My recent obsession with English golf has led me to consider the quest for County Lines – not some recruitment of children to transfer illegal drugs into neighbouring areas, but rather a project to play and learn more about the courses of each of the English Counties.
I have a map.
This now adorns a wall of the study and I have started to mark off all of the courses that I have played. I say started because after 30 years of golfing, many have been resigned to the very back of the memory bank, either through dreadful play or just forgetfulness.
For this quest, I have adopted the Counties as outlined by www.top100golfcourses.com. The 36 different areas of England detailed in this comprehensive database include some counties such as East and West Sussex which have been combined into a single area. By my reckoning there are around 8 of these Counties in which I am yet to play. Lots of research required then.
So, given the restrictions in my experience, here are my top 10 favourite English Counties to play.
For a landlocked County, Wiltshire has some surprising variety up its sleeve.
My preference is for the century old layouts of Kingsdown, Salisbury & South Wilts, Marlborough, High Post and Tidworth Garrison, with the latter two among the finest downland layouts in the country.
The rankings however, would proclaim that the best two courses in Wiltshire are the 1990’s designed Bowood and Manor House. Bowood is big and very American whilst Manor House contains more English character set in dramatically and extensively undulating parkland which produces some spectacular holes but unless you are Bear Grylls will require the use of a buggy.
Like its Wilshire neighbour, golf in Gloucestershire contains a mixture of old and new with the new dominating the rankings and the old capturing my affection.
Of the old, there is Bristol & Clifton, Long Ashton and Knowle as strong parkland layouts, but it is the quirk and charm of Minchinhampton Common and Painswick that draw me back to this County. These are unique layouts shaped by history and the deep love of the game.
From the new brigade, the grandly titled Players Club and The Kendleshire are American style courses that appeal to those that enjoy an island green.
A giant of English golf that will certainly rise up the list when I have played more of its courses. Indeed my preference for the heathland aesthetic may lead its rise to the very top of this particular tree. I am unhealthily excited about my first visit to Sunningdale next week.
I hate the resigned West Course at Wentworth but I love the more gentle East.
There is so much depth of quality in this County and I look forward to exploring a little off the beaten track.
Our first visit to a coastal County and golf in Somerset is dominated by the links at Burnham and Berrow. So much so that there is an argument that the secondary 9-hole Channel course is the second best in the area.
There are, however, a couple of other good links layouts in the County at Minehead and Weston-Super-Mare. These are perhaps not the most visually appealing courses but are very strong traditional links.
For those that wish to venture inland, there are interesting and varied holes to be found along with stunning views on the hilltop courses at Bath, Mendip and Clevedon.
Most certainly not the first County that golfers think of to visit and suffers from the fact that its best courses are spread over a vast area, but make the effort and you can find some excellent quality among the vast flat lands of Lincolnshire.
Of course the honeypot location is Woodhall Spa. From the South you seem to drive for hours through featureless landscapes before the wonderful oasis of Woodhall just seems to appear from nowhere offering a heavenly environment of pine, birch and huge pits of sand. Recently restored by Tom Doak, this course is worth its lofty position in the rankings.
Away from Woodhall and through the kiss-me-quick resort of Skegness, we find perhaps the most underrated links course in the country at Seacroft. Other Lincolnshire highlights include one of the better ‘resort’ courses in England at Forest Pines and the undervisited Lincoln and Market Rasen.
Golf in Suffolk contains a rich and intoxicating variety.
Links golf in this County flies under the radar but Felixstowe Ferry offers a charming day in the sea air.
The heathland tracks of Ipswich, Woodbridge and Aldeburgh gather the headlines and rightly so. For me Ipswich is the best of the three but arguments can be made for the architectural majesty at Aldeburgh.
Royal Worlington and Newmarket is a special place where you can see all 9 pins from the 1st tee and yet the design and particularly the green complexes may be the best in England. Just down the road, another 9-hole masterpiece hides away from the crowds at Flempton.
To complete the variety there is a James Braid designed course on the common at Bungay and well constructed parkland at Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds.
My current home and a fantastic base for a golfing tour.
The best two courses in Norfolk are both links but offer very different styles. The bold and rugged design at Hunstanton contrasts sharply with the more gentle, understated feel of Royal West Norfolk.
To complement the links there are top heathland courses at Kings Lynn and Thetford and spectacular clifftop offerings at Royal Cromer and Sheringham.
The recent addition of a top level parkland course at Royal Norwich will help to raise the profile of golf in Norfolk which can stand proudly among the best locations for golfers in the country.
For lovers of inland golf and heathland in particular, it is hard to argue against Bournemouth being the premier location to base a quality golfing tour.
Broadstone, Parkstone and Ferndown are all within a short journey of the town. Many golfers rank Broadstone as the best of the three but my preference is for the more intimate and fun offering at Parkstone.
Another personal favourite is the Isle of Purbeck, where the adventure to get there is worth the effort for perhaps the finest views of any course in the country as you get an incredible vista back towards Poole.
Away from the Bournemouth area and both Sherbourne and Yeovil offer fun parkland golf.
If Bournemouth is the chosen base for lovers of heathland golf, then links connoisseurs should head for Southport.
The self-titled English Golf Coast contains an incredible stretch of golfing terrain including the Open venues of Royal Birkdale and Lytham & St Annes. I very much enjoyed Formby when I was there in 2018 – wonderfully conditioned and a fascinating hybrid of pine forest and natural links.
A surprising and very personal favourite, Devon uniquely has both a North and South coast and makes the best of both.
On the North side, Saunton contains two magnificent links courses that are easily good enough to stage the Open if the transport networks to the area were better. Royal North Devon offers a trip back in time to see how golf was designed at its very outset in England.
The South coast offers less famous names but perhaps more depth of quality. The one true links here is a beauty at Dawlish Warren. My personal favourite is East Devon, a wonderful course on the clifftops around Budleigh Salterton.
With other quality offerings adding to the variety at Yelverton, Thurlestone, Dartmouth, Teignmouth and Exeter it is easy to see why Devon is so popular for golfers.