Sunningdale Golf Club (The New Course)
Sunningdale, Berkshire, England
Framing what Henry Shapland Colt meant to golf course architecture is no mean task. Certainly, he was the dominant English architect of the Golden Age of Architecture and his large body of work did more to define golf in the United Kingdom than any other person. Canada, the United States of America, and Europe were also beneficiaries of his personal attention. A great teacher, this modest man’s personality was such that people enjoyed their interaction with him. As a result, the reach of his firm and his design partners extended to all corners of the golfing globe with Charles Hugh Alison in Japan, Europe, the United States, and South Africa and J.S.F. Morrison in the United Kingdom and Europe. Colt’s former partner Alister MacKenzie made his own immense impact in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States as well.
As golf gained in popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, gentlemen desired to play the game closer to their homes/work and that meant building courses inland. Just like Winston Churchill years later, Colt proved to be right man during this crucial transition period when new course construction shifted predominately from links to inland. Though humble, he held strong views on golf course architecture and communicated those to the people around him. In particular, his ability to route courses over interesting landforms and to make inland hazards appear as natural as possible distinguished his work from his predecessors save for Herbert Fowler and Willie Park Junior.
Swinley Forest in 1909 and St. George’s Hill in 1911 are two standout examples and any club that has a Colt course is justly proud. However, of the approximately 200 courses with which his name is associated, one has the greatest connection: Sunningdale. Not only was he the Club Secretary from 1901 until 1913, he also oversaw major changes to Willie Park Junior’s Old Course. In addition, he designed and built the New Course in 1922 and later modified it in the mid 1930s. No doubt from 1901 to 1935, the very dates that some describe as the Golden Age of Architecture, Sunningdale Golf Club and Colt mutually benefited from their close relationship.
When Colt resigned as Secretary in 1913, he did so to board a ship to North America where he was already commissioned to build several courses. In addition to his splendid work in Canada, he spent a solid week at Pine Valley Golf Club at the beginning of June with its founder George Crump. According to historian Tom Paul, Harry Colt helped Crump immeasurably with the routing and left plans for green locations. Specifically, he solved Crump’s routing problem by getting Crump across the river with the creation of the daunting one shot fifth hole. From there, much of the rest of the routing fell into place. Upon concluding his visit to the sand barrens of New Jersey, Harry Colt arrived back in England on June 9th, 1913. A year later, Crump sent a beautiful leather-bound scrapbook of Pine Valley’s construction progress to Colt in England. Though Harry Colt never returned there, he must have been pained by the news of Crump’s death in 1918. Still, Pine Valley Golf Club thought enough of the firm of Colt & Alison that Alison was retained in 1919 to help finish the course.
In England, as the wretchedness of World War I subsided, another era came of age and that was of the motor car. Though Sunningdale was but an hour train ride from city centre, the popularity of the motor car helped spike interest in golfing activities in London’s heathland areas. Hence, the need for a second course emerged at the popular Sunningdale Golf Club and it is no surprise to whom the club turned. 169 acres were purchased from Lord Onslow and Colt’s design opened in 1922. According to Colt historian Paul Turner, ‘This was a big budget project, perhaps the biggest Harry Colt ever worked with in Europe. The New was a grand, sprawling course the day it opened and even featured a hole in excess of 600 yards. Also, it’s interesting to note that the New is one of the few courses that was built when Mackenzie was in partnership with Colt. Though the Good Doctor himself never lays claim to any credit, Joshua Crane makes reference to how MacKenzie assisted Harry Colt at Sunningdale.’
Granted, World War I intervened between Harry Colt’s time at Pine Valley and the creation of the New Course nine years later but the similarities between these two mighty designs are striking. What influence Colt’s week with Crump had on himself – let alone on Crump – is a matter of conjecture but both men deserve credit for their willingness to share ideas and their desire to have the best around them.
Never an easy task to open beside one of the standard-bearers of the game, the New Course nonetheless immediately found its own voice. From the start, comparisons with the Old were made but the broad shouldered hitting required on the New proved a fine complement to the cunning charms of the Old. Nonetheless, in the 1930s, the stretch of holes from the sixth to the tenth came under review. According to the club’s well researched centenary book by John Whitfield entitled Sunningdale Golf Club 1900-2000, when Harry Colt designed these holes he was to a large extent tied to the land near the stables, as at that time all the cutting and carting was done by horses; now that work could be done by tractor it was possible to go further afield.
In particular, members complained of mountaineering in this four hole stretch and noted architect Tom Simpson was brought in to provide a solution. Club Secretary Stephen Toon summarizes what then occurred:
In the early 1930’s, Tom Simpson built four new holes to replace the, eventually, to be abandoned Harry Colt holes. Simpson had been employed on the original construction. These holes ran in a clockwise loop staring at the 6th. HOWEVER after 4 years these too were amended by Harry Colt, in consultation with Morrison. They revised the loop and played them anti-clockwise, as they are played today. Interestingly, the Colt holes remained playable and were very popular with many Members. An entry in the Suggestion Book in 1937 reads: that the holes 7, 8, 9 and 10 of the new course [note the use of the lower case at that time] be brought back into play. The Secretary of the day Major G. G. M. Bennett – replies: The Committee does not approve of this suggestion. This sparks an energetic response from Members who found the Committeeâ€™s reply discourteous. It was noted that the suggestion to keep the original Harry Colt holes in play had the largest number of signatures of any suggestion in the history of the Club. The Committee then agrees that the ‘old’ holes may be played ‘occasionally’ which appeased the Membership. So for a number of years, there were two routings in play – the original Harry Colt routing and the revised Harry Colt / Morrison routing.
While the work carried out to this four hole stretch was the most dramatic ever undertaken on either course, the key is that Colt (or one of his partners, in this case J.S.F. Morrison) ended up doing it. Woe is the architect that tinkers with a Colt course, given that his work is likely to be inferior as his feel for the land will be more heavy-handed than the master Colt’s. As holes six through ten play today, they happily co-exist with the other thirteen holes and indeed the sixth is one of the game’s greats.
From a design perspective, the course as it stood in 1937 is largely the course that is played today, though much work was required to bring it back into form after World War II. Nonetheless, courses are living, breathing things that change and in this case, firs and other hardwoods were allowed to take hold and grow, altering the character of the New Course. Instead of being the more expansive course, it played like the Old between corridors of trees. The heather that was so pervasive in Colt’s day receded. Realizing this, the club took steps. In the January 2011 Feature Interview with Club Secretary Stephen Toon and Manager of the Grounds Murray Long, they discuss how the club returned the New to a more open state. With trees down, the wind once again rolls across Chobham Common and is a factor in the day’s proceedings. The turf is firmer and most important from the members’ perspective, they enjoy two very different courses from which to choose.
Holes To Note
Second hole, 170 yards; One reason Colt courses are beguiling to play year after year is that Colt never gave away too much information on the tee. Be it hitting over the brow of a hill (ala the eleventh hole here) or sheltering the view of a green behind a knob (ala the seventeenth), Colt’s courses always keep the golfer guessing. Take this uphill one shotter for instance. With the green some dozen feet above the tee, Colt could have afforded the golfer a view of the entire putting surface – but he elected not to. Indeed, he built a back left plateau that provides some of the most vexing hole locations on the course. Not until the golfer gets near the putting surface does he have any certainty as to the true fate of his tee ball, which helps keep the hole/course fresh round after round.
Third hole, 410 yards; Colt was one of the first architects to appreciate how important the ground in the front of the green was. Read what he wrote in 1920, a year before beginning construction on the New: The entrance to the green, that is to say the portion of the fairway free from hazards on which the approach shot should pitch, should be an object of considerable care in construction. Thirty years ago this point was almost invariably ignored, and even at present time it has not received the attention which it deserves. The consistency of the turf should be such that there is practically no danger of the ball being kicked to one side, or of being unexpectedly pulled up or shot forward. Whether the approach be good, bad, or indifferent, it should receive the treatment which it deserves and should obtain the amount of run which its trajectory and spin indicate. One of the best examples of a putting surface seamlessly tied into the ground around it occurs here and the potato chip waves in the putting surface are things of enduring beauty. Many of the other greens are more overtly defended but never underestimate how much a green like this helps the overall variety and challenge of any course.
Fourth hole, 475 yards; The longest two shot hole on the course is used as a transition hole, transporting the golfer from the treed portion of the property out toward Chobham Common. When members remark that the New requires more powerful driving than the Old, they may well be thinking of this as example #1 as the heather crowds in from both the left and right. Only a drive that finds the fairway offers a chance for the golfer to reach the green benched into the hillside.
Fifth hole, 185 yards; As inspiring as any inland par three in the game, the fifth once again mesmerizes golfers, as well as photographers and painters, every bit as much today as when it first opened thanks to the intelligent tree program that the club undertook on the New beginning in 2005. Once again, the green sits as an exposed knob high on the far hill and the golfer will surely feel if there is any wind about. Short is no good, left is worse and note how close the two right bunkers edge into the green. Given that every golfer starts with a perfect lie from the tee, Harry Colt felt that the hazards could be snug to the putting surface on one shot holes.
Sixth hole, 510 yards; When today’s sixth through ninth holes were added into the mix by Colt, Alison & Morrison in the 1930s, an additional thirty acres were acquired bringing the total acreage of the New to nearly 200 acres, which is a very large tract of land and one of the reasons that the New has been described as ‘brawny.’ Also, steel had by now replaced hickory as the preferred shaft and Colt’s firm could factor that in when building this heroic hole (perhaps that’s one reason why this hole stands up better to time than many of Colt’s par fives?). As with the last hole, the sense of expansiveness and of unbound glory that Colt surely felt when he routed it has been fully restored in recent years courtesy of Sunningdale’s tree program. Even as recent as 2004, some of the hole’s grandeur was masked behind hardwood trees along the inside of the dogleg that served no purpose other than to undermine the tremendous scale that this portion of the property enjoys.