Huntercombe Golf Club

Henley-on-Thames, ENGLAND

Eighth hole, 425 yards; The pleasure of a well hit drive is compounded by affording the golfer the joy of one of the most fun approach shots imaginable.  In direct contrast to the last hole, Park moved dirt at the eighth only to create a dramatically tiered putting surface. This much loved green complex has been written about and photographed for 115 years – and deservedly so. By making the top tier so narrow, Park again forces the golfer to consider using the ground as his chief ally. On the rare occasion that the hole is placed on the larger, lower portion, birdies become a distinct possibility as the green’s bank helps brake approach shots, curling the ball back toward the hole.

The odds of getting down in two aren’t in the golfer’s favor especially as the putting surface slopes away on the top level. Like St. Andrews, merely finding the green isn’t enough. A poorly positioned approach makes a bogey just a matter of time.

Tenth hole, 180 yards; A single fronting bunker and a green that slopes away give the hole its enduring golf qualities. Again like at St. Andrews, missing the green short often creates the most problematic recovery; the golfer is better served by positioning his tee ball beyond the day’s hole location. Even master golf course architects like A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross fell into the trap of making too many of their greens slope from back to front, taking mystery out of where the best miss might be. Not so with Park who forces the golfer to be vigilant and confront a variety of situations, taking nothing for granted. In this manner, this inland design pays homage to the great Scottish links.

Twelfth hole, 435 yards; The course in America that best embodies the design tenets as espoused by Park at Huntercombe is Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, which features central hazards and canted greens at grade. While Garden City is much more profusely bunkered, both courses share the same wonderful, streamlined visuals from tee to green with many features muted rather than pumped up. Frequently presented as extensions of the fairways, the putting surfaces at both courses are more elusive as targets because they aren’t so cleanly defined and obviously presented. Architects too often rely on built-up green pads and while they often do so for drainage, eighteen pushed-up green pads run the risk of creating a repetitive ask of the player. Park found property well suited for golf that was blessed with sandy soil ideal for drainage. He took advantage by creating greens like this one that is at grade with its surrounds. More astute judgement is required from the player standing in the fairway. In the case of the twelfth, a three foot drop in elevation from the green’s left to the green’s right side keeps the golfer on his toes.

The 12th appears simple but the left to right tilt of the green gives the hole bite.

Thirteenth hole, 400 yards; The favorite hole of some members, this hole feels like the Home hole it was once. Originally, the clubhouse sat behind the green and the first hole (today’s fourteenth) started on the other side of the road. The hole’s chief playing characteristics is broken ground in the center of the fairway and one of the finest greens on a course full of exemplary putting surfaces.

This broken ground bisects the fairway some 130 yards from the green.

Angled from front left to back right, the 13th green is one of the deepest on the course and features random ridges throughout.

Fourteenth hole, 425 yards; The third tough par four in a row, the golfer realizes that Huntercombe isn’t a museum piece but rather a comprehensive test. Juxtaposed against today’s over-built, over-shaped courses, one gains a renewed appreciation for what Park accomplished at Huntercombe. He got more out of less while today’s architects rountinely get little out of more!

This hollow left off the tee and another right of the green lend enduring strategic merit to the 14th.

Fifteenth hole, 185 yards; The early rounds at Huntercombe were played with the gutty ball and hickory shafts. What a challenge it must have been as Huntercombe holds the distinction of being one of a few Golden Age courses that was actually longer when it opened than it is today. In 1901, Huntercombe measured over 6,500 yards  compared to 6,319 yards today. Perhaps Park was made aware of the imminent arrival of the Haskell ball when he traveled to North America before the turn of the twentieth century? As a ball and club maker, Park certainly enjoyed insight into the direction of technology. This might explain Huntercombe’s healthy length, some of which came from a stout set of one shot holes. The fifteenth, for instance, measures the identical distance today as it did on opening day. Even with a Haskell ball, it calls for some sort of a long iron played over two deep pits to a bowl contoured green. With the gutty, a wood was required, save for someone the caliber of Park. Interestingly enough, Bernard Darwin once commented that he found Park’s Sunningdale to be more interesting in the days after the Haskell was introduced as it allowed for a greater variety of approach shots. When played with the gutty, Darwin felt fairway wood approach shots were required perhaps too frequently at Sunningdale.

In America, the twin depressions would have been placed – boringly – flush against the green.

As it is, they are well back from another marvel of a putting surface and where the ground short of the green becomes supremely important in how best to play the hole.

Sixteenth hole, 470 yards; One benefit of the current sequence of holes is that Huntercombe enjoys an exciting three hole finish. Yes, it has the prototypical tough eighteenth but the prior holes are both 1/2 pars where anything can – and frequently does – happen.

At thirteen feet, this is the deepest hollow on the course and it is perfectly positioned to discourage those contemplating reaching the green in two.

Seventeenth hole, 270 yards; Will the golfer be clear-headed when he plays the penultimate hole or will greed do him in? A five wood or a utility club is all that is needed off the tee but the golfer very much needs to find the fairway. From there, the matter becomes pitching to the proper level of a tiny 3,300 square foot green for a birdie chance. A total finesse hole, it is memorable for being the sort of hole that regrettably is not often found late in a round. Too many short two shotters have proliferated in recent times that rely on water and thus throw off a proper balance between risk and reward. Here, apart from being in a grouse bush, all the trouble is recoverable from and thus, the golfer is goaded into often unwise, aggressive tactics.

As at St. Andrews, the golfer isn’t afforded a good view of the fairway from the tee.

All manner of trouble is left and once out of position, the tiny, push-up green becomes problematic to hit.

A long and safe drive leaves this delicate pitch while a slightly longer and not so safe drive …

… finds its way to this greenside depression. The ball then decided to find the next depression and after three more blows, a bogey was registered after having been nearly hole high in one. The author was forced to shake hands in a bitter  2 down defeat, having learnt a valuable lesson about trying to force things at this gem of a hole.

Though all seems quite well at Huntercombe, one playing aspect has changed for the worse over the first century, namely tree and brush growth. The editor of Golf Illustrated crowed early in Huntercombe’s history of the ‘endless distance’ and how a game there reminded him of the Lothians. Sadly, that is no longer true. Vegetation now blocks the vistas, save for the one enjoyed along the second hole. Happily, since the author’s first visit in 2011, the club has turned its attention toward this matter. Progress can be seen at the aforementioned first hole where the removal of brush and the limbing up of branches have exposed views and allowed wind and filtered light to reach the green. This is a most encouraging step though much remains to be done as the golf is too often confined to corridors of dense woods. Just imagine what an unobstructed back drop would mean for an approach shot to a green like the fourth. In the club’s defense, some of the land is common ground and they don’t have the ability to remove plants that obstruct what would otherwise be superb long views. More is the pity because another unintended consequence of the vegetation is the muffling of the wind, a crucial attribute to great golf.

The bracing air these gentlemen feel as they trundle down the 2nd fairway could – and should – be more prevalent throughout the course.

Save for that growth, the vast amount of Park’s work here remains wholly intact. Thus, to appreciate Park as a designer, there is no better course to see and study. That is reason enough to celebrate and a game here remains unlike most you can play anywhere. Imaginative greens and centerline hazards are just as effective in this century as the last. The absence of eye-candy bunkering – and the never ending maintenance costs tied to such hazards – is surely something that many modern architects should appreciate. Designs like Huntercombe that stand up so well through time are a rarity worth exploring.

In The Best of Henry Longhurst compiled by Mark Wilson, Longhurst talks about the indestructible qualities of certain courses. In particular, he was referring to the Old Course at St. Andrews. Yet, his comments pertain equally well to Huntercombe. Longhurst said it best when he wrote, ‘alterations to Huntercombe should only be made over my dead body.’

The End