St George’s Hill: Big plans for Colt course

  • St George's Hill
    Jason Livy

    The opening hole of the Red nine at St George’s Hill in Surrey

  • St George's Hill
    Jason Livy

    Colt’s huge scar bunkers in the face of the eighth green are currently mostly grassed down

  • St George's Hill
    Jason Livy

    The par-three second on the Green nine was originally a par four

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

The iconic St George’s Hill club in Surrey, England, one of the finest works of the great architect Harry Colt, has hired new consulting architects, and is thought to be considering a significant restoration of Colt’s original design.

A team from Renaissance Golf Design, headed by Brian Schneider, supported by regular shapers Clyde Johnson and Angela Moser, plus agronomist Chris Haspell and Jasper Miners of Evalu18 Ltd as historian and project manager, has been contracted to produce a new masterplan for the entire golf property at the club, which currently includes 27 holes.

St George’s Hill was acquired by housebuilder Walter Tarrant at the very beginning of 1912. Tarrant did not play golf, and knew little of the game, but was savvy enough to spot its attractions, and, thanks to golf writer and artist Charles Ambrose, hired Colt to design the course, on what would be the first ever ‘mixed use’ golf and housing development.

Colt’s course was hewn from thick woodland, an enormous job for 1912, and yet was constructed in less than a year. Eight thousand trees were removed, using traction engines and dynamite, and 300 men then hand dug the areas cleared, removing ton after ton of peat to reveal the sandy subsoil.

By the standards of many Golden Age courses, St George’s Hill’s main eighteen is little changed from the original. The famous par-three eighth hole started life with two separate greens, but one was abandoned fairly quickly after opening, and the first green was rebuilt by Fred G. Hawtree and J. H. Taylor in the 1930s, after Colt’s original green, which was right on top of a hill, was judged to be too much like hard work by the members.

Colt himself altered several greens shortly after the course opened, after their slopes were considered to be too steep, and the strategy of the sixteenth hole has been changed by tree planting designed to force play away from the boundary fence. Otherwise, the course is not dramatically different from that created by its original architect. The most obvious change, though, is at the eighth: Colt’s huge scar bunkers in the face of the green are now mostly grassed down. There has been talk of the club restoring these bunkers for years, but, as yet, it has not been done.

The New course, now the Green nine, however, has not been so kindly treated. Built by Colt in the late 1920s, and always something of an afterthought, the New (or Ladies’) course has been reduced to nine holes, with today’s seventh formed from two of Colt’s original holes. A reservoir to store irrigation water has been built in the area previously home to several of the lost holes on the original back nine: the creation of a practice field next to what are now the fourth and fifth holes cost the course two holes. The second, originally a par four to a green close to the boundary fence and Brooklands Road, has been reduced to a par three, with the green much further forward, and the old third, a par three playing back from the boundary, no longer exists.

“We completed a strategic review in summer/autumn 2021 and derived six pillars,” says general manager Philip Worthington. “We set ourselves several goals in relation to Colt – and five points we wanted to consider. Fundamentally, though, the central question was Colt’s own test of a golf course: will it live?

“We want a 27-hole masterplan, looking at the entire estate as one big picture, including practice grounds and greenkeeping facilities. We want to preserve Colt’s design principles, as we are all custodians of a landmark golf course. Neither the Course Design Group, the board, or the committee are here to decree that changes are required: we are very well aware that, if we were a building we would be grade-one listed.”

Brian Schneider says: “St George’s Hill is a marvellous place, perhaps best known for its stunning par-three eighth hole. However, this is just one of eighteen extraordinary holes found on the Old course (the Red and Blue nines). It is also evident that Harry Colt’s second eighteen, the New, was the match of any course in terms of interest, memorability, and fun.”

In a statement, the club’s Course Design Group said: “We are blessed as members of this wonderful club to be the custodians of what can only be described as a timeless work of art. The journey we will now embark on, in partnership with Renaissance Golf Design and Evalu18, is one of excitement and adventure. To create a plan that will protect, enhance and restore Colt’s masterpiece, is not only a privilege, but a necessity.”

“We are not looking for a new course architect. We have one – his name is Harry Colt,” says Worthington. “We are looking for a team of architects that can review, revisit and restore his works to a modern-day standard deemed appropriate by the club and its membership. What prompted this decision wasn’t one specific event. It was a culmination of factors including the pandemic, a review of course usage and playing habits, and a full review of our assets and our responsibility to maintain and improve them. It is a natural evolution, and we are hoping to have options and considerations to take to members later this year.”

If the club eventually decides to embark on a full-scale restoration – though, as noted above, it is questionable just how restorative any work on the New course, now the Green nine, can be – it would, along with the project currently underway at The Addington, be the most significant restoration yet undertaken in British golf. It remains to be seen how bold the club is prepared to be; but for all those who love historical golf architecture, and Harry Colt in particular, it will be exciting to watch.

This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page