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Little Aston

Yardage
6813
Par
72
SSS
74
Built
1908
Architect(s)
Harry Vardon, Harry Colt, Mart Lewis
Nature:
Well known, Harry Vardon parkland course with Colt bunkering and famous flower-bed putting green.
Location/Address:
In private housing estate near Sutton Coldfield. B74 3AN.
http://www.littleastongolf.co.uk
Secretary
Iain Burns
Telephone
0121 353 2942
Professional
Brian Rimmer
Green Keeper
David Gibbons
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little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,
little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome weekdays and Sunday
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
none
Fees in 1960s
75p
Fees today
£95 - 2016

Review

Little Aston, just north of Birmingham, is well known and has an image that appeals to many aspiring people.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

The 8th green

I have to admit I have always considered its Harry Vardon lay-out to be a little monotonous and as Bernard Darwin in the 1920s wrote “One is inclined to write of it in the American language as ‘well-trapped’, for there is something of American thoroughness in the bunkers that punish the inaccurate approacher.”

The merits of its parkland turf perhaps rely to some extent on another early quote from Bernard Darwin “more delightful turf on which to walk would be hard to imagine”. Henry Cotton in 1955 said that this course must have the best fairways in the world. The fairways continue to be well tended and I read they are based on gravel and sand but now unfortunately with much less fescue than of yore.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Fine oil painting of 18th green and clubhouse

There is nothing wrong in being proud of one’s agronomic heritage but one should beware the similar manner adopted in Nairn’s marketing use of their famous James Braid turf quote, when the reality of Nairn’s modern soft greens of 90% annual meadow grass (Poa annua) perhaps complacently disguises the need for agronomic change back to fine grasses.

The day before coming to Little Aston recently, I played on another West Midlands parkland course that was truly ‘target-golf’ with my ball actually plugging in its pitch-mark on one occasion on its 100% annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens. So with my heart in my mouth, I was pleasantly surprised to find at Little Aston a level of firmness and some browntop bent grass on quite a lot of the greens, which increased my pleasure in playing here no end.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Vardon’s cross bunker on the 3rd

Apart from a couple of stand-out holes at the far end of the course, the dogleg fourteenth and the seventeenth (and more of that later…), one remembers the wide straightness of the fairways and the imposing bunkers (like the famous Vardon cross bunkers at three, ten, sixteen and eighteen, where the high handicapper is not going to get away with a foosled shot when he lifts his head in anxiety!) but some holes are easy to get mixed up in one’s mind with another, which is not a definition of the finest design.

Actually the bunkering is not all down to Vardon, who like the early JH Taylor courses, tended to place many of his bunkers down the sides of fairways, allowing the straight scratch man to avoid trouble. Harry Colt was invited in 1911 to submit ideas and the diagonal bunkers at four, six, seven, fourteen and fifteen are his and these pose a more interesting challenge to the low handicapper, while allowing the more wayward high handicapper more width. Colt also created the fifth green that is perhaps a little too spacious and the seventeenth green that was certainly not, before it was recently moved.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

The 6th green

Having said all of that, Little Aston undoubtedly is the major historic championship course in the west Midlands as far as amateur and professional tournaments are concerned. This role continued right up to before the 1980/90s era when the newly bulldozer built ‘target-golf ‘ championship courses like the nearby Belfry, started attracting the professionals. It is argued by the Club’s centenary book authors that being situated within a private up-market housing estate, it was only the lack of extensive car parking that made it difficult to stage professional tournaments as watching crowds grew from the 1970s onwards.

The first Pro tournament staged here was the Daily Mail in 1937. Due to connections with the local Fort Dunlop, the Dunlop Masters came here five times between 1947 and 1969, while Peter Alliss won the Daks in 1954 when playing with Bernard Hunt, taking less than two hours to play each of the last two rounds!  Amateur tournaments like the Brabazon Trophy, the British Boys and many women’s events have continued to be staged here.

Another local Birmingham connection, from being the manufacturing hub of the British Empire, was the company Accles and Pollock, who patented tubular steel golf shafts in 1913. The R&A eventually allowed them to be used from 1929 which saw the demise of hickory shafts by 1935 until the recent rediscovery of the fun of playing with hickories that is particularly strong in Scandinavia.

Frank Pennink in his 1962 Golfers Companion thinks “the sixth, seventh and eighth constitute a run of two-shotters, forming perhaps the hardest stretch of the course”. The sixth is particularly fine. It is interesting that his favourite was the seventeenth. In his words a lovely drive and pitch to a strongly bunkered plateau green alongside a lake, being what he called ‘the show hole’.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

The new 17th green ‘in the lake’

There was much debate and argument, which included considering Donald Steel’s idea of havng the green on the other side of the lake, before it was recently decided to build the green out into the lake. The new green certainly fits with Darwin’s American thoughts and it does have the advantage of creating more room for longer back tees at the second and eighteenth where with the length the modern ball is being hit was starting to risk the safety of golfers.

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The 10th hole

Most of the drives are to wide and pretty straight fairways though one can easily recall the finest hole, the tenth, where there is an S-bend fairway on rising ground that needs a thump over the spindly trees on the first slight corner to set-up the long approach. This approach is played over a run of bunkers in echelon well shy of a bunkered green set in the crook of a wood that surely shades and stops the green drying out.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Heather being encouraged at the 11th.

Heather is being encouraged at the eleventh which is a short par four strong left-hand dogleg to a small raised green. It is not often that ponds are welcomed on fine courses but the one quite recently built on boggy ground to the left of the approach to the twelfth, looks natural and with its lilies both fit the parkland feel as well as adding additional risk as a fair hooker’s hazard to those going for the green in two.

The fourteenth has strong Harry Colt style bunkering on the acute right-hand dogleg corner which is enticing but well worth leaving alone!

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

The par three fifth green

This Club with a small membership is situated within a private estate of large wealthy houses and the overall parkland setting with big, predominantly flat greens provides comfortable golf. The numerous gaping bunkers, cut cleanly in Colt style, never allow you to just slog away and the aprons to the greens, usually at the same height to the fairways, welcome the bump-and-run shot.

The three par threes are each in pretty woodland dells but not special.

Extraordinarily the 317 yard fourth is stroke index One! Yes, there are gapingly wide drive bunkers in echelon up the right and a bunker biting into the left of the green that runs away from you. If the turf was firm, the best line would be to hug the right-hand drive bunkers so your approach could run-in past the green bunker. With a soft green all that is required is a solid drive up the middle-left and a high quickly stopping short pitch, which makes this the easiest hole on the course. Interestingly the stoke indexes on the ladies card for holes four, six and seven are different from the men’s card, otherwise the same.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Harry Vardon, six times Open Champion

From the day when the Greatrex family supported the foundation of the Club, a spin-off from Sutton Coldfield GC and sold it Little Aston Park, the great and good of the West Midlands have been members, or at least the male ones have. Mrs Patricia Davies, the author of the centenary book, chronicles with much humour the difficulty the non-member feminists have had with the well mannered misogyny of the Club over the years that now has a thriving ladies side. The course planner points out “there are 81 lady members which allows for plenty of good mixed foursomes, plenty of togetherness and plenty of separateness, allowing respect and camaraderie within the membership”.

Little Aston is proud of its long serving staff. The family of greenkeeping Joneses gave 135 years to the club, while the incomparable Charlie ‘whippit quick’ Ward, one of the finest players either side of the last world war was touring pro here. Mart J Lewis was resident pro from 1910 to 1950.

The Artisans Section was started in 1898, (ten years before Little Aston was founded!) is affiliated nationally to other strong artisan sections such as at Royal Birkdale, Formby, Royal Liverpool, Sunningdale, Walton Heath and Royal Mid Surrey.

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Clubhouse and putting green

As would be expected of a wealthy, sociable club, a fine clubhouse was built that continues to house the original double lockers and facing south has an extensive terrace over-looking the famous and unique putting green among flowerbeds of heather and shrubs.

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aerial in 1960s of Little Aston

There is a serenity about Little Aston that is experienced from first entering the big electric gates to the car park. The enormous elm trees that dominated the Warwickshire countryside right up to the 1980s are no longer to be seen, with disease catastrophically wiping them all out, but the parkland is now well wooded following extensive tree planting between fairways after the last world war and these now screen the course.

James W. Finegan in his 2003 well-regarded “All courses great and small” book, summed up Little Aston in the following way: “We are happy to be here, but it must be said there is a sameness to some of the golf holes and, equally to the point a lack of distinction to some of them as well. We would welcome additional pulse-quickening moments, even an occasion or two when failure to execute the shot will find us face to face with a double or triple bogey. Little Aston is perhaps too considerate of our goodwill, too well-behaved.”

little aston golf club, harry vardon, harry colt,

Aerial in 2000s of Little Aston

Frank Pennink had the privilege to play for the Oxford University ‘Divots’ in their only match that required travelling north from Oxford against the Club on a February Sunday for four years. He enjoyed the high quality competitors company so much that he managed to wangle himself into the side the year after he went down! He notes “it is incredible to think that it lies so few miles from the industrial area that is greater Birmingham, so peaceful does everything seem.”

Read “Little Aston Golf Club 1908 – 2008” by David and Patricia Davies.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2015

 

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