Walton Heath Golf Club (Old)
Designer: Herbert Fowler
Walton Heath Golf Club (Old Course), is ranked number 7 in our Top 100 Golf courses England.
There is a story at Walton Heath Golf Club that the question of whether or not to host the Ryder Cup came up in a committee meeting under ‘Any Other Business’. Crazy as it sounds today, taking the 1981 event off the hands of a prepubescent Belfry was far from a no-brainer. It wasn’t simply that Walton Heath Golf Club would receive only a token facility payment plus a percentage of tickets sold through the club; but with just one victory since 1935, to host the Ryder Cup was to associate your club with failure. With the strongest American team ever assembled taking shape, the spectre of a closing ceremony based around 12 sombre Europeans having their posteriors handed back to them haunted the event.
How commendable, then, that the golf course chose instead to view the Ryder Cup as an always fiercely-contested event rich in heritage. And 37 years later, despite the whooping that inevitably transpired, it looks like an inspired decision. It has allowed Walton Heath Golf Club to add golf’s most famous matchplay event to an illustrious hosting tradition that began in 1904 with a club-opening exhibition match between the Great Triumvirate and will continue this October with the hosting of the British Masters. “In between we have held the Senior Open Championship, multiple European Opens, annual US Open qualifying and numerous elite amateur tournaments,” says club secretary Stuart Christie. “It’s helped Walton Heath establish a special tradition. The ability to play a beautiful course that’s hosted the Ryder Cup, that can be seen on TV, that holds up to modern equipment… all these things are key attractions that continually draw people to the club.”
The other thing that distinguishes the club is that there are two courses at Walton Heath Golf Club, with the second being as good as the first for many visitors. While Herbert Fowler’s 1903 Old Course holds steady in the top 30 of Golf World’s Top 100 Courses listing, the New is placed at 86. October’s British Masters will be played over a tried and tested composite layout that takes 16 holes from the Old and two from the New. As for both the Ryder Cup and European Opens, the Old’s uncomfortable 235-yard par-3 opener – separated from the rest of the course by the Dorking road – and the short par-4 3rd will be replaced by the New’s 12th and 13th, both long challenging par 4s.
It is a testament to the enduring quality of the Old Course that British Masters host Justin Rose, visiting in June, requested only two changes for October’s tournament – reworked tees on what will be the 1st and 18th. “You know,” he said, “I’d forgotten just how good this place is.”
In many respects, the Old Course really begins on the 4th tee. Yes, the 461-yard 2nd hole will make a fine opener for the British Masters, and the 289-yard 3rd is a pleasing risk-reward short par 4, but it’s not until the 4th that the full scale of this vast, exposed heath really hits you, and you begin to appreciate the timeless nature of golf here.
A century ago, Bernard Darwin asserted that at Walton Heath Golf Club “There is something of the fierceness and defiance which belongs to the sea”. Today, nothing has changed. Underpinning the subsoils of clay, flint and gravel is free-draining chalk, ensuring only drought-resistant plants flourish here. It gives both courses, perched at 600ft above sea level, the rugged nature of an inland links. It was this feeling that lured Scot James Braid to the club as its first professional in 1904, a position he would hold until his dying day some 46 years later. Over the years the raw, open panoramas of so many heathland venues have been compromised by the invasion of trees. Not here. Walton Heath Golf Club has no need for an expensive restoration project simply because its original feel has never left.
Indeed, the vast expanses of this relatively flat heathland plateau make depth perception elusive, and both the 4th and 5th tees are great examples of one of Walton Heath Golf Club’s subtler defences – the ‘infinity drive’ to an invisible fairway, with only a course planner to tell you it’s there at all. This creates a rather disorienting feeling for the visiting golfer, and the one you need to get on top of quickly if you want to keep your focus. In fact, though, the Old’s fairways are generous… as well they might be. Heather is everywhere at Walton Heath Golf Club; it’s even managed to invade the club’s logo. Put any meaningful shape into the ball and you can confidently expect it to find the stunning Ling. Flowering pinky / purple in late summer, or perhaps the deep purple Bell. Whether it will find you once there is less certain.
While it does take a fairly wild shot to find the heather off the tee, the same can’t quite be said for your approach. It is said that Herbert Fowler, clearing heather to create the fairways, used that sod to revet the bunkers. It’s given rise to Walton Heath Golf Club’s famously heather-clad bunker faces. That said, you can always tell the most popular bunkers because their faces are clean; apparently heather doesn’t like repeated sand splash. “You could argue that finding your ball almost unplayable in the heather growing off a greenside bunker is unfair,” course manager Michael Mann concedes. “But they are part of Walton Heath’s tradition and identity, and the members love them. They belong here.”
Incredibly, the Old was Fowler’s first effort at course architecture. Thriving in the space afforded by the Heath, his original 6,400 yards was considered a monster at the time. Nevertheless, his layout features plenty of subtlety. He made great use of the various ancient flint and gravel pits that dotted the course, bunkered with economy and employed only subtle shaping around the green. The overall sensation is of a heavyweight course laid gently on the land; as former head pro Ken MacPherson once said, if golf stopped tomorrow on Walton Heath, you would hardly know it had ever taken place.
As your round progresses, you come to realise the Old is pulling off a neat trick. For while the landscape itself is spartan, each hole somehow manages to make itself memorable. The clue here perhaps lies in Fowler’s conviction that a great golf hole lay more in the approach than the drive. While several holes offer limited inspiration off the tee, it all turns around with a series of glorious approaches – the mid-iron off the rise down into the 5th, gorgeous one-shotters across small valleys at the 7th, 11th, and 17th, the threaded or carried blow into the 13th with all of Surrey falling away behind, the pitch to the perched green on the superb par-5 16th.
Coming off the 18th, it’s hard to find much to criticise. You could argue that without water, trees or sweeping undulations the course lacks a certain drama. But this weakness is also its strength. Walton Heath Golf Club’s beauty lies as much in absence as presence. That might make it a course for the connoisseur, but it’s none the worse for that.
It is probably fair to say the visiting golfer does not feel assured of a warm welcome at Britain’s more prestigious and traditional clubs, but the atmosphere around Walton Heath Golf Club, one of the best golf courses in England, is warm, open and inclusive. For visitors there is a notional handicap limit of 20, but the club doesn’t really enforce it. You are also free to play off whichever tees you like. And while Walton Heath Golf Club may not quite be piloting the steamship of progress, it seems more than happy to follow in its wake. The club now stands up to the game’s only true barometer of modernity – sock length – with short socks accepted six years ago and ankle socks in 2016. That said, quite a few members still prefer the long option. Perhaps, with so much heather, extra protection does not go amiss.
How we ranked Walton Heath Golf Club (Old)
Long par-3 1st is an underwhelming start. From here on, Fowler’s light touch and beautifully sited greens ensure fun and fairness.
Subtle elevation changes preclude real drama, but the natural open heathland imbues an authentic feel.
Rightly set up to play firm, fast and natural, with linkslike close-cropped fringes. Heather-clad bunkers can be costly but distinguish the course.
Penalty for missing generous, but often hard to see fairways is severe. Large greens make it hard to short-side yourself.
First hole excepted, the three shorties are a joy. Plenty of stern long par 4s, though generous fairways and expansive greens make them playable.
Three hectares of greens across both courses, yet uniform pace is some achievement. Large teeing areas mean limited wear.
A thoroughly modern test on ancient land, this subtle, rugged golf course is a purist’s paradise.
To view the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in England please click here.