It’s a golf course that has long been on my radar to play but the consequence of having to drive deep into London coupled with a hefty visitor green-fee of £155 had delayed the process.
However, following the strong recommendation from a playing partner last year and for the princely sum of just £60, which includes food before, between and after golf, I decided to play The Club’s flagship amateur event in September 2017. Handicap permitting (you must be off 4 or below to enter and this often gets balloted lower) I will be back because this is an extremely good and underrated golf course.
Absent from virtually all of the rating lists Royal Wimbledon is on a par with, and indeed superior to, several of the inland venues that regularly grace the rankings.
It is the third oldest golf club in England dating back to 1865, has a rich history, storied membership and has played a significant role in the evolution of the game of golf.
The course originally consisted of just seven holes on Wimbledon Common, was later extended to 18 and shared with London Scottish and Wimbledon Town Golf Clubs. By the early 1900’s the need for a new course was apparent and Willie Park Jnr laid this out over the present site on land leased from the adjacent Warren Farm. However, as he had done previously at other locations Harry Colt (a member of the club) radically redesigned Park’s effort in 1924 into the course we play today, save for a few further tweaks at the 1st, 6th and 18th.
There are two distinct sections to the course. The upper part of the property is played over a tract of tight, firm heathy land whilst the lower section, which we dip into twice, is predominantly parkland in nature.
The best of the golf can be found on the 13 heathland holes and there some absolute gems amongst them.
Recent tree and shrub clearance, particularly around the green sites but also close to the fairways, is now paying dividends with speedier rounds, firmer ground conditions and improved playing surfaces.
The tournament had a two-tee start and my morning round commenced at the 11th which is about a 300-yard walk from the stylish clubhouse that looks out onto a surprisingly large putting green and a lovely little chipping area in the corner.
Walking off the 11th green, after scrambling a par from the lower depths of a gully on the left, I was in awe at how brilliant this par-four is and hoped the remaining ones would just come close to being as good as this utterly fabulous hole.
A generous heather-lined fairway greets you with gorse way left and out of bounds down the right which shouldn’t really come into play but is just close enough to let you know that it’s there. A ridge in the fairway may help shorter hitters eke out a bit more distance and an approach from the right is preferred because of two bunkers down the left-hand side. It’s one of those holes where the brilliance of the green complex actually starts 100-yards out as we play to a putting surface which is long, large, two-tiered and drops off steeply at both sides as well as to the rear. One bunker on the left is 100 yards from the green and another just 40 yards short, there is also a hazard short right as the contours of the land leak and angle right. To complicate matters the back tier of the green actually runs away from play! The downhill approach must be executed perfectly to get close to the flag, especially in firm conditions, and par is a healthy reward for good golf.
Should you miss the green at the 11th – as well as most other holes – you take your chances with the lie you may get. Many of the knobs and mounds have been left rough with long tufty grass whilst the majority of swales and depressions have been mown tight. Some of the run-off areas around the green are quite superb and really help elevate this course above other heathlands because of the variety of recovery shots you will face.
Back to the start though and the first is a fine hole although with a left-to-right wind I suspect many an opening tee-shot will be reloaded because of an encroaching mass of gorse on the inner elbow of the dog-leg. Shy left or get a good drive away though and you are met with a fine green complex that leans left on the other side of a large dip.
Another stellar hole follows at the second and is one of four demanding two-shotters up on the heath. The magnificent 12th included which bends left-to-right and requires a long approach to be fed in from the left with a cunning greenside trap to work your ball over or around. Indeed many of the holes at Royal Wimbledon suit a fade and if you can work the ball left-to-right you will have an advantage.
The park section – holes 3 & 4 and 14 to 16 – have a similarity to them in so much that you mainly drive from elevated tees before playing up towards the green. Each hole has bunkers and ditches to contend with, on both drive and approach, and the striking visual nature of the sand traps, placed proportionally into the upslopes, really make them stand out.
However, it is the quality of the green complexes which help maintain a high level of consistency to the entire round with each one asking for a slightly different approach shot with regards to length and shape. Although there is a stark difference in style our two interludes with these softer holes are brief (and good) enough to ensure that everything is tied together quite nicely overall.
Along with 1st, 2nd, 11th and 12th the five testing par-fours on the parkland section really create the backbone of the challenge to Royal Wimbledon and I suspect if you play these nine holes well you will be on your way to a good score.
The remaining nine holes are what give Royal Wimbledon that almost perfect balance of challenge and charm.
The four short holes are classic Colt and all good fun. Three of them are knob-to-knob and played across deep depressions to plateau greens with attractive, deep bunkering set into the steep bankings. The fifth, 13th and 17th have a similar stamp but all play differently enough to make them collectively appealing whilst the eighth is a more than impressive long par-three where you are asked to work the ball in from the left.
Both par fives are attainable in two shots under favourable conditions. The seventh just tops 500-yards where everything magnates to the boundary on the right. The adjacent 10th is shorter, plays in the opposite direction and features the same ridge that helps us at the 11th but this time may hinder us on the drive as we play gradually uphill.
We also pleasingly have two driveable par-fours. The sixth is just 287-yards but going for the blind green is risky because gorse and trees can be found in close proximity on both sides and there is plenty of heather around the green and even out of bounds behind it. It’s probably a better matchplay hole than under card and pencil circumstances when it is essentially a long iron and short pitch. Meanwhile, the ninth is ten paces shorter but plays longer because it is uphill a touch. It’s the better of the two ‘tempter’ holes as it offers more options and has a much more interesting green complex.
As you can perhaps tell the scoring part of the course is holes six through to ten because this five-hole stretch contains both par-fives and the two sub-300-yard two-shotters.
The 18th is also under 300-yards from the yellow tees but playing from the competition markers it is 341-yards and due to the tight nature of the hole wielding the big stick is not a realistic option. The hole strategically makes sense – where an approach from the right is favoured into the angled green which is protected by three bunkers on the left and one on the right – but in practice the over contouring of the green doesn’t quite work and I suspect many members will end up towards or through the back regardless.
The final results in the numbers game are 6,366-yards from the tips playing to a par of 70. SSS is 71 but on the day when 44 category-one players competed it rose to 73 in the morning and 74 “Reductions Only” in the afternoon. There were some testing pin locations but nothing out of the ordinary and the wind was only moderate.
Royal Wimbledon is the real deal in terms of challenge and it also packs a big punch in the entertainment stakes.
The route that the course takes, which Colt altered significantly but not entirely from Park, is very enjoyable. The visits to the parkland holes are well spaced and we’re in and out quickly enough for it not cause a big issue. There is a hub of activity around the 1st green, 2nd tee, 5th green, 6th tee, 12th green and 13th tee as all paths cross and this is also where the ‘halfway house’ is located. On a humid day this gives us opportunity to regularly take on board water and for the members I guess it allows them to play several combinations of holes.
As you would expect for an open competition the greens putted beautifully and the entire set-up and presentation of the course was first rate. The contours of the putting surfaces were just to my liking and tied in exceptionally well to their surrounds. I was blown away by how good the course played.
The Club – who I suspect don’t seek nor desire publicity - probably don’t want to read this but Royal Wimbledon should be included in all the magazine and website rankings. It should also be quite lofty and therefore more visitors would sample this fine specimen of a golf course.
It's a long time since I've walked off a golf course and been as impressed and surprised, compared to what I was expecting, than at Newbiggin.
A family holiday brought me to Whitby Golf Club. After stuffing myself with fish & chips, losing most of my money on the penny slots and catching umpteen crabs in the harbour it was time for a round of golf!
Planning a round of golf in late October can be a dicey affair, especially in my home county of Yorkshire where the vast majority of courses are built on heavy soil or clay, so it was very refreshing to discover when venturing down south how well East Berkshire played at this time of year.