This article is based upon a piece that first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
In these days of information – or at least data – everywhere, it isn’t too often that one gets a real surprise. Head to a course you haven’t seen before, and you can pretty much guarantee that some golf course writer or blogger will have been there before you, and trumpeted it for whatever it has to offer. And so, when I visited Canterbury GC in Kent, southern England, this spring, the last leg of a three day golf outing with good friends that had also included Le Touquet in France and Prince’s in Sandwich, I had an inkling that there would be something good for me to look at.
Though Canterbury is way below the radar in international terms – there are plenty of golf tourists come to East Kent, but they are generally heading for the classic links of Royal St George’s, Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports – I had heard gossip in golfing circles that the course was more than worth seeing. Golf course architect James Edwards, who consults at Canterbury, and who introduced me to club general manager Roger Hyder, had dropped a number of hints that I was in for a surprise.
The Canterbury course was built in the middle 1920s, though the club itself dates back to 1892. Like so many of Colt’s courses of that era, it was constructed by his preferred contractors, Franks Harris Brothers, on land leased from the War Office – the large Howe Barracks was next door until it closed in 2015, which enabled the club to buy the freehold of its site.
Colt reported that: “the first six holes appeared excellent, and the next three on rather duller land should, with bunkering, be good!” This part of Kent is generally quite undulating, so to find some good ground contour on the site was not a total surprise. But the sheer quality of the terrain must have come as quite a shock to the great architect; it still does to the first-time visitor today.
The course begins in slightly unprepossessing fashion, with an uphill drive to the dogleg first. The climb does, though, bring golfers to the higher ground, and the second, a classic Colt par three across a valley, lets you know that you are in for a wild ride. The third hole, a par four with a blind drive over a crest, is fine, but the fourth is the first hard evidence that substantial work is needed if the course is to live up to its potential. The green has been moved to the right from Colt’s original location; unfortunately, several unattractive trees have been allowed to grow on that side of the approach, blocking out the view of the green from much of the fairway. Obviously, they need to go, but that won’t entirely solve the hole’s issues; the green itself has shrunk quite dramatically from its original size, and generally the entire green complex is unsatisfactory.
Edwards has built some – rather attractive – new bunkers on the par-three fifth. These are welcome, as they brighten up a hole played over some less interesting ground, but I cannot help but feel that they would have been a long way down the priority list had it been my golf course! The sixth is a beautiful dogleg right par four, with a wonderful bunker (possibly an original?) at front left, but even here we see evidence of inappropriate vegetation – a small stand of weeping willows, God help us, sit behind the green.
That concludes the opening run of which Colt was so proud. Seven, eight and nine, two fives with a three in the middle, occupy less interesting ground. It is notable that Colt chose to use up this ground with two three-shotters – he did the same, for example, at Southfield in Oxford, around the same time. The uphill ninth does have a very good, very steep green.
The tenth is a long, straight par four over a ditch, while the eleventh brings us back to the great ground with a bang. A brutally tough uphill par three, it currently plays deep into the trees, though I am quite sure it was much more open when originally built. The green is not original. Colt built a punchbowl, which, in its forgiving nature is highly appropriate for such a hard hole, but it has been rebuilt, presumably for drainage. But the slope of the site is such that there should be no difficulty getting water out of a punchbowl – there is plenty of elevation for a big network of drains to carry away moisture. And the trees desperately need cutting back, partly to make the hole a little less terrifying, but primarily for turf quality reasons – I do not envy the course manager trying to keep good grass on a green with so little exposure to the sun.
Hole twelve is the best on the course, and frankly almost made me fall over with surprise when I saw it. The hole plays up a valley, with a ditch all the way up the favoured left side. But it is the terrain that astonishes: in the drive zone, the fairway pitches steeply from high right to low left, but on the approach to the green the cant is reversed and it is the left side that is high up. The green sits in the steep upslope, and slopes – steeply. Although only 365 yards from the back tee, it is an epic par four, one of the very finest I have seen in this country. Again, it is crying out for tree clearing.
In truth by now we have seen the best of Canterbury, but the fall off in quality is not extreme. The fifteenth and sixteenth are two excellent par fours, the first a dogleg right (with two totally inappropriate and ugly later-added bunkers on the left side of the fairway – why do people insist on bunkering the outside of doglegs?), while the latter has a lovely greensite tucked in to the left of the corridor. Seventeen is a classic example of Colt’s genius – a tough and beautiful par three built on ground that really gave him nothing. Excavations to the left of the putting surface gave him the fill to build up the green, and also created an exciting vista at the front of the home tee. And the home hole itself is a shortish par five, which I suspect did not benefit from the creation of a driving range on its right. I’d be amazed if the bunker pattern is original, and it could do with some rethinking.
So that is Colt’s Canterbury. It was truly the most pleasant surprise I have had on a British golf course in a long time. Let us not get carried away; the course is showing nowhere near its potential at the moment. I have read that the site was originally heath, and I would be fascinated to see the results of a trial reintroduction of heather. But general manager Hyder, who helped the club purchase its site a few years ago, has a goal to get it where it should be in time for its centenary in eight years, and, with the help of architect Edwards, will, I hope, get it there.