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Many lovely golf courses fly slightly under the radar and are less well-known than perhaps they should be. Rob Smith recommends some of the most underrated courses in the UK&I
The Most Underrated Golf Courses in the UK&I
The Golf Monthly Top 100 and Next 100 (opens in new tab) are a vital source for planning days out and trips. Elsewhere, however, there are literally hundreds of wonderful courses. They may miss out from the very top tiers as they don’t quite match all of the criteria, but they are all worth a visit by any keen golfer. In fact, many are actually a lot more fun than some championship venues. Most also offer comparatively excellent value for money. This tiny selection reveals just a glimpse.
England's Rich Heritage
Oxfordshire is not really noted for golf, but Huntercombe is a delightful exception. (opens in new tab) It is also a history lesson in course architecture. There are few sand bunkers, but Willie Park Junior installed a large number of ‘pots’, to all intents and purposes, grass bunkers. Architect Tim Lobb has been improving these, and there are some really interesting green sites such as at the 4th. This is an enchanting place to play, all the more interesting for the squadrons of red kites that patrol overhead.
Part of a vast country estate, the undulating parkland/downland course at Cowdray in West Sussex (opens in new tab) is both scenic and challenging. The views over the South Downs are magnificent, and the course is packed with variety and interest. Better still, there is a variety of excellent accommodation here that make this an excellent venue for a short break.
Teignmouth is a delightful clifftop course (opens in new tab) that sits way up at 800 feet in the hills of beautiful Devon. Alister MacKenzie (opens in new tab) laid it out a decade before he went on to design Augusta. There are plenty of his trademark two-tier greens, often surrounded by bumps and hollows. The terrific variety here includes six wonderfully assorted short holes.
Back in West Sussex, the Waterfall Course at Mannings Heath (opens in new tab) twists and turns its way through mature parkland and magnificent trees. There are also traces of heathland and downland creating a very entertaining mix. As well as some strong par 4s, there are two very memorable short holes. The 5th is a perfect punchbowl, and the signature 10th is played from way up high.
Across the Irish Sea
Both Northern Ireland and Ireland are home to some of the most underrated golf courses in the UK&I. In the south, Cork is another very different Alister MacKenzie design (opens in new tab). It is set on the northern shores of Lough Mahon where the River Lee runs out to the sea. Several holes flank the water, while an intriguing stretch runs in, over and through an old quarry. Such diversity makes for a very memorable and enjoyable round, and the fine conditioning completes a wonderful golfing experience.
Sitting at 9 o’clock on Ireland’s clockface, Connemara (opens in new tab) is as remote and other-worldly as golf gets. Its very isolation is a huge part of its charm, and it’s also a strong test of golf. There are three loops of nine, somewhat uninspiringly called A, B and C. What they lack in name, they more than make for with the adventures that they serve up out on the dunes.
Scotland's Scenic Beauty
Set on a spectacular small peninsula jutting out into the Moray Firth and with roots dating back to 1793, Fortrose & Rosemarkie (opens in new tab) is one of the oldest clubs in the world. About 90 years ago, James Braid redesigned the course, taking it out to the lighthouse. Here you can often see dolphins leaping in the water. The springy turf is easy walking, and the front nine hugs the shoreline where you must not go left.
At just 5,700 yards but playing far longer, Pitlochry is a very enjoyable test (opens in new tab). It works its way up and down the foothills of the glorious Grampian Mountains. The opening few holes will test your legs and resolve, but the reward for this is a rollercoaster ride packed with idyllic views, near and far. With no par 5s and just the three short holes, there are tricky greens and plenty of risk and reward.
Wales - Coastal and Inland
Way over on the spectacular west coast of Wales, the course at Cardigan (opens in new tab) offers up some of the loveliest coastal views in British golf. The challenging, enjoyable hilltop course looks over Cardigan Bay and north to the Llŷn Peninsula. Wind is almost always a factor and the sidehill lies will test your shot-making. Regardless, the beautiful setting will keep you smiling from start to finish.
The south-eastern corner of Wales has some excellent golf in beautiful settings, and the Rolls of Monmouth (opens in new tab) is a fine example. Elevated woodland separates the two nines, there are large greens, and an unusual and very attractive closing hole. This long par 3 plays over water towards the stately mansion that was once the home of Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce.
These ten courses are all great fun while also being fine tests of golf. They also only really hint at the strength in depth of the most underrated golf courses in the UK&I. We could just as easily have selected another ten, or another, or another… but hopefully these beautiful and varied courses offer a tempting view that will have us all looking out for more hidden gems.
Rob Smith has been playing golf for more than 40 years and been a contributing editor for Golf Monthly since 2012 specialising in course reviews and travel. He has now played 1,150 different courses in almost 50 countries. Despite lockdowns and travel restrictions last year, he still managed to play 80 different courses during 2021, 43 of them for the first time. This included 21 in 13 days on a trip to East Lothian in October. One of Rob's primary roles is helping to prepare the Top 100 and Next 100 Courses of the UK&I, of which he has played all but nine. Rob is a member of Tandridge Golf Club in Surrey where his handicap hovers around 16. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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