Swinley Forest is a charming golf course set on the famous Surrey/Berkshire sand belt. Two decades ago it was a club frozen in time, exclusive, unusual and totally eccentric. One commentator went as far as to say: “The inescapable impression is that the place fell asleep many years ago and slumbered on for decades, the Rip Van Winkle of golf clubs.”
In fact, you would be hard pressed to describe it as a conventional golf club; there was no captain and despite being in existence for nearly 100 years, little history, except in its members’ heads. However, in the 1990s, scorecards were printed, holes allocated par figures, and competitions introduced for Swinley’s distinguished members.
Harry Colt designed the layout and the course opened for play in 1909 – he modestly described Swinley Forest as his “least bad course”. One of the many delights of Swinley is the ambience, which is hard to define but ubiquitous. It’s also totally unpretentious, having none of the new money glamour of its near neighbours, but more style than all the other Surrey clubs combined.
If you were lucky enough to play here around the turn of the new millennium, you would have often had the entire course to yourself. It’s possible you’d have spotted Major So-and-so and his dog, or Lord Such-and-such enjoying a Pimm’s in the clubhouse. It was likely that you’d be able to count other golfers playing the course on one hand. Today things are different. The club has opened its doors to societies and green fee visitors and there’s a tangible optimistic buzz around the place.
Swinley Forest came into being thanks to Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, and one of Sunningdale’s founder members. Lord Stanley became fed up with Sunningdale’s policies and a number of theories as to the real reason(s) exist, which are all documented in Nicholas Courtney’s Swinley Special – One Hundred Years of Harry Colt’s ‘Least Bad Course’.
“Another theory why Lord Derby was disenchanted with Sunningdale was their attitude to women. Lady Stanley became a keen golfer,” wrote Courtney, “yet under the original rule 4 she could not even set foot in Sunningdale, as women ‘be not allowed to play over the links’.”
Lord Stanley mentioned his gripes to King Edward VII, who suggested Lord Stanley build his own course at Swinley Forest, part of the Windsor Great Park. The King provided the land (on a peppercorn rent) and Lord Stanley built the clubhouse and commissioned Harry Colt – who was then the Secretary at Sunningdale – to design the course, and the rest, as they say, is history.
We will make no bones about it, we’re very fond of Swinley and it’s undeniably an attractive course. The short, one-shot holes are simply outstanding and varied in terms of length and design. The site/position of the greensites sets Swinley apart from many of its contemporaries. Although the yardage was only a little over 6,000 yards a few years ago, the par of 68 made the going challenging.
Today’s course is longer and plans are afoot to add more tees to extend the yardage to 6,400 yards, which may still not sound long by today’s standards, but with a par of 69 it will test and delight not only the scratch golfer but also the high handicapper.
The summer swathes of purple heather and firm fairways that wind their way through mature pines epitomise heathland golf along the London sandbelt. Add in the crafty greens, with false-fronts and cunning run-offs along with old world allure and you have the unique Swinley cocktail, which is very pleasurable indeed.
So, what are you waiting for? You don’t need to send a letter in the post to the secretary by way of introduction these days, simply pick up the phone, or use that newfangled email technique: [email protected]
Swinley Forest had been on my radar for a very long time. The way it was once described to me on a flight into Heathrow a few years back by somebody who used to caddie for Douglas Badder, a former distinguished member of the club, had me anticipating a rather crusty old club with a tired old course.
Recent reviews that I’ve read on this website and elsewhere indicated that things had changed both on and off the course in recent years – certainly since the current secretary was appointed – and I’m delighted to report this new outlook was very much in evidence when I played here a few days ago.
The rolling topography is sublime, with holes beautifully routed to allow thrilling downhill tee shots from a good number of tee positions. Many of the greens are set on ridge tops or benched into hillsides, forcing golfers to play an exacting approach shot to a heavily contoured putting surface, many of which are further protected by heather fringed bunkers and mounding.
The five par threes are all brilliant but the first of these, the 171-yard 4th, is the best of that handful in my view – just how difficult can it be to make an uphill short hole appear so attractive? The left doglegged 9th is the pick of the par fours on the front nine, plunging down off the tee then rising up to a green that falls away into a gully on the left hand side.
The par fours at the 12th and 15th were my favourites on the back nine and critics of the greens on the Castle course at St Andrews really want to check out the putting surface on these holes to see what truly outlandish outlines look like! The sumptuous 18th ends the round in fine style, where a newly planted area of heather to the right of the home green further separates the putting surface from the 1st tee.
This little ground improvement is just one of a myriad of course upgrades that have taken place in recent months. For instance, huge swathes of invasive rhododendrons have been eliminated from the fairway fringes, new tees have been added on several holes and a new practice area has been built close to the clubhouse. General course conditioning has also been advanced, though there’s still some way to go before things are exactly as the club would want them to be.
Double checking the Top 100 re-rankings that took place at the start of this year, Swinley Forest made really significant moves within every chart: up 4 to number 6 in England, up 7 to number 22 in Great Britain & Ireland and up 16 to number 71 in the World. From what I saw the other day, those positive move were well merited for a course (and a club) that is firmly embracing the golfing challenges of the new millennium.
I have been very critical of the condition of this truly great course over the last two years. Not any more. I have never seen a golf course improve so much in a year. The greens have gone from slow wooly and far too soft to firm and fast for the ime of year. This has brought back the slopes on these very interesting greens, and some of the subtle runoffs on the corners of them as the course's defence. There have been new tees built, the fairways have finally been mown and worked upon, and, glory be, the inadequate practice ground has been rebuilt and looks top notch, complete with an all weather green. All power to the secretary, to whom I talked, for saying that it is still about a year from where they want it to be, but if this progress continues, welcome back to one the very best inland courses in the UK. Superb.
It is noteworthy that I simply loved this course and will dream about returning to play it after a long dry period when it’s playing really fast and firm and the greens have been mowed in the last week (at least).