Royal Portrush Golf Club: Beauty lies in being bold

Royal Portrush Golf Club

I had planned to hit an iron off the 1st tee on Royal Portrush’s iconic Dunluce links.

With out of bounds left and right, it was the sensible option. It was the sensible option Rory McIlroy would take a few months later when the 148th Open Championship rolled into this incredible corner of Northern Ireland.

But then I caught the eye of the starter. He was shaking his head in disbelief. “How many times are you going to play this course?” he asked with a smile, adding I’d “regret it if I didn’t take it on”.

Royal Portrush hosted The Open in July 2019

So I pulled out the driver, hit one down the middle, followed up with a pitching wedge to the elevated green and two-putted from 30 feet for par. If only Rory had had such bold advice!

I had been invited by the R&A to a media day and play a course that is regarded by many as in the top five in the UK, so while there was generally a relaxed air to the round, the promise of prizes and not wanting to look like the 18-handicapper I am, kept me focused.

It was, however, impossible to get McIlroy out of my mind on the opening few holes. His name is synonymous with Royal Portrush’s iconic Dunluce links, having set the course record of 61 at the age of 16 in 2005.

The Northern Irishman had been allowed to become a Portrush member at the age of 8, instead of being made to wait until he was 12 and while two new holes and a raft of other changes were made for The Open in 2019, expectations were high for the champion golfer of 2014 to win the first Claret Jug contested on the course since 1951.

Max Faulkner was the victor almost 70 years ago and this marked only the second time that the oldest of all the majors was to be played outside of England and Scotland.

The seaside town of Portrush had been given a £17m makeover, including a new train station, for the arrival that summer of the world’s best golfers. The 237,000 tickets were sold in record time, guaranteeing that it would be the most attended Championship after St Andrews in the year 2000.

Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of the Royal & Ancient

And while local hero McIlroy could not repeat his teenage heroics, a man from the Republic stepped in. Shane Lowry’s ‘new’ course record of 63 paved the way for a memorable victory with scenes not seen at The Open for many a year. It led to then R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers to declare he expected Portrush to remain on the Open rota “for many years”.

But that was all to come.

I had to temper my expectations, while still trying to build on the good start I had made – the mini clenched fist and yelp of celebration at holing a five-foot par putt on the 1st had surprised even myself.

The par-five 2nd takes you further away from the clubhouse, unveiling the majesty of what lies ahead, as you play down towards the coast, via a delightful short 3rd and stunningly tough par-four 4th, with its green half-hidden between sand dunes.

And so to a trio of holes that will stay long in the memory. A risk and reward par four, an exacting par three and a brute of a par five. The 5th is one of Dunluce’s most storied holes. White Rocks is a short dog-leg right par four, all downhill to a green perched 50 feet above the Atlantic Ocean’s waves. It is truly beautiful, even on a dank and overcast spring morning.

BBC golf commentator Peter Alliss

As I stop to enjoy the views over to the ruins of Dunluce Castle, after which the course is named, I spy a buggy coming down towards us. BBC Sport commentator Peter Alliss is aboard. He parks up by the bench behind the 6th tee. Great. A tough par-three hole coming up and I’ve got an audience.

The line to the fairway is a little further left than you might think. “Anything right is dead,” said the caddie enlisted by one of our fourball. The rough to the right is not as penal as it will be in July for The Open, so I manage to find my ball and hack it up just short of the green, conscious that anything two yards long is joining the surfers braving the bracing conditions below.

The 8th hole at Royal Portrush Golf Club

The hole is the perfect example of how Harry Colt used the natural contours of the land to protect his greens. I’m a fraction short with my tee shot to the table-top green and the ball feeds back towards me. There are similar run-offs and swales across the course, negating the need for an over-abundance of bunkers.

The 7th is a beast. At nearly 600 yards, it’s the longest hole on the course and one of the two new holes designed by architect Martin Ebert in preparation for The Open. Five new greens, eight tee boxes and 10 bunkers were added to the layout designed by Colt in 1932.

The cavernous Nellie’s Bunker – a replica of the one that used to dominate the old 17th – tries to suck in your opening shot from an elevated tee, while the towering sand dunes to the right, offer protection from a wind blowing in off the sea. The hole, and the 8th that follows, have been constructed on land taken from Portrush’s sister course The Valley and are therefore settled in their surroundings. And so the round progresses, weaving through the dunes on the triangular plot of land as the sun starts to break through the clouds.

There are wonderful holes throughout; the 10th with it’s semi-blind tee shot, the short downhill 13th  which, unusually for the course, has five bunkers protecting it, the 15th which is named after the Skerries islands you can see in the distance.

The 15th hole at Royal Portrush
The 15th hole at Royal Portrush

And then you hit ‘Calamity Corner’. The 16th is a staggering short hole with the potential to wreck your card. It used to be the 14th but now arrives at what feels like a more pivotal time.

It was 200 yards off the whites and the only bail out is in ‘Locke’s Hollow, named after Bobby Locke who hit all four tee shots front left of the green at the 1951 Open. It’s over a chasm, which falls away to the right and features deep rough if you stray left. “Get up to the Championship tee,” encourages our guide. It plays 236 yards from the tips and offers a genuinely frightening view of the hole.

It’s not that much better from 200 yards. A mighty swish with a three-wood sees my ball land on the front edge of the green. And breathe. The round ends, as it began, with a par and as I pluck my ball from the hole one last time, I pause to take in my surroundings.

I’ve just played one of the outstanding golf courses on the planet and managed to not disgrace myself. It was, as you’d expect four months out from hosting The Open, in immaculate condition. It’s the kind of course that you know is truly special as you’re playing it, but only realise just how brilliant as you relax, with your favourite post-round refreshment, swapping tales of 250-yard drives and missed tiddlers in the wonderful first-floor lounge that affords sensational views across the course.

As the watery late afternoon sunshine gave way to dusk, I couldn’t help but think back to my arrival in the seaside town a little under 24 hours earlier.

The clubhouse at Royal Portrush Golf Club

It was dark and wild and the rain was coming in sideways off the sea as I dragged my clubs through the front doors of the welcoming Portrush Atlantic Hotel. The sea views it had boasted on its website would have to wait.

The storm had rolled through by morning but there was no time to examine the view. I had an appointment with a golf course that should be at the top of your list to play. I’m happy I did “take it on” as suggested because I had a thoroughly more enjoyable round for having done so. And yes, I did have a ‘snowman’ on my card. But I’ll take that, given the company I’d soon be keeping.


Best par three: The 16h – Calamity Corner. Terrifying hole. You can’t be short. You can’t be left. You definitely can’t be right. Good luck.

Best par four: The 4th – Fred Daly’s. Out of bounds to the right off the tee, a long second in to a green protected on both sides by dunes and a slippery green. There’s a reason this is stroke index one.

Best par five: The 7th  – Curran’s Point. One of the two new holes put in for The Open. I love an elevated tee but when you’re staring at the enormous Nellie’s Bunker, knowing it’s in reach but you’re not long enough to drive over it…

Stand-out hole: The 5th – White Rocks. It’s quite possibly the perfect golf hole. Take away the sensational scenery for a minute and just think about your options. Take on the dog-leg? Play it safe? Whichever route you take, you know the second is perilous, particularly if the pin is positioned near the back of the green.

The Masters: the golf courses which inspired ‘unique’ Augusta

The 13th hole at Augusta National, home of The Masters

Augusta National Golf Club is, unquestionably, unique. 

The vibrant natural beauty, the stunningly manicured fairways and greens, the magic and the mystique of Magnolia Lane. A tradition unlike any other, as the saying goes. 

And yet if you look just beneath the surface, it’s clear that deep within its DNA, the ancestry of this most American of golf clubs can be traced back to some of the greatest golf courses in the United Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, elements of The Old Course, St Andrews feature heavily. But there are also fleeting glimpses of many more, including Muirfield and North Berwick in East Lothian, Alwoodley in Yorkshire and Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire. 

The 7th hole at Stoke Park
The 7th hole at Stoke Park was the inspiration behind the 16th at Augusta. Credit: Kevin Murray
Dr Gary Nelson, one of the founders of the Mackenzie Society

Dr Gary Nelson is a leading authority on Dr Alister MacKenzie – the man who designed Augusta National – and is one of the founding members of the Mackenzie Society. “The Meadow Club was the first course that Mackenzie designed in the United States. He quite openly admitted and identified two holes that he put in – The High Hole from The Old Course, St Andrews, and the Redan at North Berwick, West Links – that were from elsewhere. Neither are exact replicas but there is no question he was heavily influenced by courses he admired. And that he carried them with him. 

“The 7th at Cypress Point feels so similar to the 4th at Valley Club,” Gary adds.  “Although there are subtle differences, the holes feel as though they play exactly the same. You see that same repeating of holes at Crystal Downs too. He certainly repeated what he felt were good holes but he was primarily led by the land he had to work with.”

THE MEN WHO MADE AUGUSTA.

This was an all-star team: arguably the greatest designer of golf courses who ever lived, working with possibly the greatest golfer of all-time, certainly of that time.

Dr Alister MacKenzie lived an extraordinarily full life. This Scotsman, who grew up in Yorkshire, died at the age of 64 having designed 54 golf courses and made alterations and improvements on dozens more. Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne are his most celebrated achievements – all three remain in the world’s top 10 courses . 

Dr Alister MacKenzie, left, and Bobby Jones, pour over the plans for Augusta National.

Mackenzie began his career as a doctor, a physician in fact, and fought in the second Boer War. On returning from the battlefields of South Africa, he briefly resumed his career in medicine before turning his hand to golf course design at Alwoodley in Yorkshire, where he was one of the founding members. Alwoodley remains one of England’s very best inland courses to this day. Wherever he went, and he travelled the globe, Mackenzie found friends and influenced those around him. He was an engaging personality, a man whose presence was felt in every room he entered. He was a wonderful dancer and an enjoyed a drink with friends. He also understood talent and was not afraid to trust it. 

The great Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones found his calling early in life and was the greatest golfer of his era and arguably any other. Not only was Jones utterly dominant on the golf course, but away from it he boasted movie star good looks and worked as a full-time lawyer having graduated with an English degree from Harvard and an engineering one from Georgia Tech. Jones would retire from competitive golf at the age of 28 having competed in 31 majors, winning 13 of them and finishing in the top 10, 27 times. The pinnacle of his career came in 1930 when he became the first and only golfer to win all four majors in a calendar year. He received a ticker-tape parade through New York City for his achievements. 

HOW DID AUGUSTA NATIONAL COME TO BE?

But how did an extraordinary golfer from Atlanta, Georgia meet a surgeon, turned architect from Yorkshire, England? The answer, it seems, is once again St Andrews. 

On being presented with the freedom of the auld grey toon, Jones would say, “I could take out my life everything but my experiences here in St Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life.” That was not his first impression, however. On his first visit to The Home of Golf, a 19-year-old Jones took four shots to get out of Hill Bunker on the 11th, The High Hole, before picking up his ball and withdrawing from The Open. Jones had been the low amateur after the opening 36 holes on day one. After that experience he would say, “I consider St. Andrews among the very worse courses I had ever seen.” His view would, of course, change in time. 

Mackenzie was a regular visitor to St Andrews

MacKenzie was also in St Andrews for The Open in 1921. Both men were back there in 1926 for The Walker Cup, where Mackenzie watched Jones captain the US to victory. A year later both were there again, this time for The Open and it was here they would finally meet for the first time. The Yorkshire Post newspaper would identify MacKenzie in a report about Jones, when the American’s approach to 16th in the final round landed in the rough. “When he hit it, the ball was seen to be going very close to the railway,” it read. “The crowd on that side of the green scattered, and the ball dropped about a yard from the railway fence and on the edge of the rough. Dr Mackenzie, the Leeds golf architect, was within a yard or so, and he stood close to the ball and kept the crowd off it until the men with the red flag got round and rearranged the gallery once again.” 

MacKenzie presented Jones with a signed copy of his book ‘Golf Architecture’ following his victory. It was inscribed,  To Robert T. Jones (Jun), sportsman and greatest golfer – with the author’s compliments. A.D. 1927.” It would become a friendship that would change golf forever and shape the game to this very day. 

A WOMAN’S TOUCH

The prolific Marion Hollins

In 1929, Jones suffered a shock defeat in the first round of the US Amateur at Pebble Beach. The report in The San Francisco Chronicle read, “If an earthquake had suddenly rocked the peninsula, the shock could have hardly been greater.”

With nothing to do, Jones went a few miles up the road to Cypress Point which Mackenzie had completed the year before. He loved it. Marion Hollins, whose force of will had made Cypress Point a reality, saw an opportunity. She may have been an heiress to the fortune of Wall Street tycoon, H.B. Hollins, but Marion did not believe in resting on her laurels.

She was motivated to create her own legacy becoming a national golf champion, an incredible horse rider and a star of the Long Island polo team. And it was Hollins who was the impetus behind Augusta too. 

The layout of Augusta National

“Mackenzie was up in Canada at the St Charles Country Club, when he got a call from Marion Hollins, saying ‘get back down here. Bobby Jones has played Cypress Point and he loves it,” Dr Nelson adds. “So, Mackenzie gets a train back to California to see Jones. He then walked the course as Jones and Hollins play together in an exhibition match at the opening of Hollins’ latest project Pasatiempo Golf Club, which was designed, of course, by Mackenzie. And we know that some time after that Jones said “I want you to do Augusta.”

The 10th hole at Alwoodley In Yorkshire bears a striking resemblance to the 13th at Augusta

THE BLUEPRINT FOR AUGUSTA 

What is clear is that both Mackenzie and Jones had a deep-seated passion for The Old Course at St Andrews. Augusta is not a replica of any other golf course. But it does prioritise he need for strategic thought – something that is also by The Old Course, St Andrews. Here is a hole by hole breakdown of Augusta National. 

The 4th at Augusta

The 4th, 240-yard par 3: Mackenzie wrote that this hole, named Flowering Crabapple, was “very similar to the famous 11th at St Andrews.” The High Hole was a favourite of Mackenzie’s and also the place where Jones disqualified himself from the 1921 Open Championship. The main feature, a central bunker placed just in front of a green, which slopes severely. The tongue on the green was originally designed to receive a running shot into the putting surface. 

The 5th at Augusta plays like The Road Hole in reverse

The 5th, 440-yard par 4: Named Magnolia, the 5th at Augusta has clear parallels with the iconic Road Hole at St Andrews, but in reverse. So rather than the dog-leg being left to right, it swings right to left. The original green had no bunkers – though there is now one at the rear but the real challenge here, as at Road, is the raised green, which almost sits on a plateau. 

The 6th at Augusta

The 6th, 185-yard par 3: Based on the 15th at North Berwick, West Links – better known as Redan – Juniper, according to Mackenzie, was “much more attractive than its relation.” The Augusta version features a huge mound towards the back right of the green, which the players nicknamed the ‘buried elephant’.

The 7th at Augusta resembles the 18th at St Andrews.

The 7th, 340-yard par 4: Mackenzie and Jones intended this hole, named Pampas, to be their version of the iconic 18th at The Old Course. Originally it had no bunkers and a deep hollow at the front of the green, a homage to the valley of sin. Jones would later say the contouring of the green was too severe and tricky. 

The 8th at Augusta National

The 8th, 500-yard par 5: The green on this hole, named Jasmine, has contours which are skin to the 17th at Muirfield – drawing a well-struck shot into something akin to a punchbowl with high sided hillocks protecting the putting surface. Both holes run slightly right to left but only marginally. 

The 10th at Augusta, which drops significantly

The 10th, 485-yard par 4: The tee represents the highest point on the golf course with the green more than a 100 feet below. This hole, named Camelia, bears a striking resemblance to 4th at Alwoodley, which does not match the topography, does require a tee shot that is shaped right to left and requires an approach to a large green. 

The 13th, 480-yard par 5: It is impossible to stand on the 10th tee at Alwoodley, the first course Mackenzie designed, without feeling the clear parallels with his iconic hole at Augusta. The tee shot requires a draw to turn a sharp right to left dog-leg. Both holes feature second shots with hanging lies, both tempt long hitters to dream of an eagle 3, both are exciting risk-and-reward par 5s

The 14th at Augusta National

The 14th, 425-yard par 4: Chinese Fir, as this hole is know, mirrors the par-4 6th at the Old Course. The clear similarities here are in the putting surface which both feature an approach shot that requires the golfer to negotiate a green with a sharp slope at the front of the putting surface, which then runs away from the golfer and feeds into a Sunday pin. 

The beautiful 16th at Augusta

The 16th, 145-yard par 3: The father of this beautiful hole named Redbud, can be found in leafy England. The 7th at Stoke Park, or Stoke Poges Golf Club as it was known, bears a striking resemblance to the 16th at Augusta, with water in front, protecting a well bunkered green.  

The 17th au Augusta National

The 17th, 400-yard par 4: This hole, named Nandina, is very similar to the 14th at The Old Course but, once again, in reverse. The green slopes sharply away from the golfer. Mackenzie wrote that ‘until players learn to play the desired shot (a running one) this will be one of the most fiercely criticised holes.’

Sean Connery: secrets behind the greatest Bond’s golf love affair

Sean Connery golf

“The nexsht time I say the word American, remind me to put f**king in front of it.”

Sean Connery stands in front of me having just emerged from his dressing room at Pinewood Studios after an audibly heated phone call with executives at 20th Century Fox.

He doesn’t mean it for a second, of course. This is just his way of blowing off steam and putting those of us around him at ease. He is almost 70, at this point, but the broad smile he is wearing hasn’t aged a day while his energy and sheer presence also remain undimmed.

“Right, time for golf!” he declares.

Sean Connery playing golf on the moon. Kind of. Photo credit: Terry O’Neill

STOKE PARK, JAMES BOND & BEYOND

Sean is in the UK filming Entrapment, alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones. The bulk of it is being shot at Pinewood. I’m an 18-year-old runner working on my first feature film. What’s a runner? Someone who runs around a lot, fetching and carrying for the actors, bringing them to a from the set, ensuring they go to hair and make up on time. They ask, I run. You get it.

Now, I’m not a tea drinker. I’m still not. My learning curve is steep. I leave the tea bag in the first cup I make Sean. To his eternal credit he doesn’t say a word, although he raises an eyebrow in my direction after taking a sip. The director, on the other hand, walks across with the coffee I made him and says ‘never darken my doors with instant coffee again.’

Pinewood is familiar territory for Sean. We’re no more than a 10-minute drive from beautiful Stoke Park, where his love affair with golf began. Making a film nearby means that when he is not needed on camera for a few hours, his doesn’t want to sit in his dressing room going over lines he already knows, he wants to play a few holes of golf.

DRIVING ON AND OFF THE GOLF COURSE


The producers agree to his request and with the energy of a kid on Christmas morning, Sean grabs his clubs and is off. His diligent driver, Wasim, waits outside the dressing rooms at the studio in a immaculately polished £100,000 Mercedes with blacked out windows. Sean, though, skips straight past him and throws his clubs into the back of a gaudy green, Vauxhall rental car. He prefers to drive a car no one would ever look twice at. And, in the blink of an eye, he has gone. And gone for hours. Trying to get back from the golf course is the biggest challenge. Only once was shooting held up while we waited for him to return.

Sean drove a rental car very much like this one

No one begrudged him that time. What was clear, to all of us, was that Sean craved and needed those moments of normality away from the glare of the cameras, the film set, his life. He enjoyed the solitude of the golf course and, at times, the camaraderie. His great friend, Jackie Stewart – the former motor racing world champion – was his favourite playing partner. But on the golf course he was left alone in the wide open spaces, he didn’t have to think beyond his ball and the shot. He was just a golfer, albeit a good one, playing off 5. 

MICHAEL CAINE: ‘I LOST SEAN TO GOLF’

Golf was special to Sean but Stoke Park, or Stoke Poges Golf Club as it was then, was particularly special. When it came to golf, he said it felt like a home from home to him. Why? Well, despite being a proud Scot, he discovered the game relatively late in life.

The iconic scene in which James Bond beats Auric Goldfinger with the Stoke Park clubhouse behind.

It wasn’t until his 30s that golf was thrust upon him. His third Bond film, Goldfinger, had within the script, a scene which Ian Fleming had written about his own beloved Royal St George’s in Kent. It required Sean as Bond to swing a golf club with all the swagger and style that you would expect from the consulate gentleman spy. He took to golf quickly. His great friend, Michael Caine would say that he lost Sean to the game. “Once he learned to play golf, I never saw him again!” That wasn’t strictly true, of course. They were great friends for many years after Sean took up golf, but there was an element of truth to it.

Goldfinger was to be shot at Pinewood, as all Bond films traditionally have been to some degree. The producers arranged for Sean to have golf lessons at Stoke Park so that he could play his own ball when it came time to shoot the film. Stoke Park, because of its proximity to Pinewood and grandeur, was where the production had chosen to film the iconic scene where Bond takes on Auric Goldfinger in a match which famously begins for a ‘shilling a hole’ and ends in a battle for a bar of gold bullion. 

TRIBUTES FROM THE GREAT AND GOOD

Since his death, the tributes have been all-consuming. Many have referenced golf. Harrison Ford, in paying tribute to the man he described as a father figure, said, “if he’s in heaven, I hope they have golf courses.” Daniel Craig, the current Bond of course, added, “wherever he is I hope there’s a golf course.” If there isn’t, they’ll soon know about it. 

THE SEAN CONNERY I KNEW

Spending time in his orbit on Entrapment was, quite frankly, a joy. A-list movie stars are not always straightforward. They can, at times, throw tantrums, be rude, throw their weight around and demand weird and wonderful things be delivered to them. Sean was none of those things. If he had an issue, he’d ask for the producer and vent his frustrations to them. Not to the runner who was delivering his coffee/tea (he didn’t ask for another). He was funny, charming, polite. He kept himself fit with a treadmill and weights in his dressing room. He never forgot a script line, always knew his ‘jokes’ – as he called them – inside out.

Sean on the set of Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones. Photo credit: David Appleby

He was also incredibly down to earth. Most days, he would drive himself into Pinewood from his London home in Belgravia. If we shot late into the night, or he had an early call the following day, he’d often stay at Pinewood in his comparatively modest dressing room to save himself the journey. The sound of his laughter booming around the corridors as he watched TV into the evening, often in his underpants, still makes me smile. 

Golf, though, was never far from his mind. Sean once told me that he saw golf as a metaphor for life – a game where you compete against yourself, always trying to get better and improve, a game where if you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself. In life and on the golf course, he believed staunchly in fair play, honesty and authenticity.

If you shared those values and you dealt with him in that way, he was warm, generous, and always funny. If you didn’t, you would know it. Just like those 20th Century Fox studio execs.

Rest in peace, Sean.

Does England deserve more acclaim as iconic golf travel destination?

Trevose Golf Club

A new book, The Golf Lover’s Guide to England, explores 33 top courses and highlights the history and variety on offer

If Scotland is the home of golf, Ireland the luxury holiday villa you can’t wait to go back to, what of England? Scotland and Ireland are quite rightly lauded as mythical golf destinations the world over – St Andrews, Ballybunion, Royal Dornoch, Lahinch – the names trip off the tongue.

But a new golf travel book, The Golf Lover’s Guide to England, is seeking to redress the balance a little by paying homage to the quality, history and variety of 33 of the country’s best golf courses, highlighting the incredible richness on offer in a nation that can, at times, be overlooked. It also includes further details on an additional 59 courses close by.

“It’s a completely understandable why we all speak in such glowing terms about Scotland and Ireland,” author Michael Whitehead tells The Wandering Golfers. “But I think England deserves more of the plaudits than it gets, in terms of how it is seen as a golf destination.” 

The book covers 33 of England’s best golf courses

When it comes to quality, the likes of Royal Birkdale, Sunningdale and Royal Lytham more than hold their own with the very best offered elsewhere. And in terms of quantity? England boasts more than twice as many golf courses as Scotland and Ireland combined. 

“I have heard people say it sits in the shadows of Scotland and Ireland, but it is only when you dig into it as I have done, that you realise the sheer variety and richness on offer in England,” Michael adds. “Scotland and Ireland are, quite rightly, known for their incredible links , of course. But in England, you have sand-belt in and around London, the links experiences in the south-east and west, the stunning Golf Coast as well as moorland, heathland and inland courses.

“Writing this book, I have felt, at times, England is almost a hidden gem – hidden in plain sight, of course, because so much of it is so well known, but slightly hidden, nonetheless. And yet it has so much to offer and so much quality.” 

Michael either played or walked all 33 of the courses he so beautifully details in his book. What then were the memories that stood out above the rest? “When I started the England guide, Hollinwell was on the long list,” Michael says. “But on a number of site visits to other clubs, people said to me, ‘where are you going next? You have got to have Hollinwell in.’ 

Beautiful Hollinwell went down as one of Michael’s most memorable rounds.

“I had never been there, but I thought that if more than a few people are telling me this, then I have to go. And in the book, I say ‘If you’ve never played golf at Hollinwell before, everyone who has will tell you that you should. Everyone is right. Everything you’ve heard is true.’

“And that was very much my experience. I played with Martyn Bonner MBE, the secretary, on a lovely, sunny day. It is just such a glorious place to play – I described it as a sea of tranquillity.

“Another memory which stands out was seeing Sunningdale for the first time,” he adds. “In the opening paragraph I say, ‘whatever you know, or think you know, about this heathland paradise will almost certainly be rendered meaningless’, which was exactly how I felt.

“When you turn up and see the iconic oak, you know you are visiting somewhere special. It was one of the courses I wasn’t able to play, but I was shown around by one of the pros – Richard Andrews – and he showed me every tee box and I stood in awe at how great it was. 

The 18th green of Sunningdale Old course with the clubhouse behind and the pro shop under the branches.

 “Richard spoke in such glowing terms about the course, it was infectious. I say in the book the you need to listen to what the course is telling you and craft your way around. Those are Richards words. I was blessed to be shown around by a group of articulate, passionate people, who were able to sum up so eloquently what made their courses to special and who were so happy to be where they were. I hope that comes through in my writing.” 

At The Wandering Golfers, we know better than most that golf travel has a special mystique to it. The experiences, when you go to the right places with the right people, leave an imprint on your soul, with golfers able to remember each hole, shot and story in extraordinary detail years’ later.

“It’s easy to write about something you love,” Michael adds. “In order to capture those emotions while they were still on surface, I tried to write as soon as I could after my round. The book is much richer for the anecdotes or stories I was able to accumulate. When I think of Royal St George’s I think of the Ian Fleming/James Bond story that the club secretary, Tim Checketts told me. To him it was a throw-away well-worn tale, but to me it was gold.

“Fleming was a member of the club, playing to a handicap of 9. But in Goldfinger, he changed the name to Royal St Marks to avoid an increase in membership at his beloved Royal St George’s after the book was published. In the book Bond and Goldfinger are about to start their round. Goldfinger uses the practice putting green while Bond walks straight to the 1st tee. Members chuckle at the homage by Fleming, as the speed of the practice green at Royal St George’s historically bears no resemblance to those out on the course.”

“At Burnham and Berrow I played with a member, Stuart Norton Collins, and we were coming off the 8th green and he said, ‘do you want to see if we can see the shipwreck?’ I said, ‘of course I do!’ And it was the SS Nornen. From the 9th tee on a clear day, when the sea is out, you can clearly see it. It is only a small wooden ship and it has been there for over 100 years but it is detail like that makes the book that much richer.” 

Even well-travelled golfers and members of the clubs which feature will find nuggets of information that they may not have heard before. “I had Georgie Bingham, the sports broadcaster, tell me that the piece I wrote on Aldeburgh Golf Club in Suffolk had actually taught her something new about a club she knows inside out.

“She was referring to the section on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and how husband, Skelton Anderson, was the main figure involved in forming the club. And hearing that is a huge complement to me. I hope everyone who reads it has those little moments of discovery as they thumb the pages.”

We certainly did, which is the highest compliment we can pay Michael and his excellent book.

Go and buy it. 

The clubs primarily featured in the book are:


THE NORTH
Silloth On Solway Golf Club

Yorkshire
Ganton Golf Club
Alwoodley Golf Club
Moortown Golf Club

England’s Golf Coast
Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club
Royal Birkdale Golf Club
Hillside Golf Club
Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club
Formby Golf Club
The West Lancashire Golf Club
Wallasey Golf Club
Royal Liverpool Golf Club

THE MIDLANDS
Woodhall Spa, The National Golf Centre – Hotchkin Course
Hollinwell
The Belfry Hotel & Resort – Brabazon Course

East Anglia
Royal West Norfolk Golf Club
Hunstanton Golf Club
Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club
Aldeburgh Golf Club – The Championship Course

THE SOUTH EAST
Woburn Golf Club
-The Duke’s Course
-The Duchess Course
-The Marquess Course
West Sussex Golf Club

Surrey/Berkshire sandbelt
Swinley Forest Golf Club
Sunningdale Golf Club
-Old Course
-New Course
The Berkshire Golf Club
-The Red Course
-The Blue Course
St George’s Hill Golf Club
-Red & Blue Course
Walton Heath Golf Club
-Old Course
-New Course

Kent Coast
Prince’s Golf Club
-Dunes
-Himalayas
-Shore
The Royal St George’s Golf Club
Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club

SOUTH WEST
Burnham & Berrow Golf Club
-The Championship Course
Saunton Golf Club
– East Course
The Royal North Devon Golf Club,
-Westward Ho!
St Enodoc Golf Club
– Church Course

Hallamshire Golf Club: warmth and wonder at heart of Yorkshire gem

The par 3 6th at Hallamshire Golf Club

Like Rome, Sheffield is built on seven hills. High on one of them, on the cusp of the Peak District National Park, you’ll find the beautiful Hallamshire Golf Club.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of it before now – unlike Italy, this has never been a part of the world comfortable shouting too loudly about itself – but rather like the city of Sheffield itself, this is a golf club with so much more to it than first meets the eye.  

Stereotypes of Sheffield as a grim, dark place dominated by industry are horribly outdated.

With 30% of the city in the Peak District, it has more trees per person than any metropolis in Europe. It’s now a place of genuine colour and creativity, with artists, designers, top chefs and craft brewers coming together to forge a charming, vibrant new version of Sheffield.

The view from the 5th tee across to the 8th fairway in the distance with the Peak District beyond.

Fortunately for us, it also boasts a truly wonderful golf course. And Hallamshire Golf Club really does reflect the modern city it so proudly represents. Situated three-and-a-half miles from the city centre, the club still feels very much part of Sheffield as you pull off a busy suburban street and into the club with little hint of the magic to come. 

There is no long, winding driveway and the clubhouse, while beautifully-appointed, could not be described as grand. But Sheffield is a place which has always prioritised substance over style and from the moment you set foot in the Hallamshire you begin to feel that.

“This is the course on which Matthew Fitzpatrick, world No 20 at the time of writing, honed his craft…”

There’s a rare brand of kindness here. Sheffield was once described as a city of people who immediately behave as if they’ve been putting up with you for years – like a warm hug that never judges you. And that feels like a fitting description of the Hallamshire experience – which on and off the course, is nothing short of a delight. 

As we enter the pro shop, we’re welcomed like friends. The highly-respected head professional, Joe Froggatt, is talking us through Hallamshire’s stellar list of former pros whose footsteps he is following in – John Jacobs and Pete Cowen both started their careers here – when a member comes in wearing shorts on what is a pretty fresh autumnal day.

“Whatever the weather, however cold it gets, I wear shorts until the clocks go back,” he says with a smile and a spring in his step. We found that warmth and good humour the rule, rather than the exception – a warmer welcome you’ll be hard pushed to find.

The Hallamshire experience is, however, so much more than a friendly smile.

Matthew Fitzpatrick learned the game at Hallamshire

Like the people of Sheffield, the course gets straight to the point. The first four holes is the toughest opening stretch in Yorkshire: from the black tees you’re faced with a 468-yard par 4, a 196-yard par 3, a 428-yard par 4 and 460-yard par 4 – all into the prevailing wind. 

But then you remember this is the place where Matthew Fitzpatrick, world No 20 at the time of writing, honed his craft. And you realise it must provide even the best with a stern test. Matthew remains actively involved with the club and clearly cares about its continued success.

In recent years he put forward the idea for a new back tee on the par-4 11th, which the club did once they saw what Matthew had envisioned for the hole. His tour bags and many trophies, including a replica of the historic US Amateur, add a unique sparkle to the clubhouse. His brother Alex, a Walker Cup star in his own right, also grew up on the fairways. So too Alison Nicholas, the Solheim Cup captain and former US Open champion. 

Hallamshire Golf Club sits right on the cusp of the Peak District

No wonder then, the hand-cut greens are as true and quick as anything in Yorkshire – Ganton and Alwoodley included. We could have written a piece purely about the putting surfaces, which add another dimension to the challenge. They should never be taken for granted, as we found to our cost on the first green. They are, however, consistent, fair and delightfully true – nothing short of a joy to putt on, once you gauge the pace. Course manager Gordon Brammah, who retires later this year, deserves enormous credit.

The land on which the course is built, once part of the Duke of Norfolk’s estate, ebbs and flows from the relatively flat opening to a truly wonderful run of holes beginning with the 193 yard, par-3 6th which takes you to the edge of the Peak District, with views across the wide-open spaces towards Loxley and the legend of Robin Hood.

The 12th green with views across to the 13th fairway

This part of the course, taking in the 6th, 7th, 8th and short 9th, is Hallamshire’s Amen Corner – beautiful, challenging, memorable. The 11th and 13th are also highlights and just as you think the course becomes a little more predictable towards the end of your round, the 134 yard par-3, 17th – named Quarry – delivers a delightful and unexpected surprise.

The history of the club is rich and fascinating too. In 1899, six-time Open champion Harry Vardon played Alexander ‘Sandy’ Herd, himself a winner of the Claret Jug, in an exhibition match which put Hallamshire on the map. The history of that match and of this club, warrants another article all of its own – next time, perhaps. But what then of the present?

That connection with Sheffield itself is more than just words. Dan Walker, the BBC TV presenter and my former colleague at BBC Sport, is a member at Hallamshire. He has felt the support of the club in staging his hugely successful ‘Walker Cup’ charity golf days over the years, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the wonderful Sheffield Children’s Hospital and bringing the great and good from sport and entertainment to the club. 

Dan Walker is a member at Hallamshire Golf Club

Dan is out on the course on the day we visit and stops to chat on the 3rd fairway as he tunes up for another charity golf day, this time for the cancer charity Weston Park. He is very much like everything else about the club – genuine, friendly and passionate about his golf and the city of Sheffield. Nothing here is done for effect or show. There is a tangible sense of authenticity to the experience – on and off the golf course. 

Sheffield isn’t Rome but this isn’t a city or a golf club trying to be like anywhere else – it simply wants to be the best version of itself and that might just be the secret at the heart of the Hallamshire experience and its unquestionable allure.

Formby Golf Club: historic sanctuary is a world-class experience

There is an inescapable sense of class about everything which makes Formby so special. 

You feel it from the moment you turn off Victoria Road, one of Merseyside’s most exclusive enclaves, and into Golf Road which wends its way towards the grand old clubhouse. You feel it in the warmth of the welcome, you sense it as you take in the history that hangs from the walls of the clubhouse and shimmers in the impressive trophy cabinets. 

The golf course is, as you’d expect, majestic. Even when you’re in the clubhouse it’s hard to take your eyes off it. It waits beyond the windows, with all its natural wonder, to challenge and beguile you. 

The par-5 8th at Formby is an excellent strategic hole, cut through the pines

Formby would not, of course, be the club it is without it, but when you combine that extraordinary layout with everything else here, it adds up to a truly world-class experience.

Our greatest challenge in writing this was not finding interesting things to include, but deciding what to leave out and store away for another day. 

You could write a book about Formby Golf Club. It is steeped in so many wonderful stories, great characters and significant moments and each warrant recognition in their own right.

Walk through the doors of the clubhouse and up on the wall to your left you will find an honours board detailing Formby’s role in hosting the biggest events in amateur golf – from The Amateur Championship itself, to the Curtis Cup, Brabazon Trophy and Arnold Palmer Cup in 2016. 

Walk up the grand staircase and you will come upon a vast trophy cabinet which holds trophies bearing the name of Bobby Jones and photographs of the iconic American with his father. The long-standing relationship between Formby and The Atlanta Athletic Club, where Jones grew up playing the iconic East Lake course is well-documented. 

The snooker tables at Formby are more than 100 years old

Along the corridor is the snooker room, which dates back to 1901 and is a portal to a bygone era. Inside you’ll find two of the oldest tables in the country, as well as priceless artefacts, including hickory clubs, and memorabilia from each of the Amateur Championships the club has hosted. There is a tangible ambience to the room even when it’s empty. John Parrott, the 1991 World Snooker Champion, is a member here and has spent many hours on the Formby baize both practising and playing exhibitions against the likes of Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor to name but two. 

In the two club bars downstairs, there are more stories. You’ll find photographs of two victorious Ryder Cup captains, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, battling it out in the final of the 1984 Amateur Championship, the Spaniard a 5&4 winner. There is also signed memorabilia from Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer to mark their visits. There are maps which tell the story of the coastal erosion which has forced the club to move the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th holes inland over the years. The ocean is swallowing up two and a half metres per year but Formby have been proactive. Working with renowned golf architects Mackenzie & Ebert the club are planning as far ahead as 2085. 

And that is to say nothing of the history of the clubhouse, which burnt down in 1899 and was rebuilt in 1901. Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – the Liverpool shipping company that built the Titanic – donated the clubhouse clock in 1909 to celebrate the club’s 25th birthday. Ismay was one of 325 men to survive the sinking. 

Formby’s clubhouse clock was donated by Mr Ismay in 1909

There is the 81-year relationship between Formby Golf Club and the King’s Regiment, now the Duke of Lan­cast­er’s, and the key role both the club and the regiment played in repelling the German invasion during World War II. And the story behind Formby twice turning down the chance to be known as Royal Formby – another yarn to revisit.

How best then to tell the story of what it’s really like to play this golf course? One tale stood out both for its historical significance and its relevance to the experience of playing Formby today. It centres on Siegfried Sassoon, who alongside Wilfred Owen is one of the two most celebrated poets of the First World War. Born in Kent in 1886, those who fought alongside Siegfried said he knew no fear and fought with incredible courage on the Western Front. 

He was injured in battle and during his convalescence played at Formby with Robert Graves, another celebrated war poet. “Clotherland had accessible compensations,” Siegfried wrote. “One of them was the golf course at Formby. The electric train took only 20 minutes and Formby was famous for its bracing air, comfortable club house and superlatively good war-time food. I went there at least one afternoon a week, usually I played alone and often I had the links to myself, which was no disadvantage, since I had always been considerably addicted to my own company.”

Siegfried Sassoon

Graves also committed those memories to paper. “Officers of the Royal Welch were honorary members of Formby Golf Club. Siegfried and I went there often. He played golf seriously, while I hit a ball alongside him … I limited myself to a single iron. My mis-hits did not matter. I played the fool and purposely put Siegfried off his game.”

Siegfried was, in truth, off his game for the rest of his life as he struggled to escape the sights and sounds of the Great War. It haunted him like it did so many others. Poetry provided an outlet for his anger. In June 1917 he wrote a letter, published in The Times, claiming the war was being deliberately prolonged by the government. It sparked outrage. Only the intervention of Graves, who insisted his friend was not sound of mind, prevented a court-martial. 

Siegfried withdrew from military service and died at the age of 80. It was always said, the only place where the guns fell silent in Siegfried’s own mind, was when he spent time walking the fairways of Formby Golf Club. 

If you walk in his footsteps, you will understand why. There is an extraordinary sense of peace here, a stillness to it, a calm, a silence. It’s as if the troubles of the world fade away among the dunes, the heather and the pine. All you are left with is the sound of your own thoughts, of the birdlife above and, if you’re lucky, the sight of a red squirrel or two. 

As you play the stretch from the 5th to the 15th, which hit rare heights of quality and originality, you do so in almost an other worldly place. Each hole has that sense of peace and stillness. At least it did for us. If you get the chance, walk up to the back tees on the 9th and take it all in. The hole laid out before you, the Irish Sea forward and right, the smell of pines, the silence. It’s a sensation that is, quite honestly, hard to put into words. You have to feel it. 

The par-4 15th hole at Formby Golf Club

Siegfried is just one of Formby’s extraordinary library of stories. This will not be the last article we write on the club, there is too much to say. But we hope it gives you a flavour of what makes this place so unique. 

Formby may sit on England’s golf coast – unquestionably the best stretch of golf courses in the land – alongside Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and the likes of Hillside and Southport & Ainsdale – but when you start to scratch the surface of everything that goes into making Formby what it is, you also begin to understand why there is no sense of inferiority here. It does not need a royal title to stand out. This place does that all by itself. 

Many years ago, an American advice columnist known as Ann Landers, attempted to define what it was to have class. “Class is comfortable in its own skin. It never puts on airs, never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. It can walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch. Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because he is comfortable with himself. If you have class, you’ve got it made.” 

If that is to be the definition, then Formby Golf Club certainly has it made.

Go and experience it for yourself. 


Alwoodley: MacKenzie masterpiece a place of loyalty and sanctuary

Alwoodley Golf Club is a place where loyalty is par for the course. 

Ever since the great Dr Alister MacKenzie – the man who would go on to design Augusta National – became a founder member here in 1907, there has been a sense that devotion has been sewn into the springy fairways and perfect greens at this Leeds golf club. 

Not only is that the case out on this truly wonderful Yorkshire golf course, where the club has gone to great lengths to retain the hallmarks of strategy, variety and natural beauty that were cornerstones of Mackenzie’s design. But it’s also the case among the people working here.

On the day we visit, secretary Julie Slater stops to say hello just as she is showing her successor around after 25 years at the club. She is not leaving –  no-one really leaves – only changing roles. In the pro shop, where we receive a warm welcome, John Green has been head professional of Alwoodley for 31 years. It’s a story replicated throughout the club.

There’s a sense among them all that, once you’re here, why go anywhere else? “Long before the Covid-19 bubble, there was the Alwoodley bubble,” says Julie.

The 18th at Alwoodley Golf Club

“We are in a busy city but once you are through the gates, all that disappears. You feel like you are transported to a more peaceful place. That makes Alwoodley a unique experience for members and visitors alike. There’s a stillness to it. It’s something we all feel here.”

Alwoodley doesn’t need to shout loudly about anything. This golf club exudes a quiet confidence in everything it does, safe in the knowledge that it’s home to a truly majestic inland course – undoubtedly one of England’s best. And as you pull in past the imposing clubhouse you feel delightfully cut off. The pace slows, as does the pulse. No-one rushes, no-one needs to. 

Much of that may stem from the people who work here. Happy people, lots of them. There is a togetherness about Alwoodley which is noticeable in the warmth of everyone you cross paths with. 

“The staff almost feel like family and that is partly because so many of us have been here for so long,” Julie adds. “We really are a team. You leave your family at home. And come here to your Alwoodley family.

A view across the par 5 3rd hole at Alwoodley

“Before Covid we held regular staff barbecues out by the course. It was a way of everyone understanding what each other does and doing it on the course meant those who weren’t always able to get out there could see what we were doing, the small changes we were making and ultimately the reason we are all here. That has bred an attitude where everyone is prepared to turn their hand to everything.”

Dr Alister MacKenzie

John in the pro shop is a case in point. He’s open and friendly, not just to us but to every visitor who appears at the door of his shop. The course record here at Alwoodley has been broken twice in recent years. It was lowered to 64 by Walker Cup player Stiggy Hodgson in Open qualifying and then to 63 by Harry Hall en route to second place at the 2019 Brabazon Trophy. What about John’s best round over the past 31 years?

“I’ve shot 64 twice,” he says with a smile. “The first time was with a lady playing her very first round of golf. She must have wondered why I was paying so much attention to every shot as we got further and further into the round,” he says with a chuckle. 

It’s a sunny day and I’ve forgotten my trusty cap. John patiently helps me pick one out. And then another. None fit my frankly enormous bonce. John explains that each one I try will need to go into Covid quarantine for a week. I call it quits, partly because I feel a bit guilty that hats will get lonely in quarantine, but partly because no hat here is going to fit, no matter how hard I try.

Despite the cap tomfoolery there is no sense that this pro shop is only for those ‘in the club’, it is simply a nice place to be. As is the sprawling practice ground, which is the kind of place you dream of spending a summer’s day getting better. 

And what of the course? Well, this is the place where Mackenzie first turned his hand to course design, having been both secretary and captain here. For all my talk of loyalty here, perhaps it’s ironic that it turned out there would be no lifelong relationship between Alwoodley and Mackenzie. He left the club under a cloud in 1930, having been told he was no longer welcome following the breakdown of his marriage to Edith, who served as the ladies’ honorary secretary from 1914 to 1936.

The 16th tee at Alwoodley

Alwoodley’s loyalty was afforded to her, while Mackenzie boarded the boat to America in 1930 with his second wife, Hilda. He would go on to design 99 more golf courses during his life, in the UK, US and Australia. Three of them, Augusta, of course, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne, are in the world’s top 10 golf courses. 

Alwoodley though, is the original. And the course has clues all through it of what was to come from Mackenzie. The par-5 10th here is the blueprint for the iconic 13th at Augusta, for instance. But this is not a course in need of a signature hole. It doesn’t need to try that hard. The fairways are framed by vivid purple heather and relentless heathland which runs for miles. It doesn’t have a bad hole. There are no weak links, it’s consistently excellent, never dipping below that to simply good. 

Red kites soar overhead and roe deer are regularly spotted running across the fairways. If you haven’t heard of Alwoodley, then those who have are probably happy for it to stay that way. Those in the know may not thank me for saying it, but this is a golf course that should be high on your must-play list. The golf course is, of course, the centrepiece. But in truth, Alwoodley has it all. 

As you walk off the magnificent par-4 18th and take it all in with a cold drink on the sprawling terrace overlooking the first tee and 18th green, it isn’t hard to understand where that deep-seated sense of loyalty to Alwoodley comes from. We were feeling it after 18 holes, never mind 18 years. 

How teenage Luke Donald unwittingly ended my golf dreams

I remember the moment I realised my childhood dream of winning The Open would remain just that.

I was 14 and I was good. But I was soon to discover I was not good enough. From the age of 7, I had dreamt of lifting the Claret Jug and seven years on I told myself that there was still hope.

“Nick Faldo did not pick up a club until he was 14 and you already play off 5,” I told myself.

“You are talented, you work hard on the practice ground, you can do this.”

Luke Donald as a young boy.

“If I can’t beat the guy who goes to school in the next town, Mum – how can I possibly win The Open?”

However, on that day at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Schools’ Championship at Sonning Golf Club, I was being outshone by my playing partner and I did not like it. I had heard that he was good before we walked on to the 1st tee, but he couldn’t be that good, could he?

He was small, pretty slight and didn’t hit the ball as far as me. Sure, he had a classic Hogan-esque swing, shaped the ball both ways and had a short game to die for, but I could deal with this guy. Or so I thought.

“Hi, I’m Ben Smith, good to meet you,” I said as we swapped scorecards before our round.

“Hi, Ben, I’m Luke. Luke Donald,” came the reply.

I played well that day. Really well. I drove the ball beautifully, my iron shots were pure, I even chipped and putted nicely. But it wasn’t good enough.

By the turn I was three shots behind Donald and what made my frustration all the more acute was that he was clearly upset with the way he was playing, despite being one under par. By the time we shook hands on the 18th, he was five shots better than me on the card and went on to win the tournament at a canter. And, as in turns out, many more to come.

I finished in the top five but I was disconsolate. My mum came to pick me up in the car and all I could say to her over and over again was: “If I can’t beat the guy who goes to school in the next town, how can I possibly think I could I win The Open?”

I often wish I could travel back in time to that point and tell my 14-year-old self that the young guy who I had finished five shots behind would go on to become the world’s No 1 golfer, the world matchplay champion and a Ryder Cup hero. Not to mention the £20 million-plus he has earned in prize money.

By the time I played in the same event a year later at Beaconsfield Golf Club, Donald was even better and my interest had begun to wane.

He left the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe to take up a golfing scholarship at Northwestern University in Chicago and the next time I saw him he was on the television and on his way to becoming one of only a handful of rookies to win $1 million (some £620,000) in his first season on tour.

What does it all mean? Well, it means I get to pretend and daydream that I could, perhaps, have also been a few shots behind Luke when he was World No 1. The truth, of course, is that Mr Donald may, in reality, have saved me at least a decade of frustration pursuing a dream that would have most likely ended with disappointment. But we can all dream, right?

This article was originally published in The Times of London when one of our Wandering Golfers, Ben Smith, was a sports writer and editor for the award-winning newspaper.

Huddersfield Golf Club: history and celebrity on this Rolls-Royce course

In these parts, the story goes that during the 1950s Huddersfield was home to the highest number of Rolls-Royces per capita than anywhere else on the planet, save Beverley Hills

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wool trade meant there was extraordinary wealth, prestige and opulence here. None of that is hard to believe as you drive through the gates of Huddersfield Golf Club and emerge from the woodland and onto the Fixby Estate.

In front of you lies a hugely impressive golf course and, at its centre, Fixby Hall, the imposing grade-2 listed manor house which acts as a grand clubhouse today. “It’s a magnificent sight,” says Eva Lambert, chairman of the club. “You see almost all of our wonderful front 9 right there in front of you on that drive into the club. It never gets old. It’s really special.” 

Views across the valleys around Huddersfield Golf Club. Credit: James Breeze

Huddersfield was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution – a genuine Northern powerhouse in its day. And the golf club shares an impressive history of its own having been founded in 1891.

Its first professional for instance, Alex Herd, was Open champion in 1902. Back then members would describe how the now lush green course would be turned black by the smoke pumped into the Yorkshire skies by the mills scattered across this valley. There were no showers for golfers to use in the clubhouse at the time but there were foot baths as so many would find they had black, ash-coated feet, when they came to change shoes at the end of a round. 

James Braid, JH Taylor and Henry Cotton – a trio who won The Open 13 times between them – were visitors to Fixby in the early days while another Open champion, Roberto de Vicenzo, visited a little later. The Argentine is a part of Fixby folklore having found the green in two on the par-5 5th from a fairway bunker some 220 plus yards out. “And the story goes that he got there with a 5-iron. I don’t think those who saw it will ever forget it.” says club president Mike Webb. Mike is our host and guide on our visit to Fixby.

Huddersfield President, Mike Webb.

He is naturally gregarious, warm and funny. He has seen it all and it’s hard to imagine a better ambassador for this golf club. He joined Huddersfield in 1967 aged 13. Both he and his younger brother Charles have been captain and president. Sport was always in the blood with their father Yorkshire tennis champion and their mother having appeared at Wimbledon. 

Mike recalls Gary Player various visits to Fixby, the first visit coming in the Leeds Cup in the 1950s. Player takes up the story. As I came to the last, I needed 5 to win the tournament. There was a stone wall and I thought that I could bank my shot off the wall on to the green. I went for it and the ball hit me in the jaw and knocked me down. They gave me some smelling salts. Dazed, I then chipped the ball on to the green. “I thought, great… four shots. I then holed the putt for five and thought I’d won, only to find out I was given a two-shot penalty for hitting myself!”

Despite that incident, Player famously said he wished he could take Fixby’s springy fairways with him wherever he played. “Gary always was prone to a bit of hyperbole,” Mike says with a wink. 

History is everywhere. On the putting green we meet John Chew who tells us he has been a member here for 40 years but that his stint pales into insignificance against a couple who, between them, have been members here for an extraordinary 150 years. Mike later says the club will be planting a tree close to the 10th tee with a plaque to honour the couple’s extraordinary anniversary at the club. 

Loyalty, in many cases lifelong, is not unusual at Fixby. But despite the wealth of history this is also a club that is both innovative and forward thinking. In 2004 the club re-laid every green on the course to meet the USGA’s exacting standards. While the club boasts some of the best young amateur golfers in the country, particularly among the girls – thanks in large part to the influence of Alex Keighley, the highly regarded female head professional. As we arrive, well before 8am, she is already on the club’s excellent practice facilities teaching. “I don’t know a single member who doesn’t like her,” Mike says. Alex led the field after round 1 of the 2003 British Open and enjoyed a stellar career as an amateur representing Great Britain & Ireland. Mike describes her openness, expertise and general charisma around the club as a breath of fresh air. 

Times have changed since the days of Johnny Fallon, who was the club’s head professional for 47 years. Fallon finished 3rd in the 1939 Open Championship and runner-up to the great Peter Thomson at the 1955 Open, on both occasions at St Andrew’s.

In the same year, he played in the Ryder Cup before captaining Great Britain & Ireland against a strong US side led by Arnold Palmer at East Lake GC. “He was a character,” Mike says. “I remember a youngster who came in for a lesson. He bought Johnny a drink before they went out and as he did, he looked up at the honour’s boards in the bar. 

A view of the 18th green at Huddersfield, with the 10th fairway curving away to the right. Credit: James Breeze

“He said to Johnny ‘do you think one day my name could be up there on those boards?” Johnny replied, “the only way your name will be up on those boards, lad, is if you are killed in action!”

Playing in the three-ball behind us on our visit is Dean Hoyle, the former owner of Huddersfield Town Football Club, who is a member here. Behind them is another three-ball which includes the former Welsh Women’s Amateur Champion, as well as the former Yorkshire Women’s champion, who kindly picks up and returns my 9-iron which, it turns out, I’ve left on the side of a previous green. After our round, Mike runs into the captain of the England Women’s over-80s tennis team who, it turns out, used to be his mother’s doubles partner. If the seniors are going strongly, the juniors are too, having won the national title in 2018. The men’s scratch team won the Yorkshire 1st division championship. No wonder then, the trophy cabinet here is comparable to Liverpool FC’s.

And what of the course? It’s as good as the history suggests it will be, a wonderful examination of your game that you will never grow weary of. There are so many good holes and constant variety of angels and lies. 

It’s pretty too. From the tee of the stunning par-4 12th, you can see Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. This hole and the devilish par-3 13th were added to the course in 1969, when Gary Player returned to officially open them alongside Peter Oosterhuis, Joe Carr and Rodney Foster (see insert image above). “We want people to leave here feeling that they have been presented with a rigorous test of golf but also an enjoyable one and we want them to have felt welcome. We firmly believe Huddersfield belongs in the conversation alongside the likes of Fulford, Moortown and Lindrick. Ganton and Alwoodley may be right up there in Yorkshire, but we are not far off.”

Having played all of the golf courses, mentioned, we at The Wandering Golfers feel well positioned to confirm Mike’s view. Fixby is unquestionably one of Yorkshire’s best golf courses. 

The rich history, the majesty of the golf course, the brilliant and challenging variety of holes which demand every shot in your repertoire and some that aren’t, the warmth of the people and the facilities – Fixby really does tick all the boxes. It may not get the acclaim or visitor footfall that other great courses in Yorkshire do, but it will as word spreads and it should. To call it a hidden gem is not befitting of a club of this stature. 

Huddersfield may no longer have the riches of days gone by, but hidden away on the beautiful Fixby estate, it still boasts a Rolls-Royce of a golf club.


Royal Dornoch: mystique and emotion at heart of golf’s greatest outpost


“There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met yet. “

With those words my time in conversation with the wonderful Neil Hampton, general manager of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, draws to a close.

In the time we’ve spent talking he has left me thinking there can be no better ambassador for this extraordinary course and the majesty of the Scottish Highlands anywhere on earth. I’m also convinced he is one of the most contented men on the planet. Let me explain.

Neil Hampton, the general manager of Royal Dornoch

There’s an tangible pride in the way Neil speaks about Dornoch, both the town and club. There’s palpable emotion in his voice as he recalls his late father and the paternal pride he saw in his eyes when he brought him to Dornoch for the first time at the start of his time in post. And all of it just sweeps you along. “One of my Dad’s great sayings was ‘we’re here to help you play golf, not to stop you,’ and that is something I have carried with me,” he tells The Wandering Golfers.

“The day before I started the job here, I brought him up to the club. He was towards the end of his life; he was on oxygen and I had to change his tank every few hours so he could keep breathing. We came up to the club and I had to go inside to deal with a few matters. While I did, he took a seat on the front benches outside and chatted to people walking past. 

“A few hours passed, and I realised I needed to change the tank. I dashed out to see Dad. But he wasn’t wearing his mask. ‘’Son,’ he said. ‘I haven’t needed oxygen since I sat down here. The air, you see, is different here. It’s fresh air, real fresh air.’ It was a wonderful moment. He was happy here that day, smiling and full of joy. It’s a great memory, one that I cling on to. He only died two or three months later but before he did, he told me that day had been the proudest of his life to see his son taking the job at Royal Dornoch.”

The Hampton family are steeped in golfing pedigree. Neil’s Dad knew just how special Dornoch was in golfing terms when he visited that day. This golf course is, after all, a place of pilgrimage for golfers the world over. And having been the last man in Scotland to have been both the head pro and the greenkeeper simultaneously at a club, Neil’s Dad knew about golf and the distant allure of Dornoch better than most. 

A view across the championship course at Royal Dornoch, with the Fifth in the distance

Despite its remote location, some 30 miles north of Inverness, this golfing mecca has been an established fixture in the top 10 of the world’s best courses for decades. Only fools come to the Highlands to seek out the Loch Ness Monster. Those in the know, drive north of Inverness with their golf clubs in the back of their car and a hip flask in their back pocket. They drive to Dornoch. 

They have been playing golf in these parts for more than 400 years, but because of the setting it feels like a natural wilderness, it feels unspoilt by the march of time. Yellowhammers flit through the gorse. Dog-walkers come and go.

When the gorse glows yellow in the frequent sunshine, the fairways glisten and the white horses gallop across the blue waters of the firth, there are few places to match it. “Something special happens to people when they drive into Dornoch and pass the war memorial on the road in,” Neil adds. “Their world changes, it slows down, they rediscover their smile. And that is not just visitors, that feeling never wears off here.

The stunning beach at Dornoch

“We realise we are fortunate to live somewhere very special.”

There is a microclimate in Dornoch which ensures it has a lower average rainfall than London and more hours of sunshine than anywhere in the UK. “The next time you come up, I’ll take you out to the first tee, Ben. We will look south west, and you will see the big black clouds coming over the Struie Hill. But then they will split up, some will go down to Tain in the south and some will go up to Golspie in the north. And we will stay dry. 

“We are on the same latitude as Moscow, but we don’t get the snow. We are a little further north than New York but we don’t get the heat in the summer. It’s just perfect.”

Tom Watson, whose photograph hangs in the clubhouse alongside Jack Nicklaus and others, famously said that he had had more fun playing Royal Dornoch than any other course on earth. Even after he had won three Opens, it is said he never really understood why lovers of links golf were so insistent that it was the purest form of the game until friends brought him to Dornoch in 1981. Watson’s visit followed Ben Crenshaw’s 12 months earlier ahead of the Muirfield Open. “Let me put it this way, I nearly didn’t come back,” he would famously say when asked if he had enjoyed the links. 

“The most fun I’ve ever had playing golf.”

Tom Watson, 5-time Open champion, on playing Royal Dornoch
The signed photograph of Tom Watson’s first visit to Dornoch, which hangs in the clubhouse.

Many professionals are members of Dornoch, several of them live overseas. But Dornoch is no stranger to visitors and members from far flung lands. Out of a membership of 2,100 members more than 700 live overseas. “One of our members missed Dornoch so much during the Covid-19 lockdown that he got on a plane from the United States and quarantined himself for 14 days just to come and play here again.”

This is not a new phenomenon, however. Dornoch has been welcoming distant members for more than a century. As far back as 1913, the club had more than 100 members who lived in London – a journey that would have taken days. As the world has come closer together, the number of overseas members has grown and grown. “If people walk off the 18th green and have just loved the course, they will say ‘can I join?’ And we say, ‘of course you can, here’s a form and off we go.’ It’s a club that is really open to that all the time.

“Rather than having a waiting list where you don’t get to play any golf, we have two courses. And you can play our second course while you are waiting to be upgraded to the full membership. While you are waiting to be upgraded you still get access to the championship course, albeit on a limited basis.

“Outside of that there are no tiers of members here at Dornoch. You are either a member of your not. And whether you live here in the heart of Dornoch or in California, you pay the same. You get treated the same. Like a great friend.”

Visitors are also welcomed. In days of old it was always said that a visitor green fee at Royal Dornoch was actually much more. “In the old days, it was made to feel like a temporary membership. You are welcome into the club to enjoy it as a member. And that endures,” Neil says. “We take visiting golfers seven days a week. You can find yourself playing just before or just after the members. So, when they come into the bar after your round you get a real sense of what it’s like to be a member here and the locals will be asking you ‘what did you think of it?’ You’ll feel like a member for the day.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that listening to Neil talk about his passion for Dornoch, for golf and his overwhelming sense of contentment at where he is and what he is doing, is uplifting, inspiring and, at times, emotional.

The magic of Royal Dornoch is, of course, centred around one of the world’s great golf courses. That is a given. But it is also carried and passed on to others by people like Neil. “When people drive into Dornoch, they’re already smiling. All we have to do is keep that smile there.”