The Played by NCG South West Tour saw editor Dan Murphy and publisher Tom Irwin take in 16 courses in eight days, covering Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. All the courses are on the shortlist for our Played by NCG England’s Top 100 Courses 2018 ranking feature.
It involved a degree of travelling. Quite a large degree actually.
There is often a good reason why a certain course had not been incorporated on to a previous, more sensible, trip. Namely that it is an outlier. Not so much geographically as much as not having a natural partner to pair it with.
On this Played by NCG tour, Kington, in Herefordshire, and Isle Of Purbeck, in Dorset, were both good examples.
It took them weeks to come up with the itinerary and even now, after they’ve escaped the vortex of the golf trip, they still scratch their heads looking at it. But it’s over now. They did it. Here’s their diary from the mammoth trip…
Played by NCG: South West Tour, Day 2
Wake up in: Marginally nearer Gloucester than Cheltenham
Miles travelled: 156
Round 1: 9.30pm – Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire
Round 2: 3pm – Kington, Herefordshire
Sleep: Marginally nearer Gloucester than Cheltenham
In between all the golf up in the air, we began the second day by returning to something like ground level. Where Cleeve Hill and Painswick are open, rugged and entirely exposed to the elements, Ross-on-Wye is tree-lined, sheltered and pristine. In other words, completely different.
This is what is so difficult about the business of ranking courses. Another member of the panel, Peter Rudd, recently suggested to me that we should do separate lists for seaside and inland courses. Which has merit, apart from it still doesn’t help you compare Ross with Kington.
I reckon there are many golfers who would be much happier at Ross than any of the other three courses we’ve tackled to date.
It’s altogether greener, though it must be said very firm underfoot after this dry, cool spring we are experiencing. It’s also a bigger course than you might first imagine – there are several long par 4s which are, for my money, the best holes on the property. I’m talking about the likes of the second, 10th and 14th.
Small greens are a Ross trademark, like this one at the drivable (on a good day) 15th.
This view looking back up the 18th fairway gives you a good idea what to expect.
What you mustn’t do is get yourself out of position. With firm fairways and very few of them level, it really doesn’t take much before you find yourself trying to manufacture optimistic recoveries from the trees.
This is a club with a lovely feel to it. For some reason, it reminded me of being a junior. It was busy, as you would expect on a Saturday morning, and the members looked like they were having a nice time. As Tim, the pro, and Ian, the managing secretary, explained to us, many of them were getting stuck into their knock-outs, which is just as it should be at this time of the year.
All power to Ross, I say.
An hour north, and we were the other side of Hereford, very close to the Welsh border, at the highest 18-hole course in England.
The key number is 1,284 – that’s how many feet we are above sea level. The homely clubhouse is like a cafe you might find halfway up the Swiss alps on a skiing trip. As we munched through a bowl of quite outstanding chips, chairman David and head greenkeeper Ian (we’ll come back to him later) explained how life at Kington works.
It turns out the biggest challenge is keeping the course irrigated. They don’t get much rain (certainly not this year anyway) and what they do get pours down off the course in next to no time. The land here is pretty much a thin layer of turf and then rock, so Ian has to throw plenty of water on it.
There are no sand bunkers at Kington – but plenty of grass ones, like these on the short 12th. They are brilliant hazards, forever creating tricky recoveries and awkward stances and asking you to use any number of clubs in your bag, from straight-faced irons to your lob wedge. Do you thump it into the bank or slide under it? The choice is yours, and there is not necessarily one correct answer.
It’s under 6,000 yards from the back tees at Kington but with a par of 69 you shouldn’t expect a collection of birdie chances. Needless to say, the uphill holes at this moorland course play longer than their yardage, while elsewhere the greens are well-defended, sneakily slopey, and outstandingly quick. They are the best we’ve putted on to date – hands-down. This one at the first gives you the idea.
I would say, compared to Cleeve and Painswick, this is actually quite a conventional golf course for the most part, albeit with uncommonly interesting green complexes.
Your best chance to score comes at the end with three short par 4s and an incredible downhill par 5 in the last five holes.
And then there are the views. They are on all sides, and include this magical panorama towards Wales and the Brecon Beacons, from the ninth tee at the furthest expanse of the course.
Afterwards, we have a chat with Kington’s friendly pro, Sarah Walton, who is originally from Accrington and retains the accent to prove it. She embodies the community feel of this club and the fact she is there to welcome us off the course at 7pm on a Saturday evening speaks volumes.
Huge credit must also go to Ian for the quality of the turf and greens. A black mark against him, I am sorry to report, was the pin position on the very nose of the raised 16th green behind a steeply faced grass bunker. That was mean of you, Ian.
With that, we take our leave and trundle back down the A49 to Gloucester. Tomorrow, we are Wiltshire-bound.
1. What is under your feet matters. Quality of turf is a thing, and the springy, tight fairways and greens at Kington elevate the whole experience (even higher?) What meteorological/geological/agronomical alchemy gives rise to such beautiful putting surfaces is beyond me, but it has and they were the equal of any I have 3-putted this year.
2. What is on your feet matters. Yes, I know, Ecco in making-great-shoes shocker, but the Biom Hybrids that I slipped on yesterday for the first time were nothing short of a revelation – supportive and slipper like in equal measure. My feet ended the day in a better state that they started. Maybe they are magic. I might never take them off.
More from the Played by NCG South West Tour
Day 1: Cleeve Hill and Painswick
Day 3: Bowood and Burnham & Berrow
Day 4: Saunton (West) and Saunton (East)
Day 5: Bude & North Cornwall and Royal North Devon
Day 6: Bovey Castle and Thurlestone
Day 7: East Devon and Isle of Purbeck
Day 8: Minchinhampton (Cherington) and Minchinhampton (Avening)