How Woking revolutionised modern course architecture
Tom Watson described the opening hole at Woking as a “warm handshake from an old friend” and the Surrey course – the oldest heathland in a county that can boast some of Britain’s finest layouts – is a real treat to see in the flesh.
They are gearing up for a big anniversary in 2018 and the club are going through a series of modernisations, both on and off the course.
We caught up with secretary Richard Pennell to discuss some of the changes.
You’re celebrating your 125th birthday next year. What’s on the agenda?
We are going to kick off the season in March with a member and partner cocktail party at the club, which will be a couple of hundred people.
We’ve also earmarked a weekend in the middle of June for a members’ celebration weekend. We will have a Stableford competition for 120 people – both on Saturday and Sunday – with a rolling barbecue on the terrace.
Woking has got a very famous terrace overlooking the 14th green. It will be completely mixed and inclusive – men, ladies, juniors and seniors – all coming together and having a fun competition.
They are our two main events. By contrast with some clubs, that’s a pretty low-key celebration.
You are a twoball course. Now you’re trialling three and fourballs on Tuesdays and Fridays. How did that come about?
We looked at where we stood locally in the market in terms of what we were charging, how our membership was holding up, and there are definitely challenges for Woking.
We’re running a business and we’re in a very competitive market.
We looked at what we might need to spend to maintain that position – towards the top of the local heathland clubs – over the next 10 years and then we looked at what we are currently doing, in terms of attracting visitors.
The modern society or corporate day expect to play in fourballs and they can go to virtually every other club in the world and play in fourballs – if they pick their times right.
We were very limited in how much we could offer that. We do have some capacity but it was only on a Tuesday and it doesn’t work very well for corporate golf.
People want to play golf on a Friday and they phone us up, they want to experience a top 100 club and we can’t look after them. So we are looking to be ahead of the curve.
There are things we want to do to make the most of this wonderful course we’ve got, and present it the way it deserves to be presented, so that’s the main thing.
You’ve lots of plans for the coming decades…
The committee structure works really well. We’re very lucky we have intelligent, well-travelled, articulate people on it.
They have got a bit of foresight and they are looking ahead: where do we want to be, what are our strengths and weaknesses and so on. The golf course, and particularly the putting greens, are 80 per cent of Woking’s charm.
Did you know?
Modern golf architecture, as we know it today, pretty much began at Woking’s 4th hole.
When members Stuart Paton and John Low placed a pair of bunkers in the middle of the fairway, for the first time it forced golfers into a decision: play safely to the left and accept a poorer angle to the green or go for it down the right and flirt with out of bounds to make the approach easier.
That simple concept revolutionised course design.
The club is one of the bastions of English golf – the first of the great Surrey and Berkshire heathland courses.
Despite the enviable tradition, Woking are still looking forward. They’ve just completed a major greens drainage programme on every hole and are focusing on removing trees to bring the course back to its fast-running, heathland roots.
With a new swing studio also nearing completion, secretary Richard Pennell says it is what societies and visitors have requested and the club are delivering.
For an old club where the famous clock of the pavilion still presides over the course, Pennell believes the passing of time is seeing Woking becoming more open to all visitors – while still preserving the respect of their long traditions and history.
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