Woking Golf Club
Woking Golf Club ranks number 17 in the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in England listing and number 41 in the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in the UK & Ireland listing.
The Surrey sandbelt’s first course has made giant strides up our ranking in recent years. Duncan Lennard discovers how heather transplants, historic hazards and rooftop chip shots come together to create a special heathland experience.
When you come face-to-face with the bunker that changed the course of golf, it’s fair to say the appropriate response is probably not “What idiot put that there?”
The bunker in question, strictly a double bunker, splits the fairway of Woking’s short par-4 4th. So infernal is its placement, so exactly where you would want to position your tee shot, that it’s hard not to throw some form of strop in the direction of its originator. So it goes with golfers.
As Robert Trent Jones Snr observed, “If you built a course the pros would like, it would have dead flat greens and dead flat fairways, very little rough and very few traps.” Apparently, when the bunker first appeared in 1902, the uproar from Woking’s members echoed across the wide, open spaces of Hook Heath.
Today though, the club is immensely proud of this hazard, and no wonder. It is widely believed to have heralded nothing less than an entirely new branch of golf course architecture. The bunker was inserted by club members Stuart Paton and John Low, some nine years after Tom Dunn created Woking’s original layout. At this time the game was making its first, hesitant strides away from the coast, and confusion reigned as to how to convert the natural, evolutionary charms of the links courses into contrived inland settings.
The perceived wisdom of the day was built around the almost scientific notion of the severity of the hazard matching the ugliness of the shot. The further offline, the worse it got.
But neither Paton nor Low saw it that way. Neither was an architect by trade but both were Scotsmen with a passion for links golf, and in particular St Andrews. They admired how many Old Course hazards were placed more centrally to dictate strategy rather than punish.
By introducing this concept to Woking, Paton and Low didn’t just liven up a routine hole, they pioneered the concept of so-called strategic design. This has been used ever since to allow manufactured inland settings to set interesting challenges. It is a hole as significant to golf’s development as any outside Fife.
Ranked in the 80s in 2014, at 63 in 2016 and 41 in our latest list, Woking is bounding up GW’s Top 100 like a stinger struck down its free-draining fairways.
Its special blend of history, setting and challenge has always separated it from the herd. In recent years, however, the authenticity of its pine and heather strewn heathland experience had become somewhat compromised, especially through the first six holes.
“Like any golf course, its fairways get invaded over time and its original character suffers, says club secretary Richard Pennell.
“Ten years ago we began a woodland management program. We analysed which parts of the course needed more airflow or less shade, playing lines altered or heathland characteristics restored. It was never the intention to get back to the original, very open look but the heathland the course sits on is central to its character and a valuable habitat that we need to protect.”
The most outstanding example of this work is also the most recent. Last year a massive zone of vegetation was cleared from below the 11th tee, a central hub of the course where several tees and greens converge.
With light and air now pouring through what once was a dark and dank area, these holes once again feel heathy while many of the course’s gorgeous vistas have opened up. New heather, transplanted from Hook Heath, is already thriving, most visibly on the beautiful par 4s at the 5th and 6th.
This work is at the centre of a thrust for improved playing surfaces at Woking, spearheaded by new course manager Andy Ewens. New drainage systems for all greens, inserted in 2016, have reduced thatch and created better and more consistent surfaces. The general improvement in grass coverage and attention to detail suggests a greenstaff that take pride in their work.
This, plus the bedding-in of the five-year-old 147-yard par-3 16th that is something of a mirror image of Augusta’s, is contributing to this giving historic club the setting it deserves once more.
It could be argued that Woking’s famous bunker, at some 210 yards off the 4th tee, needs to be shunted a little further up the fairway for the modern game. Decent players would probably take it out of play by blowing drives over the top on a par 4 that, in the right conditions, is about driveable.
But any notion of it would be rejected outright by a club rightly proud of its heritage and its coveted status as the first of a legion of classic Surrey sandbelt golf courses.
To suggest a golf course has risen from the ashes sounds a little fanciful, but in Woking’s case it actually did. “In 1800 London’s population was at one million,” says Pennell. “By 1900 it was 6.7 million. Finding space to bury bodies was becoming a pressing problem, so the Necropolis company bought land across the Surrey heathland sand belt for its Brookwood cemetery.
But towards the end of the 19th Century cremation became acceptable and ultimately legal, and the land was no longer needed. It became available at cheap leasing rates, and a group of London barristers took advantage to form Woking GC.”
The club’s founders asked Dunn, the pro at Tooting Bec, to lay out the course in 1892, but revisions from Low and Paton at the start of the 20th century remain the course’s last major overhaul. The course may have been altered subtly over the years and seen a new 16th, but what stands today is largely the same course that has thrilled and tested golfers for more than a century.
At just 6,606 yards off the tips, it could perhaps be overpowered by the modern elite player. But for everyone else the beguiling blend of pines, heather and in particular huge, vicious putting surfaces that appear to have half of Brookwood’s deceased buried beneath them offer more than enough challenge to keep you honest.
“If you’re going to work on one part of your game before coming here, make it your putting,” says club professional Carl Bianco. “Your performance on the greens will dictate your score.”
The course’s start is a case in point. While the driveable par-4 1st gets you away without any dramas, the 2nd is a classic old-style ‘bogey 4’ of 221 yards across a swale. Seven for the pair is more than acceptable.
Arcing right up a small rise, the 445-yard third hole terminates at what must be one of golf’s most unfathomable greens, set right behind an awkward bunker, complete with a step and dramatic fall from right-to-left. Getting on in two constitutes the easy part.
It is apt the double bunker at the 4th was inspired by the Principal’s Nose complex that guards the left side of the 16th at St Andrews’ Old Course. A moderate-length par 4 with a railway down the entire right-hand side, the hole is a ringer for Corner of the Dyke.
It also offers the same, stirring seduction; do you lay up short of the traps, leaving yourself a longer, tougher approach to a green that slopes subtly away from you? Or do you perhaps take it on, threading the needle up the right between the bunkers and the 10.44 to Waterloo, leaving a simple approach?
But it is only really after the 5th that the heather becomes more prominent and the course begins to settle into the classic test of heathland golf it has become. Perfectly pine-framed and its green protected by a stream, the gorgeous 6th hole is arguably the pick of the crop and sets up a run of lightly forested, heather-flanked holes all the way to the clubhouse.
The 161-yard 7th is a gorgeous one-shotter to a devious green. Rising subtly, the long par-4 8th rewards two, honest shots but nothing else. 11, 12 and 13 are all fantastic two-shotters plotted through pure heathland that demand length with accuracy off the tee.
While perhaps a little fussy for a course as classically understated as Woking, the beautiful new 16th calls for a 9-iron over water and sand to a characteristically unreadable green, before two solid par 4s bring you in. The only bum note the 470-yard par-4 9th. A brute of a dog-leg left up a steep hill to a typically slippery green with bushes right, it feels like a sudden smack in the face from your sparring partner.
A tree-lined heath layout, Woking is of course nothing like St Andrews. And yet there is something in its large, sweeping greens that engenders sensations similar to the Old Course. Both layouts have the knack of making you feel you are doing far better than you in fact are, giving you the first part of the hole only to snatch it back at the end.
The Signature Hole
While the new par-3 16th, a short, pretty hole over a pond, is probably as close as you’ll get to a signature hole here, showiness isn’t Woking’s style.
Its charm is found in the economy and accuracy of its hazard placements, the subtlety of its challenge and ultimately the simplicity of its design. This perhaps explains why the club’s head pro Carl Bianco picks the more understated par-4 8th.
“It’s a long par 4 arcing right, with the rising approach playing half a club extra,” he says. “The ideal tee shot is a strong fade to a bunkerless fairway. The approach needs an honest strike, avoiding two bunkers 30-50 yards short of the green that can foreshorten the shot, and usually we’ll see a headcover coming off.”
“With the green sloping severely from back to front, the best miss is short; it leaves a fairly straightforward chip up the green, unless the pin is cut in its toughest position, far right over a pot bunker. Framed by pines, flanked by heather and with a demanding green complex, it represents what Woking is all about.”
Arguably, the hole second to the 4th in significance at Woking is the 19th. The old-style single-storey clubhouse, and in particular its charming Wisteria Framed terrace, sits just three paces off the back of the par-5 14th green... ensuring an adrenaline-fuelled approach. Pennell reports that in the part of the clubhouse nearest the course, windows need replacing about once a month.
Even more exciting is the fact both terrace and clubhouse are actually in play. “That’s if you don’t count the terrace roof,” adds Pennell. “Until about 25 years ago it was, and we kept a ladder handy for golfers to climb up. But alas Health and Safety shut this down and the roof is now out-of bounds.
“People are often chipping off the terrace though, and there have even been examples of balls coming into the clubhouse through open doors. I once watched someone putt along the corridor outside my office before chipping back out onto the green.”
Such practice is very much in keeping with a club intent on retaining the warmth of its old-world charm. Club events like the spring and autumn meetings are organised around long, boozy lunches, and there is even a story of the winner of the Roger Wethered foursomes being stripped of his prize for not having lunched ‘appropriately’.
Pace of play is important here; an iconic cartoon shows a young lad asking a member what the course record is, to be told “It’s two hours 28 minutes, young man.” Singles and foursomes tend to be the order of the day, though Tuesdays and Fridays are reserved for fourballs.
While Bianco’s fantastic new GC Quad-based swing studio, set up in an adjacent converted barn, shows the club is as progressive as anywhere it wants to be, tradition is the order of the day here.
Such an ethos lends itself to a low profile, and perhaps as a consequence Woking remains surprisingly accessible, both in terms of green fees (£110 in summer, £70 in winter) and membership. Take advantage of this and you will be rewarded by nothing less than the definitive, British heathland experience.