Founded in 1916, West Kent Golf Club was originally located next to Blackbrook Lane in Bickley but it moved to the 18-hole layout that had been used by the disbanded Bromley and Bickley Golf Club at Magpie Hall Lane in 1940. After the war, the local council wouldn't renew the club's lease as it planned to build a school with playing fields on the property so West Kent moved for the second and final time to Downe Golf Course in 1946.
The layout hadn't been used since 1940 because the RAF had closed the course and erected barbed wire to keep the general public away from the airfield next door. During the following six years, the fairways and greens disappeared under grass growing knee high and the bunkers became hidden beneath a carpet of weeds. Tool sheds lay in ruins and the clubhouse required major renovation work to the roof, doors and windows.
Club members and Artisans worked hard to establish the position of the fairways and greens, with work parties formed every weekend to restore the course back to its former glory. And it was certainly a course worth bringing back to life as it had been designed in 1925 by Herbert Fowler and John Abercromby, renowned golf course designers at the time.
Both architects had notable individual projects to their name – for instance, Fowler designed Delamere Forest and the two courses at Walton Heath while Abercromby had laid out the first course at The Addington and Worplesdon – but they also collaborated on a number of other designs along with business partners Tom Simpson and Arthur Croome.
Almost a hundred years have passed since the holes were first set out at West Kent, but the original classic layout has changed very little down the years, apart from the growth of the many mature trees that now line the fairways of this rather splendid parkland track. The club has invested heavily in recently with irrigation enhancements, particularly around the greens, and there’s an ongoing programme in place to improve drainage in certain areas.
The modern day layout extends to 6,427 yards from the back tees, playing to a par of 71. Routed across gently undulating terrain, the fairways run in a generally north-south direction, alongside the single runway of London Biggin Hill airport which lies immediately to the west of the property. Once an RAF station, the airfield now services occasional business flights.
There are only two par fives on the card, the 495-yard 7th, doglegging right to a 2-tiered green, and the 551-yard 12th, with out of bounds lurking beyond the putting surface. Both have a low stroke index but they’re eminently birdieable holes. Indeed, the stretch from holes 9 to 12 probably offers the best chance of picking up strokes against par during the round.
The toughest hole on a course isn’t always the obvious one (rated stroke index 1) and many think the 398-yard right doglegged 2nd hole is a difficult beast of a hole to tame, playing uphill as it does all the way from tee to green. Arriving so early in the round, the second of six straight par fours, it’s a hole that can make or break your round so be well prepared for it.
A 100+ year old course that has passed me by and my first visit in the scorcher summer of 2018 was really enjoyable – I’ll not go mad and say this is a ‘must-play’ but I will say my interest levels in the course remained high for the duration of the round.
The sub 300 yard par-4 opener is an obvious chance to start scoring well, a slightly raised green the only real challenge. The 400 yard 2nd gives an inviting drive feel from the tee and with only one fairway bunker (80 yards out), your approach should be from a good lie. After a beautiful walk to the next tee, you have another very short par-4 (319 yards) – a good looking hole but not a major challenge – after these first three, playing to your handicap is the barest minimum.
The course potentially gets one back at the 4th – stroke index one and a strong 2-shotter. The 5th is similar length to the 4th but so much easier as this a big downhill hole, with some strong bunkering at the green, especially the one short and left. A couple of observations about the 7th hole (495 yards par-5) – firstly a really great looking tee ground in the trees, manicured immaculately and secondly there is wasted bunker as I cannot workout who it is for; 340 yards from the tee and 150 yards from green on the right-side of the fairway, just not needed there. Eight holes before a par-3 but it is worth the wait – all carry across the valley and at 140-180 yards, it is playable for all.
Two more short par-4’s open the back nine (330 yards and 280 yards) both with stroke indexes that say everyone should score well on – the 10th needs a little bunker re-think for me, none of the four badly placed but needing a little upgrade and re-shaping.
Positive news about the bunkering on the 550 yard 12th hole; the two at 140 and 120 yards from the green are off-set perfectly and will get all golfers considering where to place second or third shots.
The last five holes are a treat – the 14th plays alongside the 18th hole (to the left) and you just need to avoid the right-side as out of bounds runs the length of the 420 yard hole. There is a great raised tee to play the 15th, which is my favourite par-4 on the course; the five greenside bunkers at the end of this 454 yard hole are the obvious problems, especially as you will not be coming in with a short iron. The 16th is the final par-3 and I will say, my choice as signature hole but really there is not a lot to it but it is all about the green. An elevated tee shot slightly playing back over the previous hole to an offset green with a three bunker protection. The green is brilliant – the day I played the pin was front-right and I was putting from back-right, now what happened next was that the ball turned uphill! I stood and attempted this putt for at least 15 minutes and every-time it moved left to right but uphill – one of the biggest conundrums I have ever seen on a green anywhere. I have no idea if the runway of nearby Biggin Hill (only about 500 yards away through the trees) has anything to do with it but there is something strange about the 16th green.
A couple of strong par-4’s finish the round, although the final green is noticeably small – maybe a project for the future as I think the hole deserves a little more.
I give this course a 5-ball, not because it blew me away but I was definitely charmed here at West Kent and if the club embark on a strong bunker upgrade programme, then I would say then most golfers would rate it too – I imagine most at this point would give a 4-ball ranking. I would love to see what others think.