In this modern day and age Swinley Forest provides a score card indicating par and SSS. This is perhaps the only concession that has been made by the club in the years that have gone by since the 1960s. Such is the atmosphere and flavour of a special golf course that may be without exact parallel anywhere in the world, let alone within Britain. It is a private club that accepts no visitors except those accompanied by members or who have made special prior arrangement with the secretary. Members include the Dukes of Edinburgh and York, along with countless old Harrovians, Etonians and those with Oxbridge connections.
There is a sign outside the property advertising its presence to the outside world. But since it is roughly the size of an envelope, you can safely assume there are no two-for-one offers open to the passing golfer while immediate vacancies for five-day memberships have yet to arise.
Even contact with its prestigious Berkshire and Surrey neighbours is practically non-existent – Swinley very much keeps itself to itself. Swinley does not have a club captain, scorecards are a recent addition, its history is unrecorded and handicaps are informal affairs.
Indeed for 80 years there were no competitions. No, Swinley exists solely for the pleasure of its members – and what a pleasure it is. As you may have guessed, this is a club that exists in something of a timewarp. And what’s more it takes great pride in doing so.
Once the imposing wrought-iron gates have slid back and you arrive on the property, it is almost impossible to imagine you could be within 20 miles of one of the world’s largest cities. Yet Swinley, just outside Ascot on the Berkshire side of the border with Surrey, is within but a few decent par fives of Heathrow.
Listen carefully when you reach the far end of the course and you can hear the distant hum of traffic on the several arterial roads nearby. But Swinley itself is an implausibly quiet place. On the Sunday afternoon of our visit the course was empty.
To qualify that, we did catch a glimpse of one two-ball, several holes ahead. And this, by all accounts, is an entirely typical weekend scene. Never mind scoring or competing, it feels as though even playing a round constitutes taking the game a little too seriously here.
Perhaps those members lucky enough to have spent most of their lives playing here become a little blasé. For the rest of us, a game here is close to paradise in what really is a Garden of Eden.
Heathland in nature, the turf is firm and springy. Heather, trees and sometimes Rhododendron bushes flank the holes. Hilly in places but never exceptionally so, it offers a quintessentially British equivalent of Augusta National.
Needless to say for a course that considers itself excessively busy if 50 golfers play on the same day, the conditioning is impeccable. Harry Colt, long-time secretary at Sunningdale, designed Swinley Forest back in 1909 and described it as “the least bad course” he had ever built.
Since then the club have proudly left well alone, although Lieutenant Colonel Ian Pearce, the secretary, has added a few bunkers and even a pond during his tenure. As such it measures just 6,062 yards from the back tees, although it must be taken into account there are only two par fives against five par threes.
And with five of the par fours measuring over 400 yards it’s hardly a pushover. But that’s hardly the point. More importantly, each hole is aesthetically a delight, particularly the quintet of short holes.
From the redoubtable 10th, at 205 yards, through the stunning 13th, played downhill to a green framed by sand and trees, to the point-to-point 17th, only 170 yards in length yet its raised green surrounded by trouble and arguably harder to find with a recovery chip than a mid-iron from the tee.
Not to mention the glorious 4th, uphill all the way and with the large green defended by a steep-faced bunker on the left and the ubiquitous heather elsewhere. Two other holes particularly stand out, and both require drives of the highest calibre, preferably ones shaped from right to left.
The 9th involves a tee shot into a valley. The further right it is, the longer the second shot to a green at the top of the hill; the tighter it flies down the left the more the chance of the second being blind or even blocked out.
The 12th is even better. This s-shaped double dogleg is a par five to most because unless the drive turns left in the air to follow the angle of the fairway, the well-struck shot will run though it into a bunker.
The difficulties of the approach – apart from its length – are determined simply by the contours of the land that dictate anything falling short or right is rejected. It is a wonderfully strong and imposing hole.
Much of Swinley lies on what is called Crown land, which means the club pays an annual lease. As this figure has risen steeply in the last 20 years, so has Swinley been forced to consider its economics more carefully. Accordingly, hitherto nugatory subscription fees and a tiny membership have both risen, with visitors a much more common sight than they used to be.
Which is not to say that it is anything other than the most private of clubs. But that should not be confused with unfriendliness. The staff are unfailingly warm and, once arrived on the property, you will feel every bit as royal as some of the members truly are. All of which means an invitation to Swinley is worth whatever it takes. This is a golfing experience par excellence.