A great course does not necessarily have to be an outstandingly difficult one. Nor is it a prerequisite for the majority of the par fours to be in excess of 450 yards, and the fives at least 100 longer. It is not a weakness of design to allow the average club player the occasional sniff of a birdie, nor a crime that such a golfer will sometimes have a short iron in his hand to approach the greens. The Berkshire, then, possibly in more ways than one, is a venue that belongs to a different era.
From the moment you turn off the busy A332 and escape the morning rush towards the capital, shortly followed by that first inhalation of pine as you open the car door, you are part of an altogether more pleasant world, one where time seems to matter less and it is possible to concentrate on the really important things in life, like what to hit off the opening tee.
The Berkshire is, of course, home to not one but two classic layouts: The Red and The Blue. They are so called after the red and blue armies who used this land for manoeuvres prior to the First World War.
Since red was the colour used to denote enemy forces, there are those who believe that course was designed to be the more difficult of the two with the Blue being somewhat friendlier.
In fact, both are welcoming. It is true that the first nine on the Blue is probably the gentlest stretch of holes, but the succession of stern par fours on the back nine surely more than make up for it.
What is beyond question is that the Red is the more distinctive of the two courses, both of which were designed in 1928 by Herbert Fowler, whose other great works include Walton Heath, Saunton and Cruden Bay. Together they occupy 400 acres of Crown Land just outside Bracknell close to the county border with Surrey.
As James W. Finegan writes in his book ‘All Courses Great and Small’: “The Crown Commissioners even agreed to pay for the construction of the clubhouse as well as the golf holes, and then, not content with the prospect of a mere 18, insisted on 36. Where are such men of vision in government today?”
Fowler’s approach to the Red course was unusual indeed and to this day it comprises six par threes, six par fours and six par fives. No other course in Britain was similarly configured until The Shire, in North London, opened in 2007.
This makes for some unusual scoring possibilities. Because if the par fives are in many cases short by modern standards, so also are the par threes often long and demanding.
All but one of the fives measures under 520 yards; but five of the half-dozen short holes are in excess of 175 yards. In other words, what the Red gives with one hand, it takes away with another.
All but one of the fives measures under 520 yards; but five of the half-dozen short holes are in excess of 175 yards.
And in any case, the par fives are not quite as defenceless as they might first look on the card. The 1st, 3rd and 15th are each protected by a stream at 280-300 yards – in the latter case on either side of the fairway, in the other two directly across it – that takes driver out of the hands of longer hitters and makes the second shot play at least 200 yards and uphill.
The 9th turns left against the camber, which makes it awkward to find prime position, and at the 13th a long, straight drive will most likely leave a blind second. Finally the 17th, by some distance the longest hole on the course at 562 yards, dog-legs sharp right and is out of reach for all but the very best. All are birdie chances, it is true, but all can also trip up the unwary or overly aggressive.
As for the short holes, which are recognised to be The Berkshire’s strongest suit, threes have to be earned at every one. The pick of the six are the 7th, 10th and 15th. The 7th is one of those short holes where you know from the moment you arrive on the tee that only a well-struck, true long iron or wood will suffice. Then the 10th is a slightly less intimidating version of Calamity Corner, at Royal Portrush, with a green perched on a shelf and a precipitous fall-off punishing anything remotely short or right.
The 16th is the longest, at 220 yards, and is played to a raised green that rejects rather than embraces the slightly off-target approach.
Even the par fours do not lack for variety. Two are particularly testing, and rightly ranked as stroke-index one and two. The 4th is over 400 yards, uphill all the way and played to a narrow target. The 14th is even longer, involves the traversing of another stream and has a fast, sloping green at its conclusion.
More typical of the Red’s charm and character is the 6th, probably the most celebrated hole on the course. Here the quality of the drive determines the way the hole plays. It is only 360 yards but turns sharply right.
The fairway is shaped to be generously accommodating to those content to play cautiously up the left, thus leaving a much longer second shot. The further right you play, though, the more precise you must be both with regards to the length and line of the drive. As you would expect, the green is awkward to hit from any distance but especially from further back.
Like almost every other hole on the course, it is played through pines, chestnuts and silver birches in glorious seclusion. Indeed, for the first-time visitor it can be hard to retain your bearings. Periodically, you emerge into a more open area with a flag gently fluttering in the distance and wonder ‘have I already played to that green?’.
As you walk towards the 18th green, the enormous clubhouse, unseen since leaving the 1st tee, suddenly reappears. It seems impossible – but perhaps given the club’s military connections it was designed with camouflage in mind.
This building really is a pleasure in itself. It seemingly has rooms for every conceivable purpose and offers the perfect view of the opening hole on the Blue course. It was in these very rooms that Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales) was once enjoying a drink after a game with his regular playing partner, Archie Compston.
This was before the Second World War and in an age when professionals were classed alongside servants. The fact that Compston was no ordinary pro, having four times finished in the top 10 in The Open and even once 7th in a US Open, counted for nothing.
The secretary, one of only five in the club’s history, approached the Prince saying: “Your Royal Highness, club servants are not allowed in the clubhouse.”
The Prince responded: “I am the Prince of Wales and I am drinking with whom I wish, where I wish.”
“Not in here, sir,” came the reply.
The Prince duly left and went to play at Mid-Surrey in future. And so it was that The Berkshire never did attain the ‘Royal’ status that was expected to be conferred upon it.
It is an anecdote that reveals much about the sort of club this both was and is, for it retains to this day a timeless appeal. And with two golf courses of this quality, who can argue with their modus operandi?