When golfers across the land discuss the latest ‘top 100 courses’ list, it seems everyone has their own opinion of what constitutes an exceptional layout. Some believe the Royal and Ancient game to be encapsulated by the blind thrills and eccentricities of a fresh morning at Prestwick. Others will swear there is no finer place on earth to play golf than the tranquil banks of Loch Lomond. Who’s to say which views are right and wrong?
Even those which claim professional knowledge, in forms of league tables can be at the mercy and the whim of a single reviewer.
They may have experienced a course in the best or worst conditions they’ve ever played in, on a particularly good or bad day, behind a society of lumbering hackers or as the only group on the course – or perhaps simply the day after the greens were hollowtined.
They can never be completely accurate. The most glorious fact about them is that they remain no more or less than a judgment call. There is, after all, no such definitive thing as ‘the best course in the British Isles’. And that’s what makes them such a rich topic for discussion in clubhouses up and down the country.
Yet within the inevitable chaos, there is some order. The same couple of dozen names will populate the highest reaches of each one – just in a slightly rearranged sequence.
And while one course might be rated, say, 50th in one list, another might place it in the 90s. A discrepancy, yes, but not outright disagreement.
In other words, if a course is genuinely excellent, it will achieve due recognition. Apart, that is, from Sherwood Forest.
It is incomprehensible that there are 100 courses of a demonstrably superior standard to this strategic, fast-running, heathland layout.
So quite how its claims can have been so under-appreciated in one list after another is a real mystery. It’s not as if it doesn’t tick all the right boxes.
For a start, there is a rich back-story, the club having moved to its current site roughly halfway between Nottingham and Mansfield in 1912. Its full history dates another 17 years back from then.
By the sea it may not be, but this is as far away as is possible from some recently converted, purpose-built, brown-field creation.
It was designed by Harry Colt, the man responsible for, among many others, Sunningdale’s New Course, Swinley Forest, St George’s Hill and both the East and West at Wentworth. In 1925 James Braid was invited to make improvements and extend it.
From the back tees it measures a weighty 6,850 yards, with the seven par fours between the 6th and the 17th each exceeding 400 yards – so it could hardly be accused of becoming out-dated.
From the yellows it is a much more manageable 6,300, making it a course that can be enjoyed as much by the novice as it will undoubtedly be by the expert.
Most of the holes are set in glorious seclusion, with flanks of firs and banks of gorse divorcing the current challenge from the rest of the course. The tight, springy turf is indicative of an inland course of the very highest quality.
Finally, it has that indefinable touch of class that most courses, no matter how hard they strive or how many new back tees they build, will never achieve.
Perhaps the feeling derives from the elegant shaping of the longer holes as they sweep through valleys – like at the par-five 8th – or pivot around strategically placed firs, as at the 12th. Or maybe it’s the smooth and deceptively fast greens.
Sherwood Forest also features a pleasing mixture of par threes. Even if the 7th, at just 130 yards and set in open land, is slightly out of character with the rest, the narrow, rectangular green means it must still be treated with respect.
Elsewhere, from the 4th hole that completes an early loop back to the clubhouse, through to the 10th and 15th, you’ll find yourself using a different club each time – but the demands for a well-struck shot remain a constant.
It is true that Sherwood’s long holes offer respite, but on a course with a quite stunning collection of daunting two-shotters that’s entirely as it should be.
Perhaps the run from the 11th to the 14th offers the pick. Measuring 473, 426, 456 and 444 yards respectively from the tips and with all but the first doglegging gradually left and playing into the prevailing wind, this is clearly where your score must be preserved.
At the 12th, clear thinking and precise execution is more important than outright power, as the drive positioned on the brow of the hill and the angle of the dogleg offers the perfect view and position to attack the green down below.
Drive left, right, short or long and you’re unlikely to have a sight of – let alone a shot to – the putting surface.
This stretch back to the clubhouse, which plays into the prevailing wind, is almost as relentless as the famous closing run at Royal Troon and culminates at the glorious 17th, with the last hole offering an element of late respite.
In fact, the 18th completes a quartet of holes immediately visible from the clubhouse that give Sherwood a deceptively benign appearance to the first-time visitor.
The 1st, at 336 yards, is easily the least demanding par four on the course. The 4th green looks a generous target and the 5th is a par five reachable in two. It’s probably just as well the rigours in between are hidden from view.
This seems somehow typical of Sherwood Forest, whose virtues as a whole remain, for some reason, curiously uncelebrated. Perhaps that’s the way the members like it. Should you make a visit anytime soon, they might thank you for not telling everyone else quite how much you enjoyed it.
The truth is, though, that Sherwood Forest is a course that belongs in top 100 lists.