1. Sunningdale (Old)
LOCATION: SUNNINGDALE, BERKSHIRE, ENGLAND
DESIGNER(S): WILLIE PARK JR (1901), HARRY COLT
The battle for the No.1 position in the Top 100 England ranking this year essentially became a shoot-out between three eminent courses, with only one point or so separating the trio of Sunningdale Old, Royal Birkdale and Royal St George’s. The shortlist should come as no surprise given that each has topped this list in the past. In the end, the decision came down to small details with the panel reaching the conclusion that Sunningdale’s design ingenuity, soothing aesthetics and sense of fun and wonder gave it the edge. Having said that, one reviewer threw a spanner in the works by suggesting that Sunningdale New is actually the better of the club’s two courses. But that’s a debate for another time.
Crafted over a stunning stretch of undulating heathland that, incredibly was once regarded as entirely unsuitable for golf course construction, Sunningdale’s sublime sandy turf is decorated with pine and birch trees, heather, gorse and rhododendrons. The frequent splashes of colour, the variety of terrain and the manner in which holes meld into the landscape set the Old apart from similarly appointed courses like Swinley Forest, The Berkshire and Woking.
A dash of heritage never harms a course’s status either. The Old was the venue for what is often stated to be the finest round of golf ever played. Bobby Jones’ perfectly symmetrical 66 (33 shots from tee-to-green and 33 putts) in 1926 Open qualifying was eloquently described by the golf writer Bernard Darwin as “incredible and indecent.”
The Old scores just as highly in the quality and variety of its holes. After opening with a genial par 5, you’re treated to an intoxicating mix of elevated tees, blind shots, immense par 3s and a full repertoire of par 4s. Although the 10th hole is often cited as the Old’s signature – a sweeping dog-leg from an elevated tee – nothing summarises the Sunningdale experience more accurately than the vistas from the 5th – lush green fairways, avenues of trees, splashes of sand, banks of heather and a pond.
Sunningdale is often cited as an example of how the modern power-hitting tour pro is rendering classic courses obsolete but it’s more than long enough for most. Besides, the heavily-contoured greens, protected by swales and run-offs, are more than enough to keep you occupied.
Ironically, the Old concludes with one of its weaker holes but any slight sense of anti-climax is quickly dispelled by the sight of the majestic oak tree that guards the back of the 18th green. It’s not only the club’s emblem but a proud symbol of its quintessential Englishness.