Tee Time in London Town
Sure, you could go for the theater alone. But know that royal and ancient pleasures await just on the outskirts of town.
"When a man is tired of London he is tired of life."
The great Cham was referring to the excitements of the town, to the speeches in Parliament and the gossip at court, also to the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick's coffeehouse wit, the novels of Fanny Burney and the company of Mrs. Thrale. Had he lived in the early twentieth century instead of the late eighteenth, and had he been attracted to the sporting scene instead of the spectacle in the Strand, he could as easily have been speaking of golf courses around London--at least two hundred of them within a thirty-mile radius of the city, several of them deservedly famous and nearly all of them somehow associated with the British Open or the English crown.
The traveler who goes to London for a week in hope of seeing the excitements of the town and enjoying the country pleasures of British golf is well-advised to make the journey in two stages. Most of the better courses lie to the southwest of the city, not far from Heathrow and densely concentrated in the counties of Surrey and Berkshire. A traveler who arrives on a Sunday evening can stay at one of the numerous hotels in the vicinity of Ascot, none of them more than twenty minutes from the airport and some of them as luxurious as the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton; let him devote his attention to golf from Monday through Thursday, the days on which the nearby private clubs welcome visitors unaccompanied by members, and he can fit a second eighteen holes into the hours that otherwise would be squandered each day on the drive back and forth into the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. On Thursday evening, the traveler can retire to London for the theaters, the portrait galleries and the historical monuments.
Choosing a week in late September, I found it surprisingly easy to make the necessary arrangements. The Monday tee times must be spoken for two or three weeks in advance, but the reservations can be made with a trans-Atlantic telephone call to each club's secretary; all subsequent changes can be safely left to the concierge at the hotel. Quite a few of the better known clubs--among them Sunningdale, Berkshire and Walton Heath--offer the advantage of two eighteen-hole courses, their availability for two-ball and four-ball matches reversed between the morning and the afternoon. The protocol assures an unimpeded flow of play. Not once in six days did I wait to hit a shot, and a round never took more than three and a half hours to complete.
In the time allowed, I managed to play eight courses, but the possibilities are so many and so various that it would need a life as long and opinionated as Dr. Johnson's to rank them in an order of merit. Although the English imported the game from Scotland during the reign of Elizabeth I, they didn't invest it with the character of devout observance until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the sudden springing up of golf courses in the valley of the Thames suggests that the revelation was both beatific and widely distributed. As late as 1864, the English countryside harbored only three courses (as opposed to thirty north of Solway Firth); by 1901, the number had reached one thousand, many of the courses adjacent to the new suburban railway lines. The convenience allowed the Victorian gentlemen, side-whiskered and silent, to walk the short distance from the station to the first tee without having to change their shoes. The gentry dressed for golf in the way that they dressed for any other expedition in possibly troublesome terrain (Norfolk jacket, starched collar, tweed cap), and because a gentleman was by definition a sportsman (the two words were synonyms for "empire"), if one wasn't going to Scotland for the grouse, or maybe to India to shoot an elephant, one simply carried the clubs onto the train for Worplesdon or Woking.
The landscape favored the construction of golf courses--the soil sandy, the ground undulating and the forests not so impenetrable that they couldn't be reconfigured as parks. A generation of self-taught golf architects discovered what have come to be seen as the platonic forms of the well-balanced fairway, the deftly placed bunker and the properly contoured green. The golfer who plays their courses encounters a way of thinking about the game more likely to improve his attitude and score than an anthology of swing thoughts or a new driver forged from pure titanium.
The Old course at Sunningdale, designed by Willie Park in 1900, is said to be the finest inland course in Britain, and I see no reason to contest the judgment. The course is not long (6,341 yards, par seventy), but it is beautifully situated among old trees (oak, pine and silver birch). I didn't come across any hole that was trifling or weak, and several of them I thought as memorable as any I had ever seen: a long par four descending toward a pond at number five; another long par four at number ten from a dramatically elevated tee (this has recently been made a par five); at number seventeen, again a par four, a dogleg right that sets up what I'm willing to believe is one of the loveliest second shots in all of England. I was so taken with the course that I played it twice, on the second occasion in a match against the card turned in by Bobby Jones on June 16, 1926.
Qualifying that day for the British Open, Jones shot a sixty-six, his so-called perfect round because over the run of eighteen holes he posted no score higher than a four. He hit all but one green, ten of them with a two-iron or a fairway wood, and missed three putts of less than four feet. The members took admiring note of the performance, and their report, stoutly framed in burnished oak, decorates one of the walls in the club's bar. The recording secretary confined himself to facts:
1. 492 yards. Drive, spoon, two putts. Spoon shot short and to the right of pin. Approach putt eighteen inches short. 4.
3. 292 yards. Drive fifteen yards short of bunkers on right. Mashie. Missed putt from three feet. 4.
10. 469 yards. Drive slightly drawn. Iron shot the outstanding shot of the round. Pin high above the hole. 4.
13. 175 yards. Mashie into bunker on right side of green. Recovery stone dead. 3.
I didn't come upon the document until after I had played the course for the first time. Amused by the laconic tone of the summary, I noted the position of each of Jones's shots, and the next day, supported by my handicap of ten, I set off to match them against my own. What was surprising was Jones's length off the tee. He was hitting a loosely wound ball with a hickory-shafted club, and yet his drives consistently reached a distance of 270 yards. Perhaps the course was exceptionally dry in June of 1926. When I played, the turf was wet, to the point where the tee shots plugged in the fairways, and I noticed that in the foursome two holes ahead, neither Darren Clarke nor Ernie Els was coming up to the marks of the absent Jones. Maybe it was the walking around in the footprints of genius, or maybe it was the weather--bright sun after morning rain--but I played well enough that afternoon to lose the match only one down. I was also lucky in terms of my caddie, a student of the game who issued me each club with the certainty of a conductor handing out railroad tickets ("You'll be wanting the five-iron, Lewis"), steered me clear of the rough ("the George") that couldn't be seen from the tee and informed me that in the good old days of the turn of the last century the gentry employed golf professionals on their country estates in the same way they employed grooms and gamekeepers.
At Berkshire the next day, I found myself in what could have been the mise-en-scène for one of P. G. Wodehouse's golf stories. The two courses at the club were built by Herbert Fowler, the architect who in 1922 changed the eighteenth hole at Pebble Beach from a mediocre par four into a sublime par five. His Blue course at Berkshire begins with a deceptive par three, 217 yards across a field of heather with the tee placed just under the windows of the clubhouse bar. The shot looks as if it might be played with a five-iron instead of a three-wood, and the members acquainted with the illusion never tire of watching golfers unfamiliar with the course (preferably overconfident Americans) choose the wrong club. A morning thunderstorm had delayed everybody's start on the day that I played the course, and the bar was loud with the murmuring of voices like those of Bertie Wooster, Cuthbert Banks and Rollo Podmarsh. The first three foursomes off the tee consisted of players belonging to a group on loan from a financial-services company in Florida, all of them equipped with golf bags heavy enough to qualify for the professional tour. None of them believed the measurement printed on the card, and as each one's first ball disappeared into the heather (never to be seen again) the members exchanged contented grins and raised their glasses to the departing shows of pride.
Fowler also designed the two courses at Walton Heath, the older of which I played on a windy afternoon under a sky that could have been painted by Constable. Once owned by the Sunday tabloid The News of the World and famous for the company of its former members (among them Lloyd George and Winston Churchill), Walton Heath sprawls across open ground six or seven hundred feet above sea level. The high elevation affords fine views of distant villages and farms and imparts to the course the feeling of a seaside links--big greens and not many trees, the bunkers steeply faced, wide fairways that drift off into thickets of bracken and gorse. The course opened for play in 1904 with an exhibition match between Harry Vardon, J. H. Taylor and James Braid, each of them a once or future British Open champion, and with respect to the layout's degree of difficulty the club history relies on the authority of Bernard Darwin. The most eminent of the English golfing correspondents in the 1920s, Darwin could find no flaw in the design (6,801 yards, par seventy-two) or temperament of the course: "It has something of the fierceness and defiance which belong to the sea and is apt to overwhelm us a little when we encounter it after being pampered by windless golf in a park." He regarded the last five holes at Walton Heath as a "stern finish." After making the acquaintance of the par-five sixteenth and the par-four eighteenth--both of them forcing long carries over deep bunkers from which even the infallible Jones would have been hard-pressed to recover--I understood why the course served as the venue for the 1981 Ryder Cup matches.
Edward VIII was club captain on December 11, 1936, the day he renounced the British throne. Better known and more fondly remembered as the once-upon-a-time Prince of Wales, the reluctant king figures prominently in the histories of most of the golf clubs near London, and by the time I reached Walton Heath I'd seen him so often in the photographs on the walls (awarding a prize, posing with a niblick or a cleek, faultlessly dressed, invariably at ease) that I had come to think of him as the emblem of the British attitude toward the game. He was said to be "crazy keen" about his golf but was always the perfect gentleman who passed all of Wodehouse's tests of true character--never complaining about a poor stroke, careful to replace his divots, embodying the English preference for the amateur and the sportsman to the expert professional and the corporate executive.
Most of the golfers whom I met aspired to the insouciance of the former prince; lighthearted but fervent, they assigned a higher value to the spirit with which one addressed the ball than to the mere adding up of a paltry score. Better to miss the shot than to take too many practice swings or too much time studying the line of a putt. Better still to remember what Wodehouse's Oldest Member had said about the incidence of criminal behavior being lower among good golfers than in any other class of the community, "except possibly Bishops."
The look and atmosphere of the clubhouses suggested similar presumptions of grace. Although the buildings were sometimes large and almost splendid (Georgian brick, handsome bow windows, occasionally a dining room in the manner of Queen Anne), the appointments nearly always conveyed an impression of careless understatement: no signs directing visitors to the locker room or practice ground, the food and drink as unassuming as the equipment displays in the pro shops, where there were no posters, not many brands of golf balls, two different sweaters and a single choice of hat. But if the clubs didn't bother with antique furniture or showy architectural effects, they took a good deal of trouble with their collections of trophies, the silver lovingly polished and the honors boards commemorating, in painstakingly carved gold leaf, the championship matches dating back to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.
Several of the winning names appeared so often that I began to wonder what would have become of British golf if Herbert Fowler and Harry S. Colt had abandoned themselves to a passion for butterflies or stamps. Few American golfers know these men's names, but their designs served as templates for nearly all of the golf courses built in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, and to play anywhere in Surrey is to be reminded of the courses at Baltusrol, Newport and Riviera. Like Fowler, Colt was a fine amateur golfer. Captain of the golf team at Cambridge University in 1890, he proved to be the most prolific golf architect of his day. He built more than three hundred courses in Britain, among them Muirfield, Royal Portrush and Wentworth, as well as making substantial amendments at Sunningdale, St. Andrews and Pine Valley.
In 1908, Colt designed eighteen of the twenty-seven holes at Stoke Poges, chief among them the par-three seventh that provided Alister Mackenzie, Colt's younger associate and partner, with the model for the twelfth at Augusta National. I played the course on the last day of my travels in England, but had I seen it sooner I probably would have arranged to stay at the club, a dramatic Palladian building erected by George III's architect for the heirs of William Penn. Now transformed into a first-class hotel (expensively equipped with silk tapestries, mahogany tables, gilded ceilings), the property was first acquired by William the Conqueror shortly after his victory at Hastings. The Norman church on the grounds (as old as the Doomsday Book and about ninety yards behind and to the left of the nineteenth green) prompted Thomas Gray to write his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." King Charles I was held prisoner at Stoke Park by Cromwell's revolutionary army during a few uncertain weeks in 1647; three years later, Capability Brown designed the lakes. At the far end of the practice ground, a tall column rising to a height of forty-five feet supports a sculpture of Edward Coke, once Lord Chancellor, a solemn figure in bleached stone that presents the player with the hope of driving a particularly well-hit tee shot over his disapproving head.
Although I also played the courses at Swinley Forest, Woking and Burnham Beeches, everywhere I went I met players who informed me of the grandeur to be found somewhere else, just around the next bend in the river or a few miles farther along on the road to Twickenham or Oxford. I don't doubt their word. Nor can I imagine a golfer tiring of life on the woodland courses southwest of London. The countryside is lovely, the narrow lanes winding through hedgerows and villages, and if it rains, the traveler can take shelter in history. The old names and voices linger in the valley of the Thames like the echoes in a morning fog, and the castles at Windsor and Hampton Court are almost as close to the first tee at Sunningdale as the racecourse at Ascot, the parade ground at Sandhurst and the riverbank at Runnymede where King John signed the Magna Carta.
Not having had the benefit of my own advice, I made the mistake of staying in London during the whole week that I was in England. Fortunately I found the Covent Garden Hotel, on Monmouth Street, roughly equidistant from Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. I could walk to the excitements of the town--to the theaters in the West End as well as to Buckingham Palace and the bookstalls in Soho--and by thus avoiding the delays in city traffic I recouped some of the time lost every day on the M4.
By the end of the week, I was figuring the distances as I would figure them on a golf course--a short par four from the hotel to the Royal Opera House, a long par three and another par four to the junction of Shaftsbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, two long par fives to Nelson's column. I never played the shot over the admiral's three-cornered hat, but as I was leaving for the airport on Sunday morning I mentioned the possibility to the driver, a low-handicap man at East Sussex National with whom I'd made my tour of the home counties. "Against a strong breeze," he said, "and coming at it from the angle of Canada House, we'd probably be wanting an eight-iron."
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Berkshire Golf Club
Swinley Rd., Ascot.
par/yardage: 72, 6,379 (Red); 71, 6,260 (Blue).
architect: Herbert Fowler.
Burnham Beeches Golf Club
Green Ln., Burnham.
par/yardage: 70, 6,449.
architect: Harry Colt.
East Sussex National Golf Club
Little Horsted, Uckfield.
par/yardage: 72, 7,081 (East); 72, 7,154 (West).
architect: Bob Cupp.
Stoke Poges Golf Club
North Dr., Stoke Poges.
par/yardage: 71, 6,654.
architects: Harry Colt and Charles Alison.
Sunningdale Golf Club
Ridgemount Rd., Sunningdale.
par/yardage: 70, 6,341 (Old); 71, 6,443 (New).
architects: Willie Park (Old); Harry Colt (New).
Walton Heath Golf Club
par/yardage: 72, 6,801 (Old); 72, 6,609 (New).
architect: Herbert Fowler.
Wentworth Dr., Virginia Water.
par/yardage: 68, 6,201 (East); 73, 7,047 (West); 72, 7,004 (Edinburgh).
architects: Harry Colt (East/West); John Jacobs with Gary Player and Bearnard Gallagher (Edinburgh).
Where to Stay
Covent Garden Hotel
10 Monmouth St., London,
Royal Berkshire Hotel
London Rd., Sunninghill,
Where To Eat
Pett Bottom, Bridge
36 Duke St., London
1 West St., London
Neal Street Restaurant
26 Neal St., London
Howfield Manor, Chartham Hatch
1 Aldwych, London
35 Maiden Ln., London
The Strand, London
100 The Strand,London
6-10 Bruton St., London
Stoke Park Club
Almeida St., London,
41 Earlham St., London, 011-44-2073-691732
Trafalgar Sq., London, 011-44-1718-393321
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
New Globe Walk, Bankside, London,
Charing Cross Rd., Leicester Sq., London,
Check in at Stoke Park Club. Play a round on Stoke Poges's Colt/Alison combo. Lunch at Stokes Brasserie. Play an afternoon round at nearby Burnham Beeches. Dine at the Terrace Dining Room, at Cliveden House.
Drive to Sunningdale and play the Old course. Eat lunch at the clubhouse. Play Berkshire Golf Club's Blue course. Explore nearby Windsor Castle. Check in at Royal Berkshire Hotel and have dinner at the Stateroom Restaurant there.
Drive to Wentworth Club and play a round on the West course. Eat lunch at Duck Inn. Play Wentworth's Edinburgh course. Eat dinner at Old Well.
Drive to Uckfield. Play East Sussex National's East course. Have lunch there at Huntington's. Drive to Tadworth and play Walton Heath's Old course. Put your sticks away and head to London. Check in at Covent Garden Hotel. Dine at The Ivy.
Explore Buckingham Palace or the Royal Opera House. Lunch at Simpson's-in-the-Strand. Shop the latest fashions, then eat dinner at Rules.
Catch a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre or tour Westminster Abbey. Eat lunch at The Square. Stroll through Piccadilly Circus or Soho. Dine at Green's Restaurant. Have a nightcap at Savoy Hotel or One Aldwych.
Wander through Covent Garden. Visit the National Gallery or see theater productions at the Almeida, Wyndham's or Donmar Warehouse. Eat at Neal Street Restaurant.