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 few years 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]
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.
Stunning golf course and a step up from the 3Ws and both courses at the Berkshire. No weak holes, which is very unusual. The Club could not be more accommodating when I enquired about a green fee.
Was lucky enough - after much grovelling - to get invited along to a day at Swinley Forest and it was even better than I could have hoped for !
You read about the "modest" sign outside - it is tiny ! Arriving as I did in plenty of time, it was still dark but peering out of the window it even looked great in the dim first morning light and basically just got better and better as the sun came up.
The Clubhouse is a treat, the staff are great, and the food and drinks excellent (bacon rolls, 3 course lunch and tea and cakes after !!)
As I had read I would, we saw two just members sharing a buggy with their dog following.
On to the course, the greens were super, with all manner of ups and downs. EVERY hole was a photo opportunity, and all with their own challenges, but all very fair and playable. The par 3's in particular were wonderful and there are several magnificent view points as you proceed round the course.
The halfway house is great ..in fact everything is great.
The ranking is fully justified and now that the doors are now ajar, a visit here is highly recommended as this really is a very special place ...everything you will have already read about it but more.
Played Swinley for the 5th time in Sep 2016 and this is best condition ive seen it. Extra tees have helped lengthen the layout and the greens were very true. They were very slow but i assume the greenkeeper is letting them grow in ... once cut they will be excellent no doubt. I love the layout in particular the 7th which looks short but the second shot takes some nerve to get it all the way. The back nine is fantastic with a great run of holes which play tough when defending a score.
Time flies and a decade has passed since I was last at Swinley Forest, so last month I joined Jim McCann for a morning forest ramble.
Bad comments posted over the past few years surrounding conditioning problems caused me great concern, so last year I called the new Secretary to get his perspective. He told me that there had indeed been conditioning issues, caused by neglect and lack of investment, but the situation was in hand and a multi-year plan was in place to return this Colt masterpiece to its former glory.
The morning sun was shining on the clubhouse terrace as we enjoyed a pre-round coffee last month. Things looked different as I gazed up and down the first hole and last hole, but I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed.
I would never have described Swinley as a big course, but it is now expansive, wider, firmer and faster. Gone are most of the evergreen rhodies and straggly birch trees. The majestic pines now stand proud affording open views across the course. This clearance work has optically created a sense of greater scale. Swinley no longer feels cramped or hemmed.
There’s a little way to go before the club achieves all its objectives, but Swinley remains my favourite Southern England heathland course. If I lived near Ascot, I’d beg to become a member. Keith Baxter
STUNNING. Proves golf has gone mad thinking that the only way courses can be designed/built theses days is if they are stupidly long. Course designers need to look back at classics such as this; under 6000 yds off the whites but with classic Colt angles off the tee and strategically placed bunkers for short and long hitters you will do well to play to your handicap around here. Of course the course is beautiful, quintessentially English and is an example of golf from generations gone by. I implore every golfer to who is passionate about their hobby to try and play Swinley once; I know it is not easy to obtain a tee time and it is not cheap but it is only money, you cannot take it with you and you are a long time dead. At least when you are not able to play golf anymore you'll have some great memories.
Swinley Forest had been on my radar for a very long time. The way it was once described to me on a flight into Heathrow a few years back by somebody who used to caddie for Douglas Badder, a former distinguished member of the club, had me anticipating a rather crusty old club with a tired old course.
Recent reviews that I’ve read on this website and elsewhere indicated that things had changed both on and off the course in recent years – certainly since the current secretary was appointed – and I’m delighted to report this new outlook was very much in evidence when I played here a few days ago.
The rolling topography is sublime, with holes beautifully routed to allow thrilling downhill tee shots from a good number of tee positions. Many of the greens are set on ridge tops or benched into hillsides, forcing golfers to play an exacting approach shot to a heavily contoured putting surface, many of which are further protected by heather fringed bunkers and mounding.
The five par threes are all brilliant but the first of these, the 171-yard 4th, is the best of that handful in my view – just how difficult can it be to make an uphill short hole appear so attractive? The left doglegged 9th is the pick of the par fours on the front nine, plunging down off the tee then rising up to a green that falls away into a gully on the left hand side.
The par fours at the 12th and 15th were my favourites on the back nine and critics of the greens on the Castle course at St Andrews really want to check out the putting surface on these holes to see what truly outlandish outlines look like! The sumptuous 18th ends the round in fine style, where a newly planted area of heather to the right of the home green further separates the putting surface from the 1st tee.
This little ground improvement is just one of a myriad of course upgrades that have taken place in recent months. For instance, huge swathes of invasive rhododendrons have been eliminated from the fairway fringes, new tees have been added on several holes and a new practice area has been built close to the clubhouse. General course conditioning has also been advanced, though there’s still some way to go before things are exactly as the club would want them to be.
Double checking the Top 100 re-rankings that took place at the start of this year, Swinley Forest made really significant moves within every chart: up 4 to number 6 in England, up 7 to number 22 in Great Britain & Ireland and up 16 to number 71 in the World. From what I saw the other day, those positive move were well merited for a course (and a club) that is firmly embracing the golfing challenges of the new millennium.