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]
When I lived in England from 1993-1998 I knew of the reputation of Swinley Forest but determined it was unattainable unless I utilized my network to find a member. It was not something I chose to do given I had so many other great options such is the depth of great golf courses in the UK and Ireland. The access to Swinley Forest has changed dramatically where now it only requires a phone call and a conversation.
I was able to play it in the summer of 2018 on a beautiful summer’s day with no real wind. We decided to become “members for the day” and play it twice as it is a very easy walk. We played the back tees for the opening round at 6431 yards and the white tees for the second round at 5917 yards. I was not tired for the second round yet I scored 4 strokes better in the morning despite incurring 3 penalty shots. The higher score on the second round occurred on the back nine from holes 12-16 as I started to marvel about the golf course and simply lost concentration as I did not want the round to end. Indeed, I tried to convince my playing partners to go out for a third round.
While playing only two rounds is not a confirmation, I do believe it is indicative that Swinley Forest presents a real challenge regardless of its length due to the wonderful greens.
It is also in the conversation as one of the best sub-70 par golf courses in the world (see my review of Rye Old). More importantly it is one of the most beautiful walks on an inland golf course one will ever take.
The London area is blessed with numerous fine golf courses that it deserves to be in the conversation of “best destination area” for golf. The London area has more outstanding golf than the Liverpool area. In my opinion, only the area of Carnoustie down to North Berwick, Long Island and the Sandbelt are in the conversation. Perhaps Bandon Dunes will eventually build so many courses it will become included in this distinguished trio.
In London, if one can get their choice of a golf club to join, which club would it be? Sunningdale, The Berkshire, and Walton Heath have an advantage in offering two outstanding golf courses. Wentworth offers three courses. Hankley Common, St. George’s Hill, West Hill, Worplesdon, Woking, New Zealand, The Addington are all great alternatives (I have not played three of them). Scratch golfers might prefer a course that is a much stiffer test with a course having yardage over 7000 yards.
Swinley Forest would be a course difficult to not chose such is the beauty of the course, the terrific routing taking full advantage of the changes in the land, the sense of being alone on the golf course, feeling connected to the game of golf, the fabulous par 3’s, and the outstanding greens.
After playing Swinley Forest twice, I regret not trying harder to play it during my time living in the UK.
I can definitely see the reasoning behind including this course in the world top 100. Much like Rye Old it has a couple holes that feel out-of-place. They are good holes, yet they are inconsistent with the holes that are in the trees. However, the quality of all of the holes are good to excellent and offer so many different strategic decisions that the course warrants inclusion in the top 100.
The starting hole is a simple downhill par 4 of average length. The fairway is generous but if one does not find the fairway the tall grass can limit the recovery shot. There are two bunkers on the hole which are meant to come into play for a recovery shot from the errant tee shot. The green is steeply sloped back to front and going beyond the green will likely result in a bogey. It is a gentle and simple starting hole, but it does have teeth.
The second hole is playing blind uphill although the back tee offers a better idea. There are two fairway bunkers on the right that are more of an issue from the back tee. The complication to the hole is in its slopes. The fairway slopes right to left so one should try to stay on the right side with the tee shot. A second slope just in front of the green requires one to determine how much in front of the green to land one’s ball to stay on the green which slopes away from you. I did not know this on the first round and ended up with a penalty stroke from an unplayable lie in the heather behind the green. On the second round I landed 20 yards short of the green and the ball nearly ran off. Longer hitters have to consider the ditch that crosses the fairway at about 300 yards. For only 367 yards this hole is absolutely genius.
As much as I liked the third hole, the short fourth hole at 324/280 is a wonderful driveable par 4 but mainly demands a good short game. On my first round I took another penalty stroke with a lost ball on the tee shot but on both rounds I could not figure out where to land the ball on the green for a decent putt. Others parred the hole but after completing the hole, our foursome stood there for a bit to discuss the fabulously undulating green where one has to hit the front half to avoid running off but a ball landing short meets the additional defense due to its mounding tight by the green and fall-offs.
The fourth hole is likely one of the most memorable holes on the golf course. It is a beautiful slightly uphill longer par 3 of 198 although playing only 147 from the yellow tees. The green has a false front as well as two bunkers to either side and a hill to its right with a fall-off to the left. The green is shaped similar to a redan. It is about as good a par 3 as can be found anywhere.
While the fifth hole, a short dogleg right par 5 is beautiful from the tee, for the average length hitter the decision is easy – go for the middle of the fairway. One can try to cut the corner of the dogleg to gain distance for a chance to hit the green in two. There are so many defenses to this hole that it is a fun hole to play. There are three bunkers on the right as well as a pond about 150 yards from the green that have to be considered. There is another fairway bunker on the left side and the tree line as defense for the tee shot hit to the left. The green has three large bunkers and is sharply tilted back to front as well as being slightly smaller than one might expect. This hole is very good because it can yield a 3 to the brave, long hitter, as well as triple bogeys to those who get off track.
Next come two longer par 4’s at 439 and 431 with both playing uphill. These two holes feel different to the previous holes because the woods are set back farther and there is more heather in play. The holes require two well struck shots as the sixth is well defended at the green with two fronting bunkers and the seventh has a large bunker 40 yards short of the green across nearly the entire fairway as well as two bunkers on the right side of the uphill/blind green with rhododendron bushes nearby. The seventh is much more uphill than the sixth. The seventh’s green is slightly more undulating. Both are difficult holes if one cannot get their tee shot beyond 240 yards.
If not for the tree line, the previous two holes would feel if one were playing in a meadow. This feeling ends on the par 3 eighth hole, mid-length at 173 yards. The hole appears to play flat but once on the green one realizes it fall offs to the left, more steeply behind and very steeply to the right. Indeed, on the second round one of us hit it so far right down the hill I felt he might not be able to make the climb back up to the green. The “safe miss” here is short. While not quite the equal of the fifth hole, the eighth is fabulous.
Completing the front nine is the longest par 4 on the course at 464 yards. The back tee is at the farthest point away from the clubhouse. The hole requires one to stay to the right as this uphill par 4 has a deep valley to the left side of the fairway continuing all the way to the green. There is a bunker on the left of the fairway for those taking too bold of a line in an attempt to shorten the hole. There are two other bunkers on the left side as you near the green. The green is long but tilted back to front and I found it to be one of the more difficult greens to judge the correct pace. For an average length hitter, one should not be upset with a bogey on the hole.
The last two holes take full advantage of the terrain.
After a stop at the halfway hut, another wonderful par 3 awaits and it is the longest on the course at 227 yards. It has three large bunkers but it is possible to land the ball short of the green and run it on. The green is two tiered. A miss to the left of this green will result in a very nasty lie in heather. Much like the earlier par 3’s, this is another beautiful hole.
After playing so many challenging holes, you arrive at the eleventh, a short par 4 bending slightly to the left at 332 yards. However, there are six bunkers, three on the fairway and three fronting the green. Heather pinches in from the left side while the right side has heather and trees. The green is slightly elevated and is out in the open. Walking up from the tee box and arriving at the green makes one feel as if they have come out of a forest onto a gathering point for the views. This hole is a lot of fun.
Twelve is a long par 4 at 455 yards and I thought it to be one of the top three holes on the golf course. It is a double dogleg playing downhill. Four large bunkers are scattered down the fairway resulting in one having to consider what type of shot to hit. The green has a single bunker on the front right and is tilted left to right with ripples at the right side. One cannot go long over the green as the rhododendron bushes frame the entire back side of the green.
Moving back in the opposite direction the thirteenth is another gem of a par 3 at 193 yards. It is rated the 18 index which surprised me as I thought it to be a very difficult par given the three bunkers fronting the green and continuing down the left side. The green is slightly crowned and difficult with a front to back slope. I made par and a double here and felt those to be “common” scores. It is yet another terrific par 3.
I felt the fourteen to be a “breather” hole the first time around but the second round changed my opinion. The tee shot requires one to either carry the two bunkers on the left or angle the shot to avoid the bunker on the right. Trees await those who either pull or push their first shot too much. There are two sets of heather to avoid. The green sits at an angle to the right and is long, narrow and crowned. This hole really offers everything one could want despite it being less than 400 yards.
Fifteen is the second par 5 on the course and is rated the number 2 index. It begins the direct line back to the clubhouse. Once driving beyond the two fairway bunkers positioned left and right there are four other bunkers to consider with three on the left. The hole rises throughout and the green is situated at the top of a steep hill with any ball landing short of the green will likely end as much as 90 yards away. The green slopes right to left with the heather very close particularly in the back. I liked this hole for the added variety of yet another type of different shot as well as once again the hole is routed to take advantage of the change in terrain.
Sixteen is a mid-length par 4 that is fairly straight but the fairway narrows on the left as the heather pinches in. There is a bunker left and bunker right for the drive as well as a tree line on the right side. The green is raised, long and narrow with no bunkers as the green itself is the defense.
Seventeen is the final par 3 at 189 yards. It is perhaps the loveliest par 3 on the golf course. The raised green is surrounded by bunkers, one on the front right, two on the left side and one behind the green. Like a few other holes at Swinley Forest, a ball landing short of the green will roll back a considerable distance. Yet, that is the safer play rather than missing left, long, or right.
You walk down from the seventeenth green to find the eighteenth tee. Once you have hit the tee shot and walk 100 yards down the fairway the world opens up again as the eighteenth and first hole provide some breathing room. You can spy the clubhouse and patio perched behind the eighteenth green. This hole is a mid-length par 4 playing slightly uphill with the tee shot requiring a carry over a ditch cutting diagonally across the fairway. The approach shot which must carry the three bunkers fronting the green. The green is steeply sloped back to front and left to right. Going long over the green is to be avoided as the road is out-of-bounds or one faces a very fast pitch. One should also not miss to the right the green into the heather. It is a very nice finishing hole.
While the back tees are only 6431 yards, Swinley Forest plays much longer despite the shortness of four of the par 4’s. H.S. Colt’s routing takes full advantage of the change in terrain and the land movements. The green complexes have bunkers where they should and have none where they are not needed. The greens are well shaped.
In my review of Rye, I placed Rye Old slightly above Swinley Forest as I think Rye Old has the superior holes. Yet Swinley Forest has the slightly better par 3’s and is more consistent. This is a course I highly recommend one play and play it more than once. While one could argue that Sunningdale Golf Club has two courses that are superior to Swinley Forest, I do not share that opinion. At Swinley Forest, one better be able to hit the ball straight and have an excellent short game. It requires careful thought to record a low score, but my recommendation is to just enjoy the golf course for its beauty, variety, and connection to nature. Perhaps I should reconsider Swinley Forest versus Rye Old?
I had the absolute pleasure of playing Swinley Forest on a beautiful sunny day in September earlier this year.
Whilst the green fees are steep the place just oozes class from the moment you arrive. The bar has a calm and tranquil atmosphere where I enjoyed a fantastic breakfast before heading out to the excellent practice facilities.
The course itself is truly special, I'm a big fan of heathland courses and I've not come across a better one than this.
I could run through each hole and talk about the amazing layout and where to avoid the punishing heather, the Par 3's were so good! Ultimately you need to play this for yourself.
This course is my idea of golfing perfection!
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.