Review for Swinley Forest

Reviewer Score:


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?

Date: January 07, 2020

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