It wouldn’t be untrue to say that, in the main, parkland courses don’t tend to fair as well in the esteem of golfers (or at least those responsible for the rankings) as their heathland and linksland brothers. Not untrue, but perhaps unfair, I couldn’t help thinking as I strolled off the eighteenth green at West Surrey.
The course may not share the same terrain as its fellow Surrey courses at Walton Heath and The Berkshire, but it does share the same designer in Herbert Fowler – and that instantly tells you much of what you need to know. Fowler, who also has the wonderful links at Saunton to his name, as well as a redesign of the famous 18th hole at Pebble Beach, was one of the great course designers of the early twentieth century. He was renowned for his light touch, preferring to allow the natural contours of the land to shape the course rather than employing the use of “man-made contrivances“. So impressive was his skill that he was described in a book by the pre-eminent golf commentator, Bernard Darwin, as “perhaps the most daring and original of all golfing architects” – some accolade when you consider his contemporaries included Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie.
And so, before stepping foot on to the first tee at West Surrey, you know that you’re in the hands of a master, just as adept at transforming parkland in to great golfing country as any tract of heathland or linksland.
The club itself is located just off the A3 near Guildford, close to the towns of Godalming, Farnham and Haslemere. The course dates back to 1910, and consequently enjoys a maturity that gives it a wonderful depth of character that is today complemented by some very impressive, modern greens. The quality of these putting surfaces, and the adjoining run-offs, do even more to elevate the test and enjoyment.
The course is particularly hilly, and even where the slopes are gentle, gradient plays its part on each and every hole.
Somewhat unusually, the par fives provide more than a sporting chance for every level of golfer; each playing significantly downhill and all at a reachable yardage. Taking advantage of these undoubtedly sets you up for a good score, but there’s enough trickery elsewhere on the course to raise a few problems and keep your scoring in check. Nowhere is this more evident than at the notorious seventeenth, a par four that looks simple enough on the scorecard but which in practice requires a mountainous climb to a green protected by an old oak that shields its entrance.
The clubhouse is splendid – a terrific old farmhouse-style building that dates back over 100 years. It oozes with charm, and outside benefits from an expansive terrace that serves great viewing of the descending par five eighteenth.
The first opportunity to take in one of the many panoramic views, the par five 6th hole opens from an elevated tee and plays entirely downhill, belying its already modest yardage and proving a good birdie chance as a result. A straight drive is pretty essential, but from the fairway there is a good opportunity to use the contours to help ease your ball closer to the hole.
Most importantly of all, just enjoy the surroundings and views in this particularly picturesque corner of the course.
All options are open from the tee on the short par four 8th hole, but the key is to judge your approach to what is a significantly elevated and sloping green. Played from the bottom of a valley, the entrance is entirely protected by a horseshoe bunker and anything over hit will leave the most treacherous of putts back down the slope.
For all its attractiveness, I suspect this is a hole that has been cursed many times as players leave the green. Fortunately, the legendary West Surrey halfway hut awaits to provide the necessary solace (or, indeed, celebration!) by way of some fine homemade cake or a breakfast hoagie.
Another hole with a horseshoe bunker protecting the front, the deceptively narrow green at the par three 12th hole is bordered by punishing banks that make it a very tricky tee shot to judge correctly. The faintest nudge off target, and you’ll be cursing a bounce or sandy lie as you survey your second and the resulting test of your short game. Tall trees provide a lovely backdrop, but it’s best to concentrate on executing a good tee shot.
A little out of puff after ascending the previous fairway, the par five 18th fortunately plays entirely downhill. It’s a very impressive, I could even go as far as saying majestic, finish to a very enjoyable course.
Standing on the tee looking to the clubhouse away in the distance is particularly rewarding, and thankfully the fairway is generous enough to give you the promise of a rewarding tee shot too. I say promise rather than guarantee, of course, this brilliantly infuriating game being what it is.
Approaching the green, the key is to use the contours to feed your shot in from the right hand side. There are arguably stronger holes elsewhere on the course, but the 18th at West Surrey provides a fitting climax to your round.
As a county, Surrey doesn’t want for good golf courses. Few towns seem to be more than 10 minutes away from a celebrated heathland classic that occupies an enviable spot in the Top 100 listings. But when it comes to parkland golf, there aren’t many (if any) to rival West Surrey.
Naturally (and that’s the appropriate word to use), it helps that the course benefits from a glorious landscape. Combine that with the handiwork of a celebrated architect, and it’s almost inevitable you’ll have a course of timeless pedigree. That said, keeping pace with modern challenges and course expectations is no easy task, so credit must be given to the club for the recent modifications to the greens and surrounding run-offs that have added so much to the playing experience.
As a members’ club, I imagine you could enjoy very many happy days here, taking in the views and enjoying the ambience of the clubhouse, just as much as playing the course itself. The fact that it’s so accessible from SW London and the sizeable catchment area in this area of Surrey only adds to the long list of positives. If there’s a negative, it can only possibly be that residents of this corner of the country are spoiled for choice, but that shouldn’t be a reflection on what is a fine example of parkland golfing and a very enjoyable day’s golfing.