Huntercombe Golf Club

Henley-on-Thames, ENGLAND

Hollows and wild greens define Willie Park Junior’s land mark design at Huntercombe. Note the four foot drop (!) in the middle of the fourth green.

At the turn of the twentieth century only coastal courses incorporated features that were both natural in appearance and attractive to the golfer. Though great strides had been made at places like Royal Worlington & Newmarket and Woking, man generally struggled to make inland golf anywhere near as engaging to play as links golf. His attempt at moving dirt was frequently heavy handed, unnatural in appearance and failed to produce the strategic conundrums found on the great links.

Willie Park Junior changed much of that in 1901 when he opened three courses that established new design standards for inland golf. Those courses were Sunningdale, Notts and Huntercombe. Of the three, Park invested his own money in only one and that was Huntercombe where he became the Managing Director of what he had hoped would become a successful real estate venture (alas, it wasn’t). A descendant from one of golf’s most famous families, his father Willie Park Senior won the first Open Championship and three others. His uncle Mungo also became Open champion and the brothers made a further name for themselves by founding a well known golf club and ball company based out of Musselburgh, Scotland.  Park Junior himself won the Open in 1887 and 1889 while helping to run the family business. From this pedigree  background, Park developed strong ideas as to what constituted good golf.

In 1900, a confident Park personally purchased Huntercombe Manor and over 900 acres  and availed himself of another 113 acres of common ground. Alone, he drove the design of Huntercombe, free from committees or other outside influences.  Huntercombe was a highly personalized design for Parkand he poured everything into the course that he thought made the game enjoyable. Park needed to because motor cars had yet to grab hold in England and going for a game in the Chilterns forty miles west of London in Oxfordshire was far more time consuming than now.

Here are descriptions of Huntercombe from an early advertisement: “Situated on the Chiltern Hills, 700 feet above sea-level, playable all the year round, a perfect seaside course – inland, grand old turf, gravel and sand subsoil, health giving breezes, an ideal course for London golfers.” The best part? The virtues and playing characteristics promised hold as true today as they did in 1901.

Two design features stand out at Huntercombe. One is the imaginative green contours and the other is the absence of artificial, man made hazards (a.k.a. bunkers).

First, the greens and their surrounds: Bear in mind that the man who designed this course is the same one who later penned The Art of Putting. Highlighted by a four foot change in elevation in the fourth green and the famous three foot step-up at the much photographed eighth green, Huntercombe featured interior contours the likes of which had yet to be built on an inland course anywhere in the world. To put this in perspective, Charles Blair Macdonald, Walter Travis, Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Perry Maxwell and others were still years, even decades, away from building greens that would make each famous in his own right. Park and Huntercombe came first in a landmark moment in golf course architecture. Indeed, Harry S. Colt, the standard bearer of UK architects, never built a series of putting surfaces as bold as the ones at Huntercombe.

Greens such as the first, second, third, fourth, eighth, thirteenth, and fifteenth need to be seen to be believed. To this day, they imbue the course with sparkle that few others possess. Clearly, Park, a Scot, was heavily influenced by the greens he saw at North Berwick, Prestwick and The Old Course at St. Andrews and he brought that knowledge south to Oxfordshire.

The eighth green sweeps up three feet from fairway level to a back plateau that is a scant fourteen paces deep. Stopping an aerial approach shot on it is virtually impossible for most club golfers so they have to sort out some kind of a running approach shot.

The other most remarkable design feature is Park’s use of hollows and depressions instead of bunkers. The course opened with less than twenty-five bunkers and today has only thirteen. People consider MacKenzie’s design of Augusta National to be revolutionary in this regard but Huntercombe pre-dates it by thirty-one years! Park employed centerline depressions and hollows that dictate the line of play with holes three, four, five, six, nine, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen all serving as prime examples.

Who needs bunkers that are costly to maintain when hollows and depressions do just as good a job?

Huntercombe’s design brought immediate praise, none more succinct or flattering than that by Walter Travis who called it ‘easily the best laid out links that I have ever played over anywhere.’ Similar to Woking Golf Club, Huntercombe attracted some of the finest minds in golf course architecture to its membership including C.K. Hutchison, J. F. Abercromby, Charles Hugh Alison, and Stuart Paton. A powerful figure in golf, Park held much sway with his peers and his innovative use of the land and his imaginative greens at Huntercombe set the stage for an impressive boon in golf course development around greater London. In fact, many consider 1901 as the start of the Golden Age of golf course architecture.

Later in 1951, Henry Longhurst joined the club and more than anyone championed the joys of a game at Huntercombe. As we see below, the venue still lives up to the lofty praise.

Holes to Note

First hole, 145 yards; Considering that Huntercombe represents Park’s design ideal, the first time visitor is surprised to be greeted on the first tee with the shortest hole on the course. Surely, the sequence of holes must have been changed at some point? Indeed, it has. Upon Lord Nuffield’s death, today’s clubhouse was built in 1963 some thousand yards from the original one and the sixth hole became today’s first after a narrow club vote. Nonetheless, the bunkerless first gives a taste of what’s to come with its inspiringly contoured green that slopes away from the tee.

Second hole, 420 yards; The most dramatic long views afforded at Huntercombe now come early in the round. Bunkerless, the second still gives the golfer all that he can handle. Both its fairway and green play off the same broad right to left slope and Park’s exploitation of the land is nothing short of superlative. Judging where and how to land one’s approach shot is as vexing today as it was in Park’s era and certainly brings into sharp focus how deadly dull courses are that reward only aerial play.

The second at Huntercombe is one of the best bunkerless holes in world golf.

The approach to the second is endlessly fascinating: Do you land it twenty or thirty yards short of the green and let it trundle down onto the putting surface or do you fly the ball closer to the green and thus take away some of the slope?

Though the second lays peacefully upon the ground, Park undertook quite a bite of earth work in building up the green complex. This represents one of the earliest examples in inland golf of being unable to distinguish where nature stops and man’s hand begins. As such, Huntercombe marks a seminal moment in golf course architecture.

Third hole, 365 yards; A  formidable depression left of the driving zone ensures that the golfer doesn’t cheat much. At 4,300 square feet, the third green enjoys only ~1,200 square feet of cupable area within its fierce right to left slope. Similar to the second, the qualities of its approach haven’t diminished one iota with time. Round after round, the golfer relishes the opportunity to challenge the design and to figure out how to get the ball close. Truth be told, the surest way is to eschew the direct, modern aerial assault and to hit a low runner as much as a dozen paces right of the green’s edge. Watching the drama slowly unfold along the ground as a low running ball takes the slope and trickles toward the one portion of the putting surface that will hold is a thing of great joy. The club’s diligent work in firming up the ground over the past decade is in evidence here as it allows the ground game shot to be played to perfection.

Time will show that the best approach might land as far as 25 yards to the right of the red flag.

There is six feet of drop from right of the green to the left edge of the putting surface. Given that, the most time tested way to end up near today’s hole location is by hitting a low approach shot on line with the trolleys and letting gravity do the rest.

Fourth hole, 330 yards; Very little has changed with the fourth hole in its first 110 years. As such, it is highly instructive in appreciating just what a bold design Huntercombe was at its inception. Like many holes at St. Andrews, its character drastically changes based on the day’s hole location. When located on the top left tier, the player may drive the green downwind and have a manageable eagle putt. Move the hole to the bottom right tier and the entire complexion is changed. At the time, 1901, the only greens with such wild interior contours were those found along the coast at such famous links as North Berwick, St. Andrews, Prestwick and Machrihanish. Golf course architects had yet to bestow inland greens with much character save for tilt. Park revolutionized all that with a series of arresting green complexes at Huntercombe with the fourth green complex being a particular standout.

Disaster! This poor soul’s ball stayed on the top tier and he is trying any means possible (including putting with his back to the hole) to get this ball within 10 feet of the hole with his first putt.

Sixth hole, 520 yards; The club has been a good steward of Park’s design. Even here, where things had to change for safety, the hole still reflects Park’s overall design theme. Originally, Park had this fairway and green hug the road, which was much less trafficked. By the early 1970s, the club had no choice but to steer play away from the busy road down the right. Today, Park’s depressions and the new green built in 1971 work well in concert. The green’s left to right tilt still rewards the golfer that favors playing down the side with the most trouble (i.e the right).

The need to hit the fairway …

… and avoid the shallow heath filled depression ninety yards short of the green are still the key underpinnings to playing the sixth well.

Appearing as nothing more than an extension of the fairway, the fine sixth green is of the sort that sadly is rarely built today.

Seventh hole, 215 yards; Park looked for ways to improve the course until his death in 1925. Approximately a dozen years after Huntercombe opened, he created the mounds that are now the seventh’s outstanding feature. Variety was keenly important to Park and nowhere is that better demonstrated than by comparing this green complex with the next.

Laid over flat terrain, Park eventually decided to build a series of mounds left and right of the green as a means of giving the hole both visually interest as well as enhanced playing qualities.

A miss to the left can leave a blind recovery while one to the ….

… right isn’t much better.

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