Proper Golf

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Walton Heath (OLD)

Walton Heath Golf Club

Old Course, 1904

Architect: Herbert Fowler

Surrey, England

One of the many vast open views at Walton Heath, a very different look than most other courses, especially in the Surrey area. It is rare to find a golf course (or two in this case) where so many holes can be seen from virtually any spot on the course.

And then there is the rugged and clumpy natural areas of heather throughout the course which eat errant balls. This is surely what the site was like before Fowler and his crew hacked away,
and found the two golf courses.

The first course of many laid out by Herert Fowler, the Old Course at Walton Heath is located on one of the highest points in the heathlands in what was once a jungle of heather and gorse. Unlike many of its fine Surrey neighbors, Walton, surprisingly, is built on clay. What is even more amazing, is Fowler, and his crew of barely over 10 men, 2 horses (1 borrowed from a local girl), a wagon and a handful of shovels and rakes, was able to fight through the field of unrelenting nasty plants and created some of the most brutal and hazards found in inland golf. Unlike most hazards in todays game, Walton's actually pose a threat to modern technology. Made famous by four time Open champion James Braid, the course is not as photogenic or dramatic as many of the other heathland layouts, but when it comes to providing a fun and interesting golf on a championship layout, few can compete.

The Old Course's 5th green is without a doubt the most interesting putting surface. Like nothing else on the property, retired Pro Ken MacPhereson was telling me how James Braid believed the contours seemed to grow from year to year.

Walton is a stern test of golf, all the way around, as evident by the many tournaments it hosts, but is more than playable for its large membership. The combination of large greens and firm turf gives players plenty of options in finding their way around the seas of heather and nasty hazards. Relatively flat for this area of the country, the out and back routing takes great advantage of the contours it does have, using the firm turf and undulations to send balls bounding to the right places in some situations and gathering them into places you wish you had never seen in others. Fowler, who designed the course from horseback, clearly spent most of his time on the details, as the natural layout shows virtually no evidence of a mans influence on the property aside from the bunkering. Although the course has seen a few changes, due to the M25 motorway, which shortened the 8th hole, a new (25+ years ago) 9th hole, lengthening for tournament play, and the maturing of many pine trees, the course feels as natural and classic as any I have come across.

The author and his playing partner playing out of two of the countless severe bunkers and hazards that can be found around all 36 holes at Walton Heath. Unlike so many modern bunkers dug out by big machines that look pretty and offer virtually no penalty, the deep revetted and heather faced pits here can ruin a score quickly.

The golf course itself, has big greens, but relatively small and subtle contours. Because of its length and difficult hazards, if it had wildly shaped greens, it might boarder on unplayable, and certainly lack a lot of the fun and charm it has. With so many good holes, and a remarkably strong finish it is hard to pick out a single favorite, although most, including longtime Pro Ken MacPhereson prefer the 5th, with its unusually wrinkled green. For myself, holes #7, the difficult mid-length par-3, the long and angled par-4 10th and short par-4 12th stood out to me, but on a golf course that has more great holes than most, you could go back and forth days.

The approach into #12, the best short par-4 on the course, plays over a common ground road where you are likely to be held up by horseback riders, bikers, and pedestrians out for a stroll.

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