The Grove Golf Club
Location: Watford, Hertfordshire
Designer: Kyle Philips
The Grove Golf Club is ranked number 58 in Golf World’s Top 100 Courses England.
Golf World assesses The Grove Golf Club, Hertfordshire. One of the best golf courses in England.
All men might be created equal, but the same is not true of golf course sites. Ask course architects whether they take greater satisfaction from making a good course from a modest site or a great course from a promising site and they often prevaricate like a politician. It is probably a battle between the ego and the artist in them, akin to Daniel Craig wrestling between the palpable success of a Bond film and the worthiness of a stint as Hamlet.
Pinpointing the architects who excel in each scenario is generalisation verging on futility, but it is often generalisation with some truth to it. You could safely suggest Doak and Coore & Crenshaw make hay on good sites and in terms of who best turns water to wine on more modest properties, Kyle Phillips’ name would not be far away from the minds of course design aficionados.
To those making that case, his work at The Grove Golf Club might well be exhibit A. It does not require prior experience of the Hertfordshire plot on which it sits to conclude it could be filed under ‘modest’ without great fear of contradiction.
Yet out of this relatively ordinary canvas, Phillips has created a course worthy of enormous respect and no little affection. It entered Golf World magazine’s Great Britain & Ireland Top 100 in 2010 and has been present ever since, maintaining its place in the refreshed ranking that accompanies the July issue.
This timeline becomes even more impressive when you consider it is one of only a handful of courses in the Golf World Top 100 England that are truly parkland in nature. Our panel (and many similar like it) lean towards links and heathlands, and whether that is a harsh verdict on parklands is irrelevant in this context; the salient point is Phillips’ achievement in sculpting one of the few parkland entries from what was a relatively bland landscape near Watford.
He would, though, be keen not to underplay the work of the club’s staff in the success of the past 13 years. Phil Crivington has been head greenkeeper since Phillips was on site building it, and the two enjoy the kind of close relationship conducive to a new course being usefully tweaked in its early days.
Its conditioning is without peer in inland terms, too, with pure greens as early as March and a year-round standard that is even more commendable given it is a pay-and-play facility that hosts plenty of traffic and a wide range of handicaps.
It was, though, assisted in being very good, very quickly, by being left alone for almost two years to settle in and mature. “I loved The Grove. Let me tell you it is very, very impressive. I would say it is the best-conditioned course in Europe,” said Ernie Els after it hosted the WGC World Matchplay in 2006. “Everything was perfect, incredibly manicured. This was the benchmark for how a tournament should be, it was that good.”
While the European Tour’s elite competed on a rolling, tree-lined course that is barely a decade old, the site itself is steeped in history. There is record of settlement on the land as far back as 7000BC and in the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I built the first stately home there. In 1753 the Earl of Clarendon bought The Grove and it stayed in the family for three generations – during which time it hosted Queen Victoria and Edward VII – until the 1920s.
It then served as a Gardening School, Health Centre, Riding School, Girl’s Boarding School and a secret war-time HQ. By the 1990s it was in disrepair and, in tandem with English Heritage, was refurbished over eight years by Ralph Trustees Ltd, a group of luxury hotels in London owned by the Levy family.
The course discreetly wraps around the 227-room hotel – a ‘Leading Hotel of The World’ with an award-winning spa, three restaurants, lounges and bars – as well as the spa and golf facilities, which are all housed in restored listed buildings. It all sounds very grand and potentially very stuffy. In fact the opposite is true.
The Grove Golf Club is (and has been since the 1700s) patently for those who enjoy the finer things in life, but it is not pompous. Thirty minutes from Heathrow, 17 from Euston, and three from the M25, it enjoys a prime location, given there is no sense you are barely 15 minutes from central London as you reach the 1st tee. Your opening drive is downhill, with a wide margin of error, as there often is here.
That said, wayward summer drives will disappear into rough that can be long and thick, while the presence of dog-legs – from the subtle to the pronounced – invite you to be astute rather than insouciant.
On the 1st, for example, you can leave yourself an approach of no more than 76 yards if you take the tighter line down the left. Play safe short and to the right and your yardage can easily be double that.
Its 7,152 yards are for Donald and co only and even the 6,766 off the Medal tees are best left to low single figure visitors. The 6,332 ‘Grove’ boxes are plenty for most, because you soon realise the penalty – especially in firm summer conditions – for being slightly offline with approaches is often severe, with acute run-offs around the greens.
There is a real premium on approach shots here, because successfully escaping the tightly-mown swales and mounds – which look wholly natural – is an exacting task. Distinctive, white-sand bunkering and large, often square-shaped greens with plenty of movement in them complete the picture.
There is a lovely flow to the early holes with two to get you warmed up then a two shotter that uses sand and water to create a brilliant stroke one. It is followed by a classy par 3 over a stream to wide, shallow green, then a par 4 with strong drive bunkering, rolling landforms and a green tucked in its own amphitheatre.
The 4th and 5th are the first time you play consecutive holes in remotely the same direction, and that diversity is matched in the ‘look’ and requirements of the holes – hence the justified plaudits for Phillips. Changes in elevation are included skilfully too, providing topographical and golfing interest without it being a slog (we’ve always walked here).
The matching short holes on the loop on the back nine – known as Charlotte’s Vale and set apart from the rest – are a good example. The 13th is 184 yards but is steeply downhill and allows you to open your shoulders.
It is followed by two holes on the river floor; the strategic 14th (see left) and the excellent 15th, which turns right to left over sand and grassy knolls a la Huntercombe before an approach to find a slender, benched green with the river to the left. The hill is then ascended with the exquisite 16th, a mid-length par 3 to a beautifully bunkered green akin to MacKenzie’s ‘Lighthouse’ collection at Moortown.
That section is preceded by a fine start to back nine, which has a more mature feel due to established trees. Indeed the 10th is one of the very best at The Grove Golf Club, a sporty par 4 that swings acutely right to left between a relatively narrow gap in the trees (bookended by two Sweet Chestnuts) and concludes on a prominently-bunkered green with a ridge across its middle. It is followed by a sweeping par 5 and a stringent par 4, holes that may well be your personal highlight.
Or you might just enjoy feeling totally inadequate when you play the 9th, which Tiger Woods eagled three times in a row in the WGC, with drives and fairway woods totalling 1,763 yards (over a mile). Just one of Phillips’ many skilful brush strokes on what was a modest canvas.
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The Grove, Chandler’s Cross, Hertfordshire, WD3 4TG
tel: 01923 294266