Golf course architects from Europe, North America and Australia came together last week to study and play some of southeast England’s finest golf courses. Organised by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and supported by the Toro Company the study tour, entitled “To Heath & Links”, gave members of the EIGCA, American Society of Golf Course Architects and the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects the opportunity to learn about and play four classic courses – two heathland and two links. In all, over seventy architects attended the tour together with representatives from Toro and Jacklin Seeds. Golf course photographer Mark Alexander also joined the party as official recorder of the event.
“To Heath & Links” was the third golf course architects’ study tour, following the tours to Australia in 2009 and the United States in 2012.
The study tour began on Sunday 13th September at Sunningdale Golf Club with a presentation and tour of Harry Colt’s lost holes. In recent years, the greenstaff have been uncovering some of Colt’s holes that were abandoned in 1934 and it was fascinating to step back in time and see how holes seven to ten on the New Course were originally created. Sunningdale Golf Club’s Course Manager Jamie Wilson explained how these holes were replaced because many members found them too strenuous to walk. George Pitts, the New Course Manager, added input to the tour while John Churchill, the club historian, was on hand to provide further information.
During the walk about, Keith Duff, former Chief Scientist and National Director of English Nature and now the EIGCA’s course director for its Sustainable Golf Design professional development programme, explained to the architects how the heathland courses in the area make a vital contribution to the retention and safeguarding of lowland heathland, which is now particularly scarce in southern England.
The following day provided the opportunity to play Sunningdale’s New Course. Opened in 1923, the course is a great example of golf course architecture from the Golden Age and many holes are considered to be substantially as Harry Colt originally created them. The heather lined fairways proved fairly challenging for most of the golfers but the architects had particular praise for Colt’s strategic design and particularly his green complexes.
After a superb dinner in the clubhouse the assembled architects voted the 12th hole, a par 4 with an angled fairway and raised green, as their favourite hole on the New Course. It just pipped the par 3 5th and par 5 6th after a vote-off!
On Tuesday, the study tour moved on to The Berkshire Golf Club and its Red Course. Both courses at The Berkshire were designed by Herbert Fowler in 1928 and the Red Course, in particular, was selected for its fun and unusual format of 6 par 3s, 6 par 4s and 6 par 5s. The fact that so few alterations have been made to both courses is a tribute to his talent as a designer. After golf and another fine dinner, Peter Foord, the Club’s Secretary, provided a fascinating insight into Herbert Fowler, his work and personality, which was much enjoyed by the architects. At the end of the evening those present voted for the par 3 10th hole as the best hole on the Red Course.
Having visited the heathland, it was now time for the architects to turn their attention towards the links and Wednesday saw the group at a rather wet Royal St George’s. However, the atmosphere in the clubhouse and the enthusiasm to play this great Open venue soon lifted any dampened spirits, helped also by the black clouds finally moving inland.
For many, Royal St George’s proved to be a highlight of the week, its rumpled fairways and dramatic greens being both enticing and inspiring. Indeed the par 4 12th hole has some of the boldest fairway movement on the golf course yet was the most popular amongst the players.
After a wonderful dinner in the clubhouse, Keith Duff gave a synopsis of the importance of golf to the preservation of dune land habitats on this stretch of Kent coastline. Both Royal St George’s and neighbouring Royal Cinque Ports are Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are additionally designated as Special Protection Areas, which are of European wildlife importance. The land must therefore be managed in a way that maintains these protected habitats.
However, Keith pointed out that, in reality, golf and wildlife protection are rarely in conflict. The areas of primary concern for habitats are the rough and out of play areas and most golf clubs appreciate that these provide the setting and context for the golf course and want to keep it that way. Consequently, it has been reasonably simple to satisfy both sides and important wildlife features continue to be protected.
Royal Cinque Ports played host to the architects on the last day of the Study Tour. Like Royal St George’s the putting surfaces are bold and occasionally quirky, and so much the better for it, and there was considerable discussion afterwards as to which course had the better green complexes. As is often the case when links enthusiasts have this debate, opinions were split as to which course was preferred. The 6th hole, a short par 4 played to a raised green, was nominated as the favourite hole.
The destination for the banquet dinner on the final evening was Leeds Castle, which is more than 1000 years old. It is one of England’s finest castles and sits, seemingly impregnable, on two islands in the River Len near Maidstone in Kent. The architects dined in the beautiful Henry VIII Banqueting Hall and it proved the perfect venue for the end of tour celebrations. Peter McEvoy, one of England’s most successful amateur golfers and team captains, was the guest speaker and he entertained the gathering with some hilarious tales from his playing days.
During the evening, presentations were made to Toro and Jacklin Seeds in recognition of their support and to Julia Green, EIGCA Executive Officer, for her tireless organisation, despite being handicapped by a broken leg!
The leading golfer for the week was Niall Glen who won the overall stableford competition despite playing off a handicap of only 2. The team award in the Tri-Continent match went to Europe with a points average of 27.9, finishing just in front of the American team which had 27.2 points with Australia in third place.
During the evening, Phil Ryan from the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects introduced the venue for the next study tour in 2018. Called “The Four Reds”, the tour will visit Adelaide and its surrounding sand belt golf courses.
Speaking at the conclusion of the tour EIGCA President Tom Mackenzie said: “It has been a great honour to welcome so many of the world’s top designers to England for the third golf course architects study tour. Bringing together the members of the SAGCA, ASGCA and EIGCA to study and play these wonderful golf courses and, perhaps most importantly, to share our knowledge, has been a wonderful experience and one which I’m sure we have all appreciated. I would like to thank Sunningdale, The Berkshire, Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports for their fantastic welcome and hospitality. The golf courses may have been inspirational but so has been the dining! I must also pass on my gratitude to the staff at Leeds Castle for the reception they have given us tonight and especially for the superb banquet.
“However, my biggest thanks must go to Toro for their support. Without their backing and enthusiasm it would be impossible for us all to visit such wonderful courses in this way. I must also thank Jacklin Seeds for their assistance with this study tour and Callaway Golf for their additional support.
“For me, the educational value of this trip has been enormous and I’m sure it has been the same for all the architects who attended. I hope that they have all enjoyed the “To Heath & Links” 2015 Study Tour and we look forward to us all meeting up again in Australia for “The Four Reds Tour” in 2018”.
On behalf of the Toro Company, Andy Brown said; “I would like to congratulate the EIGCA on the superb organisation of the 2015 Study Tour held here in southeast England. I would also like to pass on our thanks to the four clubs that provided such wonderful hospitality. All the participants thoroughly enjoyed the mix of heathland and links golf and some of England’s finest golf clubs and I am sure they returned home with an abundance of stories, pictures and experiences that they will share for many years to come.”
For more information please contact Julia Green at the EIGCA, firstname.lastname@example.org