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]
I have an annual visit to Swinley most years with a group of friends, the most recent being 2 weeks ago. It is without doubt an iconic course, however, last month, the greens in particular were in awful condition and the course generally looked scruffy. Whilst accepting that autumn maintenance work was a contributory factor, the condition was worse than we have ever experienced in some 25 years. Something has gone wrong here and we are reviewing whether or not to continue with our annual visits. No way should this be ranked No 6 in England ! Other courses I have played this summer in the locality such as West Hill and The Berkshire are better golf challenges and in better condition. Hopefully this is a temporary blip !
The patrician Swinley Forest Golf Club has long been a course I wanted to play but there is so much good golf around London that I was never able to fit it into an itinerary. The first hole is my favorite kind. It plays from an elevated tee down into a valley with a wide fairway, and when we played the hole it was down wind. It's good for the ego to start your round feeling like a stud. Like his routing at Pine Valley, Swinley features one of H. S. Colt’s trademarks, forced carries off the tee. Many holes do so, including the third, fifth, seventh, ninth and twelfth. Colt also was a fan of using cross-bunkering, which throws off the golfers’ depth perception. One of the holes that he used it on to great effect was the 7th, placed on the side of a hill that runs from left to right, creating a very effective hazard that makes the approach shot semi-blind or blind from an uneven lie! The whole course was in great shape when I played, with a special shout out to the purity of the greens, which were perfect. The overall environment at Swinley is magical, but beware, the seductive purple heather plants are ball eaters and the fairways tend to kick balls into them, never to be seen again. Putting aside the mystique of the club and the idyllic clubhouse situated on the top of a hill by the first tee and 18th green, the golf course taken on its own is one of the best. What a place to play golf.
The previous review (and the comments it provoked) reminds me of what is so good about this website! There is no absolute truth, but a large number of (hopefully) well-informed reviews provide very useful information.
My take is that most of us mortals have a hard time divorcing the appraisal of the architectural merits of the golf course from the overall experience. If you like "old school" you are very likely to appreciate Swinley and rate it highly. As we can see, the opposite logic seems to apply too.
Based on more than ten visits and having played most other top-ranked heathland tracks in the region, I have no hesitation in giving Swinley full marks.
I do not do it because I have a particularly soft spot for clubs like this. I rate it highly because on each single occasion I played, I left the course a much calmer, happier person than when I arrived...and this irrespective of whether I had shot 75 and won or shot 85 and finished among the last (in our society competition.)
In particular, I do admire how Harry Colt has managed to create grand elongated views in a woodland setting, yet the mature woodland still makes you feel that you play each hole in complete isolation. The other main quality to me is that no round feels just like the other and this is without experiencing massive variations in weather or course set-up. In fact, even after many plays you keep discovering small design nuggets.
Swinley is a must for any serious student of the game (if perhaps not the sport) of golf. It is not the hardest test of golf or the most egalitarian golf experience...but it never pretended to be.
"I left the course a much calmer, happier person than when I arrived..." Perfect! What a wonderful way to evaluate a course!
Played Swinley Forest with huge expectations as it is listed as 62nd in the world. I was hugely mistaken. There has got to be hundreds better than this course. Perhaps it is what you look for in a course. Swinley Forest for me was not fun. Its a total old mans club that is very charming, but not one that you can whip out the driver on and smash it down the centre. The heather, i dont get what people love about it, is it because it makes it harder? I have played Hankley common, very similar course and one that I personally think was way way way better. Genuinely no idea how this course has such a high ranking. We only played £115 for the round, normally it is £200. I dont even feel i got monies worth for what i played.
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
As John McEnroe was known to say "You cannot be serious".
The clubhouse has a lovely old world feel and the staff are most welcoming. The view from the clubhouse is outstanding. A truly superb round of golf awaits, preferred lies throughout the year. In recent times, a lot of work has been carried out that has improved the golf course although the long, up hill #15 might well be extended to a needed par 5 on the second 9.
I played Swinley on Wednesday for the first time and it is exactly what I would look for in a golf club. Relaxing, peaceful and beautiful. The practice facilities were great, range balls are free and the chipping and putting green was in good condition. The course itself was one of the best I've ever played with every hole being a beautiful picturesque hole. Every hole provided its own unique challenge, the par 3's were magnificent and the heathland design makes it look all the more appealing. In addition to this the clubhouse was fantastic as it was filled with history and all the members are extremely welcoming. I would totally come back again if I was given another opportunity as it is a truly amazing golf club.
Lovely setting for an equally lovely golf course. Great green complexes, though other than 5, 9 and 18 there are not many holes where strategy comes into play off the tee.
When excellent land is complimented with great course design, you have a classic, and that’s exactly what you have at Swinley Forest. The course, with free draining sandy soil, is set amongst pines with oodles of heather dispersed amongst the rough. And whilst I wouldn’t describe the course as hilly, it’s a rolling journey with what felt like every tee positioned such that you’re found playing towards angled fairways throughout.
The course is a layout without weakness. There’s no drop in quality throughout the round but there are two aspects of Swinley Forest that really propel the course into World Top 100 pedigree; the first is the wonderful greens whilst the other standout feature is the fantastic collection of par threes. Swinley has some beautifully sloping, contoured and undulating greens but not for one second do they feel tricked-up in any way. The greens run true like carpet, but to keep them playable, they’re kept at a medium paced, sensible speed. The par threes are sublime; typically played to raised greens with intimidating bunkering and shelf drop-offs, these must be the finest set of par threes in England.
Touching upon a few holes briefly, some people have commented that the round starts slowly but I personally loved the 2nd. You play a blind tee shot over a bunker in the foreground guarding the start of the fairway akin to the tee shot on the 11th at Sunningdale Old. A grassy sunken hollow to the front left of the green provides a feature that you’ll want to avoid whilst the putting surface itself slopes from front to back forcing a deft approach shot; as with all great short par fours, an easy par but a tough nut to birdie. As good as that hole is, you know you’re really playing a special course just a couple of holes later as the 4th/5th par 3/5 combination is simply world class, one playing up to a wide angled plateau green, with the other being a beautiful long downhill hole with forced carries over sand and water.
The back nine is every bit the equal to the front and other than the par threes, the 15th was my pick. A sumptuous uphill par five, comparable to the 5th in that it’s reachable in two but there’s more hidden danger lurking here. The 15th green has a wicked false front that will repel anything short whilst anything long or left is gone. This is one of a number of holes where the golfer can be forced to look silly whereby an under-struck chip shot could quite easily return its way back to one’s feet.
Swinley Forest is a short course, particularly by modern standards and has the benefit of being both playable and scoreable for most golfers, but what sets Swinley Forest aside is that it’s brilliantly consistent throughout. Each hole offers a different set of questions whilst providing plenty of opportunities for you to stand back on the tee and admire the beauty of what lays in front of you. The biggest surprise to me however was the wonderfully relaxed ambiance within the clubhouse. With its reputation of being a private and elitist club, I had expected the atmosphere to be much more snooty and pretentious.
Full marks to Swinley without much hesitation, she’s a charming old lady with grace and beauty rarely paralleled.
I was intrigued by Swinley after reading Tom Doak's review in his recent update of "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses". I was trying to imagine why he held this 6000 yard course in such high esteem, yet after a lovely day on the course with my beautiful wife Ruth during our recent trip to England, I was able to see appreciate the genius of Harry Colt in designing this amazing course.
The club has recently lengthened the course to near 6400 yards, and my first impression after finishing was that this was the hardest 6400 yard course I had ever played. The start is pretty straight forward, but the course really picks up at the excellent par 3 4th which plays over 200 yards to a sloped green guarded by bunkers left and right. 7 is a fascinating uphill par 4 guarded by angled heather covered mounds with the approach to a green with a slope down the right front of the green. On the back nine 12 was one of my favorites with a drive across a large bank of heather that has to be threaded between bunkers both left and right in the landing area. A steeply sloped green adds to the difficult here. The par 3 17th demands a precise iron with little room for error.
Swinley is a course that absolutely demands precision and the ability to work the ball in all directions. Every shot needs to be thought and played with a purpose. I think the thing that elevates Swinley to the highest level is a combination of the strategic options available on each shot and the testing greens and approaches. This is a great course. After the round we enjoyed a drink with on the patio overlooking the 18th green, and I really wish I could have gone out and played the course again. My wife is a relative beginner but she enjoyed the course since there weren't too many forced carries over heather off the tee for her and each green would allow a shot to run on. I would certainly love to go back and play here again some day. Read my story: Diamonds of the heather - golfing London's heathland
It’s not only one of the most charming courses, in an area blessed with a plethora of wonderful heathland venues, but also one of the best.
There is certainly an air of exclusivity, privacy and tradition about the place, but where the welcome was as warm as any I’ve received, and the ambience only adds to the experience. Out on the course the only things you are likely to hear are the rumble of a train dashing down the side of holes six, seven and eight or the odd bark from a golfer’s four-legged companion.
The fairways are generous but an errant drive is likely to find a heathery grave from where the uncertainty of how the ball will come out usually costs you a shot. And on some of the holes you are restricted from slashing away with a driver from the tee; a ditch at the second, a pond at the fifth, mounds of heather at the seventh, cross bunkers at the 12th and a swathe of heather at the 14th just some of the obstructions you will encounter.
This therefore places a premium on accuracy and placement from the tee because approaching the greens from the correct angle at Swinley is often important. On my round the greens were quite firm and this exaggerated the challenge, especially to certain pin locations.
It’s the cunning putting surfaces which are Swinley’s main defence. As a set of green complexes you will struggle to find a better collection anywhere. With perhaps the exception of the fluid 12th none of them really shock you with heavy contouring but simply rely on elegant borrows to deceive the golfer.
Swinley Forest delivered everything I was hoping and expecting of it for my first visit. I’m pleased I played 36 holes in the same day, enjoying a superb lunch between rounds, because there are so many subtleties to this course that I’m sure long standing members are still learning new things about their delightful golf course.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.