There is much debate as to exactly where and when the game of golf began but it is an indisputable fact that Woking was the original heathland course. The legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin was a member here for 60 years and describes the advent of this style of course as “really golf, and not a good or even bad imitation of it”. In 1910 he wrote: “The idea of hacking and digging and building a course out of land on which two blades of grass do not originally grow together is a comparatively modern one.
“The elder architects took a piece of country that was more or less ready to their hand. They did not as a rule think of taking a primeval pine forest or a waste of heather and forcibly turning it into a course.”
But in 1893, Tom Dunn was commissioned by a “few mad barristers trying to carve by main force out of a swamp thickly covered with gorse and heather near Woking”.
To this day, many members still work in the legal profession and, along with nearby Worplesdon and West Hill, this delightful trinity of distinguished Surrey heathland courses is known as The Three Ws.
Although it is Dunn’s design that stands today, much of which makes Woking famous has been added since.
Small tweaks and tucks were carried out each year by the club – in a less than democratic fashion that Darwin greatly approved of – so that the members would “disperse for their summer holidays and return (to) find that the most revolutionary things have been done”.
Woking is subtle. Often, holes seem innocuous only to reveal their true difficulty nearer to or on the greens, many of which feature evil contours.
Much of this work was carried out by a single member, Stuart Paton, over a 40-year period. Most significantly, he added two small bunkers in the middle of the 4th fairway. It is thought to be the first time a hazard had been designed with strategy in mind rather than simply to punish a poor shot.
At a stroke, a relatively unremarkable short par 4 was transformed. From an elevated tee, the landing area is generous and, apart from the bunkers, the only other significant problem is the London to Southampton railway line that runs down the right.
What the bunkers do is force a clear decision – whether to play aggressively down the right, close to the out of bounds and set up a simple pitch down the green; or lay up further back and to the left, taking the bunker and railway out of play but leaving a longer and more awkward approach.
It seems obvious to us now, but it was met with incredulity at the time – why should a good shot down the middle of the fairway end up in a bunker?
Woking is subtle. Often, holes seem innocuous only to reveal their true difficulty nearer to or on the greens, many of which feature evil contours. The best two examples come at the 12th and 13th, where leaving yourself above the hole is to be avoided at all costs.
It is not a long course at 6,500 yards but to a par of 70 nor does it need to be. Miss out on a birdie at the generous 1st and you could be waiting a long time for another chance of picking up a shot.
The 18th is typical of its nature: although only 350 yards the famous pond to the right and a green that slopes towards it makes for an awkward finishing hole.
A thinking man’s course then, and one studied by the likes of Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt and Herbert Fowler. There is most likely a hint of Woking at almost all of Britain’s finest inland venues.