When it comes to inland golf in the British Isles only a handful of courses can possibly stand comparison to Sunningdale. Raise the bar still further and insist on not 18 but 36 holes of the very highest heathland standard and only two others can even be mentioned in the same breath – Walton Heath and The Berkshire. Informed opinion is largely split as to whether Sunningdale Old or Woodhall Spa best represents the epitome of this style of course. If all else fails then surely the former takes the honours on a tie-break on account of its famous halfway house.
Apart from not actually being at the halfway point (standing between the 10th greens and 11th tees of both the Old and New courses), it is the example on which all other such establishments should be based – having served up hot drinks and bacon sandwiches to the great and the good of the game for several decades.
But as good as the refreshments undoubtedly are, it is the environment in which they are served that makes all the difference and the land on which Sunningdale stands is quite simply a golfer’s delight.
The turf is firm and springy, the greens fast and true and the heather a sight to behold – although preferably from a short distance away. Nearly every single one of the 36 holes is isolated from the others and each has its own distinct character.
Of the two courses, the Old is the more enclosed and probably calls for a greater appreciation of strategy. Given these clear distinctions it might come as a surprise to learn that the Old and the New occupy very much the same land, land which to this day is still leased from its freeholder, St John’s College, Cambridge. There is, however, a significant difference in terms of the character of both the clubs and the courses.
Where Wentworth is set up to host professional tournaments, Sunningdale remains very much a members’ club in the classical and old-fashioned sense. And while Wentworth’s West Course is closer to parkland in style, Sunningdale (and Wentworth’s less-heralded and underrated East Course for that matter) is very much fast-running heathland.
The Old was designed by Open champion Willie Park Junior, the man largely responsible for the spread of golf in America in the early 1900s. It opened for play in 1901, becoming what is widely regarded as the first great course to benefit from the famous Surrey-Berkshire sand belt.
It only became the Old when a second course was added, which opened in 1923. That was designed by the club’s then secretary Harry Colt, who would go on to spend most his professional life down the road at Swinley Forest.
The turf is firm and springy, the greens fast and true and the heather a sight to behold – although preferably from a short distance away.
Host to many prestigious tournaments over the years, including the European Open, won by Nick Faldo among others, the most notable of all was the 2004 Weetabix Women’s British Open.
Memorably, the winner was England’s Karen Stupples who began her round by playing the first two holes, both par fives for the championship, in a total of five strokes. After eagling the 1st, she holed her fairway-wood approach at the 2nd to stand an incredible five under par for the round on the 3rd tee.
Yet remarkable though Stupples’ feat was, it still does not quite match that of Bobby Jones in a qualifying round for the 1926 Open. At a time when sub-par rounds were extremely rare, the legendary amateur covered the Old in 66 strokes, out in 33 and back in 33 with 33 putts and 33 other shots.
Considered the perfect round, Jones had to use a two iron or longer for his approach on no fewer than 10 holes and was only concerned that he might have used up his best form before arriving in Lytham. He need not have worried, winning the first of his three Open titles by two shots from fellow American Al Watrous.
Sunningdale, then, has long links with the amateur game, as illustrated by the prestigious Sunningdale Foursomes, a scratch knockout event open to men and women, amateur and pro alike. It has also hosted the Walker Cup, in 1987, when a GB&I side containing Colin Montgomerie was well beaten by the Americans.
But whether amateur or pro, expert or novice, few who visit have anything other than fulsome compliments. Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers, remarked: “If we have not been too frequently ‘up to our necks’ in untrodden heather – nay, even if we have – we ought to have enjoyed ourselves immensely.”
Despite Darwin’s warning about the heather, which, as he quite rightly points out, is particularly thick, the Old is not the sternest of championship tests. It is a course set up to be played by the members and while in no sense should it be regarded as a pushover, good scoring is not an impossibility.
In the main the fairways are generous and the greens invariably a pleasure to putt on. Certainly there are some redoubtable par fours, such as the s-shaped 12th with its bunker-ridden fairway and elevated green, but there are also birdie chances as well. For example, the 1st is a gentle par-five opener while the 3rd is drivable for some and no more than a short-iron second even for shorter hitters.
In between, though, is the rather more formidable 2nd, where the awkward drive is at an angle to a fairway flanked by heather, trees and long grass. Following the short 4th comes the first of the Old’s truly unforgettable holes.
Played from an elevated tee and with the hole mapped out in perfect clarity below, an accurate drive is required to avoid heather and sand and set up a medium iron to the green.
This is not a course that calls for brute strength and the 7th is a perfect example of what really is required. Less than 400 yards, the uphill, blind drive demands commitment and bravery to find a rolling fairway. From there the awkwardly shaped green may or may not be in view and the same can be said of the bunkers that surround it.
After this unusual hole comes the classical short 8th, a point-to-point one-shotter played amid towering pines where the green is generous enough but the penalties for missing it, particularly on the low side, are heavy.
Fortunately a birdie chance is at hand in the shape of the straightforward 9th before the elevated drive to end all elevated drives on the 10th. After a well-deserved snack at the aforementioned halfway house and a tricky blind tee shot at the 11th comes the outstanding 12th, which will test your ability to conceive a plan on the tee then execute it.
The par-three 15th, at well over 200 yards, marks the beginning of the home stretch that features three meaty par fours each well over 400 yards.
The highlight is undoubtedly the last, where the green is protected by Sunningdale’s trademark oak tree. If ever there were a course that made you desperate to finish with a solid closing par this would be it.