Sunningdale Golf Club (Old Course)
Ascot, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Sunningdale breeds loyalty. Since 1901 there have been few but very distinguished club secretaries that include Harry Colt, Major Guy Bennett, and today’s Stephen Toon who has served since 2004. For 56 years James Sheridan was caddiemaster. Arthur Lees was the golf professional for 28 years. Hugh MacLean acted as the construction foreman for the Old Course in 1899 – and stayed until 1939. One of his workers remained gainfully employed for over 60 years! Sunningdale’s club historian John Churchill joined over a half century ago.
Such devotion usually indicates something special and Sunningdale certainly is that. A visit today reveals a club bustling with happy members and their fortunate dogs. A gracious air pervades the place that is the envy of the golfing world. For 115 years its famed oak tree has loomed over golfers heading out and acted as a beacon for their return.
Was this destiny? No, Sunningdale is the exemplar it has become due to uncommonly good sense. The Club might have headed down the wrong path any number of times but didn’t. It could have chosen someone less talented than Willie Park Jr. to build the original course – but didn’t. It could have failed to grasp – but didn’t – the ramifications of the Haskell ball. It could have ignored the Club Secretary’s relentless calls for improvements – but didn’t. The second course might have compromised the first – but didn’t.
Yes, much changed on the Old Course from its opening in 1899 until the magical year of 1926 but the course that we enjoy today is basically what Bobby Jones confronted when he carded that perfect 66 composed of only 3s and 4s. Bernard Darwin called it ‘incredible and indecent.’ On account of indifferent putting, O.B. Keeler noted that Jones ‘… had no luck at all, and needed none.’ Part of that round’s marvel was how many greens Jones hit from 180 to 225 yards away, as many as ten. He never missed even with hickories! Jones (with Keeler) reminisced in Down the Fairway, ‘In my 36 holes there, in the qualifying rounds, I used a mashie twice and a mashie niblick once, for approach shots. The others were good bangs with the irons, or a spoon, or occasionally a brassie. It’s that kind of course.’ Members to this day relate with Jones’s sentiments. Unless the golfer gets away a huge wallop, drives die into up-slopes and a host of greens (e.g. the fourth, sixth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and eighteenth) sit well above a player in the fairway.
Jones was on his game that week and the Old Course made an indelible impression. His feat – and his words of praise – gave the Old Course star power unmatched among the heathland courses, then and now. What was the genesis for this design that so impressed? In a rarity, two of golf ‘s titans had their hands in the pudding.
Sunningdale was at the forefront of bringing meaningful golf inland where it could play a vital role in one’s weekly life. Links golf defined the character of the game in 1899 when Willie Park Jr. began routing the course for the brothers Roberts. Park was surely impressed with Sunningdale’s convoluted land movement, which simulated some of the conundrums posed by links land. The Scot Park did his part by concocting drives over the crests of hills, placing bunkers in the middle of fairways, tilting greens away, and building some massive putting surfaces (the tenth alone was nearly 15,000 square feet).
Park’s course was beastly long and required getting down in two putts from well away. In a tip of the hat to The Old Course at St. Andrews, the first and seventeenth holes shared a green. Guy Bennett noted in The Sunningdale Story, ‘Willie Park had the reputation of being a very good putter, and practically all his greens were large, much more so than they are at present. Their size was considerably curtailed, chiefly for economic purposes during the war, which one thinks, makes for an improvement.’
The gutta percha ball was in use when Park built the course but the Haskell emerged a scant two years later. The game and what constituted good golf was changing, and doing so rapidly. At one time blind one shotters were popular, seen from Deal and Sandwich to Aberdovey and here at Park’s first three one shot holes which featured greens located in a bowl (the fourth), behind a fold (the eighth) and a beyond a hill (the thirteenth). As the new century dawned, such holes lost their standing. Bernard Darwin was savagely critical of Park’s one shotters. While Park’s one shotters were mostly rooted in the 19th century, the course was otherwise long and stylish. Might Park have done things differently if he had designed Sunningdale with the Haskell in mind? That’s a difficult question and the ability to answer it in absolutes has been lost with time. However, it is worth noting that the Park family business was golf equipment and perhaps they had a inkling of what would soon emerge. Such knowledge would account for Park’s muscular routing, which clearly made allowances for the anticipated improvements in equipment.
By pure coincidence, the same year that the Haskell appeared, so too did Harry Colt. Sunningdale had sent out requests for a Club Secretary and Colt was among the more than 400 applicants. He assumed the post in 1901. At first he was largely an administrator and player but his services as a golf architect grew during the first decade of the twentieth century. His early gems include Le Touquet, Swinley Forest and St. George’s Hill and by 1913 he had made his mark in North America at mighty Pine Valley and the charming Toronto Golf Club. Still, Park was ‘the man’ at the start of the century and Colt prudently inched his way along in the early years. As his talent blossomed, Colt’s voice became louder and it was soon revealed that his eye for architecture was peerless.
Sheridan sums up Colt the man in Sheridan of Sunningdale:
Mr. H.S. Colt, the secretary, was no easy man to serve. I was astounded at first by the way he seemed to frighten most of the staff and thought this wouldn’t do for me. We had a terrible row when one of the caddies had trouble with a member. “I don’t care what happened, Sheridan,’ he said as I tried to explain. ‘The member is always right.’ ‘Wrong is no man’s right,’ I replied which scarcely poured oil on the troubled waters. I very soon realised what a great and wonderful man he was and, as the years passed, we both achieved a fine regard for each other. Certainly, the secretary had a fierce kick in him, but I prefer men like that. The others desert you when the wind blows.
Bernard Darwin, the dean of golf writing and Colt’s friend, was not charitable in describing Park’s par 3s. Churchill suggests that Darwin’s phrase ‘scathingly dismissed’ may well have reflected upon his friendship with Colt more than the merits of Park’s one shotters. In any event Colt’s initial work concentrated on the first three par 3s. He later eradicated a blind approach shot at the seventh and moved the twelfth green to its current, splendid perch. As things stand, twelve of today’s greens on the Old Course are where Park put them but Colt always, repeat always, gave Park his due. Without doubt, Park deserves credit for the wonderful bones that are the Old Course.
Colt remained the Club Secretary until 1913 when his travel schedule forced the Club to reluctantly accept his resignation (he had tried prior in 1911). However, his work on the Old was not finished and when the Club hired him to build the New Course in 1922, Colt made alterations to the first, seventeenth and eighteenth to make room for its sibling. Of note, the original first tee was once virtually beneath the great oak.
Fortunately for the Club, two of the greatest figures in British golf architecture shepherded the course through its infancy. Coincidently or not, both were crack players. Sheridan spoke about Colt: ‘I had been in Hoylake in 1906 when he was one of three Sunningdale men in the semi-final of the Amateur Championship. Yet, none of them won!’ Willie Park Jr.’s playing record includes two Open titles and needs no elaboration. Sunningdale’s enticing shot values and her enduring golf qualities stem from these gentlemen’s innate understanding of the game.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 490/455 yards; Beginning 5-5 is not ideal but demonstrates in techno-color that Willie Park was a lay-of-the-land architect. Two long holes was the best start for the property and one must presume that Park was trying to ‘connect the dots’ to reach the magical fifth tee. Technology renders this hole a long two shotter but its not length that makes it difficult or noteworthy. Its intrinsic playing characteristics are derived from the natural slope of the land (including the green) that falls away from the player. It’s a long hole where a short approach is more problematic than a strong one. Golf has been played at Sunningdale in three (!) different centuries and it is most satisfying that the ground game is still very much apart of the proceedings.
Third hole, 320/290 yards; Comparing the merits of the Old and New Courses is a debate without end. One thing is for sure: if you are a connoisseur of the short par 4, then your allegiance lies with the Old. This and the eleventh hole have significantly influenced golf architecture. Tom Doak captures the essence of the hole well with his diagram in Anatomy of a Golf Course. Seemingly short and simple, the action commences with the need to clear two bunkers on the far side of a shallow valley. Do that and you realize the optimum playing angle to this left to right canted green. The tension created by the seven bunkers down the right combined with the green’s slope is outstanding.
Fifth hole, 420/400 yards; This timeless beauty is probably the most oft-painted heathland hole. As with the tenth, the green is large, 35 paces in depth. Everything is in scale with nothing jarring or out of place; the eye happily wanders down the length of the hole, soaking it all in. When play first commenced, golf balls were expensive and one imagines the anxiety created by the pond on one’s approach! There can be as much as a three clubs difference between front and back hole locations. With no framing around the green to assist with depth perception, getting one’s shot hole high is more difficult than one suspects. Cecil Aldin eternalized the fifth with his 1920 effort that spectacularly captured Sunningdale’s huge expanse of heathland.
Sixth hole, 435/385 yards; Darwin conjectured in Golf Courses of the British Isles, ‘I cannot help thinking that the coming of the ‘Haskell’ was a blessing for the course, and that it may be said of Sunningdale, as it can be said for perhaps no other course in Christendom, that it was improved by the rubber-cored ball.’ One wonders exactly what he meant. To the author, he was suggesting that Sunningdale became more enjoyable and playable for a wider audience. Park’s two shotters were defiant as this hole attests. It surely would have been a driver and two wood with a gutty but more members could carry the second swath of heather with the Haskell. One of the hallmarks of good design is the ability to test the best while still offering enjoyable golf for players of any age or ability. Sunningdale masters that balancing act as well as any inland course.
Seventh hole, 405/395 yards; Seventh hole, 405/395 yards; The topography that spills away from the famous Edwardian clubhouse is one of the marvels of the golfing world with the stretch from 5 to 10 on the Old as good as it gets. One benefit of such rambunctious land is the ever-changing perspective. Long views were afforded down five and six but at the tee here, the golfer’s view is stunted by an abrupt embankment. After cresting the hill, a glorious scene unfolds as this roly-poly hole twists right to left then left to right near Colt’s green. Similarly, a muted view at eleven follows the big one from the tenth tee. The superior golfing landscape exhilarates the player, leaving him never quite sure what to expect next.