The Dark Ages of British golf

  • New Zealand in Surrey
    Lukas Michel/CDP

    New Zealand in Surrey, an example of beautiful heathland golf from Britain’s Golden Age

  • Castle Stuart
    Darren Chisholm

    Gil Hanse’s Castle Stuart sets a high bar for modern British golf

  • Mike Clayton
    Mike Clayton

    Mike Clayton says England has the greatest concentration of beautiful golf in the world

Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

The United States has more good golf than anywhere else in the world for the obvious reasons. There is more wealth and more land. Charles Blair Macdonald built the National Golf Links, the first of his and Seth Raynor’s great courses, by importing the principles of the great links holes found on the British coast and for the two decades leading to the Great Depression so much incredible golf was built ‘over there’. 

But English golf is, for me, the greatest concentration of beautiful golf in the world. 

The variety of the heathlands – courses like Alwoodley, Ganton, Woodhall Spa, Notts, New Zealand or the wild Minchinhampton – and the great seaside links makes for the greatest condensed education for anyone wanting to learn about how great architecture is the most important nurturer of the game and its future. 

Alister MacKenzie, Tom Simpson, JF Abercromby, Harry Colt and their contemporaries made extraordinary courses and it was MacKenzie who wrote that the standards of the profession and the courses yet to be built would be even further advanced. 

Instead, the Second World War and their passing changed the trajectory of architecture, not only in Britain but all over the world. 

We can box the two periods into a ‘Golden Age’ and a ‘Dark Age’ and be accused of being simplistic but with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to argue the former wasn’t wildly more productive. Certainly, this was true in Australia where nothing much of any worldwide significance was built post the MacKenzie-inspired era of the late 1920s and very early 1930s until the turn of the new century. In fairness, there were more important things to deal with after the Second World War. The prosperity and optimism of the Golden Age was gone. There wasn’t money to spend on great golf – indeed on almost any golf – as the country recovered from the ravages of the war.

We all understand professional golfers would happily play down the proverbial motorway if the money was right. Nowhere is it better illustrated than the Ryder Cup. Golf’s greatest event moved from Birkdale, Muirfield, Lytham and Walton Heath to the Belfry, Valderrama, the K Club, Celtic Manor, the Nicklaus course at Gleneagles (the one John Huggan calls “the fourth best course in Auchterarder”) and Le Golf National. 

On the European Tour the French Open left Chantilly for Golf National, the Irish Open went from Portmarnock to Mount Juliet and the European Open from Sunningdale to East Sussex National.  

The modern courses may be great venues – and the modern Ryder Cup underpins the financial viability of the European Tour – but is anyone thinking the architecture matches the quality of the Golden Age? A Ryder Cup at Simpson’s Chantilly would have been as enchanting and representative of first-class French golf as Le National was unrepresentative of it. The ball goes too far for the Kings at Gleneagles and wealthy owners bought the Cup in other, obvious instances. 

The Belfry is, however, worthy of more discussion because it’s the poster child for what happened to English golf course architecture in the era coinciding with the tour’s boom on the back of the ‘Ballesteros generation’. 

Unlike the London heathlands, the links, or the great inland sites, so many courses built in the last few decades of the twentieth century were made on less-than-ideal land. There was neither much sand nor ideal undulation, so the quality of the courses was dependent on imaginative routing, interesting, subtle strategy, first-class construction, and beautiful greens. 

Instead of embracing what made English golf so great, so many courses began to look like facsimiles of what we were seeing on our televisions from the PGA Tour. Of course, it wasn’t so surprising as many of the commissions went to big-name architects from across the ocean. 

Why else would anyone build the eighteenth hole at the Belfry? Sure, it made for some memorable moments, but so have the finishers at Sunningdale, Birkdale, Muirfield or the Old course at St Andrews. 

I caddied at the first stage of this year’s European Tour school on a course presumably built as an adjunct to what looked like a beautiful hotel. You hear all the excuses for these modern courses – it’s lousy land, the soil is no good, the budget wasn’t enough, the client didn’t care. On and on. 

This was not a good course, not of the measure of a good English course that is in the top 100 (150 even) courses in the country. And it was on heavy soil but so is Augusta National. 

It was a bad course because the construction of the bunkers was inexcusably rudimentary. They were ugly. Fairway bunkers were poorly positioned, and the greenside bunkers were so far off the green they were irrelevant. The only one I raked all week was the one by the practice green. 

The front nine routing was decent enough because it was flat ground, and it didn’t really matter where the holes went – it was just a matter of making good holes out of what there was to work with. There was ample space and beautiful trees perfectly dotted across the land asking to be used to make the golf interesting. 

The back nine was much different. The land was filled with interesting undulation. But one practice round and it was obvious (fair to say, more obvious to me than my player, who was just dealing with how to shoot the lowest score he could) there were much better holes to be had by teeing off the eighteenth green, finishing up on the tenth tee and playing the entire thing backwards.  

Every hole would have been better, but the reversed tenth wouldn’t have come back to the front of the hotel. Likely someone who didn’t know much about good golf suggested a finishing green on the tenth tee was too far from the clubhouse – or the architect never saw the other possibility.  

It’s fair to say MacKenzie et al weren’t bothered by such trivialities and it’s unanswerable what he might have done with the same site but fair to suggest he’d have done something unimaginably better. 

The years after the turn of the century have seen some excellent new golf in Australia and New Zealand. Gil Hanse’s Castle Stuart sets a high bar for modern British golf. Tom Weiskopf’s Loch Lomond, Kyle Phillips’s Kingsbarns, and David McLay Kidd’s Queenwood and Beaverbrook are very good courses albeit on land not quite Sunningdale, Swinley Forest, Woking or Walton Heath. 

Whilst good sites are important and it’s true you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the future of first-class golf is in the hands of dedicated and talented golf course architects. The evidence of the last couple of decades is that, finally, there is a group who’ve done as much to advance the game as the brilliant men – many of them British – who worked between the two world wars.  

Dark Ages are sometimes worthwhile – even necessary. We can learn much from bad courses as they serve to illustrate why courses built in more enlightened times were so worthwhile. 

Mike Clayton is a former touring professional, a golf architect and partner at Clayton, DeVries & Pont