Luton Hoo

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Parkland has become a catch-all term for golf courses that don't fit into any other category. Adam Lawrence reports on a new, genuine parkland track.

If a course is on sandy soil by the sea, then it's a links; if there's silver birch, pine and heather, it is heath. Desert and mountain golf are fairly easy to identify. And if none of those apply, then it'll probably be dumped into the parkland category.

Originally, though, the concept of parkland really meant something. Aristocratic landowners have had parks built around their country houses for centuries, and landscape gardeners such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and Humphry Repton are, in many ways, the original antecedents of most golf architects. Brown, Repton and their like created an idealised version of nature for their clients, orchestrating sweeping vistas by use of trees, lakes and – in some cases – quite significant earthmoving.

Plenty of country houses have been converted into hotels, and a number of golf courses have been built in historic parks. But the process of conversion is not straightforward, as the parks are generally designated, in the UK at least, as protected landscapes. Getting permission to build a course in such a landscape is tricky, but it can be done. Martin Hawtree built golf at Rudding Park in Yorkshire ten years ago, and the extremely important Capability Brown park at Stowe House – where, in the 1740s, Brown built the first large-scale, man-made naturalistic landscape – has been the site of a small course for many years. In Ireland, the grounds of many country houses have been converted into golf courses, and in England, architects Mackenzie and Ebert are about to start work on a new course at Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire.

It has taken almost ten years for Elite Hotels to complete the conversion of the Luton Hoo country house in Bedfordshire, England, into a super- luxury hotel. With prices for the most luxurious suites – formerly occupied by house guests such as Winston Churchill – running around £700 a night, and facilities including the former owner's spectacular private Russian Orthodox chapel – the hotel is quite obviously aimed at the very top of the market. So the golf course, built partly in the house's Grade One listed, Brown-designed park, in a rather shorter timescale by English-based Scottish architect Mike Smith of Mass Designs, has a lot to live up to.

Smith designed the course under quite heavy constraints. In the historic park itself, home to around half the holes, the course had essentially to be laid out over the existing terrain. Earthmoving was allowed for the construction of greens complexes and tees, but nowhere else. Crucially, no sand bunkers were permitted.

Outside the limits of the park, the planning conditions were less restrictive. However, Smith and his clients, looking for a consistent feel to the whole course, chose not to build bunkers here either. Coincidentally or otherwise, another of Elite's hotels, Ashdown Park in Sussex, is very close to the Royal Ashdown Forest golf club, whose Old Course famously is without bunkers. So perhaps the company was more sanguine about the prospect of a bunkerless course than most developers might have been!

On two visits to Luton Hoo, the first admittedly brief, cut short by torrential rain, the absence of bunkers quickly struck me. It's not that the course is less because of its lack of sand: in many ways I believe most modern courses are hugely over-bunkered, and that the use of sand ought to be kept to a minimum on properties where it is not naturally occurring. But a walk round a course with no bunkers makes their role as visual cues for the golfer immediately apparent.

Take the par five second at Luton Hoo as an example. Not massively long, careful study reveals a fine hole which asks the golfer either to place his tee shot just before a turn in the fairway, or alternatively to take on mounds on the right hand side for a possible attempt to reach the green in two. But standing on the tee the player has almost no way of identifying this challenge. This won't prove a problem for those who play the course regularly, but at a hotel of this kind a high proportion of rounds are likely to be played by first-timers, either corporate visitors or resort guests. Such players are likely to have little idea where to hit their ball, which I think is a shame.

The dogleg left par four third is another hole that will prove taxing for first time players. With the course's main irrigation lake on the left (unfortunately but necessarily surrounded by an unattractive fence) and another pond biting into the fairway from the right a little further on, the drive looks extremely threatening. In fact, the big lake on the left should not really be in play except for rank mis-hits, and the ideal line is to the outside of the dogleg. A tee shot placed close to the pond on the right will give the best line into, and visibility of, the angled green. This is a cleverly designed hole.

Backtracking a little, Smith has guaranteed he will be cursed by many golfers by making the opening hole the most difficult on the golf course. A par four of over 440 yards, the green of the first is set at an appealing diagonal to the fairway and protected by trees and a hollow in the front left. The back of this green is frighteningly inaccessible. When the pin is set back, only a fine drive down the extreme right edge of the fairway will give the player any chance to access the flagstick, and even then a running draw will be needed. This may go down as one of the toughest openers to be found anywhere.

Luton Hoo's five par five holes (the course plays to a total par of 73) are a strong collection. The seventeenth, general manager Paul Keen's favourite hole on the course, is an elegant hole in the historic park with a terrific green. Long, narrow and set on a slight plateau, anyone trying to hit this green in two shots will require a fine strike. The eleventh, the last of a series of holes playing back and forth over the row of ponds at the lowest point of the site, is another clever par five. Water threatens in front of the green, and, although getting home in two is a feasible challenge, finding a good place to lay up offers less mighty hitters an interesting problem too.

Undoubtedly the hole at Luton Hoo that will attract the most attention is the thirteenth. Nominally a par three, it plays a punishing 261 yards from the back tee, and an if anything even more scary 245 yards from the everyday, yellow tees. But the most terrifying measurement of all is the distance from the red, or ladies tee: 220 yards. And the hole gives no assistance to the player – the green is tucked to the right, with mounds and a small tree protecting much of its width.

To make par here will require a quite phenomenal tee shot, or a fine up and down. In truth, though, the hole is simply too long from each set of tees (except, perhaps oddly, from the back: it's a fearsome proposition but the good golfer at least has a chance. However, the overwhelming majority of lady players would not be able to reach even with a Sunday best driver). I have little doubt that it will be altered before too long, and can only hope that the alterations will take the form of some new front tees rather than simply designating it a par four.

And indeed, the thirteenth does exemplify one particular problem at Luton Hoo – a lack of playability for ladies and other short-hitting golfers. The course is in urgent need of some more front tees – stretching to just over 7,100 yards from the championship markers is one thing, but from the reds, it is way too long.

Luton Hoo is an interesting golf course, and perhaps a more interesting study in golf architecture. On about half the course, architect Smith has been prevented from any significant earthmoving, and has had to lay golf holes on the existing land – an example of how courses were built over a century ago. And he has not done a bad job, although there it's quite easy to see where he would have made different decisions had the constraints been less stringent.

Oddly, though, it is outside the park, where Smith was able to do much more work, that the course feels less satisfying. Maybe this is visual – the lack of bunkers on holes that are otherwise more conventional is perhaps more shocking. But there is a slight sense of sameness to the routing – holes go back and forth with little variation. I don't, though, want to suggest this is a poor golf course: it is far from it. It will, without doubt, be a hard course to get to know, and will repay a number of repeat plays. And it is fascinating to play a course entirely devoid of sand. We golfers are so used to courses that have a particular look: it is very refreshing to experience something quite different.

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2008.