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@example.com
Swinley Forest has been on my must-play list ever since I first heard of it. A course that is not too difficult to reach but tricky to access, renowned as being both exclusive but friendly, and ranked within the top 100 courses in the world (according to this website). I felt excited to merely visit, let alone be fortunate enough to play twice on the same day.
So, before I drench this review in a healthy portion of controversy (have patience, it’s coming), let’s talk about what Swinley does well: the setting is peaceful and comforting. The course is well-conditioned and inviting to look at (typically tall pines frame the fairway shots and tough, brownish heather provides a stark contrast between fairway and ‘farewell’). They have some sensible local rules, such as year-round preferred lies. The mystique surrounding the club is part of its appeal. Everything that has been said about Swinley Forest being a fun place to play is true.
But all I can think to myself is: “does this justify a top-100 WORLD ranking?” Whether you have played Swinley or not, I would encourage you to bear this in mind when reading the following.
Upon considering stand-out holes, I feel compelled to fast-forward to at least the 8th hole before anything truly memorable happens. A wily short hole, it requires an accurate mid-iron to a perched green with a sharp drop on the right-hand side, plus trouble both long and left. But it’s no 2nd at Dornoch. It’s no 4th at Deal. It’s not even a 6th at Perranporth! Away from ‘links’ examples, Colt’s own 6th and 15th at Blackmoor both hold similar characteristics, and both are sterner examinations.
The following run of holes are excellent, however. 9 is a brilliant dogleg two-shotter with precision required from both tee and fairway. 10 is a strong par 3, but a chance at birdie still feels achievable, even at around 200 yards. A pop at the reachable 11th is tempting off any tee, with a missed green presenting a fiddly up-and-down. 12 demands nothing but two perfect swings in order to find the dancefloor.
15 is my favourite hole on the course, where an eagle 3 or a convoluted hack feel equally possible. It’s aesthetically pleasing to see the entirety of a par 5 from the tee box. Each shot has challenge and danger without being contrived or overly difficult. The drive needs to be in the fairway to give a realistic chance at hitting the green in two, the lay-up (if required) needs to navigate a narrow corridor if getting close to the putting surface, and incorrect placement on the multi-tiered green can easily lead to a three-stab. The gentle rise as you play allows you to look back along the entire length of the hole once completed to appreciate its subtle and clever design.
16 passes you by somewhat, but the round then culminates with two good holes. The tricky 17th will bite if concentration lapses. The 18th is a pleasant closing hole that sweeps towards the clubhouse, which I find more than welcome on any course.
All that being said, there are no shots at Swinley that make me nervous or set my pulse racing. There are no heroic carries. There is no true peril, as even the heather (despite my earlier quip) is not so tightly-wound that it completely swallows the ball. What water there is slips the attention, as it should not be in play at all and seems rather out of place anyway.
Perhaps the scathing nature of my observations is due to how highly golfers speak of SFGC, so that nothing could ever live up to the expectations set. Perhaps it is indicative of what a casual golfer desires: rather than being rigorously tested, they want an easy ride.
It has made me reflect on what we value in a golf course. Playability is certainly up there, as the above affirms. Reputation can sway our opinion. Condition is important, and there are other on- and off-course factors which this site asks us to omit for rating purposes (pace of play, staff attitude etc.). But the cynic in me has another theory.
Do we, as learned golf connoisseurs, get carried away by the names of certain architects? Does Swinley Forest receive acclaim because Harry Colt was a great designer? Ask yourself, just because Fowler’s courses at The Berkshire are so fantastic, must we laud the New at Walton Heath? Should I cancel all plans to play Walmer and Kingsdown because Braid’s St. Enodoc captured my heart? If you’re being honest with yourself, do you ACTUALLY see shades of Augusta National in Mackenzie’s Moortown?
Now for the part that is going to tip some of you over the edge.
If the above is NOT true and good architects can make courses of varying quality… Can anyone tell me why I should play Swinley Forest again over Camberley Heath? What makes it so much better? And what on earth am I going to make of St. George’s Hill?!
This review feels very ‘Roger Ebert’, as if I am saying something contentious just to buck the trend, almost as if I am giving a critic’s review rather than listening to the views of the masses. Am I being unfair? Maybe a little. The 5 and 5.5 ratings abound for Swinley… I was honestly underwhelmed, given the hype.
Let the record show that I liked Swinley Forest. It was nice. The reality is that this picturesque, charming, well-presented, varied and thoroughly enjoyable course just doesn’t hit the heights of the 54th best layout in the world. Would I play it again? Of course. Would I move heaven and earth? I think I’ve answered that already.
Chud - Some reviewers will be swayed by the reputation of a famous architect, but your argument also has a touch of the Kip & Ei.
To your point: “Does Swinley Forest get acclaim because Colt was a great designer”?
It’s more likely the reverse - that Colt is considered a great designer because he created courses like this. His reputation had to be built upon something and many critics (i.e. not the masses) agree that Swinley Forest is very good. Most would also admit there are plenty of average Colt courses out there too, so I don’t think there’s a halo effect applying to all of his courses.
Having said this, it’s very refreshing to hear a different opinion. What is it that you value in a golf course?
Checked out on this review as soon as you said that the 8th is the first memorable hole.
4th is one of the best par 3s in the world, and the 8th is arguably the worst par 3 at Swinley
@BB, thanks for taking the time to read and engage with my review, and for such a constructive and considered response.
You raise a valid point. I suppose that in the early 1900s Swinley might have been some people's first taste of Colt. However, for me it's the opposite; I've played more accessible creations of Colt beforehand (as I would expect is the case for many others in the modern day), so I was ready for this to be his 'pièce de résistance', and unfortunately I can't make a case as to why it supersedes some of his other creations, or why it stands clearly above some of its neighbours.
As for what I value, that's a great riposte. I feel that playing golf should require you to hit more than just a good shot, but the correct shot; you should have to weigh up options. To elaborate even more, I feel that the best courses offer the player more than one 'correct shot'! I don't feel that Swinley asks you to do that often enough. Straight and high is sufficient, on most holes, save the ones I've described in the review.
As a parting note, it's not that I feel Swinley is bad. I gave it 4/6. It's just not (in my opinion) befitting of it's very high placing in the world rankings.
@Sam Mendoza, I'm sorry to hear that you didn't feel inclined to read on. I put a lot of thought and effort into it!
I would be interested to know why you feel the 4th is one of the greatest par 3s in the world. I'm not sure why I would attempt to hit my tee shot anywhere except centre-right of the green, irrespective of pin placement. It's not even really a 'Redan', because you can't run the ball round to a left hole placement behind the bunker.
I've subsequently had a think about some UK one-shot holes that I've played (in addition to the ones I referenced in the review) where I feel they have a memorable characteristic, or the strategy changes based on the conditions/course set-up on the day: 6th/11th/16th at Royal St. George's, 3rd at Trevose, 10th at Moortown, 4th at Castle Stuart, 11th at Askernish, 10th/16th at Hillside, 7th at Princes Himalaya, 17th at Littlestone...
As for the best par 3s at Swinley, I'd get more of a kick playing 17 than the 4th.
Nevertheless, thanks for taking the time to comment and read (part of) my review.
Had played here back in August and completely forgot to leave a review. Absolutely love this place - Swinley Forest is almost effortlessly good. It doesn't necessarily try to wow you, but across the 18 holes it adds up to an incredible experience. While the excellent set of par threes are rightly lauded by many the stretch from 8 to 15 is about as special as anything I've played.
If you get the chance to play here, don't pass it up. One of golf's truly delightful experiences.
I have been lucky enough to play this truly great course about once a year for the better part of a decade, and occasionally before that. This was always a wonderful track, for the variety of it's challenge, the tactical nuance as opposed to brute power required to score well (it doesn't feel short though, I assure you), and maybe most of all a set of par threes probably without peer anywhere in England, at least inland, for me.
The joy of coming back a few days ago was to see the effect of the hard work done to (ever so gently) restore the course over a period of years. I have never seen the greens so firm in April. What this then does is bring in the reawakened, and devilish contours around many of the greens. The result is this: long handicappers can play well enough to have fun, but they had better hit ball straight and know their limits. Better golfers are still challenged, both to think clearly, and execute with real precision. I played with a class act off +1, and two mistakes cost him two doubles and a 72, despite long tracts of amazing ballstriking. He is in his early twenties, and was fascinated, and desperate to try again. In the morning, my foursomes partner was a man in his 70s off 20, and he had just as much fun.
It is worth the trip just to play the 4th, which might just be the best par three I have ever played, but it is now so very much more than that.
Delighted to see that it is now a little more accessible. If you love golf, you must play here someday.
Swinley Forest is a ~6400 par 69, and what makes the course a world beater is the fact that it is not trying to be anything it isn’t. The course has a special aura and feels regal without feeling pretentious, which is unique when compared to some of its neighbors.
I played the course in late September and it was actually playing fairly firm and fast, as London oddly had no rain for the week leading up to my round, and the course was an absolute joyride. It keeps a balance of feeling rugged and natural, but was also in exceptional condition. The course was nearly empty and I played alone, and playing two balls on certain holes definitely helped me learn how to play a few holes – you get the sense it’s the type of course that you need to see a couple times to really know how to attack it. One thing that is helpful for a newcomer is the ability to see some holes in their entirety from an earlier tee or green to help see how they are laid out.
Some of the green complexes are truly incredible and invite all sorts of different shots depending on pin placement and weather (rain or dry) etc. Each par 3 here is exceptional, and some very fun risk-reward par 4s and 5s. Wish I had a playing partner, as the course seems perfect for matchplay.
I have heard that the course was not always as accessible as it is today, and I am an American citizen who had no trouble getting on during a weekday before my flight back to the States. I do not include hospitality and facilities in my ranking, but a very welcoming and laid-back vibe was a definite bonus, especially for such a revered course and club. Beautiful and timeless clubhouse to finish at behind 18th green (pictured).
I have played Prince’s, Royal Cinque Ports (Deal), Royal St. George’s and Walton Heath (Old and New), and Swinley Forest, Harry Colt’s “least bad course”, is my favorite course I have played in England thus far. If you have the opportunity to play here, do not hesitate to take advantage of playing this Colt classic!
The very best courses I have played have always seemed comfortable in their own skin. This place is hallowed ground, a site so supremely awe inspiring that no words can truly do it justice. Swinley Forest has an understated aura and a regal calmness that swirls amongst the statesque trees that characterise the Surrey/Berkshire border where the course resides. Words can go some of the way to sharing the experience but you have to visit this place to fully understand its special status and why it is ranked as one of the worlds best golf courses and also, one of Harry Colt’s finest masterpieces.
Talking in general terms, the routing is one of the most naturally flowing I have played. This is not a particularly long course, in fact you could call it short by modern standards at 6430 yards, and plays as a par 69 from the very back tees. But one of the attributes that makes it special is that it could be so much longer and have a higher par, as the land is exceptionally spacious. However it doesn’t need to. This is a challenging golf course in the same guise that it always has been and rewards the plotter and short game artist as much as it does the sabre swishing gladiator. The greens and their surrounds are Colt’s supreme defence and their subtle yet lively character will frustrate you more times than they will reward you.
The elegant and atmospheric clubhouse stares across the 1st and 18th fairways bidding players a knowing farewell and consolatory welcome. In truth the 1st and subsequent two holes are relatively short par 4’s and ease you into the round in a comfortable manner (although beware the rise at the front left of the 3rd green). The first blockbuster hole is the 4th, an absolute gem of a par 3 and one of the most aesthetically pleasing I have played to date. The hole is played slightly uphill to an elevated green that lays in wait like a fortified castle. Bunkers and slopes work in unison to both collect and repel your ball and a miss left will almost certainly leave you fighting hard to save par.
The headline run of holes is 6 thru 9, a simply mind blowing set of quality golf holes, vistas, design features and enjoyment. The view south west from the 6th tee stretches all way to the 8th tee in an anticipation heightening manner. 6 and 7 are two top drawer and testing par 4’s, although I would suggest the 7th is the harder of the two in my opinion which is in contradiction to the scorecard. From the crow’s nest like 7th green, you are treated to a panorama both ahead and behind you. Taking a moment to take in and admire your surroundings will be well worth your time.
Looking onwards from 7 you see the par 3 8th which boasts a treacherous green and precipitous run off on the right side of the green. It is the shortest of the par 3’s but by no means the easiest. Then on to the 9th. What to say about this wonderful golf hole? The sweeping dog left can be seen in its entirety from the 8th green and it is a breathtaking spectacle. A downhill drive to a well bunkered fairway is followed by an uphill approach to a deceptive green. It’s a tough split between the 4th and 9th as to my favourite hole on the course.
Many courses don’t manage to sustain the quality for 18 holes but that is not the case here. There is intrigue and variety from beginning to end. Hole 12 is another wonderful par 4, where the fairway angle favours a right to left shape and then the approach favours the opposite. Hole 17, a relatively short par 3, was the other standout hole to highlight. Work has been done to the green site and surrounds in recent times. I didn’t see the hole before, but in its current guise it is a slippery foe with a near vertical slope at the front of the green and plenty of tricky spots to be found all around.
The club boasts a wonderfully rich history and has been one of the most private and mysterious clubs in the British Isles for more than a century. These days, the course is a little bit more accessible than it once was and we found the welcome exceptional. I would go as far as to say that this is my favourite golf course that I have played in England to date. The flow and sweeping multi-hole vistas are truly special. Understated and subtlety brilliant, I would encourage you to jump at the chance if the opportunity ever arises to play this Colt classic.
The myth that is Swinley Forest! Played two rounds here in the summer and enjoyed the course and hospitality a lot. This is easily a course you could play every day. I feel that this is a course that must be learnt (maybe all courses are) but I had a better understanding of the course the second time around and found the first round quite challenging. I also find it different to the Berkshire just down the road, perhaps a bit more narrow, and of course it is different to Wentworth. Of these three, I'd probably prefer Swinley but I look forward to comparing it to Sunningdale once I get a chance to play there. If you are in London, or travelling through London, the Surrey 'sandbelt' is well worth a couple of days of your time.
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.
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.
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.
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.