From the Archives: This travel story by Ian Cruickshank was featured in Fairways Magazine in 2012.
On paper, it looked easy enough. After an overnight flight from Toronto to London, I was going to grab a rental car at Heathrow, swing on and then off the M25, the dizzying ring road that encircles the English capital. Within 15 minutes, I’d be pulling into the parking lot at Wentworth and teeing it up for 36 holes of classic golf. But, as I backed the car out of the rental space, I felt a thump. A quick glimpse revealed nothing in the mirrors, so using my foggy, sleep deprived logic, I decided to hammer the gas pedal, spinning the wheels like a NASCAR winner and then promptly flew up and over a body sized bump. Now nearly awake, I jumped out of the car and thankfully discovered that I’d only run over my suitcase. On the plus side, I hadn’t backed over my clubs and the golf course was still just 15 minutes away.
You can’t blame me for my excitement. The area west of London and Heathrow features England’s best stretch of courses. This is heathland country, a mix of spruce and birch groves, whin and purple heather, bracken as thick as steel wool and turf that springs with the trampoline bounce of an outlawed driver. It’s near perfect topography for golf and is home to such classic clubs as Wentworth, Stoke Park, Walton Heath, Sunningdale and St. George’s Hill (pictured above).
The route to Wentworth reminded me again of how full the English countryside is of history. Five minutes before making the right-hand turn to the club, I passed Runnymede, the famous field where in June of 1215, the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, basis of Western law and liberty. Wentworth’s own history is only slightly less impressive. Nearly every great modern golfer including Hogan has played there and the club currently hosts the BMW PGA Championship and was the long time site for the World Match Play. Wentworth has three courses, the East and West originally designed by Harry Colt (Ernie Els oversaw a controversial nip and tuck of the West course) and the Edinburgh layout.
Turns out that the English aren’t always so reserved. The former head professional told me about Tiger Woods’ visit to Wentworth during the 1998 World Match Play tournament. After his round, Woods wandered into the clubhouse, looking for a washroom. When he was shown the appropriate door, 30 golf fans, all armed with clubhouse passes, followed in right behind him.
Stoke Park Club is another Harry Colt design that dates back to 1908, although the property’s history stretches back nearly 1,000 years. The first Queen Elizabeth once owned the estate but now a stately hotel, complete with spa and tennis (John McEnroe and Pete Sampras have both whacked it around the hotel’s grass courts) occupies the land. The property has also been the backdrop for a number of big time feature flicks. Hugh Grant chased Rene Zellweger around the Stoke Park bedposts during their naughty weekend in Bridget Jones’s Diary and most famously, Sean Connery as the original James Bond, teed it up against Goldfinger and his lethal caddy Oddjob at Stoke Park.
The Club sports 27 holes, 18 of which are Colt’s work, including the par-3 7th hole, which was the inspiration for Augusta’s 16th . The golf here is studded with splays of rich red flowers, lush, wide fairways, lazy doglegs and the sound of church bells that peel regularly in the background. I half expected one of the butlers from Downton Abbey to offer me a cup of tea and cucumber sandwich at the turn. The place does feature a nice touch of English eccentricity. Playing down the first hole of the new nine, I thinned one over the green and the shot settled against a brick wall that looked like it was built by the Romans. Peaking over the edge were half a dozen, furry faced llamas, whose slurpy pink tongues were drooling over my ball.
The most southerly of the great heathland courses is Walton Heath Golf Club which made its debut in 1904. A hideaway for the golf loving upper crust, (its membership has included a British King and four prime ministers including Churchill), it’s Old and New courses were designed by the estimable Herbert Fowler. The Old course, which has been stretched to 7,400 yards, is rated as a top 100 in the world layout and last summer hosted the Senior British Open. But it is best known as the home of the 1981 Ryder Cup where a US team that included Watson, Nicklaus, Trevino, Floyd, Irwin, Kite and Johnny Miller, spanked a European squad headlined by Faldo and Sandy Lyle.
I could have happily stayed wrapped in the past, playing with the ghosts at Walton Heath but it was time to return the car to the airport and buy a new suitcase.