Pause for a minute in the middle of the great expanse of heathland common on which the Walton Heath Old and New Courses stand and consider this. Exactly 20 miles due north are the neon lights and tourist-thronged thoroughfares of Piccadilly Circus. To those unused to the experience, playing on the great Surrey and Berkshire courses, at the likes of Walton Heath, Sunningdale, Wentworth, Swinley Forest and The Berkshire, can be disconcerting. How can it be that these huge, seemingly endless areas of golfing nirvana lie in glorious solitude more or less in the middle of one of the world’s most populous conurbations?
In the case of Herbert Fowler’s Walton Heath, the far end is bordered by the M25, with Gatwick just a few miles further south. Yet although the incessant drone of London’s relentless traffic can be discerned around the turn of the Old Course for a few holes, in another sense you could hardly be further away from the rat race.
Indeed, the next time you find yourself orbiting the south of the capital, keep your eyes peeled and you might just catch a tantalising glimpse of an exclusive golfing paradise before your eye is drawn back, inevitably, to the brake lights in front of you.
Yet while the world has changed – drastically – all around the likes of Walton Heath, within the boundaries everything appears to be just as it ever was.
This is the most traditional of courses, the kind of place where the idea of a round without a hearty meal either before or after is unthinkable. The clubhouse is a regular meeting place of the great and the good, while membership is a privilege restricted to a lucky few.
So many courses in this area boast golfing lineage of the most esteemed order, but none more so than Walton Heath. It was here, on the 18th green of the Old Course, that Winston Churchill is said to have issued the following challenge to his fellow member David Lloyd George: “I’ll putt you for the Premiership.”
And during his year of captaincy in 1935, the Duke of Windsor became King Edward VIII, making this the only club able to claim a reigning monarch as a member.
Walton Heath is not an unfriendly club – far from it – it is just that, as one of the original inland courses in England, things have always been done in a certain way round here and outsiders unused to the particular atmosphere and customs of the place are readily apparent.
Take the pro shop, which has been standing for over a century yet only had three previous occupants. The first was James Braid, who took up the post in 1904, shortly after winning his first Open, and added another four while doubling up as a servant of the club. Not until 1950 did he retire, at which point Ken Busson, the clubmaker extraordinaire to whom the world’s best would routinely turn when they wanted a new persimmon driver building, took over. His 27-year stint was followed by that of Ken MacPherson before today’s incumbent, Simon Peaford.
Without wishing to state the obvious of a heathland course, there is much heather at Walton Heath – arguably more so than at any other course in Britain. It threatens almost every tee shot, and wraps round almost every fairway, sometimes even encroaching into the bunkers and right up to the very borders of the greens.
This means that driving is at a premium. The fairways are by no means the narrowest you will ever encounter, but should you miss one the chances are you will pay a heavy penalty. On such occasions, presuming you are lucky enough to find your ball, simply reach for your nearest wedge and hack sidewards and outwards.
Although it can be intimidating from the tee, there is nothing unfair about the golf here. The fairways are wide, firm and bouncy, while the principal hazard depends on the strength and direction of the wind. Walton Heath is several hundred feet above sea level and the trees offer little protection.
Both courses offer a wonderful mix of long and short par fours. On the Old, the 3rd tempts the longer hitter to drive the green while the same can be done at the opening hole on the New.
At the other extreme, the Old’s 2nd is a fearsome two-shotter where a good drive sets up a long approach from a hanging lie to a raised green. The most famous stretch is the closing three holes on the Old.
The 16th, formerly a par five, is now a mighty four, with a cavernous bunker awaiting the approach that is either a fraction short or right. Then comes a par three from an elevated tee before the striking last hole, which is dominated by the yawning cross bunker some 40 yards short of the green.
Somehow, it does feel that the Old has a touch more character about it, though it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why. It is easier to say what is good about both – fabulous fast, true greens and fairway turf that is simply a delight to strike irons from. As long-time tournament venues, both courses have been lengthened over the years.
With both courses being of such obvious stature, little wonder Walton Heath was chosen to host the International Qualifying event for the US Open. One of the men to come through the first such event in 2005 was Michael Campbell, who holed a nine-footer on his 36th and final hole to earn his place at Pinehurst. Just a few weeks later, he was the US Open champion.
For those old enough to remember, the sight of the leading pros of the day playing at Walton Heath is a familiar one – as it is now at nearby Wentworth. The News of the World Matchplay was held here for many years, and indeed for 20 years after the Second World War the club was owned by the paper.
More recently, in 1981, it provided the venue for the Ryder Cup, when the Americans were represented by arguably the strongest side ever assembled by either team.
Against the first-ever European team to play together on home soil – a line-up controversially denied of its outstanding player of the time in Seve Ballesteros – the visitors defied wet and windy conditions to romp to a 19 1/2 – 8 1/2 victory.
In the European Open that was played here during the 1980s, winners included Paul Way and Andrew Murray. But for all the great names in the club’s history, be they professionals or statesmen, one stands out.
That name is James Braid’s, who served here for almost half a century, until beyond his 80th birthday. Fittingly, the last two rounds of golf he ever played were at his beloved Walton. Both were in the low 70s. His class, pedigree and longevity live on to this day at Walton Heath, which remains an oasis of calm on the outskirts of London as it enters its second century of golf.