Friday, February 28, 2020

The Mid Ocean Club

Looking back over great courses that I've played but never written about, The Mid Ocean Club tops the list. This post corrects the oversight and hopefully will add some winter cheer.

In his, um, not so modest autobiography, Scotland's Gift, Charles Blair Macdonald gushed about the Mid Ocean Club, "I can assure my golfing friends, a more fascinating, more picturesque course than the Mid-Ocean when completed, will not be found in a pilgrimage around the world. There is nothing commonplace about it."

3rd green
The view from the third green at Mid Ocean Club, a testing par three along the Ocean. A hook for the right hand golfer is in the Atlantic. Mid Ocean is the perfect place to play when there is snow on the greens in Northern climates. 

Macdonald was attracted to Bermuda because of Prohibition; a number of his friends went there so they could consume liquor, providing an excuse for him to visit. The strong willed golf pioneer picked an idyllic spot on the isolated island, an area called Tuckerstown, which contains, "delightful valleys winding through coral hills." Macdonald brought in his whole team to aid in the club's design and construction including Seth Raynor, Charles Banks, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Completed in 1924, ironically, after Prohibition was repealed, the course was built on dramatic land set on a headland with sweeping views of the startlingly clear blue waters of the Atlantic all around. The challenge for the architects was that the soil is less than ideal for golf: solid coral rock being as difficult a surface as there is to build on.

Like its designer, the Mid Ocean Club is big and bold, built on a scale that most golf courses never achieve, the only two remotely close being Yale and Bethpage Black. Partially, I suppose this is because the course was built before the era of mechanized earth moving equipment, thus, Macdonald used the naturally hilly terrain to great advantage. 

The course contains many Macdonald-Raynor prototype holes, including an Eden (the 3rd), a Short (the 7th), a Biarritz (the 13th), a Leven (the 14th), a Punchbowl (the 15th) and a Redan (the 17th). It meanders through various valleys and depressions, playing quite steeply at times. A good example is the 4th hole, below, named "Mangrove," the double-tiered green playing at a high elevation from the rolling fairway, making the approach shot blind.

The par four 4th hole

The short (330-yard) par four 4th plays from an elevated tee with the Atlantic at your back and doglegs to the left. Although short, the hole is not easy.  Pat Ward-Thomas describes it in The World Atlas of Golf as "A plunge-and-rise affair, narrow between the trees and not altogether appealing."

8th green
The short par 4 eighth hole highlights the theme of using elevation in the terrain throughout the design, with a green elevated far above the fairway

The 8th hole plays to an elevated green and from the white tees is only 316 yards, making it driveable if downwind for long and accurate hitters. The course is also quite lush, which should be no surprise as it sits in a tropical location. As Macdonald noted, " . . . it is well wooded with cedars, oleanders, bougainvilleas and hibiscus, lending the most fascinating color scheme on the whole."

10th fairway1
The tenth hole, "Mercer Hill", has unforgiving terrain requiring skill hitting off Bermuda grass on an uneven fairway over a steep hill!

Part of the challenge at Mid Ocean, aside from navigating the hilly terrain, uneven lies, and testing greens, is the wind. Situated in the middle of the Atlantic and subject to the trade winds, most of the year the prevailing breezes average 10 miles per hour and spike up to about 13 miles per hour during the winter. Doesn't sound so bad, although, as we know, averages can be deceiving, and as an unprotected island there are times when the wind howls and the test of golf is stern.

11th fairway
The par five 11th is routed through a small, isolated valley and reminded me a bit of playing through the bush at Durban Country Club in South Africa

At 451 yards the 11th isn't too demanding a hole on paper, provided you keep the ball in the slim fairway and play the dog-leg left smartly, not being too greedy by trying to find a shortcut to the green around the curving valley. The green is elevated and tricky, falling away on all sides. The 11th is a good example of how Mid Ocean was designed, routing through several small valleys and around rolling hills and plateaus.

The 238-yard Biarritz hole, the 13th, is a testing specimen of this hole type, with the requisite hollow in the middle of the large green

16th depression after shear wall tee shot
The par four 16th hole, after you hit over the sheer wall, then into a gully on the right side of the hole

I found the 16th to be a very difficult hole, and disorienting. The tee shot is blind, then, if you land in what is pictured above on the right side, you've pretty much thrown away a chance of par. The green slopes back to front and the green is ringed by bunkers all the way around. It's a great example of a hole that probably would be softened if built today with our ability to shape terrain at will, which Macdonald and Raynor didn't have the luxury of doing. Macdonald was cognizant of the fact that it would be difficult to route the course so that there wouldn't be too much "mountain climbing." He felt that he largely achieved it, with the notable exception being the sixteenth, which he called a "real climb." I'm with him on that. The 376 yard hole left me feeling like I do when taking a red-eye. In theory, it should be an opportunity for some respite on the way in, but I got so anxious that I didn't take advantage of it and walked off disappointed, a bit worn out and needing a nap.

from 18th tee 
The view of the turquoise waters from the elevated 18th tee box, with the aquamarine waters of the ocean rolling nearby as you play at the edge of a cliff

The 5th at Mid Ocean, the infamous "Cape" Hole

The most memorable hole on the course is the vaunted 5th, the “Cape" hole which plays from a high tee, over water, to a demanding green. A Macdonald invention that has been widely imitated in golf design ever since, the Cape hole here is the best rendition in the world. What makes it so is that it plays from such an elevated tee, and the fairway that you have to hit slants downhill towards the hole from top to bottom the entire way. Most copies of the hole replicate the risk-reward options over water to an angled fairway, but most play on flat terrain. It is the size and scale of the commanding hill that the tee sits upon at Mid Ocean that sets this Cape hole apart.

The trick, obviously, is to choose how much of Mangrove Lake you want to take on. Aiming left is a bold line and if you can carry your tee shot over the lake you have a much shorter shot to the green. The more timid player aims right and finds land instead of water, but has a very challenging second (and possibly third) shot on the 433-yard hole. It is classic. A prolific gambler and long ball hitter, Babe Ruth bet he could drive the green from the tee. After eleven balls (his entire stash) landed in the lake he walked off the course in a huff. The hole lives up to all its hype and is very good. Macdonald built his home in Bermuda overlooking the Cape Hole.

cape from tee2
The "Cape" hole from the tee

cape look back
The Cape hole looking backward up the hill from the fairway

cape fairway
The approach shot to the elevated green on the Cape hole

cape green2 
The hole doesn't get any easier when the golfer reaches the Cape green

I played the Mid Ocean Club more than a dozen years ago, when I was skinnier, had black hair and many bad habits, although I did try to blend in with the natives wearing my pink Bermuda shorts

For those that can't get on the super-exclusive National Golf Links of America or Chicago Golf Club, playing Mid Ocean is a worthy substitute, since the great man's genius shows through strongly at Mid Ocean. Macdonald himself compared his Southampton baby to his work in Bermuda, "I am confident the course will stand in golfing circles as an achievement in a semi-tropical climate as great as the National Golf Links of America has been in the temperate zone." Unaccompanied guests can play Mid Ocean if their round is arranged through select hotels on the island, but play is limited. A member may introduce a guest to play golf unaccompanied on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, by reservation only.

Bermuda is a relaxing island to visit, it has a romantic charm to it and pink sand. Not surprisingly, although far from the homeland, the club itself  has a British feel to it. If you go to Bermuda it is also worth playing the course at Tucker's Point.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Royal Worlington and Newmarket Golf Club - The Sacred Nine

Is it worth going out of your way to play a nine holer not located near other clubs that are destination golf courses? For example, it is easy to play all the great courses in Surrey (Sunningdale, Wentworth, St. George's Hill, Walton Heath) because you can stay in London and get to the courses with little stress. Same for the courses around Liverpool (Lytham and St. Annes, Royal Liverpool and Birkdale). What about a course located 30 minutes outside Cambridge, in Suffolk?

For me the answer was yes because I always wanted to see Cambridge and visiting the Royal Worlington and Newmarket Golf Club (also known as Mildenhall) gave me the excuse to do so. I have visited Oxford before and loved it, so visiting the other great university of the world was a no brainer. Like Oxford, Cambridge was also love at first sight, one of the prettiest cities I have visited, although most of its splendor is hidden in the courtyards under the arches, behind the building facades and through the loggia.

University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

One reason I haven't visited earlier is that I wanted to have the full experience at Royal Worlington, which is to say, playing alternate shot, the club's preferred format. With my usual traveling companions, we are a threesome, so with a trip planned for four golfers, Royal Worlington at long last made the cut.

The rules of the game at Royal Worlington, where fast paced play is a priority

I am an avid reader of golf books and it's amazing how many of the best writers--including the three greatest ever to write about the game--went to Cambridge, and played at Royal Worlington, only adding to my desire to tee it up at the historic course. When Bernard Darwin, Herbert Warren Wind, and Henry Longhurst sing the praises of a course, golfers should take note. Specifically, all three masters of their trade wrote eloquently about the fifth hole, one that is world renowned for its difficulty. It was with much anticipation that we set out to play, anticipating how each of us would tackle the testing par three. After all, how hard can a 154 yard hole without bunkers be?

Modesty is the order of the day at Royal Worlington and Newmarket, a club that received its Royal patronage from Queen Victoria two years after its founding, in 1895

The foursome ready to begin their high stakes match

American golfers rarely play anything but their own ball. Playing Royal Worlington gave us the chance to play a foursome match (alternate shot), and it is a tradition worth keeping alive, and it fact reviving, so that it is done more. Aside from being a lot of fun, the other beauty of it is that you can play nine holes easily in 90 minutes, or three hours for a full eighteen.

A club employee with good cheer magically appears at the cubbyhole in the clubhouse when you pay your greens fee, need some toasted sandwiches, or a drink

  1 approach
The first hole shows unremarkable land

Most new courses built today are described by the architect or the owner as something along the lines of "the greatest piece of property we have ever seen," or "this land was destined to be a golf course." Whether it is just pre-marketing hype or the truth we each have to decide when we play the course. No such claim was ever made about Royal Worlington. The course is built on very flat land, although, as the affable Secretary explained to us, it is sandy soil and thus is ideally suited for playing all year 'round. The first hole, pictured above, shows the flat nature of the terrain. Tee to green the course is reasonably easy, the real challenge begins near and on the greens. Many of the greens have swales in front and contain false fronts. The putting surfaces are anything but flat, allowing the course to fight back against low scoring.

The third green, the perfect example of golf at Worlington. Doesn't look like much, but it is, with the swale in front and an exasperating putting surface

[Cambridge is the name of the University. It is made up of 31 separate 'colleges' which provide students their residence and administer their education. I have indicated which college each of the graduates attended.]

Herb Wind (Jesus College, '39) describes the third hole as having, ". . . a bowler-hat green, it rises from the fairway at a gentle angle and sweeps up on all sides to a flattish crown, on which the pin is almost always positioned."

The course has many idiosyncrasies, being squeezed into just 40 acres. One of them is tee boxes that play over the green you just completed. For example, the third tee shot plays over the second green several feet away. The sixth tee also plays over the fifth green. The fifth tee shot is the quirkiest of them all. To reach the green with a mid-iron you have to hit over not only the fourth fairway, but also the sixth.

Our match proceeded apace and we got into the gentle flow of the course, with many shots being thrown away around the greens, another joy of match play, because when it looks like you are seemingly out of the hole off the tee, unexpected shots happen that bring you back in.

 The fifth green as seen from the left side

Finally, our match proceeded to the 5th, a gem with a long narrow green that falls off both to the left and to the right. The fall off to the left goes into a large hollow with a steep incline back up to the putting surface. The right side features its own plunge, but this time instead of a hollow, there is a small stream that you don't see off the tee. Precision is the order of the day.

A closer look at the left side of the 5th green with its ominous fall off

Luckily, my playing partner, whose handicap is 10 digits lower than mine, hit the tee shot and landed on the front of the green. Although as we all learned, being on the putting surface means nothing in relation to what you are likely to take as your final score. Our opponents (single digit handicaps) were not so lucky and hit to the right of the green.

The fifth green as seen from the right side with the small burn at the bottom of the slope

We won the hole with a four as our opponents chipped back and forth over the green! They would have their revenge during our second round in the afternoon when I actually putted off the green. I hit what I thought was a good firm putt up the hill, but it caught a ridge at the wrong angle and rolled down off the top of the green to the right. A couple of wedge shots later, with balls returning to our feet, and we lost the hole going down in flames. Golf writer and architect Donald Steel (Christ's College, '60) describes the fifth using a gymnastics analogy, which is never a good thing. His summary of the putting surface as being shaped like a vaulting horse is spot on. It is devilish. 

The putting surface of the green promotes balls rolling off either side of the ridges if not perfectly struck

Wind described the fifth as "exceedingly lean and falls away abruptly on both sides - on the right, to a stream, and, on the left, to a basin of thatchy rough, twenty feet below the green, called Mug's hole." 

Henry Longhurst (Clare College, '31) wrote about the card wrecker in a disconcerting manner, "A diabolically narrow green sloping sharply away on both sides and the green itself like the dome of glass in a fairy tale. The flag sits on a little elevated 'postage stamp' section of the green, guarded within a few yards at the back by a row of firs. On the right the ground falls away to the rough, and, for a good high slice, a side stream. On the left it falls straight away to a deep grassy pit, and many is the man who, alternatively fluffing his pitch and watching the ball roll ignominiously back, and then, determined to be up, hitting it over the green and down the other side, has passed to and fro half a dozen times."

Bernard Darwin (Trinity College, '97): "To reach the green is one distinct feat; to hole out in two putts, when one has got there, is another."

The sloping right of the green

Another Cambridge Blue, the poet Patric Dickinson (St. Catharine's College, '35), describes the fifth in his book, A Round of Golf Courses, in a pithy and poetic style that conjures up the appropriately fearsome image in the golfer's mind: "If you go right, or left, we will leave you ping-ponging away for a 6; for we have to hit the perfect tee shot . . . It is like pitching on a policeman's helmet."

The fifth green as seen from the left side

The Cambridge golf team uses Royal Worlington and Newmarket as their home course. H. S. Colt, easily one of the three best architects ever to design courses, went to Cambridge (Clare College, '90) and served as the first captain of the Cambridge golf team in 1889.


Darwin dubbed Royal Worlington "The Sacred Nine" after the nine muses of Greek mythology and called it the finest nine-hole course in the country. For me, the course will always have a special place in my heart because after 22 months of fatigue it was the first time I was able to walk eighteen holes as I recovered from my health problems. Although I had taken carts (buggies as the Brits call them) during the first two courses visited on this trip, I was finally feeling good enough to walk the course unaided. Apparently, it was in God's plan for me to hit my stride at Worlington. The Sacred Nine indeed.

The clubhouse is the best kind: intimate and cozy

The club Secretary told us before we went out (tongue in cheek I think, but maybe not), that the second nine was the harder of the two. I think he meant that ignorance is bliss and that when you don't know where the hazards are you can swing more freely. We did find it harder going around again because we tried to avoid (largely unsuccessfully) what we knew were penal places on the course. Dickinson sums up the course with elegant prose, "Mildenhall's nine diamonds need playing; need all the cutter's art to become brilliants--make no mistake, they have as many facets, highlights and angles as any diamond, and they are quite as hard."

I'm putting my neck on the line recommending Royal Worlington because not everyone will appreciate its charms or the historical context that the course has. The conditioning is not great, the land is flat, and there are no beautiful vistas. Nevertheless, those that appreciate the finer nuances of the game will appreciate Royal Worlington. It was worth going out of the way to play.

The British are rightly proud of their quirks and traditions. Royal Worlington is a keeper of those traditions. Longhurst said, "The charm of Mildenhall, both the course and the club, was the continuity. Day after day one went out from Cambridge and found it the same. Year after year one returned later, and it was the same." As the song says, "There'll Always Be an England." Royal Worlington is one of the standard-bearers for the cause and we should all be grateful for that.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Lundin Golf Club

A sign near the 17th hole, named "Station" memorializes the spot where a now defunct train line used to run through the Lundin Links

On all my trips I always like to include a course that flies below the radar. I do this for two reasons. First, I never know when I will discover a hidden gem that will catch my fancy. And second, so I can immerse myself in the history of the game. Lundin Golf Club made the cut for a couple of key reasons: it is only 30 minutes outside St. Andrews; it was designed by Old Tom Morris and since we don't get to play his courses in the United States, I make it a point of playing some during my travels. And, finally, it has a hole that provided inspiration to Charles Blair Macdonald when he designed the National Golf Links of America.

Lundin Links is a private club but they welcome visitors.

Drop your ball in this baby to establish the order of play

  1st tee
The first tee showing the fairway set down in a valley to the right

The course features a relatively difficult first hole, at 420 yards, with an elevated green. The setting is ideal to get the golfer into the mood of links golf with beautiful views and broad vistas.

  beach view from the 1st tee
The view from the first tee on the left features a broad beach set on the half-crescent shaped Shell Bay

Luckily for us, on the day we played the wind turbines visible off shore were still!

2nd fairway
View of the old-school humps and bumps as seen on the 2nd fairway

Lundin Links sits immediately adjacent to another Old Tom Morris links course, Leven Links. When the courses were built in the 19th century (1868) they were one course called Interleven, a classic out and back layout. They were split up in 1909 by James Braid, with half the original links holes going to Leven and the other half remaining at Lundin. The Braid holes play away from the seaside and up a hill and have a different character than the original holes. The original holes are better because they feature more natural movement in the land, the shape of the tousled, crumpled fairways being more pronounced.

  4 back
The 4th looking backward from the green shows the hidden swale that cuts in front, shafting the uninitiated golfer or the shot topper

There are several defining characteristics to Lundin Links, specifically burns invisible to the golfer from the tee and on approach shots; and, ravines cutting across the course. The fourth hole, above is a good example. The other defining characteristic is blind shots, a trait of Old Tom Morris courses in the same way that railroad ties define those of Pete Dye.

  6th tee
Lookout tower on the 6th tee box

The sixth tee has a ladder where the confused golfer can climb to see where they are hitting (and to make sure they don't hit into the group ahead). The next hole, the seventh, also has a ladder and features another blind tee shot over a distant sand dune.

The other moving hazard the course has is hikers. Coastal walking paths traverse the course in a couple of spots so you have to be on the lookout for people wearing boots and backpacks traipsing through and across a couple of holes.

the view from the tower - 6
The view from the ladder on the 6th tee. Hit your tee shot over the striped pole and you'll be pleased

The 7th green is characteristic of many on the course. Round and relatively small. 

Our group didn't find the greens to be particularly difficult, most are relatively flat and round. We did find the course's two par fives to be challenging. At 555 yards and 499 yards both played into the wind.

A view of the 10th green (sort of) with its baffling approach

My favorite hole on the course was the short tenth, named "Thorn Tree." The hole is only 352 yards long but you really don't see the green until you are essentially on it. The green is set off at an angle to the left of the fairway and is blocked by a mound with a circular bunker. Although I am no arborist, it looked to me that the other hazard blocking the green atop a hillock further up is a gorse bush rather than a thorn tree.

Since I have ADHD and like to repeat things, I'm showing three different views of the 10th so you can get a better feel for how it looks and plays.

The tenth as seen from the golfer's second shot. It still offers no clue as to the size or shape of the green
The tenth as you get close, with the bunkers and bushes blocking the view

Charles Blair Macdonald attended St. Andrews University about twelve miles north of Lundin, on the opposite side of the peninsula. When he designed the National Golf Links in Southampton he took inspiration from various holes that he was impressed with when traveling throughout the British Isles. One of my favorite holes at the National is the 17th, a short par 4 risk-reward hole that plays down hill with bunkers crossing in front, although not immediately next to the green. His inspiration for the hole was the 16th at Lundin Links, named "Trows."

16 from tee
View of the 16th hole at Lundin Links as seen from the tee. The green is set behind the smallish hill to the left.

I found the hole to be more than mildly disappointing. The only real similarity is that it is short, at 311 yards. Other than that it shares no characteristics with the 16th at the National Golf Links. The green here is blind and at the National it is not. The tee shot I suppose offers some risk-reward characteristics here, although not really. There is no change in elevation and no hazard crossing in front of the green. I was confused after playing the hole so went back to consult the bible on Charles Blair Macdonald, George Bahto's The Evangelist of Golf. Bahto describes the prototype hole "Leven" (remember when Macdonald played the course it was Interleven, thus the naming confusion), as having a fairway bunker or waste area that challenges the golfer to make a heroic carry for an open approach to the green. I guess in this context, at Lundin, that means keeping your ball right off the tee to avoid one bunker. He also notes that the green surface is usually a moderately undulating surface with the least accessible cup placement behind a sand hill. Certainly that exits here. But it doesn't on the National's Leven hole. Okay, what did I miss?

16th green
The approach to the 16th green doesn't really cause much stress

The fantastic driving range at Lundin Links, quite the view

Almost no golf courses in the British Isles have driving ranges. One of the quirks of playing here is that you just go out and play without any real warm up like we would have in the U.S. Sitting just outside the clubhouse, this green caged beauty is available to hit a couple of shots into before your round. You've got to love it.

I very much enjoyed my day at Lundin. They are welcoming to visitors, the greens fees are reasonable and the members we spoke to after the round in the clubhouse while having pickle and cheese sandwiches are rightly proud of their course and its heritage.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

St. George's Hill Golf Club

Entry to the St. George's Hill Golf Club requires the visitor to pass through a guard gate, something that is rare in the United Kingdom. Once you pass muster with the resolute guard wearing his peaked hat, the barrier rises and you granted entry into this tony club, which is part of a 964 acre private estate located in Weybridge, Surrey, 25 miles from Buckingham Palace. To give some context on how ritzy the neighborhood is, two Beatles have lived there: John Lennon lived at St. George's Hill at the peak of his career and Ringo Starr was a resident in the mid 1960s, buying his first home near John on the exclusive housing estate.

Its 440 homes are set in a fantasy-level country setting dominated by tall pine trees and towering walls of rhododendrons. You and I couldn't afford to live there--unless you have £10m to spare--as the estate is popular among the global elite. In addition to British aristocrats, the locale is popular among Russian oligarchs, movie stars (Kate Winslet being one example), and Asia's super-wealthy looking to buy property overseas as a store of value. After I got home I went and looked at some of the real estate listings for homes in St. George's Hill and these people aren't messing around. The homes feature reception halls, gyms, drawing rooms, walled gardens, indoor pools, staff accommodations, leisure complexes, and six car garages. As Phil Rizzuto used to say, "Holy cow!"

The architect Fred Hawtree says that St. George's Hill was the prototype of English golf and country club estate development, the earliest of its kind. In fact, I believe it was the first joint golf-housing development ever built anywhere. It is tastefully done with the houses mansions set back, and few in number.

The fortress style clubhouse seen above a sea of heather on the closing hole

The golf course was designed by H. S. Colt and it is a gem. To establish Colt's credentials, look no further than Pine Valley. When George Crump was looking for assistance designing Pine Valley it was Colt he called on. 

   1st tee
Welcome to St. George's Hill, which demands strong and straight tee shots from the get go. The first hole plays up a broad hill

The course has three sets of nines, although the Colt designed holes are the Red and the Blue, which is the course I played. The first hole sets the tone for the day and is not for the faint of heart. The card shows yardage of 382 yards, but the hill is steep and the green sits at the top. Tom Doak describes it perfectly in his original rendition of The Confidential Guide: "A smash across a valley and the entrance road to a rising fairway, with a saddled green at the top of the opposite ridge."

The defining characteristics of St. George's Hill are: 1) Its visually stunning beauty; 2) Elevated greens with false fronts; 3) More than its fair share of hump backed or undulating greens and 4) Cross-bunkering set at obtuse angles to the line of play. The course was carved from dense forest in the 1910s. The back breaking work was done with horses, hand-operated crosscut saws, and one solitary wood-burning steam engine.

Like the first, the second hole is also a tester, of 458 yards, that plays over the rise of a hill to a fairway that is blind to the golfer. It then follows a hill that rolls down into a valley over a burn to an elevated, difficult green. Colt clearly wasn't a believer in the easy start.

The testing second hole with its sloping fairway, heather and cross bunkering

The Redan-style par three third hole, seen with a mansion poking out from behind the trees

 The third is a long Redan style hole (birdie, thank you very much!).

An absolute beauty, this 272 yard par 4 comes early in the round as the 4th hole

The fourth captures the essence of the fun of playing a short par four hole. Colt says in his treatise, Some Essays on Golf Course Architecture, that the best form of a green for such a hole is a plateau, as he did here. He did fail to mention that it would be a heavily trapped plateau that falls off on all sides! What should be an easy hole becomes anything but when you stand over your wedge shot and contemplate hitting such a small target.

  5th cross bunkering
Magnificent cross-bunkering on the par four 5th hole shows that Colt was an artiste 

The fifth shows off all of Colt's usual design characteristics in one hole. A par four of 388 yards, it requires a forced carry over heather and has substantial cross bunkering far short of the green. The design hoodwinks the golfer because it throws off their depth perception as they are hitting from a valley and the bunkering is above them. The green complex features a false front and more than mild undulations on the putting surface. Add to that the fact that it is eye candy and it's no surprise that it is a joy to play. 

Colt describes his philosophy further in his book, "The longish carry, also, played up to the green over a cross-hazard, should on no account be omitted, as there is a neck-or-nothing thrill about it which is scarcely equaled by any other stroke, and which is enjoyed by golfers of any handicap, although playing it from very different ranges."

  5th green false front
The 5th green, like many at St. George's Hill, features a characteristic false front

No doubt you've heard the expression first tee jitters to describe how nerves come into play when you hit your first tee shot of the day, especially if there are people watching or you are playing a special course for the first time. How about eighth tee jitters? As we walked off the 7th green I could hear my three friends start to proclaim superlatives as we walked to the 8th tee. It was one of the few times I was left slack-jawed on a golf course. I had nothing to say. It was mesmerizing.

The 179-yard par three eighth hole, unequivocally one of the great one shot holes in the world

Colt describes how he chooses green sites when laying out a new golf course, "The architect will next proceed to walk over the ground, taking with him a map on which he will note the position of any natural features. In the course of this examination he will record all those sites which Providence has intended mortals to putt on." It seems clear to me that divine inspiration hit him when he found the eighth hole at St. George's Hill. It is far and away one of the best par threes I have ever seen or played. You play from an elevated tee across a valley to a demanding green. As you can see, shots hit short are cause for serious worry. Tom Doak was impressed as well; from his Confidential Guide, " . . . the yawning bunker in front of the green was one of the most memorable hazards I've encountered in the game." 

Robert Hunter, who knew a thing or two about golf architecture, having designed the Valley Club of Montecito and assisted Alister MacKenzie in the design of Cypress Point, features the 8th hole in his seminal work on how to design a golf course, The Links, in 1926. In his chapter on how to lay out hazards Hunter gave a special shout out to Colt's work here, describing it as a "bold hazard, well designed." The image from his book, below, shows that the hole was even more fierce in the early days with the gargantuan bunker sizes having been shrunk down over the years, no doubt to avoid complete debacles among member play. After all, these nice chaps have come out for a friendly game, and didn't sign up for lifetime imprisonment if in a hazard.

The 8th hole as seen in the 1920s with bunkers even more severe than todays

It was at this point during the round I began to scratch my head and wonder why St. George's Hill doesn't get more notoriety or exposure. It was one of the best golf courses I have ever played and I hadn't even seen ten of its holes yet. Bernard Darwin said about St. George’s Hill, “The prettiest courses are also the best and certainly one of the prettiest and best is St. George’s Hill.”

  9 from tee
The closing hole of the front nine, a 389 yard par 4 playing up the hill. This doesn't suck

  10th cross bunker
The deceptively placed cross bunker on the difficult par 4 tenth throws off the golfer's depth perception

The 434-yard par four tenth continues the theme of difficult starting holes should the golfer begin their round playing the Blue nine. Although the tee shot is very satisfying because you again play from the high hill near the clubhouse into a valley, the trouble begins on the second shot. Colt again employs his signature cross-bunkering, this time with half of it cut into a heather-covered hill.

Doak on the tenth hole: "The par 4 tenth is one of the best "Alps" type blind par 4 holes I've ever seen, with a diagonal ridge running across the fairway from left to right, so that the drive down the right-hand edge may get a glimpse of the green and a favorable kick off the slope to the left of the green, while the drive to the left makes the second shot inclined to kick into a bunker short right of the green." I can personally attest to the latter.

The large clubhouse was used as a military hospital during the First World War, and during the Second World War the roof of the clubhouse was used as an observation post for the home guard. A German bomb fell to the left of the cross bunker on the tenth during the war. The crater it left is still there.

  par 3 11
H. S. Colt, the master of the one shot hole. This is the 119-yard 11th

16th tee 
The par 4 sixteenth from the tee, with its fairway canted from right to left. The back nine is just as good as the front

St. George's Hill is a Colt classic that should also be a cult classic. There are other golf courses that have cult followings, namely, Sand Hills, National Golf Links of America, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Cruden Bay, and St. Enodoc. Sometimes you are so impressed by a golf course you don't just play and enjoy it, you join a cult; you've taken a vow to evangelize about it and defend it against heretics. I am now a St. George's Hill cult member. What a place. The visual beauty combined with such a classic, strategic golf course make this one of the finest places in the game to play.

And to show that I am serious about my new mission and I'm not just overly excited by my visit to the club, I am having some new custom made clothing made up. My usual attire when flying is a sharp looking crimson colored athletic-style track suit with matching jacket and trousers adorned with white stripes down the side. I'm having a custom set made up with an outsized version of the club's logo--which is a knight on a horse slaying a dragon--emblazoned on both the front and the rear. So if you ever notice me strutting through a busy airport shamelessly making my own personal fashion statement please feel free to stop me and allow me to tell you all about my St. George's Hill fetish in person. No selfies of the encounter, please.

I'm also still scratching my head on how the course has flown below the radar for so long and eluded my notice. Maybe I haven't been paying attention. Perhaps I focus too much on Golf Magazine's top 100 list. After all, Tom Doak did select it as one of his 31 favorite courses in the Gourmet's Choice section of his first Confidential Guide. The website Top100golf courses lists it as the 7th best in England and Darius Oliver in his Planet Golf book ranks it number one among English courses, although I would personally rank it second, behind only Sunningdale's Old Course. It's a travesty that this doesn't make the cut on Golf Magazine's list. It is better than at least three dozen courses currently ranked. By all measures St. George's Hill is a top shelf golf course.

The sign on the first tee shows the match formats on busy days. Something to be emulated, as it promotes fast play. Notice that 4 balls are in the minority

Over a lunch of tea sandwiches, filled rolls, and smoked haddock soup in the clubhouse after the round I had a chance to reflect back on how lucky I am to be able to play a course like this, to enjoy the camaraderie of good friends, and to appreciate all that life has given me. Every day is a gift and should be treasured.