Over the next few weeks, I will be updating and improving my Hotlist – my favourite courses to play in England. This is not some kind of best courses list like you seem to find every month in the golf magazines – but a list of courses that only make the grade if they follow certain architectural principles and are great fun to play.
In this blog, I will detail the latest 4 entries onto the list and why they made it.
Royal Birkdale (Lancashire)
Many golfers best course in England and an Open venue to boot. The sense of anticipation as you drive down the long open driveway is palpable and the venue does not disappoint.
This is links golf among towering dunes, with fairways snaking through valleys like streets through a modern city. Whilst some links courses such as St Andrews contain subtle undulations, this is a heavy swell in a force 8 gale type of beast.
Is it difficult? Sure it is – depending upon the length and thickness of the rough that borders the fairways. But options abound – there is a wonderful range of holes. Some require a full on Driver from the tee, whilst others are best tackled in a more conservative fashion. Pick the tees that best suit your ability and you will be tested to the limit of your ability but not often beyond.
The top courses offer conditioning that is a level or two above the average and that is certainly the case at Birkdale. Wonderfully firm sandy turf and beautifully presented bunkering helps to lift the experience to one that you will remember for all of your golfing days. The day is best finished upstairs in the iconic Art Deco clubhouse to enjoy dinner in front of the vista of some of the best golfing terrain anywhere in the world.
This is a typical members club situated just outside the sleepy Somerset seaside town of Clevedon. Whilst enjoying spectacular views over the Bristol Channel, this is very much a parkland layout.
In truth, the experience at Clevedon is lifted beyond the ordinary by a couple of remarkable golf holes.
At the 8th, golfers arriving at the tee are presented with the vision that the course just stops. In front and to the right are the remains of Clevedon Castle and in front to the left the land just seems to drop away with views toward the town and the sea beyond.
With the realisation that the ‘island’ fairway rests around 100 feet below the tee, 170 yards of trees to carry to reach it, and further thick undergrowth to the left and right of the promised land, the sense of Acrophobia at this exposed spot is now accompanied by a sort of empty sickness in the stomach that fears a destroyed scorecard. In any sort of crosswind, just getting through with some golf balls left in the bag is an achievement. Great fun if you like that sort of thing.
The 14th involves a similar sort of drop in elevation, but this hole is a 170 yard Par 3. How the hell you work out the club in the wind and huge elevation change is beyond me. Where is Bryson DeChambeau when you need him? What it does lead to is a massive hang time for your golf ball. The anticipation of where it may land whilst in the air seems to take more time than the aforementioned American does to line up an 8-foot putt. The final part of the puzzle on this hole is the safe navigation down the slope towards the green. The buggy ride presented almost as much fear as the time I took a ride from an Italian bus driver down Mount Vesuvius.
Burnham & Berrow (Somerset)
B & B is the jewel in the crown of Somerset golf and yet seems to fly under the radar of many golfers.
This is a serious links test and will not be that enjoyable for the occasional golfer.
The challenge is summed up quite well from the 1st tee. Sited hard between the practice putting green and the final hole putting surface and with the clubhouse close by, the sense of prying eyes is strong. Combine this with a shot between dunes to a blind, narrow fairway and you begin to get the strong sense that this could be a challenge beyond your ability.
The green complexes are excellent, but many have brutal run-offs that can make you look pretty stupid if your short-game lacks confidence. The out and back routing can lead to 9 holes directly into the wind, which can bring a tear to the eye.
Having explained the difficulty, nevertheless, this course deserves a spot on my list. The opening and closing thirds contain links holes that would not be out of place on any Open Championship venue. The flatter, more marshland based middle section perhaps drops the course just below the worlds best links courses, but if you come with the right attitude and a match-play format, this course is great fun. Start your day with a quick nine on the sister Channel Course which contains holes that would sit very well on its Championship sibling.
Links Golf Club Newmarket (Cambridgeshire)
The golf at these central Counties can be quite stodgy affairs, but the unique experience at Newmarket justifies its place on my list.
Owned by the Jockey Club at this remarkable town, where the horses get their own road crossings (and have priority over the cars), this is a quiet, well to do venue that is best played on a summers evening when you most likely will have the place to yourself.
The golf is good parkland (with a touch of heathland) fare, with the challenges all laid out in front of you and enough subtle options and strategy to keep you on your toes. The best part of the experience is when you are required to hit across the gallops from elevated tees – unique, quirky and thrilling.
Dig out your Sunday bag, a few clubs and no sense of rush and Newmarket will give you a fine evenings golfing.