Impressive. That’s the first word that springs to mind when you’re at Rockliffe Hall. It may not be as established as more famous names or have three courses like a few of the grandest resorts, but this is a golfing retreat that holds its own with the best in the land.
Not far from Darlington, Rocklliffe Hall is one of a number of golfing developments that have really put the North East on the golfing map. The championship course bears the hallmarks of a quality, contemporary design and then there’s the fabulous five star hotel that’s a match for just about any golf resort you care to name in the UK. This is an exceptional golfing experience.
Too quickly it’s easy to dismiss the North East as being “too far” but, in the big scheme of things, 2.5 hours from London (2 hours from Edinburgh) isn’t really that long a journey. It’s the curse of a small country mentality – the Canadians would drive that far to go shopping without giving it a thought! In all seriousness, you could genuinely spend that amount of time just getting to an airport and waiting for your plane and you’d still have the travelling to do. And for anyone starting from Leeds or Sheffield or anywhere else north of the Watford Gap, there’s even less reason not to “pop” up the A1.
Whatever our perceptions of distance may be, my money’s on Rockliffe Hall changing them. I can’t imagine any golfers being disappointed having made the effort to get there – even if they started in Penzance or Perth. The facilities are first-class: the modern bedrooms are all extremely comfortable; the three dining options are excellent, and there’s an award-winning spa – and that’s before you even get out on to a championship golf course that has already hosted the English Seniors Open twice.
Opened in 2009, the Marc Westenborg (of Hawtree) design stretches to a quite phenomenal 7,879 yards from the very tips, though thankfully the five different teeing options make it playable for the rest of us. The course is set in 375 acres of attractive County Durham parkland, with the River Tees winding around the edges. There are some memorable features, not least the expansive bunkers, water hazards, green-side run offs and enormous, rolling putting surfaces that allow for no end of pin placements.
The golfing facilities also include a Cleveland Srixon Centre of Excellence, where covered and grass teeing areas, a large putting green and inviting short game area must make Rockliffe Hall the best practice facility in the region. That several Tour players choose this as their base tells you all you need to know.
A beautiful par five, the tee shot guides you towards bunkers down the right side of the fairway, which if avoided will leave a long ‘risk and reward’ approach across a greenside lake, as the hole gently curls around to the left. With long, wispy grasses framing the fairways, it’s a particularly eye-catching hole that has the potential to improve your scorecard whether playing boldly or safely.
I guess it’s only natural that a hole surrounded by water tends to be thought of as the “signature hole” – knees trembling, hands shaking, a mind reduced to blancmange, it’s inevitably at the heart of the clubhouse chat.
The par three 5th hole at Rockliffe Hall is a particularly fine example – difficult, dramatic, and with equal potential to wreck your card or have you puffing your chest in pride, it’s a delight (though I am not sure I’d feel the same in serious competition!). The trouble is obvious and catches your eye while you’re still putting out on the fourth. I’m willing to bet it’s even caused one or two three putts in its time, and there aren’t many holes that can claim to have blighted your scorecard even before you’ve reached the tee.
On the tee, and risking stating the obvious, it’s all about choosing the right club. Gauging the wind that can whip up across the open landscape is vital, too, though I’d tend to argue the most important factor is what’s going on between your ears. Trust and commit!
The picturesque 17th hole is delightful but, I’d say, provocative – something of a golfing Siren, beckoning you towards your doom with all her womanly charms. The temptation comes with the decision on how aggressive to be from the tee, as longer hitters will fancy their chances of blasting past all the trouble and making the tricky approach simpler. But trouble’s aplenty – anything left is punished by an expanse of wetland, and there’s enough water and sand framing the dog-leg to gobble up any miss-directed or miss-hit shots. Even a well struck drive isn’t out of the woods (so to speak) as some well-placed bunkers combine with the sweeping curve of the fairway to capture anything less than perfection. And you’ll want to be playing from the fairway as there are plenty of subtle undulations on the putting surface and a significant run-off at the back of the green, that make your second almost as tricky as your first. A great penultimate hole.
There’s no doubt that the North East of England is growing in golfing stature, and Rockliffe Hall is in no small part responsible for the new-found reputation. Everything about it is high quality and the customer service is appropriately matched. It’s the perfect base to explore a few other courses in the region, too.
Thinking about this year’s golfing calendar and September’s Ryder Cup, it struck me that for anyone heading up to Gleneagles Rockliffe Hall would make a perfect stop-off en route. It’s inevitable that the crowds will descend on Perthshire, so perhaps this will serve as a quieter option for a game and a restful night’s sleep before the final leg of the journey. That said, you really don’t need an excuse to head to Rockliffe Hall – there’s more than enough reason to go any way.
So what about the cost? With an AA 5 red star rating, you’d be forgiven for thinking that golf break packages will make a significant dent in your wallet, but they really don’t. Breaks start from just £95 per person, whilst one particularly good offer – their ‘Best of Both Worlds’ package – allows golf and Spa enthusiasts to spend the day at Rockliffe Hall enjoying their respective itineraries. Golfers will thrive on a full English breakfast from The Clubhouse, two rounds of Championship golf, complimentary drink, and a superb three-course dinner in The Clubhouse, whilst those opting for the Spa will themselves enjoy brunch in the Spa Brasserie, two days in the award winning Spa and wellness facilities, a 90 minute Signature treatment and rejuvenation period, and dinner with the golfers in the evening. Add in overnight accommodation in the Tiplady Lodge, and breakfast the following morning – with prices starting from just £217.50 per person. Given the overall quality of Rockliffe Hall, you’ll do well to find a better deal anywhere else.