Search

Huntercombe

Yardage
6319
Par
70
SSS
71
Built
1901
Architect(s)
Willie Park junior
Nature:
Willie Park jnr. designed, 2-ball, heathland course, now well wooded. Some historic green complexes.
Location/Address:
Between Wallingford and Henley. Postcode RG9 5SL
http://www.huntercombegolfclub.co.uk
Secretary
Steve Green
Telephone
01491 641207
Professional
Ian Roberts
Green Keeper
Grant Stewart
Tell a friend
Access Policy:
visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
Well-behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
none
Fees in 1960s
50p
Fees today
£52

Review

Huntercombe Golf Club has one of the greatest and most versatile early professional golfers to thank for being founded at the heady era of the turn of nineteenth century, when golf from its modest beginnings was bursting out in England into a national and later international game.

Willie Park junior, the son of a four times Open Champion, took over his father’s ball and club making business in Musselburgh, Scotland and was a leading pro, being a double Open Champion himself, just prior to the era of the famous triumvirate of Vardon, Braid, and JH Taylor.

Willie Park Junior, finest courses,

Willie Park Junior

He travelled to the USA in 1895 and 1896 to design courses and play exhibition matches and was the author of ‘The game of Golf’, a book that has a fluency and style.

What none of the other early professionals achieved was that he became an entrepreneur in founding and putting up 80% of the capital to create a golf club. The success he enjoyed in laying out the Old Course at Sunningdale may have helped his confidence to build Huntercombe Golf Club.

Willie was a man of great talent and evidently of sterling character, praised for his courage, temperance, hard work and the devotion with which he looked after his ailing father.

The original Huntercombe course had few trees and the common land, 550 feet above the river at Henley, which was the nearest railway station, caught any wind that was to be had. An advertisement of the time described it as “A perfect seaside course, inland. Grand old turf, gravel and sand subsoil and an ideal course for London Golfers”.

In those days the ideal conditions for the fine running game were appreciated around London but unfortunately for Willie his new club was just too far to travel to attract enough of the fashionable Edwardian set from London and the cost of boring for water had been underestimated. His company eventually went bust in 1908. It was later acquired by Lord Nuffield who ultimately sold it to the members in 1963.

A member and the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, had a grandmother known as ‘curtseying Kate’ because of her idiosyncratic golf swing, who was admonished by the Huntercombe committee for the unruly behaviour of her dogs.

Huntercombe golf club, finest courses

Dexter on the 6th

Something that has not changed over the years is that Huntercombe has always been a very ‘doggy’ Club and family-based in its membership, with both male and lady members exercising equal influence. The (two-ball) foursome is the predominant method of play.

Willie Park designed 62 courses in North America and 98 in Britain and Europe including planning (or restoring) Stoneham, Temple, Parkstone, Aldeburgh, Silloth, Gullane and Notts(Holinwell).

It is possibly the case that without the failure of his  Huntercombe company, Willie might never have left for America, where arguably he did some of his best and most interesting work (Mount Bruno, Olympia Fields, Ottawa Hunt and additional holes at the Maidstone). Ottawa Hunt in particular has a number of negative slope greens, which Willie may have tried out first and that work so well at Huntercombe, requiring golfers to stop the ball on greens that run away from them – sometimes called ‘Redan’ after North Berwick’s famous par three fifteenth hole.

Huntercombe also contributed to the spread of golf to South America. In 1904, with the financial writing was on the wall, Willie’s younger brother Mungo Park who was managing Huntercombe, left for the Argentine, where he won the first Abierto (Open), in 1905, and again in ’07 and ’12.

Huntercombe golf club, CK Hutchinson, JH Taylor, Willie Park Junior, FW Maude, finest courses

CK Hutchinson, JH Taylor, sitting: Willie Park Jnr, FW Maude at Huntercombe

Huntercombe attracted many with aspirations to enjoy a golf course architect career and they came to study Park’s use of the natural landscape. It was during this Edwardian era that strategic inland golf design was born and CK Hutchinson (designer of Royal West Norfolk, West Sussex and Ganton), Charles Alison (Harry Colt’s partner whose most famous course is Hirono in Japan), Stuart Paton (Joint-designer of Woking’s new green complexes and strategic bunkers with John Low) and JF Abercrombie (The Addington) were all Huntercombe members, gathered around the great Willie Park junior.

In later years Ken Cotton, arguably the UK’s premier golf course architect after the Second World War and a partner with Frank Pennink and later Donald Steel, was a Huntercombe member and advised on the rearrangement of holes following the building of the new clubhouse in the 1960’s to its present position.

Huntercombe golf club, red kites, finest courses

Red Kites over the second green

Cotton (not to be confused with Sir Henry Cotton the golf professional) felt the new first hole should be the Par three, rather than the tight Par five sixth hole, which on balance does provide a smoother flow of play around the course. It also has the advantage of an early view of the vista across the Oxfordshire Countryside as one plays the second hole, before being immersed for the rest of the round in tree-lined fairways. It is at this part of the course one often sees the many Red Kites that the club has now taken as an emblem.

Huntercombe golf club, Lord Nuffield

Lord and Lady Nuffield

How is it, the visitor might ask, that Huntercombe is now a wooded course with all the associated dampness and difficulty of maintaining dry, firm greens? Well, during the years Lord Nuffield (creator of the Morris car and Philanthropist) dictatorially controlled the club, it is said that Lady Nuffield (an early tree-hugger!) would not allow the self-seeded oaks to be controlled.

The fairways have a highish proportion of fine fescue grasses and the soil is naturally draining, so the ball runs well. Henry Longhurst, a member in the 1960s, is quoted as saying that Huntercombe was “one of the finest and most congenial all-the-year-round inland courses in England”.

Willie Park was renowned for his putting and at Huntercombe he has indulged us with brilliant, distinctive, green complexes that naturally flow with the contours of the land and are a wonderful antedote to the modern computer designed greens.

Huntercombe golf club, finest courses

Clive approaching the third green

There are two-tier greens at the third and at the fourth that runs away from you left to right, and at the steep-banked eighth that has a fascinating ‘forward-bump’ in the middle of the top tier.

Though the greens continue to be quite receptive in places, the policy of  over 200 tons of sand topdressing per annum and the over-seeding now with Browntop Bent and no longer using Velvet Bent, has started to firm them up.

At the eighth for example it is now perhaps the better percentage shot to bump-and-run your chip than fly it with a wedge, if the pin is located on the wide, though short, top tier.

As with many heathland courses around London, Huntercombe had allowed Poa annua (Annual meadow grass) to flourish on its greens, through over fertilising and watering via the automatic irrigation system, to a point where the finer grasses found it difficult to survive and every May when the meadow grass produced its seed heads, the greens at Huntercombe appeared to have turned ‘white’ in colour!

However ten or so years ago the Club changed its management policy and Neil Mcarthy Primmet, the Course manager instituted a programme to reduce thatch, improve drainage, extend and improve the aeration policy, reduce fertiliser input and return the sward composition to indigenous bents and fescues.

Lets hope that the fescues will take, as Jim Arthur, the world’s greatest ever golf agronomist described velvet bent as, “sometimes found in wet or over-irrigated turf, a desperate thatch former and very susceptible to disease.” Not an environment in which fescues thrive.

Every attempt to go back to well-managed turf is to be applauded and Huntercombe are doing the right thing in measuring maintenance and performance. The regular and accurate assay of the actual botany on the greens is so important.

With Neil’s retirement, Grant Stewart, who is from North Scotland where his first boss at Moray was from Muirfield, and he has recently been Deputy at Sunningdale, being appointed as course manager in 2016, it is expected the course will continue to be returned to the firm heathland ‘running-golf’ environment of yore. It should be mentioned that the establishment of a new management structure also gives confidence that the Club will engage with the right kind of change overseen by the able secretary Steve Green.

Huntercombe golf club, finest courses

The short 7th

The brilliance of Willie Park’s design is epitomised in every green complex  having its own individual characteristics with subtle slopes quite often as mentioned, running away from the approach.

The thirteenth green runs at forty five degrees and, with a raised spine, often presents a fascinating problem to achieve a close approach and to avoid three-putting.

There are a few sand bunkers at Huntercombe but grass hollows, pots and pits provide the most attractive of  hazards.

Huntercombe must be one of the very few courses where its length of 110 years ago, over the same routing as now, has been reduced from 6520 to 6330 yards (Par 70, SSS 70) It suggests that Willie Park’s original design was set up to be a Championship course which it surely is, but the club modestly prefers to play within itself than brag loudly beyond the level of Oxford and Cambridge University golf, with which it has had a close and enjoyable history. (Alan Holmes another Huntercombe member, statistically is the most successful competitor in the President’s putter, played annually at Rye Golf Club, just ahead of Ted Dexter.) This reduction in length was made primarily from the second, third, fifth, sixth, eleventh, and fourteenth holes with a corresponding reduction in par of four strokes, while the eighth and eighteenth have been later lengthened into tough par fours, with a further back tee at 18 being discussed now that a number of trees have been taken out from around the seventeenth green and opening up the air to the fourteenth green.

As is usual with a ‘family’ based club, loyal servants are numerous and too many to mention, though one must make the exception of Jim Morris, the previous Pro here for 43 years, working seven days a week, and who holds the course record of 63 and an eclectic score of 41!

Huntercombe golf club, finest courses

The double-tiered 8th green

Another member, for whose character I can vouch, can also amusingly be mentioned for hitting his second over the green at the eighth in an important match. His cause was stabilised by Huntercombe’s famous lady caddie saying in a stern voice “We shall not get angry, we shall take a penalty drop and take a six”- and his day was saved. Subsequently he prevailed upon the Secretary to clear the back of the eighth green of bushes and lay the slope to grass, which some feel is an improvement and certainly a reduction in its potential terror.

I would like to think that I had a small part in persuading the very same secretary, Neil Fisher, to retire from schoolmastering and become one of Huntercombe’s legendary, excellent secretaries in the new members owned era, due to his immense frustration at trying the impossible, to teach me French!

Over the years there have been instances of conflict arising over the use of the common land but as at Piltdown, the Club has shown leadership in its dealings, though unfortunately not the same determination as that shown at Piltdown to reduce the tree cover. Consequently there has been a loss of a) heather and b) the movement of drying air over the greens.

Some may be right in asserting that the modern Huntercombe is more difficult, with lost balls and shots aplenty in the dense undergrowth and under the numerous trees. Others might suggest that to retain that ‘all-year-round’ dry running character, the long-term heathland conservation programme that is gradually being implemented with a reduction of scrub and under storey to help air and light circulation, thereby helping maintain the quality of the “immemorial turf” of seaside composition, as is happening as part of the trend towards FineGolf  at a number of other fine heathland courses like Hankley Common, is an improvement.

This policy can be seen well at the first hole with many trees and gorse taken out so the wind can help dry out the green, while opening up the view.

Huntercombe golf club, finest courses

Clubhouse behind the 18th green

Whatever happens, it is always a ‘Joy to be alive’ when invited to visit Huntercombe, accompanied by my ‘well-behaved’ Labrador named after the old Radleian Ted Dexter and play a quick round over this historic Willie Park jnr track and enjoy the warmth of welcome in the modest but comfortable clubhouse afterwards.

See ‘A Century of Golf at Huntercombe’ by John F. Moreton and ‘ Huntercombe Golf Club 1900 – 1983 ‘ by John Adams.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2011 and updated in 2016

 

 

 

Reader Comments

There are currently no comments.