Hillside Golf Club Feature Review
Hillside Golf Club is situated five kilometres from Stockport on England’s glorious Northwest coastline – an area of the country that, according to many, presents the United Kingdom’s best golf offering. Sandwiched between Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club – 64th in Golf Monthly’s top 100 UK and Ireland golf courses 2012 – and Royal Birkdale – England’s number one in the same rankings – Hillside is widely regarded as one of the best courses never to have staged an Open Championship.
Despite never hosting the tournament proper, Hillside has been an Open qualifying venue for a number of years. It’s also held a series of prestigious amateur tournaments, including the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship, the Amateur Championship, the English Open Amateur and the International European Amateur. It’s fundamentally a links track, but benefits from a slightly inland location that brings other features into play. Meandering through majestic sandhills and over dunes that frame most of the back nine’s holes, Hillside is also infused with towering pines, ponds and shrubbery. It possesses all the characteristics of a true links track, with some additional fixtures that only serve to add to the beauty of this striking stretch of land.
The front nine is flatter and has more of an inland feel, but sloping greens, links-esque green features and fast run-off areas are commonplace. Strong gusts sweeping on from the Irish Sea, which also engulf the back nine, make this relatively long stretch of holes tough to negotiate, especially as holes five to nine play directly into the prevailing wind. The front nine is worthy of high acclaim in its own right, but it’s the back nine that attracts most of the plaudits.
The club – founded in 1911 - acquired more land in the 1960s, and renowned course architect Fred Hawtree made extensive changes to the back nine. The holes ripple along serenely through towering dunes in a truly idyllic setting, with many elevated tees providing stunning views of the surrounding terrain. Many of the holes are framed by giant sandy ridges and dense grassland, but despite consistent characteristics, every hole is different to the one that precedes it. Hillside presents a different style of golf; it’s unquestionably links, but with the added benefit of complete variation and features you’d seldom see on other such tracks. After playing the course in the 90s, Greg Norman wrote to the club saying “the back nine holes were the best back nine in Britain.” Granted, I’ve not played as many top tracks as some journalists, but it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.
There are so many great golf holes at Hillside that you could single any one out for praise, but the fifth, the 10th, and the back nine’s two par 5s deserve an extended mention.
The par-4 5th is a hole that varies tremendously based on your choice of tee. Off the yellows, it’s a relatively tame 344 yards, but the white tees add another 100 yards to a hole that often plays straight into the prevailing wind. If you want to reach the putting surface in two, finding the fairway is key. Rows of thick rough and bushes line the left of the fairway, and whilst there is more room right, you’ll struggle to get home in two if you bail out into rough. From the middle of the fairway, the hole begins to dog-leg slightly round to the left, with a large dune blocking out anything pulled from the tee. What’s more, the two-tiered green slopes severely from back to front, with two collection bunkers lurking front right of the putting surface.
Norman labelled the 10th as his favourite par 3 in England, and I’d be tempted to agree with him. It plays 172 yards from the whites, and the first 150 yards of gently uphill-sloping terrain seem relatively innocuous. But it’s the last 20 yards, and the green complex, which make the hole so exciting. Huge clusters of pines stand in front and at either side of the green, creating a channel through which to aim. From the tee, the green – which resembles an upside down bowl – looks nigh on impossible to hold, and three superb pot bunkers that surround the surface – split in two by a steep ridge - make that task even more difficult.
The 10th is viewed by many as the best hole on the course, but the back nine’s two par 5s – the 11th and the 17th – arguably deserve more votes. One thing’s for sure, you’ll not find a better start to a back nine anywhere in Britain.
The views from the elevated 11th tee are simply astounding, providing a panorama over Hillside, Birkdale and Southport & Ainsdale in the foreground and the Irish Sea beyond. The beauty of the vista is also complemented by the craft of the hole, which drops some 80 yards down to the dune-framed short grass. The fairway snakes its way slightly uphill in a zigzag, with a bunker on each corner, to a large green surrounded on three sides by swales and pot bunkers. If you lay up in the wrong position, you’re approach could also be blind, adding another dimension to a truly magnificent hole.
The 11th is a near-flawless hole, so it says a lot about the quality of the 17th that it’s a genuine rival in the ‘best par 5’ category. The set-up from the tee, and the hole in general, aren’t dissimilar, but there is less room to for wayward driving. The right side of the fairway- guarded by two perfectly placed traps - is flanked by thick rough and a healthy peppering of trees, with out of bounds lurking to the left. It’s a true three-shotter, and the fairway narrows into a bottleneck as the hole moves uphill. The dune ridges running the length of the hole conjoin around the back of the green to frame and encircle the small putting surface, which contains ridges, subtle undulations and a steep false front.
A common praiseworthy statement about Hillside is that no holes are boring, and that no two holes are the same. Add to that a wondrous setting, excellent creativity in design and a stretch of inimitable land and you’ve got yourself one of Northern England’s very finest courses. Overall, I’d give Hillside a rating of 8.5/10.
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