With all three of its courses ranked among the top 100 in England, merely to stand in Woburn’s modern clubhouse is enough to send a shiver of anticipation down the spine of even the most seasoned golfer. The latest addition to the family, the Marquess, is seen by many as better than both of its aristocratic cousins, with the Duchess coming next. That leaves the Duke’s, which remains one of the most pleasurable layouts at which you are ever likely to play and the highest ranked Woburn course of the three in our list.
It would be easy to believe that golf was played in Woburn, close to Milton Keynes, for at least a century. In fact, the Duke’s was only opened in 1974 and as such is a baby compared to most courses of such similar undisputed class.
Situated within minutes of the M1 and close to London, Woburn is ideally placed to attract corporate events. And with three courses at their disposal, the management seem quite happy to accommodate society visits and green fee payers in the knowledge that their members will never struggle to find a spare tee-time.
Inside the clubhouse, unlike at many of Britain’s finest courses, there is a sense of efficient business being done, rather than of being steeped in sometimes backward golfing tradition. The facilities are more akin to those of a golfing hotel.
Once you have stepped foot on to the Duke’s, however, the atmosphere is deliciously old fashioned. The design is classical rather than modern, with the emphasis on subtle dog-legs and position off the tees. It is one of those rare courses where many holes exist in magnificent isolation to each other, giving the feeling that nobody else is on the course.
Most holes are flanked on either side by tall pines and though predominantly flat, the ground occasionally falls away to dramatic effect.
This situation is illustrated nowhere better than on the postcard-perfect 3rd, where disaster awaits despite the hole being no longer than 130 yards.
There are, however, sound reasons why tournaments have moved away from the Duke’s to the Marquess. One is the final hole, perfectly pleasant in itself, but frankly too short and straightforward to create a fitting climax to a professional event.
Secondly, some of the holes around the turn are significantly weaker than the others. This is, of course, nit-picking as to play at the Duke’s is a privilege.
It is one of those rare courses where many holes exist in magnificent isolation to each other, giving the feeling that nobody else is on the course.
A gentle opening par five is a typically friendly feature of a course that tries its best to accommodate the golfer. Out of bounds does lurk down the left but for most an opening par is not out of the question. The 2nd sweeps downhill and to the left, the first of six right-to-left dog-legs, but again a reasonable tee-shot makes the hole manageable.
The longer you stand on the 3rd tee, the harder it looks. Anyone who believes that a par three needs to be in excess of 200 yards to pose problems should take a close look at it.
The green lies some 100 feet beneath the level of the tee and the difficulty lies in assessing what impact that dramatic change in elevation will have on the distance a shot will travel, especially when even the slightest of breezes swirls around the valley.
The first genuinely difficult test comes in the shape of the 4th. A bold tee-shot, played significantly uphill, is required to afford a view of the green hidden around a corner and obscured by a large hill.
Reach the corner of the par-five 5th, another dog-leg left, and the view is outstanding. The left half of the fairway falls sharply away meaning that if the well-guarded green is to be attacked with the second shot, there is a feeling of having to carry over a hazard to reach the apron.
The short 6th is played across a steep-sided valley while the difficulty of the 7th, rated stroke index one, lies more in the narrowness of the fairway than its length. After a few holes’ respite which includes the pretty par-3 9th, the Duke’s is back to its best on the 13th.
What appears to be a relatively flat dog-leg turns into something altogether more spectacular as the ground falls away and then rises to a perched green that demands a solidly-struck approach.
The 14th is long at 550 yards with bunkers and a crop of heather pinching the fairway in at strategic intervals, making a mockery of its high stroke index.
The 15th and 16th are a fine pair of long par fours. Travelling in opposite directions, one always plays significantly longer than the other and though the 16th, with its dog-leg, is marginally the more difficult, both represent stern tests.
For those who favour a fade, the last two may come too late to salvage a good score. The tee-shot on the 17th will ideally be shaped from left to right around the large tree on the corner to leave a medium-iron approach.
Caution is perhaps the order of the day at the the last. Although not much over 300 yards in length, the narrow fairway and tall pines are unsympathetic to a wild drive, which will invariably last be seen and heard clattering around the branches.
With the arrival of the Marquess, the Duke’s has been forced into premature retirement in terms of hosting professional events. Perhaps the finest players in Europe can make a mockery of its par of 72.
For the rest of us, it will long continue to represent a fine, and more importantly enjoyable, test of golf.