Whittington Heath project to bring back ‘Golden Age’ look

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    Construction is under way on the rebuild of Whittington Heath in Lichfield, England

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    Jonathan Gaunt has redesigned the existing course to make way for the HS2 railway line

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    Gaunt’s design will reroute some existing holes and create five new holes

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    All the bunkers on the existing course are to be reconstructed

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    “We are working on the most amazing, sandy ground,” said Gaunt

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    The course, originally nine holes, was extended to 18 by Harry Colt in 1929

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    Construction will continue until March 2020, with 18 holes in play at all times

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    The approach to the eleventh green

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    Earthworks details

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Construction work is in full progress to create a “memorable and remarkable” course at Whittington Heath Golf Club in Lichfield, England, overseen by golf course architect Jonathan Gaunt.

As reported by GCA in September 2016, the project is required to accommodate the new ‘HS2’ high speed railway line. “It goes right through the entire ninth hole – from tee to green – and it severs the eighteenth hole in two,” said Gaunt. “HS2 also affects the second, third, sixth, seventh and tenth holes.”

The first nine holes of the course were built in 1886, and in 1929 it was redesigned and extended to 18 holes by Harry Colt. Gaunt’s design will reroute some of the existing holes and create five entirely new holes on adjacent farmland.

“The project involves the reconstruction of significant features on the existing course, including some new greens, all the bunkers, new tees, and some remodelling of green surrounds,” said Gaunt. “There will be five new holes on new land as well as a new practice area, short game practice zone and putting green.

“What is key, is maintaining a consistent style throughout. We’re building to a good specification – replacing like-for-like – so the club will get a golf course and practice facilities fit for a club of this quality.”

Richard Harding, captain at Whittington Heath, said: “Whilst not our choice, the club wanted to seize the opportunities that the HS2 programme brings. This has created a dynamic vision for the course, new clubhouse and ancillary facilities. On the course, we’re referencing the original Harry Colt design and, together with Jonathan Gaunt, we are recreating his vision. The future of WHGC is very bright.”

Construction work began in early January 2019. Eighteen holes will be kept in play throughout the project and contractor John Greasley Ltd – headed by Charlie Greasley – is working with four specialist shapers to complete as much work as possible on the existing course by 1 April. “At that point, they will start work on the new land,” said Gaunt. “At the end of September, they’ll drop back onto the existing course to finish any remaining work. Construction work will continue until March 2020.

Colin Raynor, the site foreman for Greasley, worked with Gaunt on the latter’s very first project, Chesfield Downs in Hertfordshire, in 1988. Agronomist Bruce Jamieson is responsible for the specification for the construction of the new greens. The installation of a new irrigation system (including dripline irrigation to 10 hectares of new heathland areas) is designed and will be overseen by Roger Davy, director of Irritech and installed by Phil Breakey and Lee Knight of Irrigation Control.

Tony Rundle, a former civil engineer and development director for Whittington Heath, said: “We expect the bulldozers and diggers for the HS2 project to turn up in summer 2022, so the golf course and the new features will need to be in play well ahead of that date.”

Much of the Colt design will remain, such as the eighteenth green, which will become the green for the new seventeenth hole. However, seven greens from the existing course’s front nine will be lost because of the railway line.

“We’re using many of the original course features as a design influence, relating to bunker positioning, greens size and contouring, how the surrounds marry with the greens, the incorporation of grassy hollows, run-offs and out-of-play heather areas,” said Gaunt. “It could be argued that some of the original features had been lost over the years – reasons for that include modifications that have been made to accommodate the installation of an irrigation system in the seventies.

“As part of the new course design process we’ve used some great old photographs of the course as a reference point. We’ve also done a lot of on-site research, which includes playing the course on numerous occasions. Plus, I’ve worked on a number of other Colt designed courses around the UK, as well as visiting others where recent remodelling work has been done by architects I rate highly.”

As part of the project, 10 hectares of heathland is being reinstated, which will form the backdrop to the new holes being built on what is currently farmland. Gaunt said some of these characteristics will also be brought into the existing course.

“We’re looking to bring back a much more open, heathland character to the golf course, with wider views of the landscape, as it would have been when Harry Colt was working there in the 1920s. We expect that when the golf course establishes, it will begin to take on that ‘Golden Age’ look – broad expanses of hinterland with rolling features and dramatic areas of wilderness edging into the playing areas.”

The project team, headed by Steve Hunt at Greenwoods Project Management, is working alongside ecologists Johns Associates from Bristol, who are highly experienced in heathland regeneration. Head greenkeeper Trevor Morris has maintained the course for the last 50 years and is now enthusiastically inspecting the new works every day. He is responsible for the ongoing heathland regeneration on the existing course.

“We’re creating something that isn’t just a golf course, it’s going to be an entirely new habitat,” said Gaunt. “The new land has been intensively farmed for the last 100 years, so we’re transforming it from a monoculture – growing wheat, barley, potatoes and carrots [depending upon the year] – to a mixed landscape of native grasses, acid grassland, heathland, woodland, wetland areas, eco-ponds, open sandy scrapes and grassy waste areas.

“The first five holes on the new land are going to be exciting as we are taking inspiration from the existing course, as well as creating something new as well. We are working on the most amazing, sandy ground. As soon as you dig down 50 centimetres you are into pure sand – the kind of featuring we’re going to be creating will be remarkable.

“The most exciting part of this project is working with Greasley and the ecologists to try to create a design that integrates with the existing course, but also brings the golf course into the twenty-first century – not necessarily to make it ‘future-proof’ in terms of technology, but a course that is challenging enough for all golfers. Our priority is to create a great golf game for the members of the club right now, but we also hope that even in 100 years’ time, the golf course remains exciting and even more memorable to play.”

Gaunt is also using several old quarry areas on the existing course as hazards, features and reference points as well as reinstating some craggy features for the new holes. A new quarry area will be incorporated with the new holes to provide the earth needed to build the new car park and access drive.

“That’s going to be a fun part of the golf course to work on,” said Gaunt. “It should allow us to create some really interesting wildlife areas – but we’ll have to make sure there’s clear signage so that people don’t completely disappear on their hunt for lost balls.”

A new clubhouse and greenkeeping compound have been designed by Andrew Hayward of BHB Architects, based in Lichfield, and will be built by local contractor J Tomlinson. J Tomlinson’s construction managing director Darroch Baker said: “We are delighted to have started on site at this historic club. This is a highly exciting project for all involved, and we look forward to working with the club and the course architect to construct new facilities for all to enjoy.”

Construction work started in March, with the new buildings expected to be completed by end of summer 2020.