With St George’s Day comes a lot of talk of England and, being a golf travel company, naturally the conversation in the YGT offices eventually shifted towards a debate over which is the best golf course in England.
Now… considering the fact that there are more golf courses in England than in Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together and that everyone is entitled to their opinion / beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so on and so forth, we’ve decided that, rather than be so bold as to take it upon ourselves to rank the best courses in England, we’d put forward some of the courses we think all golfers in England should aim to tick off their bucketlists before they hang up their golf spikes for the last time.
There are currently nine golf courses on the Open Championship rota with England sharing the responsibility of hosting golf’s oldest major championship on an almost 50/50 split with Scotland.
Royal St George’s – England’s 6th best golf course according to Today’s Golfer – is the southernmost Open host and last time the Claret Jug, Peter Alliss and co visited this charming corner of Kent, Your Golf Travel Ambassador, Darren Clarke secured his maiden major victory in the roughest of conditions.
The first course to stage in the Open Championship in England, Royal St Georges is as natural a links as they come. There’s a natural look and feel to the course, which blends seamlessly into its surroundings. Wild flowers, sweeping banks of natural dune grasses and panoramic views over Pegwell Bay and the White Cliffs of Dover make a round here an intoxicating experience but don’t be fooled by the course’s rugged beauty because, in golfing terms, it’s a real beast.
If you’re after a tough test of golf, they don’t come much tougher than the one awaiting at Royal St George’s!
The humps and hollows that crease the fairways can send a ball seemingly destined for the middle of the fairway into a troublesome spot, perhaps in one of the devilish pot bunkers or, slightly more mercifully, into the first cut of rough. An unrelenting exposure to the elements can make things tricky on a rough day and unique features such as the bunker on the fourth – known locally as “the coffin” – can bring a golfer to their knees.
However with an endless procession of world class holes, all of which are memorable in their own unique way, Royal St George’s offers a delightful experience that is a must for any discerning golfer looking to explore Old Blighty.
Next door to Royal St George’s lies Princes Golf Club which hosted the Open in 1932 and while this is certainly worth playing if you’re in this neck of the woods, you have to head to the other end of the country to find the other courses that are still on the Open Rota.
Separated by only 60 miles of rugged Lancashire coastline, Royal Liverpool, Birkdale and Lytham & St Anne’s make up the remaining English Open Championship hosts.
Founded in 1869, Hoylake is the second oldest seaside links in England with only Royal North Devon trumping it for age. Much of course is exposed with only a couple of holes venturing among the dunes and while the course is remarkably flat, the intelligent design – George Morris (the brother of Old Tom), Harry Colt and Donald Steele have all had a hand in the design over the years – makes for a fantastic test of golf. The holes alongside the shore boast sweeping views across the Dee Estuary and are the hardest and most enjoyable on the course.
Hoylake is all set to host this year’s Open Championship and is certainly a must play course for any golfing aficionado.
Royal Liverpool will welcome the Open back to its fairways this year, having last hosted the tournament in 2006 when, on a sun-scorched course running hard and fast, Tiger Woods served up a tactical course management masterclass, hitting irons form the tees to avoid Hoylake’s dreaded fairway bunkers.
Just less than 30 miles up the coast, a couple of miles short of Southport, you’ll find Royal Birkdale. This is the number one course in the country according to Today’s Golfer and you’d be hard pressed to argue against that assertion.
Renowned for being one of the fairest Open Championship courses – the fairways here are relatively flat, cutting their way through flat-bottomed valleys between some monstrous dunes meaning that you invariably get exactly what you deserve from a good drive, as well as your just deserts for a wayward one – Royal Birkdale is much loved among pros and amateurs alike.
Royal Birkdale is arguably the finest golf course in the land. Host to countless Open Championships and other prestigious events and homw to some fearsome dunes, those with a fondness for links golf simply must tick this one off the list.
Royal Birkdale has a pedigree to rival any course in the United Kingdom, having played host to two Ryder Cups, the Walker and Curtis Cups, the Women’s British Open, and the Open Championship on no less than 9 occasions and while it can be a real brute when the wind is howling, it is a provocative and memorable place to head into the dunes, mashie in hand, for a game of golf.
The 2012 Open Championship venue, Royal Lytham & St Anne’s, might not be the prettiest of the Open courses – situated a mile or two inland and bordered by a railway line and red-brick houses, Lytham & St Anne’s is no stroll along the coastline offering sea views along the way – but the course is a design masterpiece.
Unusually the course kicks off with a par 3; who could forget Ian Woosnam’s tribulations here in 2001? Having carding a 2 on the 1st, a 15th club was discovered in his bag which cost him two shots, a chance of adding his name to the Claret Jug and a truck load of cash!
The final hole at Royal Lytham is a daunting prospect from the tee and proved to be the final nail in Adam Scott’s coffin at the 2012 Open.
Avoiding the bunkers is the name of the game at Lytham – there are 15 on the final hole alone – so each shot must be carefully considered and with its renowned conditioning and iconic landmarks like the striking Victorian clubhouse awaiting your arrival at the end of the testing 18th, a round of golf here is sure to be memorable.
While the Open Championship classics in England’s North West are undoubtedly the headline acts in this part of the country, they are not the only courses worth a visit. The likes of Hillside, which boasts “the best back nine in Britain” according to Greg Norman, Formby and St Anne’s Old Links are all worth a crack for anyone looking to embark on a Southport Golf Tour.
Of course, while England’s Open Championship courses are among its most famous and celebrated, links golf is more readily associated with Scotland and Ireland, with England’s heavenly heathland classics arguably being more synonymous with Old Blighty.
When golf began to expand in Europe, leaving the shores of Scotland behind, inland courses started to crop up away from the vaunted ‘links lands’. Initially courses were built on unreceptive clay soils and the results weren’t great. Having learned from theirs and other’s mistakes, the likes of Willie Park, Jr., Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler and J.F. Abercromby began to search for more suitable patches of real estate on which to build their golfing creations.
What they settled on was the ‘heathlands’ which boast fast draining, sandy soil often spanning areas with gently rolling terrain and towering pine trees, as well as, subject to the time of the year, purple heather and yellow gorse. Heathlands would soon be home to some of England’s most celebrated and beloved golf courses.
Many of the more famous heathland courses were built on the famed Surrey / Berkshire Sandbelt and it would be fair to say that some of England’s “Signature Courses” reside in and around this part of the country.
Swinley Forest is one of England’s most exlusive clubs but if you do get the chance to have a crack at it, do not miss the opportunity. This is an infinitely charming course from start to finish and a delight to play.
Sunningdale boasts two of the finest golf courses in the world and while the New Course is much loved, it’s the Old Course that really gets golfers tongues wagging. Lined with soaring pine, birch and oak trees, the Old Course boasts a procession of amazing holes, each with its own unique character and charm. Some 103 bunkers are to be safely negotiated as well and with a sense of history at every turn, this course is the quintessential English golf experience.
Famously, Bobby Jones once scored a perfectly symmetrical 66 – such scores were almost unheard of in those days – on the Old Course, taking 33 shots going out and 33 coming back. 33 of his 66 shots were “full shots” and the remaining 33 were putts!
Two miles from Sunningdale lies another of England’s most famous golf clubs. Wentworth, and in particular its famed West Course, has been flying the flag for English golf on the professional scene for years. The spiritual home of the World Matchplay Championship and the host of the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, the West Course started out life as a bonafide heathland classic and while changes to the course from Ernie Els, which have brought a bit of an American feel to certain parts of the course, have been met by criticism from some corners, Wentworth still offers one of the best and most iconic golfing experiences in England.
The opening hole at St George’s Hill sets the tone for the rest of the course which is breathtaking from the 1st tee right the way through to the 18th green.
Other famous heathland gems in this area include the likes of Swinley Forest, Walton Heath and The Berkshire and while these courses are widely considered to be the finest examples of heathland golf, there are plenty of lesser known examples throughout the country that simply cannot be overlooked and, conveniently, will be much easier to secure a game on!
If a game at Sunningdale proves elusive or a round at Wentworth a touch on the pricey side, the likes of Hindhead, Liphhook and Woodhall Spa – home to arguably the best inland course in England – are easily accessible from major motorways and serve up a delectable slice of heathland golf.
Most of the courses mentioned so far are among the oldest and most historic in the country and while they are without question among the country’s finest golfing offerings, there are a handful of new courses built in the modern era, by modern designers that are turning heads as well.
The Grove, sometimes referred to as London’s country retreat, boasts just such a course. Designed by Kyle Phillips, he of Kingsbarns fame and one of the hottest modern golf course designers around, The Grove opened to a fanfare of publicity and has lived up to its billing, having successfully hosted the world’s best professionals for the American Express World Golf Championship in 2006.
The Grove is one of the best modern courses in England and will one day mature into one of the most spectacular in the country.
This is modern parkland golf at its best and while the course might not be as easy on the eye as other English classics, as soon as you’re out on the course you appreciate the quality of Philips’ layout. The conditioning is also unbelievably good. Even in the depths of the English winter the greens are pure, receptive and quick and while there can be no excuse for three-putting, missing the greens can make for some really tricky up-and-downs thanks to fiendish run off areas and well placed bunkers.
Not far from The Grove is Woburn Golf Club which, with its three stunning championship courses, is one of England’s finest golf clubs. The Duchess and Dukes both opened for play in the late 70s and while both tug on the heartstrings of Woburn members – from what I can gather having spoken to a few, the Dukes is the darling of the club – it’s the amazing Marquess Course that really stands out from the pack.
Four architects – Ross McMurray, Clive Clark, Alex Hay and Peter Alliss – had a hand in the design and while the Marquess is different in nature to its two older siblings, it is perfectly complementary. Picture perfect fairways wind their way over and across the undulating land on which the course sits, between great banks of oaks, chestnuts, rowan and beech trees and with intelligently placed bunkers and the odd tranquil but treacherous water hazard adding to the challenge, there are few more enjoyable places to play golf on a warm summer’s afternoon.
The Marquess Course at Woburn is truly stunning and its many unique design features, including the mind-boggling split fairway on the 7th, ensure a supremely entertaining round of golf.
The Marquess Course may have hosted the British Masters in 2001 and 2002 but in the eyes of those who have had the pleasure to play it; it remains one of England’s most underrated championship courses. If you’re in and around the London area, this is a must for anyone looking to enjoy one of England’s modern masterpieces.
Another modern masterpiece awaits further to the south. Remedy Oak only opened for play in 2005 but it quickly became known as one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. Thankfully for golfers, visitors are now welcome and while the green fee is fairly steep, much of the time in the world of golf, you get what you pay for and those in the know would say a round here is worth every penny.
Immaculate conditioning comes with the hefty price tag and the course’s setting is also impressive. Carved through ancient woodland, Remedy Oak has a feeling of maturity that belies its relative youth and is an excellent addition to a golf tour of Bournemouth for those looking for a slice of luxury championship golf.
Of course, no list of English courses would be complete without mentioning The Brabazon Course at The Belfry. Steeped in Ryder Cup history having hosted the tournament on an unprecedented four occasions, The Brabazon is one of the most iconic courses in the country.
Some of the most iconic Ryder Cup moments in history, especially as far as European fans go, have come at The Belfry. With the famous drivable par 4 10th and the testing 18th lygin in wait, there are thrills and spills to be enjoyed at every turn.
From Sam Torrance’s 18th hole heroics in 1985 to this year’s Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley’s swan dive into the lake in 2002, famous moments and The Brabazon go hand in hand and should inspire every golfer to visit and experience that legacy.
All in all, England’s golf offerings are wide ranging and offer a great array of golfing tests in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. While golf holidays to exotic, far flung destinations are understandably the stuff of most golfers’ dreams, England has plenty to offer and its golfers can count themselves lucky to be spoilt for choice both in terms of quantity and quality.