Northwick Park


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Time, we are continually told, is one of the biggest single obstacles to the growth of golf. For a large proportion of potential golfers, the four hours or so a typical round now takes is a major strike against the game.

One response to this issue is for courses to work at improving the speed of play.

And indeed, at many golf facilities, especially busy public courses where slow play is a real bugbear, operators are increasingly using rangers to urge groups to keep up. On public courses in the US, course rangers are common, as are markers on cards and tees indicating how long a group should have taken to reach that point. In the UK and Europe, such services are rarer, but, as with many trends that start on the west of the Atlantic and spread back east, we can expect this one to do the same.

But even if we can break the back of slow play, which seems unlikely given that even high handicappers now seem to feel the need for an extended pre-shot routine and a detailed study of putts, a round of golf requires the commitment of half a day. For many, this simply isn't practical; family duties and the sheer fullness of modern life means that 18 holes of golf is out of the question for non-hardcore golfers.

Clubs and operators realise this, and so increasingly we are seeing pay and play courses creating special rates for partial rounds. In the US, the short 'executive' course is popular. And now, in the western suburbs of London, we have a new six hole golf course. But the Playgolf facility at Northwick Park is a little different. As well as the six hole 'golf in an hour' concept, it has another way of appealing to new golfers – the holes seek to replicate some of those seen on the world's most famous tracks.

Replica courses are nothing new in America, and 'template' holes have been part of golf design ever since CB Macdonald built the National Golf Links of America. So in that sense Northwick isn't a great departure, but its location close to the centre of London and its high profile makes it a more significant development. Developer Playgolf has a number of other centres around the UK, although these are only practice facilities, and if Northwick proves a financial success, it's only reasonable to assume that more such courses will follow.

The course, designed by Peter McEvoy, opens with a tribute to the sixth hole at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

Riveria's tenth hole is famous as one of the world's great short par fours, but the sixth is perhaps even better known for the small bunker which architect George Thomas built in the middle of the green.

Multiple Walker Cupper McEvoy's second hole apes the par four fourteenth at Ganton in Yorkshire, while the par three third is modelled after 1995 Ryder Cup venue Oak Hill.

The fourth, though, is where the course gets interesting. The green, with water front right and multiple tiers, is built after the ninth at the Belfry. Like the original, a front or left hand pin position is nothing to get excited about, but when the flag is tucked in the back right corner, behind the water, the challenge is more intense. Leak your tee shot to the right of the fairway and you'll have to fly the ball all the way to the pin to get it close, while a drive down the favoured left side will open up an easier route home.

The par three fifth has two separate greens, allowing it to mimic two different holes on two different Open Championship courses. To the right of a large hillock, created to resemble a sand dune sits a pretty accurate replica of the Postage Stamp green from Royal Troon (I paced it off, and it's just as narrow as the original, although the bunkers are not so deep), while to the left the green is a copy of Royal Birkdale's twelfth. What's impressive about this part of the property is the way that the landscaping, and planting with waving fescue rough, has been made to feel like a links.

Kingsbarns it ain't, but for West London it's not a bad attempt.

The final hole, again with two greens, is the Augusta copy. The large double green offers the player the chance to imagine himself on the two par threes of Augusta's back nine. Here, though, the effect is not quite so impressive. Without the Georgia pines and azaleas (not to mention the pristine water), the golfer is only too aware of his suburban location.

And the double green, while interesting, cannot really go any way towards replicating either the terrifying speed of its inspirations, nor the steep contours that make the sixteenth hole at Augusta so intimidating. Perhaps the copy of the twelfth, which after all has one of the flatter greens on the original course, is more successful.

In the UK market, Northwick Park is pleasingly different. When I toured it during summer 2006, the standard of maintenance was leaving much to be desired, and this affected the way in which a golfer might imagine himself in the footsteps of those who have played the originals. And, in truth, there may not be that much here to detain the experienced player. But for the beginner, or those returning to the game, who want to feel the excitement of golf at a relatively low cost in both cash and time, it's ideal. Let's hope it succeeds.