It would be a little trite and lazy to describe the course at Camberley Heath as simply a traditional heathland layout. Yes, there are the towering pines, the attractive swathes of heather, the pitches and rolls – all characteristics of the best courses in this sandy belt south west of London. And, yes, it has the architectural hallmarks of the great Harry Colt, the subtle nuances, the soft yet strategically brilliant angles, the visual treats, but there’s something different here too.
For us, the most distinctive feature that marks it apart from the otherwise comparable Colt courses in this part of the world were the short but ingenious par fours. Played from the tips, five of them measure under 335 yards but, for different reasons, none is a pushover. To some extent off-setting these there’s also one par four that can extend to over 500 yards and a couple of formidable par three holes that can play well beyond 200 yards. Together they create the most idiosyncratic of designs, one that most visitors won’t be accustomed to but which is certain to charm.
Built in 1913, the golf course clearly arrived well before many of the substantial houses that lie just beyond its borders of rhododendrons and pine trees that allow you just the occasional glimpse of what lies beyond. The course isn’t blessed with the kind of expansive plot Colt had at his disposal when laying out the likes of Sunningdale (New) and Hankley Common, but it’s testament to his skills as an architect that what he created within just 135 acres never feels claustrophobic. There are moments that you’re aware you’re playing along the boundaries of the course but never does it detract from the experience.
The club is rightly proud of its Harry Colt heritage and they must be applauded for investing so much in recent years in restoring the heather and fescue edging to the bunkering that is such a trademark of a pure Colt design.
As with any first-rate course, it’s a compliment to say that the highlights are hard to pick out. It’s always difficult (and subjective) to discern why one good hole is better than another good hole and there was considerable debate over our own choices. There are a few holes that stand out for their physical attributes, some for the intelligence of their design and the challenge they present, others for their quirkiness and originality or simply for their attractiveness. The par fives are very good, including the twisting third that promises reward for two hefty shots and the sloping 13th that demands brain as much as brawn. Equally, the pair of finishing holes are worthy of note, not least because they are so individual in character. The 17th demands much of your tee shot which must be taken down the left-hand-side to avoid the slope and hollow ready to seize anything off centre. The final hole, another short par 4, has a huge bank of heather obscuring your view of the fairway from the tee before a tricky pitch up a severe rise. That these aren’t in our highlights serves as a testament to the quality of the Camberley Heath course (and the failure of our reviewers to agree!).
Holes No. 2 & No. 14
The two long par threes on the course are both formidable, but our votes went to the shorter but so less challenging holes that occupy an area close to the clubhouse, while coming at different points on the course.
The second hole is an archetypal Harry Colt beauty. Played uphill to a green with three distinct tiers, precise distance control is absolutely essential to avoid an intimidating putt (or three). The green is generous but under-clubbing is a distinct risk, especially if there’s a wind blowing, and deep bunkers await on all sides to collect an errant shot. A really lovely hole.
Next to the second green is the tee for the 14th hole, which plays directly towards the front of the clubhouse. Unusually there are actually three different tee positions which change the angle of the hole by what must be close to thirty yards but all requiring a similar short to mid iron. From the position we played, the prominent bunker on the left guarded the green and partially blocked the view of the pin, so judging distance was tricky. Again, a sizeable green means that finding the right quarter is important if you want to avoid the risk of a three putt.
Holes Nos. 4, 5 & 6
After the third hole, a great snaking par five, you pass under the road that bisects the course via a tunnel that you return through after the 12th hole. The opening three holes on “the other side” are classic Colt, the short just as capable of testing your mettle as the long. The long comes by way of the 5th, sandwiched between two short par fours. A sweeping, shallow dogleg left, it demands a healthy drive if you’re going to put yourself in comfortable range for your second. It’s a par four that many will play as a three-shotter.
The bread in the sandwich is provided by two of the short par fours that we felt provided some of Camberley Heath’s most discerning features.
The fourth hole is drivable and therefore forces the longer hitter in to a decision on the tee. With the reward of a birdie or even an eagle comes the risk of walking off such a short hole with a double-bogey or worse. Infuriating.
The 4th hole, much like the 6th a short while later, offers you generous fairway if you opt to just clip a short iron off the tee, but then pinches in considerably as it funnels towards a small, and well-protected green. Here it’s deep bunkers and clever run-offs that might have you thinking twice about the aggressive play, while the 6th hole is guarded by thick heather and rough, as well as bunkers in all the right places. Both holes cajole you into choices that have potential for regret as much as reward, so don’t be too cock-sure when you see the yardage on the card.
While the 18th is regarded as the signature hole at Camberley Heath and tends to receive more recognition, for our money the 10th takes the accolade.
Your drive is blind, played over swathes of heather that blanket the brow of the hill. The fairway cambers significantly right, so you need to favour the left side but right-handers can expect a hanging lie for their second, even with a good tee shot. From the fairway you are now faced with a long uphill approach over another steep bank of heather, to a green that sits atop another rise and is further away than it looks from down below. Much of the plateau isn’t visible, especially from the low, right side of the fairway, and so it’s easy to under-club on your approach. It’s a strong and memorable hole.
The Surrey heathland set are well-known for being some of the premier clubs in the country, and for presenting some of the finest inland layouts. Amongst them, and without naming names, some are formidably challenging, some have a built a reputation around their very private memberships, and others are just wonderfully designed golfing treats. Very deliberately, Camberley Heath concentrates on being amongst the best examples of the latter. There are no pretensions, no snobbishness, and the course is testing without ever threatening to crush the spirit.
The modern, airy clubhouse, with its terrace overlooking the 18th green, is very different to many of the other centenarian clubs in the area and it helps create an unstuffy atmosphere that most visitors will welcome.
As for the course itself, the tall pines and heather make it very attractive, but it’s the sheer variety that distinguishes it. Every hole demands a different strategy, making it everything a “bomber’s” course isn’t and it’s a joy to play because of it.