Search a thesaurus and you will find a few synonyms for quirky – bizarre, idiosyncratic, wacky and unusual being a pick. All of these are traits that appeal to me when deciding which golf courses to visit.
In the 1990’s, as Nick Faldo was winning his Majors and golf was in a boom period, many landowners decided to convert their agricultural space to a golf course in the search for profits. Many of these courses were hit by the credit crunch and have been converted back to their original use. I am not surprised – they were long, bland and often poorly drained.
I have to admit that even the good quality courses built-in this period, such as Bowood in Wiltshire and The London Club do nothing for me – they are very American in style and frankly when on these courses you could be anywhere in the world. When playing in England, I like to feel a quintessential Englishness about the place. The great heathland and links layouts in the country of course have that in spades, but even away from top 100 lists, England offers some real ‘quirky’ gems. Here I highlight my top 3:
3. Bramshaw Golf Club (Forest Course)
It is normal that complexes with 36 holes of golf have a similar feel across both courses. At one of my favourite such places, Saunton in Devon, for example, any of the holes on the East Course could be transferred to the West or vice versa without affecting the balance or character of either course.
Not at Bramshaw Golf Club in Hampshire. On one side of the road is the Manor Course, a beautifully manicured traditional parkland layout through mature trees with a multitude of bunkers and superbly conditioned greens. On the other side of the road is something completely different.
The Forest Course was built around 1865 and sits within the boundaries of the New Forest National Park. The land is owned by the Forestry Commision and is subject to many covenents including local commoners being able to put their livestock out to graze.
In fact, areas of the course had become so populated by livestock that a recent re-routing of the course has been necessary. Course Manager Jason Buckmaster explains:
With up to 140 ‘heads’ of cattle put out on the course at any one time, playing on the first tee could, on occasions, be quite a challenge. We had to find an alternative solution for the heaviest grazed areas that would suit all interested parties and enable commoning practices to continue to thrive alongside a leisure activity that is enjoyed by many”.
This is golf in its most natural form. There is only one hole with bunkers and restrictions mean that the fairways can only be cut twice a year.
With a stunning setting through a site of special scientific interest and ponies, cows and wild boars amongst the spectators (obstacles) this is truly unique, old-school golf at its finest.
2. Sutton Bridge Golf Club
Sutton Bridge Golf Club, established in 1914 is a fine nine-hole parkland golf course located in and around an abandoned late nineteenth century dock basin adjacent to the River Nene in South Lincolnshire.
Just take a moment to read that last sentence again – a golf course in an abandoned dock! This is surely unique in the world let alone England. The Club advertises itself as ‘free-draining’, which, for a dock, must explain some of the engineering disasters in its past!
As the history goes, back in 1881, the Sutton Bridge Port completed the construction of the dock basin some ten acres in area. No one could have foreseen the engineering disaster that quickly followed its opening. Three ships had sailed into the basin and fortunately all three managed to escape before the dock walls began to collapse and two large pumping engines sank into the running silt.
The basin was abandoned for some thirty years until local people had the foresight to see the 35 acres as a golf course. The original walls of the dock basin form an intrinsic part of the course and create changes in levels which are not found in many other fenland courses.
As you might expect, the walls of the dock are not subtle. As the photo shows they are concrete and 15ft high. Seven of the nine holes play along or over the walls. They are a health and safety officers nightmare with golf balls richoting around like pinballs and golfers in eminent danger of overbalancing and ‘falling in’ the dock on some shots.
With such a tight piece of land, this is one of the most claustrophobic layouts you will find, but each hole is truly bizarre and if you bring a sense of humour, you will love this place.
1. Painswick Golf Club
It takes something special to beat the weirdness of the previous two courses, but Painswick delivers and some. It truly is the Queen of quirky.
Formed in 1891, the course is laid out on Painswick Beacon, one of a string of pre-Roman Hill Forts constructed on the Cotswold Hills. After a truly terrible opening hole, which is so steeply uphill that anything less than a 6-iron from the par 4 tee is likely to spear straight into the rise in front of you, the course is essentially out and back along the narrow hill ridge.
When you have finally made your way up the hill to the 1st green you are around 900ft above sea-level and the view across to the Welsh Mountains is stunning. What follows is a series of unique golf holes routed through the great ramparts of the Bronze Age fort.
The most crazy of a series of insane hole designs is undoubtedly the Par 3 5th. At just 114 yards, it is not long, but when stood on the tee the first-time visitor truly has no idea in which direction to aim.
This hole was ranked number 7 in the 2003 publication ‘Britain’s 100 Extraordinary Golf Holes’ (still available on Amazon) and I am surprised it was not higher. Remarkably, these ramparts are less forbidding now than in the past, as much of the stone has been quarried for use in building the local cathedral and churches.
Running as it does on common land, the course is often swarmed by walkers and is impossible to play on Sundays.
It is with some relief, like landing from your first sky dive, that the course returns to flatter land in the village for the last couple of holes.
If, like me, the modern American style golf design does not quite do it for you, check out these ancient quirks of history and you will come away with a broad smile. And do you know what-the green fees are a fraction of the price as well.