Sunningdale Golf Club, The New Course
Sunningdale, Berkshire, England
Eighth hole, 400 yards; Given the terrain and natural vegetation, there wasn’t a tremendous call for a lot of man-made hazards (i.e. bunkers). Better than perhaps any architect before or since, Colt knew when to leave well enough alone and not muddle up a picture with extraneous clutter. On the first nine holes, only nineteen bunkers were required – and none on this hole. Couple a fine drive over a sea of heather with a green that is benched from short left to back right into a hillside and the ground presents all the challenge that is needed.
Ninth hole, 460 yards; The best holes always reflect their natural surrounds and the ninth perfectly captures the rambunctious nature of this portion of the property. Initially, Colt was reluctant to lay out this hole in 1921/22 as the far hill crest was a bit too far and the hole a bit too much for hickory golf. When steel shafts took hold in the early 1930s, Colt became comfortable that this hole was manageable for a wide range of playing skills.
Tenth hole, 215 yards; Given that this hole provides plenty of fine golf today, the golfer is shocked to learn that the tee was initially ninety degrees to the left and up high on the ridge line all the while playing to this same green. It was a famous hole in its day and Peter Pugh and Henry Lord thought enough to include a black and white photograph of it on the back dust jacket of their book entitled Creating Classics The Golf Courses of Harry Colt (as a side note, a stunning photograph of the fifth is on the cover). The right to left tilt of the green and the manner in which the left greenside bunker chews into the putting surface gives the hole its playing qualities from today’s tee which now has been in use for seventy-five years.
Eleventh hole, 445 yards; Colt was quick to talk about strategy and the use of dogleg holes (as he later perfected at Royal Portrush) was a preferred method for giving the good golfer something to do. Here, a well placed draw can shorten the approach shot by as much as fifty yards versus an opponent who plays out to the right where the ground only serves to kick the ball farther right and away from the green.
Twelfth hole, 395 yards; Colt was an expert at using natural landforms for green placement. In addition, he was a big fan of plateau greens and these two come together spectacularly well at the twelfth green complex. Bizarrely, at Tom Simpson’s suggestion, the greens at both the fourth and twelfth holes were briefly played to lower green sites in the early 1930s. Why Simpson would have even suggested such is hard to imagine as both of these greens are among the most attractively situated on the course. As the course plays today, the pacing of the greens and what they ask of the golfer is excellent: The eleventh as seen above is pushed up several feet from its surrounds, the twelfth sits high on a plateau, and the thirteenth is glued to the ground. Such variety helps insure that no one ever tires of playing the New.
Thirteenth hole, 560 yards; The inevitable comparison between the Old and New yield but few agreements. Two are that the New is the bigger course and also that the New is more exposed to the winds. This hole is a case in point when one learns that it measured over 600 yards (!) in the mid-1920s, making it the only true three shot hole on the property. Simpson brought the green back some fifty yards in 1934 as he thought the flat ground around where the green now resides made the pitch a particularly tough one to judge. Time has shown he was right.
Fourteenth hole, 190 yards; This picturesque hole with its secluded tee box occupies one of the prettiest spots on the eastern edge of the course. In studying the photograph below, it is interesting to note how much Colt built up and framed to the right of the green. Certainly, the mounds help turn the hole from front right to back left to the golfer on the tee and such framing is more evident later in Colt’s career than in the beginning (the bold features found outside the second green is another example). Thanks to the mounds, anything blocked right is perdition and this is a great tee ball to get right.
Fifteenth hole, 430 yards; Where an architect elects to capture a landform within a playing corridor goes a long way in determining how a hole plays. For instance, a tee perched on the highest point has a dramatically different effect than when the green occupies it. In this case, the most dominant landform in the form of a ridge slashes diagonally across the fairway 100 to 120 yards from the green and where one’s tee ball finishes relative to it determines what kind of view of the green one has (perhaps some, perhaps none).
Sixteenth hole, 395 yards; Out of bounds comes perilously close to the inside of the dogleg as this fairway bends to the right. Certainly the two tiered green best accepts shots from the right but only the supremely confident and skilled golfer finds himself in the right half of the fairway more times than not during a playing season. On such a big, expansive course, the fact that out of bounds is introduced at such a crucial time in one’s match makes for a real play on nerves. Commenting on diagonal green bunkering schemes such as the one found here, Colt wrote, ‘The longish carry, also, played up to the green over a cross-hazard, should on no account be omitted, as there is a neck-or-nothing thrill about it which is scarcely equaled by any other stroke, and which is enjoyed by golfers of any handicap, although playing it from very different ranges.’
Seventeenth hole, 170 yards; The penultimate hole on the New Course represented ‘build a hole’ time for Colt as he didn’t have any natural features with which to work. Given this freedom, it comes as no surprise that the built-up green complex represents the perfect foil to the preceding one shotter. Whereas the fourteenth begs for a draw, this hole sets up perfectly for a high fade and in marked contrast to the fourteenth, the back and sides of this green feature clean lines with little framing to comfort the golfer.
The opening and Home holes lie just east of the eighteenth of the Old Course. That they would start and finish in that broad playing corridor is essentially the only restriction that was placed on Colt when it came time to build the New. Initially the holes played in reverse (i.e. the first tee was near today’s eighteenth green and played back up today’s eighteenth fairway toward near the tee and the eighteenth played down the first hole to a green at the base of today’s first tee). Colt reversed the holes in 1927 and that’s how they have been played since. Indeed, the first might well be the toughest par on the course and the character of the Home hole has been enhanced in recent years by the work done to the bunkers that guard the last fifty yards of the hole.
Having repaired to the famous clubhouse, talk invariably turns to comparing the New with the Old. All the great writers have weighed in on the debate over the past ninety years. Few had the way with words as Patric Dickinson and read what he wrote in A Round of Golf Courses a few years after World War II:
Many people believe Sunningdale Old Course to be the finest inland golf course in England. I am among that number, but qualify the statement by saying, “Wait till the New Course is really in good order again” – as it will be by the time golfers read these words. The two courses are in great contrast. The Old Course winds among trees for most of its way. I do not mean that trees border the fairway, but that the course wears a loose cloak of trees and strides along freely in its heather-mixture within them. The New Course is open; a wild Spartan, utterly different from its neighbour. Only once does it take shelter; otherwise it is open-necked, tough and athletic. I believe it will be a great course. I’m not trying to put supporters of the Old Course into a rage, no; but when both courses are there, if ever an inland championship is to be played – here, I think, is the venue.
Certainly, The Old Course has several holes (namely the third, eleventh, and twelfth) that made major impacts on subsequent golf course architects. Built at the turn of the century, Willie Park Junior’s ability to make the man-made hazards look natural was revolutionary at the time and set a new design standard for inland courses. In fact, it is fair to conclude that the Old Course has had more impact on golf course architecture than the New. In addition, given Jones’s perfect round on the Old in 1926 as well as by virtue of its continuing to host the preponderance of televised events, the Old is also historically more important than the New. However, that is not the same as saying the Old is a better course. Clearly, both the one and three shot holes on the New are better than those on the Old. Yet, no sane man will ever dispute that the twelve two shot holes on the Old are among the game’s best. Hence, the debate has no end in sight and will rage on for years to come!
In discussing the two courses, perhaps it is best to leave it as to how well they complement each other. While each has its own distinct personality, they both bring out the best of their natural surrounds. Let’s leave with some words from Colt who wrote, ‘The architect’s earnest hope is, without doubt, that his courses will have the necessary vitality to resist possibly adverse criticism, and will endure as a lasting record of his craft and of his love for his work.’
Surely there is no finer testament to his skill as an architect than Sunningdale.