Surrey, as you might expect given its proximity to the City, is not short of a prestigious golf club or two, with the county’s roll of honour including the likes of Wentworth, Walton Heath, Queenwood, Wisley and even Sunningdale which, though geographically in Berkshire, comes under the auspices of the Surrey County Golf Union. But this guide is not concerned with those premier Surrey clubs that either cost a fortune or are nigh-on impossible to get on. Rather it seeks to pick out some of the lesser-known highlights, which offer a rich and varied golfing experience, sometimes at unexpectedly reasonable prices for London’s south-west stockbroker belt.
Croydon may not instantly conjure up images of leafy suburban bliss, but there are several good golf clubs not far from its urban centre. Addington Palace, set in the grounds of what was once the archbishop of Canterbury’s home, is the one I’ve played most as a habitual also-ran in its men’s open until marriage and children disrupted the schedule.
By chance, editor Michael Harris was also a regular in this event, and recalls once playing on a day so hot that players were dropping like flies with serious chafing issues. He adopted a strange gait to battle his way round, but needless to say failed to trouble the prize table.
This is a very fair parkland course – if you can get through the opening stretch. It’s some years since I last played, but the 2nd hole sticks in my mind. A steep crest in the fairway at around driving distance always proved an insurmountable obstacle, invariably leaving something like a quick-rising 2-iron into an invisible green. I wonder if modern technology would now see me safely up on top? The next three are as tight a consecutive trio as I’ve played, other than at Puttenham, more of which later. On the back nine, the teasingly tempting par-4 15th is a short dog-leg right that goads you into going for it despite the potential pitfalls of drives that “go on with the arm” or leak right. There’s also a good putting green here, set in a courtyard around which the clubhouse facilities are set.
Braid at work
Talking of putting greens, the one at Croham Hurst, just around the corner, takes some beating. You could spend hours trying to fathom out its unfeasible contours, and only those with creative imaginations will profit from putting challenges on this intriguing arena – it’s reminiscent of the Himalayas at St Andrews. The course itself is the handiwork of James Braid and Fred Hawtree and is moving rapidly towards its centenary in 2011. To test you from the outset, the opening brace of holes may just be the hardest two, although the slightly tamer triangle of three that follow may allow you to recoup any early losses. If the weather’s fine when you’ve finished, retire to the patio to watch others struggling on either the adjacent putting green or the tough, long uphill par-3 11th just to its right. Croham is a very pleasant golfing oasis in the heart of residential Croydon.
The best of the west
Heading into the county’s western half, the first time you play at Puttenham you’ll probably wonder if there’s a tighter course anywhere in the world. Indeed on some tees you’ll certainly be more than a little concerned at the limited scope for lateral waywardness. Mercifully, there are also several par 4s around the 300-yard mark. Although trying to bludgeon them into submission may not be the shrewdest bet in your quest for red figures, as things often get tighter the further up the hole you venture.
Despite the apparently pressing need for accuracy, you do still feel you should be able to score here. That said, a Golf Monthly raid on the men’s open a couple of years ago resulted in more red faces than smug smiles, but we’re dusting ourselves down for another crack. The 10th here is as good a hole as you’ll find anywhere – a long par 4 where your drive needs to find the centre of a steeply sloping fairway to avoid being kicked offline into potential trouble.
Guildford Golf Club, on the Merrow Downs just outside the town, is now over 120 years old, and plays over up-and-down terrain whose free-draining chalk base brings excellent year-round playing credentials. At its highest point on the 4th you can look out over four counties and even across to Canary Wharf in east London. In many ways it reminds me of the South Downs courses in my native Sussex, which I’ve played so often, yet this North Downs cousin is also different – less open-feeling and far more wooded. The hole that lingers longest in the memory is the 17th – a majestic sweeping dog-leg par 4 that plays down and then up to a small two-tier green.
South-east of Guildford lies the village of Ockley on a very straight stretch of the A29 called Stane Street, once the main Roman Road from Chichester to London. Ockley claims to have the largest village green in England, flanked by pubs and eateries that make it a very pleasant place to while away a summer’s afternoon. Branch west onto Cathill Lane and a mile or so along narrow, twisting country roads you’ll find Gatton Manor Golf and Country Club. Its course is complemented by a small hotel, many of whose 18 rooms are located in the original manor house.
The course can stretch to over 6,600 yards if so desired, with the 645-yard 17th making up nearly 10% of that figure. This par-5 was reinstated to its full length off the blue tees in 2007 and officially opened by Sky Sports’ Richard Boxall. The course weaves through mature woodland, with water hazards and one or two unexpectedly sharp dog-legs to contend with. Getting above the pin on the opening couple of holes is a bad move as the bitter voice of personal experience can testify, and I’ve also played from somewhere in the ornamental garden near the 18th green on more than one occasion. I hope it’s in bounds? Course conditioning has improved much in recent years, and the midweek green fee of £30 is good value in a county where golf can often err a little on the pricey side.
Short, but very sweet
To close this Surrey round-up, most would agree that Reigate Heath is the county’s premier nine-holer. The clubhouse and adjacent windmill are set on a high point at its centre, with the course working its way around them in an essentially clockwise direction through heather and woodland. I’ve played here several times and always enjoyed its challenge and picture postcard looks. But don’t be deceived by its prettiness and sub-6,000 yard card – it’s no pushover as evidenced by a course record of just 65 against a par of 67.
You play from different tees on the front and back nines, which changes the angles on some holes and yardages on others, most notably the 4th/13th – a birdie chance par 5 first time round despite its near-right angle dog-leg, but a tough long par 4 second time, when 4 suddenly seems a very good score. Some have labelled Reigate a miniature Walton Heath, the famous 36-hole former Tour and Ryder Cup venue a few miles up the road, and the comparison is a good one, though there are probably more changes in elevation at Reigate.
The number of affiliated clubs in Surrey runs into three figures of which I’ve played around half. But the quality and breadth of golf on offer is such that as I cast my eye over the list of those not yet ticked off – none more than an hour from home – I’m sorely tempted to try and notch up a few more before winter arrives. Looking out of the window as I write on a miserable mid-August day, that may not be too far away, so maybe it’s time to go and get those clubs…
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