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  • Review of the Month - February 2023

Review of the Month - February 2023

23 March, 2023
Ryan Book

The purpose of the Review of The Month feature is twofold. Top100GolfCourses has always aimed to salute and encourage those who are putting admirable effort into reviewing the world’s great golf courses. Moving forward, we are also looking to learn from these experts! We’ll be chatting with the month’s star authors and discussing topics such as golf in their area, what they like to see in a strong course review, and of course dig a little deeper into their own winning review.

February 2023’s Review of The Month comes from Harvey Thomas, who ate his first course at Woking Golf Club while exploring Surrey’s famous “Three W’s” feast. He’s eager to get back for seconds!

It seems from context that you've recently gotten the Heathland bug. Whereabouts do you hail from, and how does the golf in Surrey compare from a playing perspective?

I spent most of my childhood living in Southeast London, where golf was a sport for “posh people” (which we definitely were not). I have lived in South Hampshire for 30 years now and I got into golf about 20 years ago when my back stopped me from being so competitive with my tennis. I currently have home membership at Stoneham and an away membership at a nice club in Surrey, but have also previously had a country membership at Saunton in Devon, which I loved. Every time I used to drive through the entrance at Saunton I would get goosebumps down my neck as I saw the stunning linksland below.

Stoneham is by far the best course in South Hampshire and is a lovely roller coaster with lots of up and down elevation changes, through tree and heather lined fairways and every hole is memorable and different in its own way. As is the fashion these days, they have cleared a lot of the trees, although there are still a lot left and they have been trying to regenerate the heather. If they can restore the heather fully, it will make a very good track absolutely stunning.

The membership in Surrey has been a special treat for me and really got me into the Surrey golf scene, where there are a large number of fantastic heathland style courses.

Between Stoneham and playing tracks in Surrey, I have grown a real love for heathland classics. They are frequently very beautiful but I also have a big weakness for good links tracks, which make you feel like you are playing a game within a game, especially when they get firm and the wind gets up.

Photo credit: Jason Livy

You make it clear from the onset that Woking's greens are its primary defense. Do you think these putting surfaces allow it to offer a similar challenge to low handicappers as other longer courses do?

The fantastic greens at Woking are probably its strongest point, and they look like they demand well-placed shots into greens if you are to score well on them. My son played a match there recently too, and he is a plus handicap. He found the greens scorable, but definitely on the challenging and good side. High handicappers could definitely get humiliated by them, and single figure golfers will need to have a good touch with good green reading to avoid too many three-putts on them. The course is not as challenging as some long championship courses in terms of playing to par, but the course and slope rating is nowhere near as generous either, so playing to your handicap index on this track is just as hard in my view. The heather, a few ponds and streams, the bunker positioning and the remaining trees also add to the challenge on a visually appealing course, and I love the elevation changes on the front nine. This is definitely not a course for the beginner or high handicapper, who will find it too difficult, but mid to low handicappers will generally find it very enjoyable.

Have you had the opportunity to play many Tom Dunn courses and, if so, anything you've noticed in his style?

Other Tom Dunn courses I have played are Sheringham, and Goring & Streatley, but I never would have guessed they were by the same architect, as they are such different styles of course. Although I liked Sheringham, I do not personally put it in the Top 100 in England, and Goring & Streatley was pleasant but not very memorable. Woking, by contrast, was highly memorable and enjoyable too.

You mentioned how recent clearance work from Tim Lobb has improved the course. Do you have any gems in mind that would benefit from similar treatment?

I think tree clearance has become very fashionable in recent years as clubs with heathland traditions try to restore their style from days of old. I understand by contrast that in the 1970’s and ‘80s, many clubs were planting trees to have those tricky tree-lined fairways, although maybe that is just hearsay. It is perfectly possible to have tree-lined fairways and still be a fantastic course in my view.

Stoneham has done an excellent job with it, where a huge number of trees have been removed from the property while retaining a large number of large specimen trees, which add to the challenge. The views are more open across the course and it now has a great balance. The only thing I objected to was the clearance of the Rhododendrons. Although perhaps not in keeping with a heathland course, they were very pretty, especially when in flower in the Spring, and they also added some useful shielding to some of the tee boxes and greens in my view. Nevertheless, the course is now stunning and on balance all the work done has improved the course significantly.

By contrast, when I visited The Addington again last Summer soon after their clearance work, I found the course much less enjoyable than on my previous visit. So my jury is out as to whether it will be an improvement in the long term there, and only time will tell. They certainly will need to plant heather in the cleared areas if they want to make the tree clearance a positive in this instance. I felt that the trees added definition and challenge, as well as better seclusion between the holes on my previous visit.

I didn’t play Woking before its tree clearance, but certainly enjoyed it in its current form. From the pictures I have seen, it looks like it has been a good improvement and the member I played with that day prefers it that way.

I can’t think of any other tracks I have visited that need major tree clearance works, although I am always very happy when courses restore heather/heathland, which I find visually stunning except for when I am trying to play out of it!

Photo credit: Jason Livy

Now that you're a celebrated "Review of The Month" winner, let us know what factors you appreciate in a strong golf course review!

When I read a review the things I really appreciate are:

1. A fair score by someone who knows what a really good course looks like. Too often I see relatively inexperienced reviewers giving out five-ball and six-balls to courses that are certainly not good Top 100 material. It makes it very hard to work out whether the course is worth a visit if there are lots of over generous reviews. My own benchmark is that a six-ball would certainly need to be around the Top 50 in the world (not that I have played enough to know for sure) and a five-ball would normally be something that would be in the top few hundred globally. I give 4.5’s to courses that are around the 50-100 in England, although at the lower end I am sometimes considering a four. Scores of three and 3.5 would be good private members clubs that I am happy to play if in the area and I have the invite and would rate quite highly in their county, being in the top quartile or so.

2. Something that gives me a flavour for the feel of the course, and what makes it stand out compared with other good courses.

3. What the conditioning is like, as this can make a course not worth the time travelling to it and the cost if this is poor.

4. If there are no previous reviews with that level of detail, I am happy to see a hole-by-hole review and description, but not if someone has already done a good job on this previously.

5. Some good pictures if possible – something I need to learn how to do myself.

6. Something that does not simply repeat the reviews that have gone before, so that it feels worthwhile reading and it adds to the body of knowledge. If it is not able to do that because of the large volume of previous reviews, then I am OK with something short and sweet.

7. If it is really well written with elements of humour it certainly helps to hold the interest.

8. I am always interested to know how the etiquette of the other groups was on the day (do they play faster groups through, repair pitch marks, rake bunkers etc) and the pace of play. I hate slow rounds and anything over four hours drives me nuts, so information on how this was on the day is very good to know.

9. It is sometimes nice to see any debate compared with previous reviews. For example there are often holes that polarise opinion, and it is good to see any contrasting view on these occasions.

10. It would also be interesting to see some reviews that assess a course from what it is like to be a member at the club, and which really gets under the skin of what the club is like, warts and all. For example, I can think of a Top 100 in England course near London, which is a good 4 ball track but with all the slow corporate pay-and-play golf, I would hate to be a member there, getting stuck behind five or six-hour rounds.

What's one course that you're excited to write a review for in the upcoming year?

In the next year I am due to play Sunningdale Old, Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart, Woodhall Spa, Royal Worlington, Brora, St. George’s Hill, Bearwood Lakes, West Hill, Parkstone, Broadstone and Boat of Garten for the first time. We may also get to Rye, Hankley Common, Hayling and Silloth if we are lucky. I am very excited about playing all of them, and it is a flip of the coin between Sunningdale and Royal Dornoch as to which will be the biggest treat.


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