The enchanting Ashridge Golf Club is set amongst thousands of acres of National Trust-owned woodland. The scene is set as you drive to the clubhouse. The long approach road takes you through parts of the ancient Ashridge estate, giving you a fleeting glimpse of the 8th and 9th holes between the beautiful mature trees (more about the 9th later).
Founded in 1932, Ashridge was originally designed by Sir Guy Campbell, Major C K Hutchison and Woodhall Spa’s Colonel Hotchkin. Around 1939, Tom Simpson made a few minor but significant changes. These architects made perfect use of Ashridge’s gently undulating land and inherent natural beauty. The great Sir Henry Cotton was club pro in the late thirties and during his time at Ashridge, he won the 1937 Open at Carnoustie. Alex Hay was also another famous Ashridge pro, staying here for twelve years from 1964.
Par 3s are very strong at Ashridge, with prominent bunkering providing clear definition from the tees. There is a noticeable split between the front and back nine (par 35 & par 37) and the inward nine plays significantly harder than the shorter par 35 outward nine. Accuracy, rather than length from the tee, especially at the turn, will be rewarded and mistakes will invariably be punished. At first glance, the greens at Ashridge appear fairly flat, but do not be fooled as there are many subtle borrows, leaving you questioning your eyesight. These greens are very tough cookies to read. The only minor criticism is that there is currently only one genuine three shot hole (15th) and that, too, is relatively short. The plus side is that there are birdies on offer, but the birdie opportunities are likely to be short-lived. Ashridge is in the process of extending two par fives (5th and 13th), by approximately 50 yards each.
Ashridge was one of the very first private clubs to pioneer “society days” by welcoming groups of visiting golfers; the club continues this approach to the present day. Societies are treated as day members and many groups return year after year because a warm welcome is guaranteed. The club does not insist on visitors using the red and yellow tees. The whites can be used if desired, leaving the choice to the player and not the club. There are three starting points (1st, 10th and 13th) all within 50 yards of each other, close to the new clubhouse. These loops of holes make up the “clover leaf” shaped layout of the course and provide a number of options for players not wanting to play a full round.
Probably the most memorable hole is the par four 9th (stroke index 7). It’s not a long hole, measuring 337 yards from the yellow tee but the drive is to a blind landing area and the approach shot must carry across a valley to a kidney-shaped plateau green below – four is a great score here. This hole is affectionately named ‘Cottons’ after the great man.
We played Ashridge in early February 2004 after the most awful snow and rain but the course was in good condition and still looked a perfect picture. The freshness of spring and the autumn colours at Ashridge are breathtaking. Oh, and keep an eye out for the deer. They have life membership and a habit of grazing to the right of the 17th hole.
We will let Bernard Darwin bring Ashridge to a close: “The romantic and traditional names have not been lost. Witchcraft Bottom and Nob’s Crook, Thunderdell – a wood of splendid beeches where blasted trunks bear witness to its evil reputation; Princes Riding – a long avenue with a stately monument at the end of it; were there ever more thrilling names? Today they have been transferred to appropriate holes upon the course, and the holes are worthy of the names.”
I played Ashridge midweek as part of a large society and had a cracking time. The clubhouse and changing rooms are smart and spacious and although the first few holes were marred by some early morning fog, the course really came into its own as the weather cleared. It's a fine parkland course, that provided some challenging rough and the greens were slick and true. I did think the par 3's were quite uninspiring but the par 4's and 5 were much more interesting with some dog-legs and blind tee shots which put some premium on placement, even with the fairways being generous off the tee. It was a fun round and the course was in great condition, I would happily play the course again and the staff were attentive and very pleasant. I'm only giving it 4 balls as I am going to be a harsh critic, but in my eyes a good is still high praise for a solid and interesting course.