I first played Hankley Common in 1973 and it has ever since remained one of my favourite courses, traversing across 164 acres of open heathland within the 856 acres the club owns.
While the Club now has an impressive (albeit giving the impression of being slightly out of character) clubhouse, with an upper storey and balcony overlooking the fourth green, the Club retains a friendly intimacy and far-sighted management.
If this club was on the Berkshire sand belt rather than hidden away south of Farnham, what’s the betting it might have two or three courses by now across this Site of Special Scientific Interest, but how much nicer it is to relish it as it is.
Originally nine holes were designed by Edward Turle before James Braid extended to eighteen in the 1920s, creating the wonderful loops of the 6th, 7th, and 8th holes and the present 13th to 16th holes. It was not until Harry Colt in the 1930s removed three par threes and created the present 10th to 12th hole loop that the course really came of age.
These three holes show the brilliance of Colt’s design ability, using wonderful running turf on essentially flat, open ground to pose strategic questions. With the exception of nine new back tees extending the length from 6440 to 6790 yards (par 71 sss 72) the course design has remained essentially the same to this day.
Machrahanish may have a more terrifying first drive across the ocean; nevertheless Hankley’s opener has always drilled into my brain, usually leaving me to struggle with an extraction from the heathery left hand ridge for my second shot!
Hankley is on predominantly flat heathland while maximum design use is made of gullies as at the 13th, 14th and above all the 18th where one’s long second shot from a hanging lie, over a deep grassy hollow to reach the perched green, really does allow one to walk off with satisfaction if successfully accomplished.
Undoubtedly the seventh hole, at 180 yards across a valley and a vast expanse of heather to a hill-top green, is one of the finest par threes anywhere. It exemplifies the true feeling of Hankley that though we are here in the middle of an over-populated Surrey, there is not a house in sight and we can wander across this expanse of open heathland, disturbed only by the odd horse or perhaps distant Army gun training.
Indeed much work has been done over recent years to take out self seeded trees and return the land to a conservationist’s heaven where the rare Dartford Warbler, Woodlark, Nightjar and Sand Lizard can thrive.
It is good to see three pages given to ‘greenkeepers’ in the centenary history book (1897 to 1997) with the late Ian McMillan heading a cast of some well known names including Charles Ranger, Ronald Rimmer and Kevin Munt. Ian is from a family of green keepers: together he, his father, and his four brothers can boast some 200 years of greenkeeping experience and expertise!
It is great for golfers that at last the work of greenkeepers is starting to be recognised as a true profession and that course managers are learning the skills of communicating with their club memberships to counter-act ‘Augusta Syndrone’ and be able to pursue long-term natural greenkeeping policies.
Importantly for Hankley, Ian took charge in 1986 and saw the course through the fashionable over-watering and ‘target-style’ golf era of the nineties, consistently maintaining a firmness in the turf of most of the greens across this well draining course. He subsequently moved to Walton Heath to work with Simon Creagh Chapman (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) in bringing that great Herbert Fowler designed double course back to an open heathland paradise, using knowledge acquired at Hankley.
Apart from the small greened fourth hole, there are no bunkers protecting the front of the greens, though some have ridges in front like the 11th, 12th and side-ledge at the sixth. Another enjoyable aspect of Hankley is the need to run the ball into the greens in the classic low manner, not only requiring judgement of the fall of the land but also placement of one’s drive on the correct side of the fairway, without running off into the abundant heather! This strategic element, combining brilliant design and firm running turf defends what is an average length course and the professionals, playing the Regional Open qualifying here, have always had to show it much respect.
Bobby Locke used to enjoy Hankley but thank goodness his predilection to advise over-watering in the 1960s was ignored.
Elizabeth Price, a very fine Curtis Cup player, was a member here as well as the amateur golf enthusiast Peter Bathurst who was seen recently following the final of the Fathers and Sons at West Hill.
One should also mention Keith MacDonald, the club’s pro who lead the field in the 1962 Open championship at Royal Troon playing with Arnold Palmer in the first round and equalling the course record with a 69. He nevertheless was back at Hankley on the Sunday, trying not to laugh when members asked him why their clubs weren’t ready!
There are two short par fours (both around 320 yards), the rather weak, straight, fourth that requires a starkly designed, penal front-of-green bunker to give challenge and the excellent fifteenth that used be driveable over the corner of the dogleg. Today the silver birches have thickened and therefore a long iron is required to set up a careful pitch to an undulating green located in a delightful setting.
The sixteenth is an uphill 160-yarder with good bunkering and requires a confident strike, whereas the excellent par three eleventh hole is well over 200 yards to another of the many subtly flat greens at Hankley that give every chance of a good putting outcome.
My only hole-in-one was achieved at Hankley’s second hole! Frank Pennink describes it as: “picturesque, in a cradle of birch and pine”. That may be, but the number of times the green has been re-laid suggests that this medium-iron hole to a raised green has had continuous problems with lack of air and sunshine, thereby inviting annual meadow grass (Poa annua) to invade the green. As a result, the green offers a receptive surface, making my achievement rather less difficult than had the green been firmer!
The enjoyable thing about such a great course is that it allows me to mention my other slight criticism that with so much heather as a natural part of this sandy landscape, some of the bunker tops might be softened in look, in a similar way to what is happening at fine courses like Enville and Moortown, where fescue rough and heather tufts help blend the natural heathland feel.
There are three fine par fives that should tickle the fancy of the tiger player, whereas the straight driver is well rewarded for careful positioning on most of the ‘running’ par fours.
Hankley can also be praised for its enlightened management. In the 1980s it recognised that “a vocal minority of members tend to make the outstandingly unreasonable demands….. which make the lives of many greenkeepers so difficult”. Their solution was to create a management committee to take long-term decisions and free-up the yearly elected captain to focus on social and golfing matters. Michael Hunter became the first chairman of this new committee structure, two years ahead of The R&A recommending a similar change for all clubs. He was rewarded for its success with election as captain in the Club’s centenary year and subsequently became President.
The Hankley Fox, the club’s emblem, has an enjoyable history to it, being adopted after one of the club’s founding members, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote The Ballad of the Hankley Fox. The eighteenth century legend tells of a cunning black-faced fox appearing to soldiers during thwarted attempts to arrest highwaymen exploiting the nearby prosperous Portsmouth Road.
See “Hankley Common, the first hundred years” by Allan Scott.
Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2013
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