad course”. One of the many delights of Swinley is the ambience, which is hard to define but ubiquitous. It’s also totally unpretentious, having none of the new money glamour of its near neighbours, but more style than all other local clubs combined.

If you were lucky enough to play here around the turn of the new millennium, you would have often had the entire course to yourself. It’s possible you’d have spotted Major So-and-so and his dog, or Lord Such-and-such enjoying a Pimm’s in the clubhouse. It was likely that you’d be able to count other golfers playing the course on one hand. Today things are different. The club has opened its doors to societies and green fee visitors and there’s a tangible optimistic buzz around the place.

Swinley Forest came into being thanks to Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, and one of Sunningdale’s founder members. Lord Stanley became fed up with Sunningdale’s policies and a number of theories as to the real reason(s) exist, which are all documented in Nicholas Courtney’s Swinley Special – One Hundred Years of Harry Colt’s ‘Least Bad Course’.

“Another theory why Lord Derby was disenchanted with Sunningdale was their attitude to women. Lady Stanley became a keen golfer,” wrote Courtney, “yet under the original rule 4 she could not even set foot in Sunningdale, as women ‘be not allowed to play over the links’.”

Lord Stanley mentioned his gripes to King Edward VII, who suggested Lord Stanley build his own course at Swinley Forest, part of the Windsor Great Park. The King provided the land (on a peppercorn rent) and Lord Stanley built the clubhouse and commissioned Harry Colt – who was then the Secretary at Sunningdale – to design the course, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We will make no bones about it, we’re very fond of Swinley and it’s undeniably an attractive course. The short, one-shot holes are simply outstanding and varied in terms of length and design. The site/position of the greensites sets Swinley apart from many of its contemporaries. Although the yardage was only a little over 6,000 yards a decade or so ago, the par of 68 made the going challenging.

Today’s course is longer and more back tees have been added, extending the yardage to 6,400 yards, which may still not sound long by today’s standards, but with a par of 69 it will test and delight not only the scratch golfer but also the high handicapper.

The summer swathes of purple heather and firm fairways that wind their way through mature pines epitomise heathland golf along the London sandbelt. Add in the crafty greens, with false-fronts and cunning run-offs along with old world allure and you have the unique Swinley cocktail, which is very pleasurable indeed.

So, what are you waiting for? You don’t need to send a letter in the post to the secretary by way of introduction these days, simply pick up the phone, or use that newfangled email technique: [email protected]
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Reviews for Swinley Forest

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Description: Swinley Forest Golf Club is an absolutely charming golf course sited on the famous sand belt, but it’s a club that is frozen in time, exclusive, unusual and eccentric... Rating: 8.6 out of 10 Reviews: 65
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Henry

Famously described by Colt as being his “least bad course” - Colt was a modest man and this quote sums him up I think. Swinley has one of the most special atmospheres I’ve experienced at a club. Yes it’s exclusive, but this doesn’t come with the stuffy feel of many other old school clubs. Instead Swinley feels laid back and flexible - tee off when you like, spend a little longer in the bar…it’s a lovely way to start your round.

Of note are the strong par 3’s (the 4th is perhaps my favourite par 3 in the UK, pictured) and the views up the hills of the 5th & 16th. There is a ruggedness to Swinley that makes the place feel so raw and organic despite its well manicured areas, and one that will keep me coming back.

October 04, 2021
9 / 10
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tamas

This is a wonderful place to play golf. The course meanders through the pine forest, which provides a lovely feeling of isolation from the rest of the world, yet the trees never feel like they encroach. Instead the trees provide a nice wide avenue, with heather the main punishment for a wayward shot. I loved the routing, I loved the way there were some shorter more tactical holes as well as longer par fours where you needed two strong shots to reach the green.

The only thing that brings my rating down was the quality of the greens. I played on a damp October day and the greens were spongy and therefore slow and bumpy (too much thatch?), which is not what I'd expect from a sandy heathland course. It may be blasphemy to criticise such a revered course, but I was surprised to find a course of this calibre suffering. I'm sure it's been addressed now, and I really need to return.

September 06, 2021
8 / 10
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Duncan Lewin

An outstanding, fun and throughly playable experience. There are no weak holes; every single drive and approach needed consideration. The panoramic 1st leads you gently into the round, and the anticipation builds with a shot into the open yonder of the 2nd fairway. 3 is a brilliantly strategic short par 4 and it just gets better from there.

We found 6 &7 to be the 2 toughest holes across our rounds, although 12 off the Whites is a monster. Fun holes like 8 (after birdie first time round I got greedy and ended up down the right hand slope 2nd time - dead!) and 11 balance out some of the more demanding holes. Superb range of chipping challenges, with some really thoughtful bump and runs often your best option. With hcaps of 6, 11, 12 and 18 our group all scored well - off yellows in morning then whites for second round. And even though I was dead on my feet by end of round 2, it’s such a great test I felt like every shot mattered and didn’t lose interest at any point.

If you have chance to play here…think it best off the whites - opens out some more strategic tee shots (4,9,10,11, 18) which are a bit negated off the yellows - and allow to appreciate the full challenge of the routing. 12 has the best green complex I’ve ever played; if RH pin drop a ball on the left and see if you can get within 10ft! Likewise chip up 8 from bottom RH is a joy.

Both here and The Berkshire (my other standout this summer) do 2 things many lesser courses could learn from. Firstly, neither keep the rough/heather overly punitive, meaning that we had plenty of hack outs but very few lost balls, keeping pace of play up and frustration down. Secondly, they have trained their staff to ‘host’ rather than ‘serve’. At both places their people have engaged us in conservation, very friendly lady at Swinley even bringing out the course book pre round and giving us some history. Rather than feeling ‘waited upon’ as can happen at some clubs, I felt ‘engaged with’ in a much more relaxed manner and their staff were so helpful. At Swinley you ‘settle your account’ at the end of the day which is a classy touch.

July 27, 2021
10 / 10
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Ian Cranidge

I can think of few better pleasures in the world than an early round at Swinley Forest on a warm mid-summer morning. From the moment you drive up the understated, almost hidden driveway and cross the railway line it’s a perfect experience of class and old world charm. The characterful clubhouse to the course routed through mature pines over gently rolling terrain, the tag of Harry Colt’s least worst course is well earned. While relatively short by today’s standards (I played off the whites) the course is no push over, you need to keep the ball on the fairway to have any chance of posting a decent score, they are generous but the firm turf means anything offline will be swallowed up by the acres of heather which line almost every fairway, at best a wedge out the only option unless you are very lucky. This must be fairly regular occurrence so the club generously has installed white marker posts in the heather to give you a reference point and some hope of finding your ball, a nice touch.

The course opens and closes with a couple generous par 4’s which are perfect holes to start and finish with, open with a par to boost your confidence and end with par to take away good memories while sitting on the terrace with a post round drink. The short par 4’s and par 3’s are the highlights of the course, especially good the 3rd , a downhill par 4 where you can be brave with the driver and have flick with a wedge into the green or play safe. 11 was my favourite, an uphill slightly blind tee short, it requires a gentle draw to end up on the right hand side of fairway providing the best angle into the green. All the par 3’s are excellent, a sublime mixture of uphill and downhill holes, some with fearsome elevated greens which punish any loss of concentration, firing your ball into some terrifying heather/rough areas. Defending the greens are a multitude of swales, hollows and deep bunkers topped with heather and long grass, only supremely accurate approaches will yield birdie chances, anything careless will be a real test of your recovery short game. I felt the greens had moderate pace, I would have preferred them quicker, maybe they are slower than you expect because of all the humps and bumps, it took me a few holes to realise putter needed to be brandished firmly! The only criticism was my visit was over too soon, practically having the course to myself I was done in less than 3 hours, I’d have happily gone around again, there was a corporate golf day teeing off as I finished and I was sorely tempted to try my luck and tag onto that.

June 17, 2021
9 / 10
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Neil White

Fun? Golf is meant to be fun? I have long believed that most golfers are masochists – they enjoy the torture of shanks, hooks and missed putts.

Perversely, they revel in telling all and sundry how awful they are at the game they profess to love.

And they are especially exercised by having to fill out a medal card when all is not going to plan – which is at least 90 per cent of the time.

Well, at Swinley Forest, when they say they play for fun, they mean it.

This may be listed in the top 60 courses in the world but the genteel members don’t play medals, have not long been marking cards, play winter rules all year round and don’t talk to them about the new world handicap system.

Yep, they opted out of that.

This is golf as it was meant to be played by the well-heeled although I didn’t find Swinley Forest in any way stuffy.

From the moment we arrived for our society day, friendliness abounded, from the assistant in the pro’s shop to the lass who served the bacon roll and coffee and the starter who warned: “Don’t hit long”.

Actually, I only learned that gem of advice from the group who played after us when I was tucking into lunch in the marquee which has been erected in front of the handsome clubhouse.

I only wish I had bionic hearing because it may have made me think a little harder before ignoring my Garmin watch every time I arrived at a par-three tee box.

Yes, dare I say, I WAS playing a medal and believing I knew better than my electronic guide in the rain cost me dearly.

Accuracy is key to success at Swinley Forest - a relatively short par 69 with pretty much all holes potentially hittable in regulation for a mid-handicapper… if they are playing better than me.

Swinley Forest eases the golfer in. I was errant off the first tee but still managed a par thanks to a tidy putt.

Seeing the ball sink after one strike was a rarity - because the greens are deceiving and have many more borrows than appear at first glance.

The second offers an example – it invites the player into a relatively unguarded green but the ball is likely to wander down the treacherous slope at the back of it if the approach is not pinpoint.

Heather can also play a significant part – it wasn’t in purple bloom in May but even in its youth it is best avoided and several tee shots demand carry.

This is the case on the third – a short par four which is framed by trees and lures the ambitious who might have dreams of reaching in one. I can speak from experience that such a cavalier attitude can result in a six.

Remember, it is meant to be fun, Neil…

Chances are if Swinley’s par threes are conquered, a good score will be recorded. There are five – none are long but all have significant peril if club selection and consequent tee shots are awry.

My favourite holes were longer. For example, the fifth - a relatively short par five which demands an opening fade through two bunkers. The brave will then hit an approach over a pond on the right and attempt to thread it between traps. The sensible will lay up and try to flick their approach close – and then, in my case, miss an eight-footer for a birdie.

I was also a fan of the 12th – a long par four whose green is protected by an undulating fairway and then slopes quite alarmingly from left to right.

And the 18th is pretty as a picture, rising up to a clubhouse which looks down from the horizon. Don’t make the mistake of dreaming of lunch before guiding past heather and bunkers!

But who cares if you go in either? My playing partner and I experienced the joys of both and still ended up with fives, headed off to the marquee and downed refreshment with an excellent dinner and dessert.

It really is fun on and off the course at Swinley Forest.

May 13, 2021
8 / 10
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Nicholas Kjelgaard

Swinley Forest has been on the hit list for a while now and we managed to play on a fine warm Friday in April, what a way to start the weekend.

The course is in fantastic condition, the greens are as good as you get. It is not a long course but it doesn’t feel short, we played off the whites which I would recommend as not only does it add distance but it makes the course much harder. Some examples of this are 10 where you have to cover the drive all the way to the green, off the yellows you can afford to come up short more. 12 totally changes the requirement to shape a tee shot and plays blind while off the yellow it appears you can be straighter. 15 as the bunkers really come in to play where they don’t off the yellows, plus again you need to really draw off the tee between the bunkers where from the yellows you can just hit past them.

The par 3s are all really good I struggle to pick my favourite but I think it is the first par 3. I am sure I would change my mind the more I played it.

I would definitely recommend the course if you are in the area, it could not be more quintessentially English.

May 10, 2021
9 / 10
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Josh P

Beautiful on the eye and intriguing from start to finish, Swinley Forest is a heathland masterpiece. Only a Par 69, but played off the back tees this is a real challenge, with long irons called for into a lot of greens, and shot shaping required.

Off the tee, there is a lot of strategy called for with centreline bunkers on the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th holes, and angle of approach being key throughout. The greens are the real highlight of Swinley- lots of great contouring and fun run off areas.

One of my favourite stretch of holes came early from 2-5. The 2nd, a downhill blind tee shot with a green sloping away from the player, followed by a bunker less par 4 with a tiered green. The 4th is a redan template, which is followed by the par 5 5th which tee shot is played downhill, urging the player to take on as much of the well bunkered fairway as possible.

I feel like this is the type of course with such variety in holes that you could play endlessly without getting bored! Without knowing what it was like before, it also seems that Ponts restoration work has bedded in very nicely. The course is a leisurely stroll through the forest, with nice flora and heather. Eventually, the 18th takes you back up to the magnificent clubhouse, a great setting.

One of the most private clubs in England, any golfer knows they are lucky when they get to experience Harry Colts ‘least bad golf course’.

November 16, 2020
8 / 10
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Alex

“My least bad course” Said Mr Colt, of this absolute gem. Understatement.

I came to play this course as a result of a number of fortuitus moments. As with Pine Valley, you enter the course when crossing a railway, albeit over a bridge. But the sense of arrival is just the same, for as you turn your head to the left you are able to survey the 1st and 18th fairways. A view I will never forget.

As with a number of private clubs, and especially with links club in England, practice facilities are an afterthought. The range consists of a singular shelter hitting out towards ‘in-reach’ pines. However, I was quite taken with the putting green, located in the shadow of the magnificent clubhouse, looking out over the course.

A course guide was presented to me and a hybrid headcover was purchased. Away I went, with my Dad as scorer, bird watcher and Colt admirer. Stiped one down the first. No one to witness. Shame. If there are over 30 players playing over a weekend, the course is considered busy. And so, yes, I was the only one on the course. To be alone and playing this beautifully intricate is something I will never forget, and it is unlikely that I will ever experience it again.

For many years Swinley Forest was shrouded in secrecy and had almost mythical status in the world of golf. It was designed by Harry Colt while he was Secretary at Sunningdale and opened in 1909. The club was and still is a bastion of the English upper classes and is one of the most exclusive clubs anywhere in the country.

At 6431 yards, it isn’t long. This course is made up of 2 par 5s, 11 par 4s and 5 par 3s which means it doesn’t feel like a short course when you are playing. The playability of the course is the thing that really shone out for me. For some reason, I had expected the ‘forest’ to impinge and for the course to be tight. In reality, this isn’t the case at all. The magnificent pines are almost always in view but they sit well back from the holes and act more as a backdrop than hazard. There is plenty of heather on the course but, again, it sits away from the fairways in most cases and there are few carries to worry the average golfer. Sunningdale New this is not!

This was a very, very special golf course and one that will live with me forever. The club was friendly, there was no pretension and while it is fairly clear you are only a guest for the day and a visitor to the club, you will be welcomed warmly. A club butler welcomed my Dad and I on the 18th green, after a scrappy par, and offered us a cold glass of water ON A SILVER PLATTER. He also asked if we would like to go out again. Uh. If only I had known this, I would have got an earlier tee time. Alas, a Sunday Roast was waiting for me back home.

At 6431 yards, it isn’t long. This course is made up of 2 par 5s, 11 par 4s and 5 par 3s which means it doesn’t feel like a short course when you are playing. The playability of the course is the thing that really shone out for me. For some reason, I had expected the ‘forest’ to impinge and for the course to be tight. In reality, this isn’t the case at all. The magnificent pines are almost always in view but they sit well back from the holes and act more as a backdrop than hazard. There is plenty of heather on the course but, again, it sits away from the fairways in most cases and there are few carries to worry the average golfer. Sunningdale New this is not!

This was a very, very special golf course and one that will live with me forever. The club was friendly, there was no pretension and while it is fairly clear you are only a guest for the day and a visitor to the club, you will be welcomed warmly. A club butler welcomed my Dad and I on the 18th green, after a scrappy par, and offered us a cold glass of water ON A SILVER PLATTER. He also asked if we would like to go out again. Uh. If only I had known this, I would have got an earlier tee time. Alas, a Sunday Roast was waiting for me back home

October 22, 2020
9 / 10
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Dan

Swinley offers genius routing, excellent elevation changes from tee to green, exceptional bunkering and a wonderful sense of peace and tranquillity. One thing that caught me by surprise was just how good the green complexes were. Some subtle, some drastic. It’s a relatively short course by modern standards and requires strategy, rather than high bombs and hellacious seeds off every tee. That said, there’s still plenty of opportunity to hit driver.

The staff were all very welcoming and the clubhouse, whilst steeped in history, had more of a relaxed feeling than some other clubs at the top of England’s rankings.

I can never comfortably compare inland courses to the links, but Swinley is right up there my personal Top 5. An absolute delight.

October 01, 2020
9 / 10
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Jack Thomson

Was fortunate to be taken round by a member of the greens keeping staff and had a splendid time, on this majestic course. This also lent a fascinating insight into recent course improvements and a knowledge of every inch of the grounds, including where to find any wayward drives!

The course is magnificent. Charming and pretty from start to finish with a sequence of rising and rolling, grand, sweeping panoramic views and fairways, lined by mature, towering firs and lots of heather!

One of my playing partners remarked it was the best use of elevation changes of any course he had ever played, and I think this sums up one of Swinley's best merits perfectly. As the land rises and ripples, tees and green sites are frequently raised, leading to constant challenge and intrigue. I also really liked how the cross bunkering and tapering treelines constantly challenged my depth perception.

At one point standing on the 14th tee, through the forest, it was possible to see 7 different flags through the trees. Demonstrating the positive effects of recent tree and rhododendron clearing work. Not only from an aesthetic point of view but also allowing play-ability and forgiveness off the tee. I did not lose a ball all round, and although punished severely on occasion by the thick, gripping heather, this makes for a smooth and enjoyable round of golf.

The green complexes were sometimes subtle, sometimes bold and dramatic. The greens themselves ran pure and the turf conditioning was faultless. My only criticism would be that they were surprisingly slow - although this was largely as they had not been cut in the last day during a period of heavy rain.

Swinley is not long at par 69, playing 5900 off the whites but that never once entered my head whilst playing. Particularly with an exacting set of 5 tough and picturesque long par 3s.

Holes of highlight for me included the uphill par 3 4th with a heavily raised and well bunkered redan green. The downhill drive to begin the short par 5 5th is very inviting into a wide fairway. 7th is again wide but doesn’t look it due to an ominous and deceiving heather ridge and cross bunkers. 9 is a dramatic, diving, drawing, long par 4 with a raised green. 10th a beautiful long par 3 with tight entry point. 11th a blind short par 4 which doglegs right tapering in narrowly towards the green with fairway bunkers that will gobble anything off line. 12th double dog leg long par 4 tough to reach unless a long (and precise) hitter. 13th par 3 plays long and downhill on to a green that runs away front to back. Loved 14 a short par four with heather encroaching into fairway from numerous angles and a small upturned saucer green. 15th short uphill par 5, protected by a severely raised green with potential for devilish pin placement. 17th is a beautiful long par 3, framed by pines with a steep raised green with deep bunkering short left.

Overall came away feeling a sense of privilege and appreciation for the old-world charm, grandeur of terrain and routing and sand-box ambition of Swinley. I can see why Harry Colt deemed it his “least bad design”.

June 19, 2020
9 / 10
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