Taken together, the New and Old courses at Sunningdale Golf Club represent the finest 36 holes of golf in the whole of the British Isles. The same architect who made modifications to Sunningdale’s Old course, Harry Colt, designed the New course, which opened for play in 1923 to meet the ever-increasing demand for golf.
This is a superb driving course for it is more open than the Old; the trees do not encroach quite so much. Having said this, the New demands long carries from its elevated tees over heathery terrain to narrow fairways. The club has been following a programme of regeneration that has involved the felling of a number of trees, thereby allowing the heather to return. In addition, this has cleared the way for long lost views to reappear across to Chobham Common in the south.
Many people will come to Sunningdale hell-bent on playing the Old course, but if it’s a real athletic challenge you are after, you will get severely tested on the rugged 6,700-yard par 70 New, a tougher, more rounded test of golf than the Old. For many years, Jack Nicklaus held the course record with a 67, which was a testament to the technical test of the New course. However, in June 2009, in Open Championship Final Qualifying, England’s Graeme Storm smashed the course record with an amazing eight-under 62 thereby securing his place in the 2009 Open at Turnberry.There are many excellent and memorable holes on the New, perhaps not as many as there are on the Old but certainly the 5th is worthy of mention, a charming par three. The views across the treetops to the common beyond are superb.
Sunningdale is located on Surrey and Berkshire’s famous, magical sand-belt, home to so many other fine golf courses. There is no better natural inland golfing terrain anywhere in the world and Sunningdale is blessed with two of the world’s very best heathland courses.
Returning to Sunningdale to play the New course after having previously sampled the Old, like many people, I found myself comparing the two, and wondering which was the better. I tried to judge on gut, and also by ‘playing matchplay’ between the two courses, and whilst initially I edged towards the New, within a day I wasn’t so sure, and now I just simply cannot pick a winner. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought I was engaging in a pretty whimsical exercise, and why on earth was I comparing them anyway? They are both examples of heathland golf at its finest, and the members are privileged to have the opportunity to play them both.
If you’re contemplating splashing out on a visit here, my advice would be to play all 36 holes, but I would start with the New, because it is clearly the tougher test of the two. Fairways are narrower, and with thick heather sometimes only a few paces away from the short grass. It is definitely a penal golf course in places, and if you are not getting any accuracy off the tee, you are in for a long morning.
Favourite hole? Probably the par 5 6th. Off an elevated tee, a vast open swathe of heathland is exposed, plunging down before banking sharply right before climbing back up to a green with a 4-5ft step to climb about 10 yards from the front. Aggressive and conservative options are clearly available even to the first time visitor – a well struck drive into a narrowing tongue of fairway will leave 200-220 yards, with the best play often to pitch just short and let the ball climb its way up that massive tier – sweet satisfaction to anyone who pulls it off. Fast running heathland, beauty, challenge, strategy, drama – everything golf has to offer, all rolled into one. I could play that same hole all day long.
I think if there is a downside, it is the slightly anticlimactic last two holes. Whilst 17 is not exactly an affront to architecture, it is still a little ordinary compared with what has come before it. The home hole itself is great from about 100 yards in, but the rest of it simply marches in an arrow-straight line off the tee , with trees choking the vista. No doubt this is due to safety concerns - 1 and 18 from both the Old and the New have to fit into a space only wide enough for three and three quarter fairways - something had to give and it's the 18th on the New that pays the price.
Still, one of the best I've ever played ....
I wrote a very long review of the Old and have tried to be more concise about the New but have failed because it is one terrific hole after another. The New measures 6,755 yards (with the new tees on 17 and 18) but plays a lot longer because of the wind, which is much more of a factor than on the Old because of less trees, and the carries over heather, which are often 160-190 yards. The carry to the fairway over the heather on the Sixth hole is 220 yards, albeit downhill. The difficulty of the course is reflected in a standard scratch score of 73 against a par of 70. The genius of Colt’s routing and design is how he used the natural contours of Chobham heath to create an assortment of challenges and enjoyable views for all handicaps.
The First involves a drive into a rapidly ascending hill where the longer player is rewarded with a flatter lie but still needs a long accurate second shot to a smallish green (for a 465 yard hole). Fifteen years ago the First was played as a par 5 and the shorter player will often come out with the same score as the player who goes for the green in two because of the premium placed on shots into to green – assuming he/she avoids the bunker 80 yards short and right of the green which gathers shots seemingly hit down the middle. At the par 3 Second we see a familiar Colt trademark in that much of the green cannot be seen from the tee (170 yards). A large bunker short and left of the green is largely a visual hazard but often gathers the mistruck shot while behind it a gully provides a difficult recovery sitting 4 feet lower than the lower tier of the green. A pin position on the back level makes a two putt from the middle of the green feel like a birdie. The Third (395 yards) tee provides you with a nice view of heather and a large fairway. Hitting into a gentle valley makes the drive inviting but as heather turns to fairway the land is already rising slightly and sloping to the left (the opposite way to the shape of the hole) cutting run and pushing balls towards fairway bunkers. Aggressive drivers can take the ball over the right hand shoulder of heather running all the way to 50 yards short of the green but any failure to draw it leads to an inevitable hack out. Deep bunkers left and a bunker in front mean the second must be precise but the green is large and generally receptive. On the Fourth (450 yards) Colt makes you drive across heather (with heather and trees right and left if you hook or cut your drive), to a fairway which is at an angle to the line you want to take. Always played into the prevailing wind, the green is raised with bunkers 40 yards short right, it is without doubt the hardest stroke index 10 I have ever played. The green is fiendish in sloping from back to front and it is possible to putt off it in the Summer. The Fifth (180 yards) is the perfect par 3. Apart from the original tee position having moved from what is now the society tee of the 13th hole to what was the original back tee of 13th hole (as Colt designed it) the hole is identical. The tee shot is a glorious 5/6 iron to a largish green, with huge bunkers and heather in front and deep bunkers to the right. The back shelf of the green provides the most receptive pin position but danger lurks behind the green for an over -hit tee shot. Landing the ball on the first third of the green in the summer can result in it rolling back off and even if the ball manages to stay on the putt will be a fiendish one over a large shoulder. It is the best par 3 on either course.
The Sixth hole (485 yards off white tee or 510 yards off blue tee) is quite simply a jaw dropper. Standing on a raised tee, the tee shot is at a slight angle to a fairway framed by heather on both sides. In the distance snaking round to the right and appearing like an island in a sea of heather is a two tiered raised green. The tee shot invites you smash it but you must find a fairway that is 80 feet below the tee level. For a shortish par 5 the long hitter has real difficulty in reaching the green in two: the prevailing wind is against (and anything off the fairway will result in a wedge out) but even with a 300 yard drive the second shot will be over heather for the first 50 yards and continuing up to the right side of the green that is raised and with two very pronounced tiers such that any shot not pitched as far as the pin placement will simply role back down the green and off (sometimes as much as 30 yards). Deep bunkers left and right beckon for the pull and pushed second shot. The shorter player can elect to play his second just short of the heather, leaving himself 150 yards to the green or try and play over the heather and leave himself 100 yards for his third. It is a cracker. Interestingly the blue tee was an addition at the turn of the millennium and Colt would definitely approve. The Seventh hole (365 yards) is about the closest the New has to a short par 4. The prevailing wind blows across from the right and driving over heather (and appearing on the right and left of the fairway) the fairway is out of sight apart from the first 15 yards and turns fairly gently into a dog left right. Long drawn tee shots can run out of fairway into the heather and pushed/cut tee shots find deep heather to the right. It is a very tough tee shot. The second shot is relatively straight forward but the green, with a distinct hump short left which can be used to propel the ball in, is always very quick and has a deceptive slope on its left side. The Eighth hole (397 yards) involves a blind drive over heather and a slight crest to fairway which is higher than the teeing area leading to distinctly less run. The raised green site is on the hillside to the right of the Fifth green and demands a high level of precision. Any second shot short falls back down the slope and subtle tiers in the green can mean a seemingly routine 20 footer is hard work to complete in two putts. My view is that this is the hardest second shot on the course. The Ninth hole (460 yards) demands a tee shot over a valley of heather to around 20 yards of fairway that can be seen – the carry of that alone is 190-200 yards). Trees to the right of where the fairway starts mean any tee shot pushed right is immediately stopped in its tracks. Tee shots pulled left gather into deep heather. It is a terrifically demanding tee shot because of the psychological effect the visual aspect has on the golfer. Of course if the golfer can carry the ball beyond the 20 yards of the fairway that can be seen a wonderful swooping valley of fairway is there to gather and shoot the ball down. Walking from the top of the crest where the fairway starts it’s a glorious view of fairway framed by trees and heather and a green on a hill side. The second demands either a draw taking on the bunkers on the right of the green which is tricky unless you have found the left side of the fairway (the camber of the fairway takes all balls left to right) or the safer fade using the hillside to the left of the green to feed the ball into the heart of the green. Any second short or pitching on the first 6 feet of the green will fall back off the green and sometimes be gathered into the bunker on the right. The green has considerably more slope in it than appears. Half way round and Colt has managed to produce 9 terrific holes where only one bunker is placed for the drive (The Third).
Apart from the moving of the tee position from the top of the hill to the left the Tenth is as Colt designed it. A long Par 3 of 220 yards trees and heather all the way up the right hand side prohibit a draw and the ideal shot is a high fade. Deep bunkers in front and to the left guard a large green. The shorter hitter can aim to fairway short and left of the green and leave themselves a 30/40 yard chip. A par here always feels like a shot picked up. At 440 yards the Eleventh is not the longest Par 4 but it is SI 1 and demands a long draw over heather and round a large tree on the left to a generous fairway – the shot is semi-blind. Bunkers 100 yards short and right of the green are only in play for the short hitter’s mistruck second. The green is long from front to back but very narrow and finding the green requires a well struck shot. Sloping off on all the edges save for the front entrance being out by a mere feet results in disaster. Par is a very good score. The Twelfth is under 400 yards and rather like the Seventh and Eighth might appear relatively innocuous but plays far harder than it appears. Driving over heather to a rising fairway with a bunker around 200 yards from the tee on the right the more aggressive driver hitting a draw has to deal with heather and heavy thick rough that eats into the fairway landing area on the left. The ascending fairway continues to rise gradually to the green in such a way as to visually fool the golfer into thinking the second shot is not as uphill as it really is. A deep gully (some 8 -10 feet below the putting surface) left and bunkers short right and right punish any misjudgement. The green is relatively flat although sloping from back to front and from left to right. When you walk onto the Thirteenth tee (543 yards) it looks a long hole but when Colt designed it the original tee was on the site of the back tee of the Fifth and the green site was some 50 yards further back meaning the hole was 600 yards! A bunker at the right edge of the fairway at around 150 yards is of visual interest only with the main view of the tee shot being a vast expanse of fairway running straight into the distance. It begs you to smash it but heather and trees on both sides offer stiff penalties for the over-ambitious. Two cleverly placed bunkers in the middle of the fairway around 140 yards from the green offer both a visual challenge and actual penalty. The green looks straight forward. It’s vast and although there are a line of bunkers short and right there are none surrounding it. However there is more slope on the left side than is visible from the fairway and any struck shot left centre will almost certainly roll off –leaving an awkward chip from heather. The Fourteenth is a lovely par 3 with a two tiered green offering pin placements that can make the hole between 150 yards and 185 yards. Bunkers on the left side and partially in front are penal and laying the ball dead is nye on impossible. The tiering is subtle but substantial and a well struck shot at the heart of the green can often still leave a 25 footer uphill. The hole always seems to play into the prevailing wind.
The Fifteenth (404 yards White tee/420 yards Blue tee) has the only real water hazard that comes in to play on either course. From the tee the golfer sees heather and the natural ditch of a former field with the fairway extending at a right angle from left to right . The safe shot is down the left because there is less heather to carry over but a much longer (200 yards +) second. The straighter longer hitter can see the wooden sides of a small pond which to drive over is some 250 yards. The line over the pond also brings in to play the much larger reservoir to the right and small grouping of sliver birch. The second shot is played uphill and to the right. Deep bunkers and a gully left are the green’s defences with bunkers right less hazardous. The ideal line will be a draw at the right hand bunker landing about 10 yards short. Although stroke index 3 if the drive can be negotiated successfully it is a receptive green. The Sixteenth is only 379 yards but the drive is semi blind in that very little of the fairway can be seen off the teen. Dense over hanging trees on the right make it feel far tighter than it is. The fairway is in fact diamond shaped and wide at around 160 yards out from the green. The longer driver contends with more humps and hollows and a narrowing of the fairway as heather and trees on the left and trees on the adjoining land to the right intrude. A large cross bunker around 50 yards short is more of a visual hazard although after a poorly struck tee shot it will be a significant hazard for the second. The second shot is played to a large green with deep bunkers left and right. A relatively flat shelf at the back is receptive but the front portion of the green offers severe slopes such that putting back onto the apron is not unusual in the summer. The Seventeenth has been reshaped in the last couple of years- the tee was raised slightly and moved 1 yard(!) back while the drop off to the hollow to the left of the green was softened somewhat to spare members’ ankles and knees. It is a terrific 172 yard Par 3 which offers either a heroic draw over bunkers guarding the front two thirds of the green or a very well judged high fade from the tee. The green appears from the tee to be a lot smaller than it really is but the penalty for being long is severe – a 10+ foot drop off. The green surface itself is fairly receptive and offers a real chance of a two. The Eighteenth from the new back blue tee is 494 yards (465 yards from the white medal tees). As mentioned elsewhere the heather is in sparse supply on this part of the property and thus there is none to drive over. Framed by trees on either side, with the trees on the left around 150 yards from the tee encroaching somewhat, not all the driving area can be seen from the tee, although that small valley is the ideal landing area for a draw. Too straight with the drive and a small copse of trees will make the second a mere punch out. The flattish area at the bottom of the valley is around 30 yards in length and leaves a second of 220 to 190 yards. That second must be played uphill substantially, and over two cross bunkers around 40 yards from the green guarding what once was the run up area on the left. Sadly the little oak (shaped just like the oak behind the 18th green on the Old and the club emblem) behind the green had to be cut down a few years back after a lightning strike so the view from the middle of the fairway of the green is not as memorable as it once was but the challenge of the shot has been enhanced by the new bunkers: the golfer must now choose between laying up and going for the eagle and can no longer mishit his attempt at making the green in two shots without penalty. The green itself is very tricky and arguably the toughest to read in break and speed on the course. Of the back nine holes only two (12th and 13th and the latter is really of visual interest only) have bunkers which are a hazard from the tee. I think this course is terrific and if you have the chance to play as a guest of a member or by arrangement please play it, you will not be disappointed. Tim
I believe it’s a course you need to have seen a couple times to be comfortable out there some of the blind holes are very challenging with relatively tight landing areas, especially if you aren’t sure what the correct line is. One such hole is the par 4 9th, the obvious line is as we found out not the correct one and a good shot down the middle will result in running out of fairway and into the heather. The par 3 10th hole requires a long tee shot to a tricky and well guarded green with danger left. The pin position on our day required a faded long iron or rescue club to get anywhere near it. On demand a tough shot to pull off if it’s not your customary ball flight. The back 9 was equally as strong as the front. I found it a tough course. While the conditioning was excellent it plays much more like a parkland course than I had expected.
I was also very surprised to find out that the area mainly consisted of clay turf (green sand) while my understanding had been (incorrectly) that all the heathland courses were laid out on a sandbelt. To be fair the area had experienced a lot of rainfall this year but compared to Walton Heath I’d call Sunningdale based on conditioning a parkland course with heather that plays more like a target golf course than a firm and fast heathland. That’s also being fair and realizing that in the summer after a dry period the clay would harden considerably and firm up the playing conditions.