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Walton Heath is strangely reminiscent of the great links -- rather bizarre, since it sits 700 feet above sea level.
Walton Heath is strangely reminiscent of the great links -- rather bizarre, since it sits 700 feet above sea level. (Courtesy of Walton Heath)

Walton Heath in England: Heavenly heather and golf history

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,

TADWORTH, England – There are two wonderful golf courses at Walton Heath, the Old and the New.

But to describe anything here as new is a mistake that becomes more apparent as the years pass; the Old and the Even Older would be more appropriate names.

Built to the south of London on sandy heathland that was unsuitable for agriculture, Walton Heath's Old Course was laid out by Herbert Fowler and officially opened in 1904 when the famous triumvirate of James Braid, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor played a match on it. Braid, the five-time British Open champion, was appointed Walton Heath's first professional in that same year, a post he held until he died in 1950.

Braid's old workshop is now a small museum and well worth a look as you walk to the first tee. Extraordinarily, the Scotsman carded a two on every hole on both golf courses. He suffered from motion sickness and never traveled to the United States to add to the 300 golf courses he designed or remodeled in the United Kingdom. But he is commemorated in the Golf Hall of Fame at Pinehurst, N.C.

After the opening hole on the Old, a long par 3, you cross a rather busy road to enjoy the wonderful expanse of heathland on the other side. There's a smattering of trees, and the beautiful but dangerous heather makes both golf courses much tighter than they appear. It's lovely to view but hellishly tricky to escape as the wiry plant unhelpfully grabs the club head.

The other significant problem is the bunkering. Dozens of deep bunkers sit in the fairways and protect the greens. On an altogether happier note, the fairways and greens are extremely fast-running and must have reminded Braid of the links in his native Scotland. The pitch-and-run shot is certainly useful at Walton Heath, especially as the wind often howls at the highest point in the county of Surrey -- some 700 feet above sea level.

Walton Heath's New Course

Walton Heath's New Course, also designed by Fowler, is remarkably similar to the Old. The first nine holes were laid out in 1907, and an additional nine opened in 1913. Peter Roberts, an assistant professional at Walton Heath, explained the principal difference between the two courses:

"There are more cross bunkers on the New and so it's often sensible to lay up short of them and leave yourself a longer approach," he said.

Roberts' sound advice was confirmed by 2-handicapper Martin Hopley, who shot 69 on the New.

"I only used my driver five times," Hopley said. "It's worth risking on the par 5s which, if you get a decent drive away, are nearly all reachable in two."

Conventional wisdom among Walton Heath members says the Old Course rates as the tougher of the two by a couple shots. But it was a composite golf course, the Championship Course, that hosted the Ryder Cup in 1981, when the strongest team ever assembled by the United States crushed Europe 18 1/2 to 9 1/2.

This same mix of Old and New has also hosted the European Open. And Walton Heath is used as the European Qualifying venue for the U.S. Open. Michael Campbell birdied the final hole in 2005 to make it to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, which, of course, he won.

The membership is almost as illustrious as the golf courses. Winston Churchill was a member, and the Prince of Wales served as club captain in 1935. Although a thriving members' club, Walton Heath welcomes visitors from all over the world. With its wealth of old paintings, photographs and assorted memorabilia, the clubhouse is a joy to wander round.

Walton Heath: The verdict

With its springy turf, wide-open terrain, fast-running fairways, slick greens and almost constant breezes, Walton Heath is strangely reminiscent of the great links -- rather bizarre, since it sits 700 feet above sea level. Still, the heather ranks as the most dominant factor. Avoiding it – and the bunkers – is a major preoccupation. Whether you succeed or not, you cannot fail to enjoy two of the world's greatest golf courses.

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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