The southern English county of Surrey is an extremely competitive golf market.
Surrey, and the neighbouring county of Berkshire, was essentially the cradle of golf architecture; from Willie Park Jr’s creation of Sunningdale in 1900 onwards, the area has been packed full of great courses. Given it is also one of the most affluent parts of Britain, the demand for fine golf has always been high. In short, it is an area in which a golf facility can do great business, but it had better be good.
Most of Surrey’s top courses were built in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of golf architecture, which is to say before World War Two. There have been high profile (and, by their nature, fairly big money) developments in the area since, most recently the Queenwood and Beaverbrook clubs, but they are in a definite minority. Most of Surrey golf is old school members’ clubs, and fairly high-end ones at that.
This, therefore, makes the Foxhills resort, located just to the north of the town of Woking, something of an outlier. Foxhills’ location puts it in some very exalted company: less than a mile (plus, to be fair, the M3 motorway) separate its courses from the Wentworth estate. Sunningdale is not much further away. The famous ‘Three Ws’ of Woking, Worplesdon and West Hill are just the other side of Woking town. And closest of all, the rigorously private and very expensive Queenwood is just across the road from Foxhills.
Foxhills occupies an estate that was once home to the politician and bon viveur Charles James Fox. Fox’s gambling habits were legendary: in 1774, at the age of 25, his father had to pay off gambling debts of £140,000, the equivalent of £17 million today. Fox became an MP at the age of 19 but, owing to his support of causes such as American independence, the French Revolution and Catholic emancipation, he held high office for only a very short time. When Fox died in 1806, his body was found to contain 35 gallstones, a hardened liver, and seven pints of transparent fluid in his abdomen.
The Manor House at Foxhills, now the centre of the estate’s extremely nice hotel, was built in the 19th century. Rooms have been added in several different phases: the courtyard block of about 20 rooms is of modern construction, but to a cursory gaze appears to be original: it is very well done. The estate was turned into a golf resort in 1975, with two courses designed by Fred Hawtree, now known as Longcross and Bernard Hunt, after the eight-time Ryder Cupper who served as pro at Foxhills for 25 years.
The Surrey area became a golfing hotbed because so much of it is on sandy soil. All the famous old courses in the area are sandy, located on a geological formation known as the Bagshot Beds. Foxhills, however, is not wholly sandy, but has large areas of clay. There is heather, but only a tiny amount, and it is not really in play. The two courses are mostly lined with pine trees, though in several places the trees are in very straight lines, indicative of them being planted rather than self-sown.
Longcross is generally regarded as the better of Foxhills’ two full sized courses (the estate has a third course too, but the Manor is a short nine holer), and it has been in Golf World magazine’s list of the top 100 courses in England. The popular website Top 100 Golf Courses lists Longcross as the 28th best course in Surrey; not obviously that great a ranking, but then we come back to the strength of Surrey golf.
The resort, a rather high-end place as befits its setting, is obviously keen to enhance the golf offering, and is working with architect Gary Johnston of European Golf Design, on a long-term improvement project. The first fruits of that, the renovation of holes thirteen to sixteen of Longcross, has recently been completed. It is mostly subtle work – green expansions, extensive drainage additions, new irrigation, and a bunker refresh, including lining them with EcoBunker’s EcoTec product. The most obvious change is the reconstruction of the par-three sixteenth, pushing the pond up to the greenside to create a dramatic – and demanding – downhill water hole. For many players the hole will, especially into any kind of wind, require a wooden club, or at least a hybrid, and it will be a tough one.
“When the courses were built in the seventies fairway irrigation wasn’t as common, instead fairways tended to be capped with soil that helped retain water and stop them drying out,” says architect Johnston. “Similarly the greens were all soil based push up style which are not as free draining as modern greens.”
I thought the bunkers, in places, could have been a little more dramatic. The new bunkers are well placed, but perhaps a little subtle in visual terms. Obviously, there is a trade-off between visual drama and maintenance efficiency, and the architect, in consultation with his client, has to take a decision on how much drama to build in. A higher, more flashed sand face might have meant a slightly higher maintenance load, but given the nature of the place, the balance might have been tipped a little further towards the dramatic. “A lot of the bunkers were very short from the tees, and they do hold a number of events, and would like to have more. So they know they need to challenge the better players a bit more,” says Johnston. “We wanted Longcross to have more dramatic bunkering, something we will look to develop as we work through the next phases.”
It was noticeable to me that the renovated holes were more open than those that have still to be worked on, and my suspicions were confirmed when, next to a path between two holes, I came across a substantial pile of tree trunks. Both courses could certainly stand some tree work: on Longcross, to address those very straight rows, and the fact they are also rather too close together. Some careful thinning would, in addition to making the course more open and improving the turf quality, allow those remaining to thrive better. On the resort’s other course, the Bernard Hunt, the tree stock is more varied, with a fair quantity of different broadleaved species to be found. In my opinion, the resort would do well to take some of these out, and focus on the pines.
Foxhills isn’t really a heathland property, and it doesn’t have the sandy soil that characterises most heaths, but, with the pines and everything else, it does share a fair bit of DNA with heathland, and it could share more. Heather seed survives in the soil for many, many years, and can be encouraged to grow by removing areas of turf. Even if that doesn’t work, it is possible, as was proven across the road at Queenwood, to import heather and grow it successfully. Heather is so associated, especially in that part of the world, with quality golf. That said, the topsoil cap that was installed during the original construction is a problem, and it is hardly surprising that the club does not have any appetite for the scale of work that would be required to remove it. “The soil is too heavy to grow a good heather stand. The topsoil cap is six inches to a foot deep all over and the heather won’t grow through it,” says Johnston.
Foxhills is a mixture of club and resort; it has a significant membership component in addition to its pay and play business. Judging by the amount of expensive metal in the parking lot, and hardly surprisingly given the location, those members are an affluent bunch. Its non-golfing facilities are first rate, and I am sure that the membership values those facilities just as high as it does the golf. But it is good to see a facility determined to improve what it has, and I am confident that Foxhills will continue to get better.
This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.