Feature Review - Walton Heath
We recently Golfshake ambassador Andrew Picken along to Walton Heath to play both the Old and New courses. This is the feature review and Old course review following the visit in September 2015 read the New course review here.
The history and traditions of Walton Heath golf club are exceptional. It encompasses two world class championship courses that have hosted nearly 90 significant amateur and professional championships and events, including five European Opens, The Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open Qualifying and most recently the Senior Open Championship.
The world’s top players have taken on and enjoyed the challenges of these two outstanding heathland courses for over a century. The courses were both designed by Herbert Fowler. The Old Course was opened for play in 1904 and James Braid, five times Open Champion, became the first professional and he remained there until 1950.
Walton Heath is less than 20 miles to the south of the centre of London. It is 700ft/213m above sea level, yet it is usually described as an inland links.
If you plan your visits to new courses like I do, viewing the clubs website, it is usually a good indicator of what is to follow. The website oozes’ class and understated elegance and with clear pride they list past members such as Churchill and Lloyd George and also are able to claim the only living sovereign in history as a serving Captain of a golf club, HRH the Prince of Wales when Captain in 1935/36.
I love my golfing heritage and the thought of those that have gone before me on the hallowed turf made me a little bit nervous. However, this only serves to increase the sense of expectation and excitement. Isn’t this why we play golf? Those first tee jitters, the thought of hero’s who have played the course before.
Few courses have a heritage facility on the web site and it is an incredible read. It is clear that this club and its history are intrinsically linked to major events in our countries political history. I cannot recommend visiting the club website highly enough.
I approached the club house to be met by sensor operated doors giving access to a beautifully panelled reception area. We were met by very welcoming staff who were fully briefed on our dawn raid, all of whom were very helpful. We were allocated a visiting members locker for our equipment and issued with scorecards and pin positions for the day.
Given that we had arrived very early, this was great service that was to be repeated throughout the visit by every person we met. My initial nerves were giving way to pure excitement. It really did have that early morning Christmas Day feeling.
I stopped to think about the time I spent recently watching the Sky TV coverage of the British Seniors Open watching two of my golfing idols Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer fight it out on this track. I loved the fact that the commentary team talked in awe of the place and clearly held it in great esteem.
Old Course Review
Our visit in mid September was a typical soft autumnal day with crisp blue skies showing the course in perfect pristine condition.
We walked to the first tee of the Old Course to be faced by a one of the few par 3 openers in elite world golf. The 235 yard par 3 presents OOB right and left. Looking at the course planner the hole reminded me immediately of the painting by Edward Munch “The Scream”. That’s how my stomach felt as I stood on the tee. I hit the crispest hybrid I had played for months and the ball sailed forward, straight and true, to parachute gently onto the green. What a hole to start!
It is worth pointing out that the course is very well signposted and we walked to the cross over point to the 2nd hole which provides access to the rest of the 360 acres that is given over solely for golf.
Having negotiated the road we were faced by another tight challenge on the 2nd hole which is framed by substantial trees left and a pinched fairway around the landing area of the average driver. A downhill approach to the green adds to the difficulty as there is a false front and steep gradients protecting it further to the left and right. This is a beautiful golf hole and flags up the challenges to come. This is no easy introduction to the course.
Every green was pristine and had been cleared of overnight dew. Looking back after 4 holes in what seemed like the blinking of an eye I could just see the 3 sets of footprints in the dew like a scene from Robinson Crusoe. This was millionaires’ golf on a stunning course that literally took your breath away as different views and holes came into view.
No 4 is a real challenge. 441 yards off the white tee’s with the fairway pinched by protective heather at all the “wrong” points. A bunker positioned around 256 yards from the tee also provides yet another thought provoking moment. I chose my 3 wood and received a favourable bounce after hitting the fairway that took my ball to the left of the hazard. This gave me a chance for a green in regulation. However, the problems kept on coming. Each green seems to be made up of smaller constituent elements with subtle rises and slopes joining them seamlessly into the whole. Perfectly true and in stunning condition these are an incredibly satisfying challenge.
The first 6 holes are incredibly strong and a slightly errant shot into the heather was punished mercilessly.
No 8, a 494 yard par 5 is a truly memorable hole. A 200 yard carry from the tee to reach the fairway that is then protected by heather to all sides and a deep bunker. Trees that frame the hole on each side adding even more protection. I came off with a 7 and felt I had played the hole well. It’s worth pausing on the tee to take in the glorious views across the course as whole. Total stillness and no road noise given the proximity of the M25. Idyllic.
The guidance on the course saver for the 9th states “the further down this fairway, the better off the tee” I disagree! It s a 400 yard, par 4 par opportunity - wrong! A drifted driver was magnetically attracted to the heather, to be followed shortly after by another 2 provisional balls. The heather is strong and turns the club head easily.
Once I started on the back 9 I also started to slow my walking pace as I wanted to savour everything this magical place had to offer. I lost concentration on the golf and my scores tumbled dramatically. This is the first time I can remember that the quality of the course I was playing directly distracted my golfing ability and focus. This place provides sensory overload and is pure magnificent!
It is a course where all of the holes are excellent but some stick in the memory. The 11th is a 222 yard par 3 and the word beautiful doesn’t do this hole justice. Playing over the customary heath and with a green carefully protected by bunkers this is par 3 you will want to play again and again.
No 13 is a long sweeping dog leg right, protected by bunkers and heather at all strategic points. An attempt to foolishly cut the corner will easily come unstuck. In my view reaching this green in two would be a massive achievement at any level.
No lessening of the pressure by another par 5 at no 14. The tee shot needs to favour the left side of the fairway avoiding a bunker set for the unwary. At each point I wanted to play my subsequent shots I found a hazard directly in play. Contend with this and then you have additional protection given the complexity of the green and its slopes and borrows.
No 15 is a lovely par 4 with a necklace of bunkers all down the right side of the fairway. If you avoid them then a smiling bunker across the full width of the fairway protects the green from a pitch and run.
The Par 5 16th is a real stunner of a golf hole. Well established trees define the hole along its length left and bunkers stand guard for the right flank. Slightly off line and you are immediately penalised by the heather . Don’t get over confident if you manage to negotiate these either as the green is then protected by more slopes and craftily positioned bunkers. This is a brilliant golf hole.
The 17th is a slight downhill 206 yard par 3 with an island green protected by heather on all sides and two massive bunkers at the front for anything short. And not forgetting the tight, steep sides to the green. I stood on the tee and hit a smooth 5 iron to 25 feet only to realise there was a group of members waiting to play the adjacent shared tee box. My playing partner also responded to the audience well and we all walked off the green with a very satisfying par and the sound of gentle applause ringing in our ears.
The 18th is a difficult finishing hole requiring strategic thought with every shot. A bunker covers the width of the fairway from 50 yards out ensuring only an aerial shot will deal with its problems. A quick check of the planner and the approach seemed to be grinning at me like a cartoon character. Think of the Joker from the Batman films. Yes, I did find it and extricated myself in a single shot only to drift the ball into a deep greenside bunker protecting the right flank of the green.
It must be said, The Old course is excellent, the turf beautifully crisp, the lies tight, the bunkers deep and too welcoming and the greens firm and swift. During my round several greens caught me out leaving putts short but they were true and in fantastic order. Not a single unrepaired pitch mark on any of the holes we played. Beautiful.
The bunkers were cavernous and had heather growing on the tops with different colours on display. Think of a ring encrusted with diamonds and in the dew and sunlight they sparkled as I tried to extricate myself from the sandy pits.
I would love to play it again and could never imagine becoming bored with its layout or challenge. This is a course of the highest order and I feel privileged to have been able to play it. I tried unsuccessfully to take on this course head to head. It was too good for me but it was a wonderful experience none the less.
Following the round and before we took on the New course we adjourned for food which was excellent in quality and value. Home style cooking for under £10 providing excellent value. I thoroughly recommend the food and was surprised at its reasonable pricing
We took stock sitting on the terrace overlooking the putting green. We all agreed that this was a superb golfing experience that would live long in the memory.
Green fees are £150 per player midweek and £180 per player at the weekend. This is not a cheap venue - It is a special venue, and as such charges a premium price for the use of the facilities.
We argued over the economics for a while and I concluded that it is definitely worth the money due to the level and intensity of the golfing experience offered by the club as a whole.
At no time did I feel we were outsiders. I felt like we were being treated as honoured guests and all we interacted with were clearly proud of the club and all it has to offer.
The club professionals’ shop is extremely well stocked and I met all the team. Each has a clear pride in the venue and watching the interaction with members they also seem to be appreciated by their regular customers. The 2 courses are some of the best I have ever seen and I have vowed that I will return with my son. It is important to me that he realises as a new convert to the game the value and importance of its heritage and traditions. Walton Heath in my view exemplifies all that is good about the game without becoming overbearing and pompous.
I loved the fact that the old workshop used by James Braid has been converted into a permanent exhibition of his life’s work and achievements. His heritage is intrinsic to the club and its values. Not bad having a 5 time Open winner as a founding father of the club.
If the green fee price is an issue consider adding these dates into your diary.
The U.S Open Qualifier will be held across both courses from 29th – 31st May 2016 and in 2017, 28th June to 1st July, the club hosts the European Men’s Amateur Championship. 144 of the best amateur golfers in Europe playing for a spot in The Open. Previous winners include Rory McIlroy, Garcia, Gallacher and recently Ashley Chester’s.
Entry as a spectator is free and having access to this type of venue as a spectator has a lot going for it. I can almost guarantee that you will not be disappointed.
Image Credit: Walton Heath Golf Club
Click here to read the New course review for Walton Heath.
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