Continuing our ‘My Top Ten’ series, we asked Faldo Design architect Gareth Williams about his favourite courses.
I expected listing my top ten courses would be easy, and on a pure architectural level I got there pretty quickly. But beyond routing and strategy there are so many other factors that contribute to the makeup of a quality golf course, including the actual experience of visiting it, that I’ve found it very tricky!
On balance, though, intimate, quirky and unusual traits trump pure architectural quality when it comes to my own preference in golf courses – tracks that offer something unlikely to be found anywhere else. For that reason, a number of better-known courses – particularly a few on the Open roster, despite their undoubted quality – are relegated to ‘my next ten’. Plus, of course, there are also plenty of courses I’d still love to visit – in Monterey, Philadelphia, Paris, Iceland and the sandbelt of Australia, to group a few together.
But above all, golf must be about enjoyment and playability – a tenet I try to apply in all my design work. So, of those that I’ve visited, these I’d go back to time and time again.
The Old course at St Andrews, Scotland. It remains unrivalled and unique, despite its unquestionable influence in the growth of the game and replication, in many forms, on courses and holes around the world. I’ve not been around it nearly as much as I’d like, and I am envious of anyone that says, “the more you see it, the more it makes sense”. But seeing it play hard and fast in the wind for the Open this year was fantastic.
The idea of ‘fairness’ as being a necessary part of the game has always been a mystery to me, and in my mind it’s nowhere more evident than on the Old course; the simplicity of presenting wide fairways onto which anyone can hit a ball, paired with traps and hazards of various shapes and sizes as well as the infinite variability of the elements, makes the game as much a mental test as a physical one. No more is that the case than with the sixteenth – always underrated in my book, and constantly overshadowed by the infamous seventeenth; as a seemingly straight mid-length par four, the variety of factors that influence its strategy (wind direction, out of bounds, bunker placement, green angle and tiers) have the brilliant effect of blurring what should be clear options of how to play the hole.
The Old course makes the strong case for playability over fairness, a distinction every course of value should make; the challenge posed – by the elements and its strategy – is the same to all golfers, and it’s the many ways they’re able to tackle it that makes it so special.
West Sussex, England. West Sussex is a little piece of heathland heaven on the edge of the South Downs. I regret only having been once, but my visit there a few years ago has stayed with me ever since. For me it offers just the right balance of challenge, beauty and comfort, the sort of place you want to be on a Saturday afternoon.
The holes themselves deliver fantastic variety, incorporating the topography and environment into their character and strategy; and once you reach the back-to-back short fourth and fifth holes – both worldies – you realise how special the course is. The routing brilliantly takes you in and out of heather and pines, whilst blind shots (to which, personally, I’m not averse!) and sandy bridleways crossing holes give it a quirky edge.
Royal Cinque Ports, England. As far as I’m concerned, this is largely still a hidden gem – compared to its illustrious neighbour, at least. Its geography is detrimental, tucked away as it is on Kent’s east coast; it would surely be included on the Open roster if access to it wasn’t so limited. I’ve not had the pleasure of playing at Deal but every time I’ve been I’ve been blown away by the magnificent use of topography and subsequent variety of holes.
The opening holes brilliantly ease you into the round; or, looking at it in a different way, hide what is to come. The third fairway takes you into increasingly more contoured ground and its green sits abruptly in a bowl more than a metre below ‘ground level’; it’s completely unique and the introduction to the rollercoaster ahead. Once again there are countless exceptional holes – including testy par threes, short risk/reward par fours and brutal longer fours and fives – but best of them is the sixteenth, the most natural and finest risk/reward hole I’ve ever seen. There is no better example of a front nine setting up the back – for as good and entertaining as holes one to nine are (plus the tenth and eleventh at the turn), the closing stretch into the prevailing wind is justifiably infamous and must rival Carnoustie as the hardest (but most thrilling) in golf.
Sunningdale, England. How do you choose between the Old and New at Sunningdale? They each have unbelievable qualities unmatched by most courses on the planet – the Old, with its old-world penal strategy, classic heathland bunkering and intimacy amongst the pines; and the New, with its ebb and flow routing, clever use of the ridge for multiple holes, and its wide-ranging dramatic views of Chobham Common. I’m taking a liberty and including them together, they’re just too good to separate – and, in fact, are the best example of a 36-hole facility, which is a perfectly valid reason to include them as one course!
Rye, England. A course I’ve been fortunate to play several times. Its history and welcoming atmosphere on their own are enough to draw you back. As a Harry Colt fan I love going back to Rye to admire what was his first attempt at laying out a course; I realise it doesn’t play in its original routing, but its holes seem largely untouched and exactly how you might expect one of England’s earliest south coast courses to play.
Whilst it doesn’t necessarily have the drama of the likes of Royal St George’s or Deal up the coast, it is nonetheless a proper test – and in fact its seemingly more tame holes can draw you into a false sense of security; the wind always blows and so par is always a good score.
There are so many excellent and unique holes, but for me the bunkerless short fifth, playing from an exposed tee across an angled ravine to a plateau green dropping off steeply front, left and right, is golf architecture at its finest. The heavily contoured and bunkered par-four ninth is a fantastic close to the front nine, and the reverse amphitheatre sixteenth green is unlike any other.
Cleeve Hill, England. Whilst every golf course is unique, Cleeve Hill is truly a course like no other. Many – in the UK at least – will have become aware of it in the last couple of years, as I did, following announcement of its closure; it was subsequently saved and is now thriving as a valuable community asset.
Sat high on top of the Cotswold escarpment and with 360-degree views stretching to the surrounding counties, many golfers will be very confused by golf on Cleeve Hill; it breaks almost every rule that modern courses present as absolute certainties and yet despite its obvious safety issues, resident sheep on the fairways, minimal strategy on numerous holes, and general lack of conditioning, golf continues (on common land) alongside the Hill’s many other uses and leisure pursuits. On a very basic level, Cleeve Hill’s longevity as a golf course is testament to a game that offers far more than posting a score. Playing up on that hill – with its 90-mile views, iron age fort, wildlife, as well as a handful of exceptional holes – is exhilarating and golf in its original form. I challenge anyone not to be moved by it.
Seaford Head, England. Not a course many will have visited, or even heard of, Seaford Head is a chalk downland course that sits on common land above the white cliffs on England’s East Sussex coast. It couldn’t be described as an architectural gem in the classic sense, but having played there a lot in formative years, its eccentricities must have had a fairly major influence in my future career path.
First laid out as 12 holes in the late-1800s, it features a variety of quirky, crossing, blind and drop holes – but its location is the course’s greatest asset, providing its inherent character and its coastal views. Many holes are surrounded by gorse, typical of British coastal environments and evocative of classic links courses, whilst its underlying geology has resulted in pockmarks of human intervention in the form of quarries and earthworks; and its position in the line of fire during World War II means that it is also still home to several pillbox defence bunkers and a variety of trenches.
But in addition to its variety of holes and the smorgasbord of natural and human influences, it is the climax of the round on top of the cliffs that really elevates this course. At several hundred feet above the sea, arrival at the fourteenth green is met with a view across the Cuckmere Haven estuary to the Seven Sisters’ white cliffs beyond, and the final hole tee shot – played from the course’s highest point adjacent to the cliff edge, to a fairway several hundred feet below – is an extraordinarily exhilarating finish to a round.
Castle Stuart, Scotland. Undoubtedly the best newly built course I’ve ever visited, there are a multitude of reasons to like this course. Its views across the Moray Firth are breathtaking, the intimacy and variety of holes is captivating, whilst the mosaic of natural vegetation in particular areas and across the whole course is very special.
But as a course architect, it is the details that really make it for me; from the brilliantly crafted sandy-tousled-sleeper-hybrid bunkers to the infinity greens that emphasise the views beyond, and the restrained art deco clubhouse. Most of all it is the earthworks and use of contouring to fabricate a unique links environment – at macro and micro scale – that I find brilliant about Castle Stuart. The bluff that runs the length of the property was almost entirely fabricated but tied seamlessly into the wider landscape and is mirrored on individual holes at a much smaller scale – on fairways and green complexes – as inherent rumples or ridges that are integral to their strategy. It is golf course design and architecture at its best.
Himalayas putting green at St Andrews, Scotland. If you gave a group of kids some golf balls and putters and asked them to create a golf course on a small bit of ground, I’d really like to think that this is what they’d come up with. It’s mad, with its steep humps and hollows – and I guarantee you that’s exactly the thought most visitors have when they first see it, and also subsequently when they return (as I did at the Open this year!). But that’s why it’s brilliant entertainment – for golfers and non-golfers alike – and makes my top ten.
Unstructured and unpredictable fun is the best kind – golf isn’t just about the ‘standard’ 18 holes, and modern golf development should learn and take inspiration from the simplicity of the oldest putting green of them all.
Dinard, France. Off the beaten track on the north Brittany coast, this course is described as being “between gorse and broom, on the moors, dunes, cliffs and beaches”. This is another course many won’t have visited. The second oldest in France, originally founded by British servicemen and laid out by Tom Dunne, it exudes old world golf (much like other courses in this list) along with some French style. No doubt the feel-good memories of past holidays spent along this coast is a factor in me liking this course so much, but the combination of location, links character, wild topography, sea views and vistas, short length (a par 68 of 5,800 yards), unique holes including back-to-back par threes and its art deco clubhouse make this place an absolute gem.
A second liberty I’m taking is to mention my runner up. I’m sure everyone who’s ever listed their top ten has a course that doesn’t quite make it, and mine is Pennard in south Wales. “The Links in the Clouds” has charm in spades – from its wild, rugged location, natural green positions and untouched fairways to the views of the coast, cliffs and bay beyond. It’s the type of golf you’ll never play anywhere else.