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.”
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.’
“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.
“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 OF ENGLAND
Silloth On Solway 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
Woodhall Spa, The National Golf Centre – Hotchkin Course
The Belfry Hotel & Resort – Brabazon Course
Royal West Norfolk Golf Club
Hunstanton Golf Club
Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club
Aldeburgh Golf Club – The Championship Course
THE SOUTH EAST OF ENGLAND
Woburn Golf Club
-The Duke’s Course
-The Duchess Course
-The Marquess Course
West Sussex Golf Club
Swinley Forest Golf Club
Sunningdale Golf Club
The Berkshire Golf Club
-The Red Course
-The Blue Course
St George’s Hill Golf Club
-Red & Blue Course
Walton Heath Golf Club
Prince’s Golf Club
The Royal St George’s Golf Club
Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club
SOUTH WEST OF ENGLAND
Burnham & Berrow Golf Club
-The Championship Course
Saunton Golf Club
– East Course
The Royal North Devon Golf Club,
St Enodoc Golf Club
– Church Course