Both times I have visited The Shire, the first course in the UK to be designed by Trajectory, Seve Ballesteros' design practice, I went thoroughly prepared to hate the place.
From the PR material supplied in advance, it sounded everything I dislike about modern golf. Six par threes, six par fours and six par fives, with no two consecutive holes the same par: surely adhering to such a rigid formula would make for an awkward routing with a number of lousy holes? Divided into three zones, 'links', 'parkland' and 'woodland', wouldn't the course feel schizophrenic and unnatural? And worst of all, the S-shaped lake that surrounds the eighteenth green: it must, surely, be a gimmick too far? And yet, on both visits, once last year during construction, and once recently to play it, I really liked the course.
Developer Tony Menai-Davies has built The Shire using landfill from a number of large construction projects including Heathrow's new Terminal Five and Wembley Stadium. Being paid to dispose of material transforms the economics of developing a golf course, especially one on a site that was, in its previous state as Bridgedown Golf Club, essentially pancake-flat.
The Trajectory team used this huge amount of fill to sculpt large-scale features across the expansive site. From the back tees, the course plays in excess of 7,000 yards, and will offer plenty of challenge to any level of golfer. For weaker players, there is plenty of fun to be had, although the sheer number of water hazards means they are likely to lose a fair number of balls.
My initial response to The Shire was not without justification. It does feel gimmicky in places, not least that vexed S-shaped lake, which no-one would mistake for a natural water feature. More significantly, though, the lake makes for a finishing hole that is just a little too severe: playing 455 yards from the back markers, or 419 from the white tees, the golfer is likely to be hitting a solid middle iron for his second. To greens which are pleasingly firm (as was the rest of the course), this is, for me, just a bit much: with water front and back, the green is a small target. If the normal approach club was an eight or nine iron, it might be a little different. As it is, the golfer who finds an extra twenty yards on the drive is over-rewarded. And a slightly missed drive will force a boring lay-up second. It is an all or nothing hole.
Another hole that lacks options is the second. A small arm of the lake that surrounds the first green (oh, did I not mention that the first is an island green par three?) extends in front of the tee.
The carry is not big, but that lake, combined with another that crosses the fairway 225 yards from the back tee makes for another forced lay-up. The hole demands a four iron to the island fairway, and a mid-iron second to an elevated green, and there you have it.
Golfers might think for a moment about trying to carry both lakes, but a quick glance at the yardage chart will put them off: it is 280 yards from the white tee, almost 290 from the back. If the second lake were narrower, making the heroic carry a feasible, if risky, proposition, or if it ate into the fairway rather than eliminating it, the hole would offer the bold player a chance to hit a longer tee shot in exchange for dramatically reducing the difficulty of the approach.
In fact, almost all of my complaints about The Shire relate to the over-use of water hazards. The 6-6-6 par breakdown (which Golden Age architect Herbert Fowler famously used on the Red course at the Berkshire) is all very well, but when five of the six one-shotters demand a water carry, where is the variety? Some of these are excellent holes: the picturesque seventh may only be a wedge for many golfers, but the long green features a higher middle tier not unlike the famous twelfth hole at St Andrews, and like that green, to get close to a pin located on this top tier will require the most precise of shots. But it's not coincidental, I suspect, that my favourite of all the par three holes is the beautiful uphill twelfth into a narrow, bunkerprotected green set at a slight diagonal that forces the golfer to shape his shot if he wants a chance for a two – the only one of the six with no water in play. The seventeenth is another good hole: a lake on the right of the green cuts part way across the front too. From the tee the golfer thinks that carrying the water is the only shot, but in fact, even when the pin is hard right, the tilt of the putting surface offers an opportunity to work the ball down to the hole without confronting the hazard directly.
Of the two-shot holes, two stand out.
The sixth is a masterclass of simple strategy: a slight dogleg left with a bunker at the apex of the turn and a green protected so as to make an approach from close to the bunker the preferred option. A drainage ditch across the fairway will take driver out of the player's hands, and even a three-wood (as this writer found out to his cost) can be too much club when the ground is firm: there is a slight downslope just short of the ditch that can carry an apparently wellplaced shot into the hazard.
For me the best of the par fours is the fifteenth, perhaps a surprising verdict considering my complaints about excessive use of water hazards, as there are four lakes located around the hole.
But the water is not really in play, absent a duffed or wildly sliced drive, and three fairway bunkers set in a pleasing diagonal are the real threats off the tee. The left side of the fairway is higher, and the slope will carry the tee ball back into a good position, so this side offers the safe option. Challenging the diagonal bunkers, though, gives the best results, shortening the approach and creating a favourable angle.
While the par fives may mostly lack the visual drama of some of the shorter holes – largely because there's less water to be found – they are a strong collection. The eleventh, which has a stream cutting through the middle of the fairway and a lone tree almost exactly where most golfers would like to hit their second shots, is perhaps the most strategically interesting, but all are attractive. The thirteenth, comfortably reachable for many golfers at only 475 yards off the back tee, is particularly pleasing to the eye. A deep valley cutting across the fairway beyond the two fairway bunkers means that a long drive may not be the best choice off the tee, but even throttling back is not easy. Place the tee shot between the bunkers at the top of the slope, though, and the second is an attractive prospect to the elevated green.
The longer three shotters, especially holes five and sixteen, show the quality of the shaping work. The rolling mounds that frame these holes are very well done, and the rough areas feature waving fields of fescue, creating a look not unlike the links courses they are designed to mimic.
It is on the fifth in particular that the scale of the course is best appreciated: there is wide separation between this and adjoining holes, shaped nicely and covered in that elegant fescue. Contractors J&E Ely are to be congratulated on the high quality of their work.
So too is head greenkeeper Tony Peterson. Well-known agronomist George Shiels consulted on the course, and, especially on the holes sown in 2005, his influence is easy to see. The fairways are a fabulous example of traditional British golfing turf, dominated by fine-leaved grasses, and despite the heavy soil, offering a terrific springy sward from which the golfer can play. It remains to be seen whether Peterson and his team can keep this fescue-dominated sward in the face of the inevitable assault of weed grasses, but so far, so good. He has a high-spec Rain Bird irrigation system at his disposal, but it is to be hoped he doesn't over-use it. The 2006 holes are clearly further behind, though, and another year's grow-in will not hurt. The Providence creeping bent greens are already rolling true: good putters should score well here.
I will finish as I started. When I first read press material about The Shire, I had few expectations. But, despite the gimmickry, there is a really strong golf course maturing in Barnet. I can think of few recently built British courses I would prefer to play.