It’s a stiflingly hot summer’s day and our journey to Chart Hills Golf Club is nearing an end, as we negotiate Kent’s charming country lanes – the garden of England is a truly alluring part of the world, even in this heat.
We turn through the gates and wind our way along the driveway and up to the imposing clubhouse. We may have arrived at our destination but today we have come to a place that has been on a journey of its own.
The welcome is wonderful and genuine, the service is like something you would expect to find in the US or Portugal. There’s time for lunch and to explore the clubhouse, as well a tune-up on the extensive practice facilities and range.
It doesn’t take us long to work out that Chart Hills is unlike almost any other club in Britain. Even from the clubhouse windows, which overlook the 1st tee, 9th and 18th greens, the golf course looks and feels different. The sheer scale of this 275 acre estate is part of it, the unique bunkering may be another. Perhaps the blazing heat is adding to the feeling that we’ve left Kent and landed somewhere else entirely.
The Chart Hills journey began with this Nick Faldo-design opening to acclaim and fanfare in 1993. At the time, the Englishman was world No 1 and had won his third Open Championship a year earlier at Muirfield. It would be another three years before he would famously overhaul Greg Norman to win his third Masters. Faldo was in his pomp and the attention which followed was understandably huge. He said at the time, “I doubt anyone will ever tire of playing this golf course,” while his fellow designer, Steve Smyers said of Chart Hills, “it will thrill you and sometimes frighten you but, in the end, it will challenge the best in you.” He was right.
Chart Hills became a regular stop on pro tours and was a European Tour Qualifying School venue. It was ranked in the world’s top 1000 golf courses and regularly featured in the top 100 courses in Great Britain and Ireland. But all journeys have ups and downs.
If those were the highs for Chart Hills Golf Club, the lows came in more recent times when a series of floods on poorly draining land, coupled with the sheer cost of maintaining this vast site took its toll. The condition of the course began to suffer, and members and visitors began to stay away. Something had to change. The McGuirk family, who also own stunning Prince’s Golf Club on the Kent coast, had attempted to buy Chart Hills several times before finally agreeing a deal in December 2019. A wind of change was coming, so too was Covid-19.
But rather than use Covid as an excuse, the new owners saw an opportunity to accelerate their plans to breathe new life into the golf course. This wasn’t about taking Chart Hills Golf Club back to its glory days, but a chance to shape a bright new future by realising the incredible potential of this place. The course was officially closed in July 2020 with no date set for a reopening. All 18 holes were renovated and upgraded. Every fairway was stripped back. Drainage was installed, as was a vast sand base before the fairways were replanted. All 133 bunkers were overhauled, an enormous undertaking. The clubhouse was redecorated and upgraded, the club shop transformed, and the practice facilities were improved. No stone was left unturned.
And it shows as we make our way down to the 1st tee, which is overlooked by the panoramic clubhouse windows. The opening tee shot prepares you for what lies ahead, with your drive challenged by four vast and intimidating fairway bunkers on this dog-leg par-5. Fortunately, we pass the first test and as we make our way along the 1st fairway, the condition of the course stands out. The surrounds are like carpets. The greens are also immaculate, barely a blade of grass is out of place, and they run true.
This is a golf course with plenty of water, sprawling green complexes and some wonderfully memorable holes where those who think strategically will come out on top. This is not, however, a golf course you would ever describe as easy. It’s a brilliant test of golf and you will need to bring your A game. Bad shots are punished and if you can stay out of the bunkers then you should. The bunkering is a feature throughout, not only are they often vast but, at times, they resemble disjoined jigsaw pieces, loosely grouped together to challenge your approach shots. If you get into one, you may find yourself in another soon after unless you take your medicine.
The par-5 5th, which measures 515 yards, features the incredible Anaconda Bunker, which stretches some 200 yards in length. Such is its scale, it not only challenges your tee shot, but your second shot too. It’s a one-off and could easily be dismissed as a gimmick but it doesn’t feel that way. Like everything here, it serves a strategic purpose. The 2nd is the first of a string of brilliant par-4s. where water challenges you at some point. The 4th, 8th, 12th, 13th, and 14th all feature water and at no point does it feel like it’s there for show. The fairways feature humps and bumps, swales and hollows and often slope dramatically to sweep you ball away. Hint: driver is not always the right choice from the tee. The par-3 17th is another signature hole, featuring a Sawgrass-style island green, which I’m happy to report we somehow all managed to find from the tee.
Chart Hills Golf Club is the kind of course you want to play again and again, because each time you do, you’ll learn and play it differently because of that. It’s that kind of place. It’s different, memorable and from the tips it’s an immense challenge, too much golf course for us to score well on our visit. The multiple tee grounds mean you can swallow your pride, unlike us, and play the course that best suits you, instead of one built for the pros.
It would be premature to say Chart Hills Golf Club has reached journey’s end. And yet, it’s clear the course is unquestionably back where it belongs. New plaudits will follow, for sure, but the new owners are not known for resting on their laurels. They will continue to search for improvements. For them, the journey is just beginning.
*For more information or to book a round at Chart Hills Golf Club visit ChartHills.co.uk