|Eltham Lodge, which serves as the Royal Blackheath Golf Club's clubhouse, is stunning both inside and out. (Courtesy of John Nash)|
LONDON -- Royal Blackheath Golf Club, the oldest golf club in England, can trace its history back to 1608.
But if you go looking for it in Blackheath, a pretty area about five miles southeast of the center of London, you will be frustrated because the club moved to nearby Eltham in 1923. It moved because it was becoming too dangerous to continue playing golf on Blackheath, a 250-acre expanse of heath that was crisscrossed by roads and open to the public at large.
This heath proved irresistibly attractive to a large number of Scots who followed King James VI of Scotland south when he was crowned King James I of England in 1603 and took up residence in nearby Greenwich. The early layout consisted of five holes played three times. In 1844, it was extended to seven holes (still played three times). Incorporating a number of significant obstacles, it was christened the Hazard course.
The character of the heath was different to the sandy sub soil and smoother surfaces of coastal links, and specialist clubs were developed to cope with the conditions. Ruts and tracks created by carriage wheels were a particular problem, so a club with a narrow face called a "rutter" was developed to strike a ball stuck in a rut.
Players wore red military uniforms and white waistcoats, which at least made it easier to distinguish them from others enjoying the heath. To this day, Blackheath club captains wear red uniforms on formal occasions.
Increased motor traffic eventually obliged the club to move, and in 1923 it merged with Eltham Golf Club (founded in 1892) with the new club adopting the already revered name, Royal Blackheath. Although sad to leave the heath, the members were thrilled with the magnificent and elegant clubhouse they moved into, which was significantly more impressive than the premises they vacated. Built in 1664, Eltham Lodge is stunning both inside and out. Wonderful old oil paintings, a spectacular staircase and elegant rooms make it feel more like an aristocrat's country pile than a clubhouse.
The grounds around the house were previously part of the Great Park, which was attached to Eltham Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII. Originally densely forested, golf here would have been impossible before the felling of 8,000 oak trees in the middle of the 17th century to supply the naval shipyards. Today, there are only 20 grand, old, oak trees on the course.
Originally laid out in 1890, it was subsequently improved by the legendary James Braid. Gently undulating, it's a delightful parkland course that's pretty to look at and a pleasure to play. The trees are far enough back not to be too threatening, but a number of saplings will create problems when they've grown. A large oak to the right of the 15th fairway is an undoubted obstacle that, if you want the best line into the green, has to be cleared. Needless to say, it's unpopular with both the ladies and the veterans.
"It's a very traditional parkland course, where accuracy rather than length is required," said Head Professional Matthew Johns. "The par 3s are particularly challenging, and a par on each of those is the foundation of a very good score."
Longtime member Richard Williams said: "It's not the most difficult of courses, but the greens are rather small and very well protected and so scoring is more difficult than it might at first appear."
Awkwardly located hedges frequently oblige you to consider your next shot carefully, no more so that at the fiendish 18th. Only 250 yards from the regular tees, it's a par 4 that invites you to have a go and dares you to try and carry the hedge just short of the green. It's a great match-play hole.
Although there are quite a few ditches, there's not much water. The 13th tee is on the banks of a lake, which you should clear easily with your drive on this lovely, downhill, 540-yard par 5.
When you have finished your round, climb a couple of steps at the side of the clubhouse, raise the sash window and the barman will happily bring your drinks over for you to enjoy on the delightful terrace.
You simply must look round the clubhouse before you go. If you're remarkably lucky, you might even be shown what is arguably the finest collection of golf memorabilia on the planet. Housed in the attic, the museum contains fascinating sets of old clubs, sparkling trophies, historic documents and even some very old feathery balls.
Although the golf course is a lovely traditional parkland layout, it's rather ordinary when compared with the rich history of the club, the magnificence of the clubhouse and the amazing museum. Anyone with a feel for the game's great traditions and rich heritage should drop by this unlikely spot in the southeast of London just to visit one of the oldest golf clubs in the world.
March 23, 2011
Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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