I have played Walton Heath Old three times, most recently the past two summers. I had plans to play it again (as well as the New) this year but it seems that Covid-19 might not allow for an international traveler to visit the UK in 2020.
For me, Walton Heath has truly the only inland “links-like” courses in the UK. Ganton is somewhat close but does not have the feeling of openness that Walton Heath has. This makes it memorable. Its difficulty also makes it memorable. If you do not hit the fairway, due to the high grass and thick heather, there is a strong chance of losing one’s ball or not being able to execute a meaningful recovery stroke. Unless one keeps a positive “golf isn’t always fair” attitude, then one can quickly go to despair despite the loveliness of the golf course.
I wonder whether people would not hold it in higher regard if did not start with perhaps the worst starting hole in all of golf on a very good course.
It is not that the first hole on its own is bad or without challenge. It is a long par 3 at 235/195 yards to a green that seems to run away from you. But it suffers from two flaws. People inherently do not like to start a round of golf on a par 3. Worse, it is completely disconnected from the rest of the golf course. One can’t help but wonder why the club does not swap a par 3 from the New course onto the Old and let the New course start here even if it is an even longer walk to the “second” tee. Or perhaps they build a new hole. As I walked around the course, I noticed some land between the seventh green and the eighth tee. Back-to-back par 3’s are not ideal, but wouldn’t that be preferable? Or move the tee back on the current eighth to keep it as a par 5 and then build a new green. Then add a new par 3 using the current eighth green? I know it would be a difficult decision to change a golf hole by a very good designer, Herbert Fowler. After all, James Braid, a gifted player and designer himself, never changed the course in all of his years as the head professional. Yet, holes eight and nine were changed due to the construction of the M-25 and holes 5-7 were re-designed as well. Finally, the beginning hole is completely out of character to the rest of the course as it is in a rectangular field lined by trees on three sides that resembles a school’s playing field while holes 2-17 are played primarily out in the open.
What separates the Old course from the New is additional length, but also much better green complexes, more variety in the terrain, and more doglegs even if they are gentle. The course requires a player to make more decisions off the tee such as whether to be bold or play conservatively. Seemingly, every conservative decision off the tee leads to a much more perilous second shot. The bunkers are also more numerous and raised thereby always being a consideration in the player’s mind.
While I believe Walton Heath is very much in the discussion of which club has the best two golf courses in the British Isles, I do place it behind Sunningdale where both courses have more interesting and memorable holes due to better land. Sunningdale is also more beautiful due to a better mixture of plants.
But I do believe that if one is a very good player at Walton Heath, they are likely the better player to the same handicap at Sunningdale such is the challenge of the Old Course. Sunningdale likely requires a much better short game? I wonder if they have inter-club competitions?
I also did not like the third nor did I like the eighteenth. Three other criticisms I have are that the more of the bunkers go down the right side of the fairways. While I realize most players are right-handed as well as they fade/slice a ball, it does seem to be a bit too much and often does not frame a hole. The greens, while smooth, are relatively flat. The greens are easy to read and not undulated enough. Finally, there are no bunkers behind a green which is a bit odd given the many holes where running a ball onto the green is part of the strategy.
The front nine is difficult while the back nine, due to three par 5’s in four holes, is more fun to play.
The championship tees are 7331 yards par 72 with a sss of 76 while the Medal tees are 6786 yards sss 72. The Club tees are 6364 yards, sss 71. I have always played the medal tees on the Old.
2 – par 4 461/451. A difficult hole for those who have only average length off the tee because you will have a downhill or sidehill lie for the long approach shot. This dogleg right has trees on the right that will block a second shot that drifts too far right. Missing to the right will leave one in an area of ground that is very uneven with heather. The land slopes down to a valley that gets deeper towards the trees on the right and then rises to the green. My high score on the hole is a double. My low score on the hole is a double and I think that is because there is no real difficulty at the green, the difficulty is getting there. The green is easy to read.
3 – par 4 289. This should be an easy hole unless one hits a very wayward tee shot into the thick heather. There is a bunker on the left side nearly in the trees. There is an interesting raised mound snaking its way up towards the green from the right. The green has a sharp fall-off to the right with higher ground behind the fall-off, which follows the bunker front right. The green is relatively flat.
4 – par 4 519/441. The number one index with a centerline bunker. Four other bunkers, three of them on the right pinch into the fairway while one comes from the left. There are no bunkers at the green. All of the bunkers have raised mounds at their front. Heather is more pronounced on the right side of the dogleg right. There is also a raised mound nearer the green although it should not come into play. While it is a difficult hole due to the bunkering and length, it does offer a chance at recovery which I think adds to this being one of the better holes on the course.
5 – par 4 485/391. Heather and the trees on the left are the primary obstacle after the length. The green is off to the left yet it does not look like a dogleg. There is a bunker right and another centerline bunker nearer the green. The green is flanked by bunkers. The green is the best so far on the course with several ripples in it. I found this to be a difficult hole.
6 – par 4 440/427. Another hole where I have only scored a double. The trees and two bunkers on the left have always made me push my tee shot into the heather and trees on the right. There is another small grass bunker on the left before the single bunker on the front left. Trees are near the back and right of the green. For me this hole tricks my mind and makes it the hardest hole on the course.
7 – par 3 190/174. This par 3 has a grass bunker not really in play followed by a long bunker on the right side of the green. The green slopes to the left from that raised bunker. There is another raised mound at the back right. It is an okay hole.
8 – par 5 558/494. This hole plays to the farthest corner of the course and nearest the M-25. The primary obstacles are the thick trees down the left and three scattered bunkers down the right. Near the green are a few trees on the right and then flanking front bunkers. It is sort of a double dogleg out right and then back slightly left.
9 – par 4 400. This dogleg left has trees all down the left. It is on this hole that for me the heather starts to feel less intimidating. There is a bunker short of the green on the right and another eating into the green on the left creating a more difficult back pin location. The green slopes back to front but is not overly interesting. This is a breather hole.
10 – par 4 442/399. This plays as a dogleg right which shortens the hole a bit. This plays parallel to the M-25 with trees down the left and a single bunker. Another bunker is on the right about 50 yards short of the green, and another one front right. I like the hole although the green is fairly simple.
11 – par 3 222/189. This is a good hole as the green is surrounded by four bunkers with the green set right to left from the tee. The green slopes to the left much like a redan.
12 – par 4 396/371. This hole sharply doglegs to the right where bigger hitters can cut the corner over the trees. This green has a bunker left and two on the right.
13 – par 5 529/512. This sweeping dogleg to the right is my favorite hole on the golf course. It has two bunkers spaced apart on the right that are raised, then another down the right after the dogleg and flanking bunkers at the front of the slightly raised green. This green has a decent tilt to it.
14 – par 5 564/510. Pretty straight hole with only one bunker on the right but three scattered down the right side and one right front of the green. This is my third favorite hole on the golf course as the heather to either side playing slightly downhill provides a nice visual. The heather surrounding the faces of the bunkers is lovely to see, painful to be in. There is a tilt back to front and right to left to the green.
15 – par 4 416/408. Seems Mr. Fowler likes his bunkers on the right as there are three more scattered down the fairway. There is another centerline bunker about 40 yards short of the green and then one right of the green. I like the hole.
16 – par 5 535/510. Trees line the left side with a cross bunker coming in from the right bout 150 yards short of the green. The green sits off to the left with another front right bunker.
17 – par 3 206/181. The best par 3 on the golf course with two deep bunkers at the front and small fall-offs at the green which is steeply back to front.
18 – par 4 404. “Weirdly, there are fairway bunkers down the left and then a long bunker at the entire front of the raised green sloped back to front. There are also deep bunkers to either side of the green. It is a nice finishing hole.
The Old course at Walton Heath is very good, but it is not at its potential which could be achieved with moving the first hole, adding bunkers down the left side of the fairway even if that means removing some on the right side, and having much more interesting green complexes. The greens, while often tilted, do not have enough undulations in them and so they lack character. There should be three-four bunkers placed at the back of some greens as well.
I know the club has discussed moving the clubhouse and first hole, which I believe might have been recently voted down, but I feel there must be a plan that can be approved.
I do like playing here and hopefully can return again soon.
Date: June 12, 2020