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.”
The city was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution – a genuine Northern powerhouse in its day. And Huddersfield 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.
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 The 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.
“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.