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Wilmslow

Yardage
6635
Par
72
SSS
73
Built
1889
Architect(s)
Sandy Herd, James Braid, Tom Simpson, George Duncan, Hawtree/JHTaylor, Donald Steel, Martin Ebert.
Nature:
Fine fescued, 'running-golf ' Parkland course designed by the best historic Golden Era architects.
Location/Address:
five miles south of Manchester Airport. WA16 7AY
http://www.wilmslowgolfclub.co.uk/
Secretary
Ged Heaslip
Telephone
01565 872148
Professional
matthew Wiliamson
Green Keeper
Steve Oultram
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Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
well behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
£1
Fees today
£60

Review

Wilmslow is one of the clubs that has fought its way into FineGolf’s 200 finest ‘running-golf’ courses in GB&I. Its course is set in parkland with the majority of the layout on  flattish ground and in an area known for higher than average rainfall all of which does not make for an auspicious beginning in which to create such golf.

Nevertheless this historic club, with a traditional feel, has been managed over time by a leadership that has continuously called on the finest course architects and agronomic consultants to act as their advisors.

As a result, it has emerged into the sunlight of being one of the leading clubs in the North West of England alongside Delamere Forest and those on the Wirral and coasts of Southport and the Fylde.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,t

Sandy Herd

Founded in 1889 by locals who also played at Lytham, the club moved in 1902 to its present parkland site initially comprising twelve holes. These holes were redesigned in 1910 by Sandy Herd – the first Open Champion to use the new ‘Haskell’ rubber-wound ball in 1902.

The course having been extended to eighteen holes, James Braid was invited to advise in 1928 and created two new greens for the present seventh and twelfth holes while Tom Simpson became involved in 1933, tucking the present tenth green round the corner.

In 1936 George Duncan, Open Champion in 1920 and creator of the holes at the far end of the Royal Dornoch course but probably best known for being the fastest of players, changed the first hole from being a par three. (see the lovely piece of advice by Duncan later).

To me the most significant change came in 1937 when Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor created the present fourteenth and seventeenth par threes, cut through the trees and across the defining characteristic of the course, a ravine and stream.

Having used so many of the best golf course architects of the Golden Era, the Club also then retained the best The Ken Cotton, Frank Pennink, & Charles Lawrie partnership after the second world war at a time when the Club dallied with, but rejected, the idea of adding a further nine holes. The Cotton, Pennink, Lawrie partnership evolved with Donald Steel as senior partner and it was he who rebuilt Wilmslow’s eighteenth green in 1980. With Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert learning their art within Donald’s practice it is fitting for the Club to now retain Martin in recent years.

His latest, 2016, comprehensive report is appropriately complimentary of the greenkeeping practices exercised by Steve Oultram’s team while suggesting some changes to the fairway drive bunkering at 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 12th, 13th, 15th  and 18th holes all of which are sensible.

However, the most important recommendation was that “the strategy and condition of the golf holes should be put ahead of the trees”; a strategy fundamental for the Club’s forward plans.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

Aerial view on a misty morning

A massive number of trees were planted across the course after the Second World War, following a period when the flat holes (three to seven) had been requisitioned for farmland with all the negative connotations with regard to fertilising the land.

In FineGolf’s view the Club needs to ignore the sentimental ‘tree-huggers’, who against genuine conservation, believe in protecting every tree. While it is quite disgraceful that hundreds of thousands of mature trees are being cut down in Europe, Indonesia and America to fuel the EU Bio-energy subsidy scam (read The Guardian’s report), the priority for Wilmslow must surely be to open up the space around the greens to help further improve the environment for natural indigenous fine grasses, while also adding to the ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling and the creation of  more views, particularly across the ravine.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

The par three fourteen

goswick golf club, george thompson, james braid, frank pennink, the flying scotsman

Jim Arthur’s Bible of natural greenkeeping

Although individual greenkeepers are hardly mentioned in the Club’s centenary history book, nor in the 125-year update in 2014, they have nevertheless played a crucial part in raising the standard of the course. This has included the switch from farmland to what are now fine fairways of predominantly fescue grasses and indeed, the recovery of the course after the disastrous over-use of an automatic watering system, installed in 1966.

It was at this time that a member of a well-known Manchester family had the ambition to set-up a major golf tournament called the Greater Manchester Open and the Club agreed to host this from 1975. Whether Harvey Demmy’s influence was responsible for, or the solution to, the then soft target greens we are not told but the following is quoted from the centenary book: “By 1975 the greens had four inches of soggy, yellow and foul-smelling dead grass roots (thatch) just below the sward surface.”!

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

Ninth green and clubhouse

The problem must have been taken in hand as it goes on to say that “…following his first visit to the course in November 1981 on behalf of the PGA, who were about to stage the Martini International at Wilmslow in 1983, Jim Arthur, consultant agronomist, opened his report thus: ‘My task on any advisory visit to a golf club can vary from complete reversal of current practice  and a crash programme in correcting truly appalling lush agricultural conditions, to the finer points of last minute preparation and the culmination of a five-year programme to finalise finishing touches for an Open Championship. Only rarely on a first visit do I find so little to comment on in basic management technique, which is a measure of the skill and experience of your Head Greenkeeper (Bill Garner) and the sensible policies of your Green Committee’”.

The Greater Manchester Open was won by Howard Clark in 1975 and subsequently by Eamon Darcy, Brian Barnes, Mark McNulty, Des Smith and finally Bernard Gallagher in 1981. The Martini International was won by Nick Faldo in 1983.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

The par three seventeenth

Steve Oultram, the course manager since 1991, has continued to follow an austere Jim Arthur regime across both the sandy and heavier clay areas (holes three to seven) of the course. He has project-managed a large increase in pipe drainage as well as cleaning out the old clay-pipe drains. (There are now 80 rodding man-holes across the course).

Regular verti-drain aeration is also undertaken across the whole course and most importantly Steve says the boxing off of grass clippings from fairways has reduced wormcasting and increased the fine grasses.

The greens are an assortment of the old pop-up style, with some being of modern USGA spec. Some six have had a full herring-bone drainage installed and the greens are on average 60/40 browntop bent and annual meadow grass (Poa Annua). Thanks to an increasing amount of over-seeding and with help and advice from Gordon Irvine, the greens are now starting to take some fescue, and there is a firmness and true roll that builds putting confidence in the visiting golfer.

I regularly come across people who say it is impossible to develop fine grasses and the ‘running-game’ on parkland courses. Wilmslow, however, has shown that it can be done and the benefits of an all-year-round, firm course are now enjoyed today. This is because of the development of fine grasses not because of tons of exspensive sand dropped on top of the weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua) which is being done at some of our finest courses.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,Sadly, I was not fully on my game this spring when a past club captain and school friend invited me to play a round with the celebrated local pro Matthew Williamson and chairman of green, John Nicholson but they kindly put up with my irratic game! I was impressed with the level of challenge and running nature of the fairways. Creative use has been made of what is predominantly flat land by a succession of the finest golf course architects from the golden era and after the last war. There is almost a minimum of bunkering and a heathland feel is provided by the use of well mown run-offs, with wonderful swales at the second, fourth, sixth, seventh (and hopefully, the ninth and eighteenth greens if Martin Ebert’s recommendations to replace some bunkers with tight cut swales are implemented). These interesting green complexes encourage one to bump-and-run rather than having to use a wedge out of cloggy semi-rough near the green (a flaw so often to be found on so many other parkland set-ups).

There is no doubt that it is the par threes, crossing the ravine at nine, fourteen and seventeen that most readily stay in the mind but every hole retains a different character of its own and there is even a ‘St Andrews Old’ style double green .

Teeing off in front of the farmhouse-style club house is a daunting first shot as it requires one to carry the ravine at the bottom of which are the ninth and eighteenth greens. The second shot is a dogleg left to a green tucked in to the wood that runs along the ravine.

The course comprises two well-balanced loops of nine holes, with four par fives, all around 500 yards, the eighteenth being the pick of them with the green sited below you alongside the stream, which calls for an interesting risk/reward second shot for the longer hitters.

The second, twelfth, fifteenth and sixteenth, all par fours between 400 and 436 yards, are all about the need to get your drive into position on the dogleg so as to give you a chance to run-in a long iron second shot.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

Mathew Williamson, winner 2011 local PGA, among finer rough on the fifth.

The thick rough of coarse grasses on the heavier soils is now bailed-off each year and a wispier grassland of predominantly fescue/bent is evolving. This is being developed across the drive carries, giving better visual definition, easier ball finding and quicker play.

The tenth and eleventh are short par fours with a quirky undulation and trees coming into play.

willslow golf glub, sandy herd, james braid, martin ebert,

The double 3rd/ 6th green

The fourth short hole, the sixth, at the far end of the course is, as Martin Ebert points out, not a visual delight but it was lovely to see that where most inland courses would have the usual bunker defending the green there is a swale from which or through which a delicate bump-and-run can be played. This invites a shot which is so much more fun than the monotonous one played from or across sand with a wedge.

The classic old-fashioned penal cross-bunkers on the eighth are set in echelon and their look is more heathland than parkland and are lovely on the eye.

In summary, here is an inland parkland course in a wettish part of the country that manages to provide all-year-round ‘running golf’. This is achieved by the leadership of a club committed to a long term programme in concert with advice from Gordon Irvine. Gordon is assuming the mantle of being Jim Arthur’s heir and does so without taking prisoners in his astute recommendations. He is supported here by STRI’s Alistair Beggs and the excellent ecologist Bob Taylor. Steve Oultram’s team are doing all the right things, such as hand-mowing the greens and tees all-year-round and it shows!

He recommends boxing off of tees and fairways which has had the most significant effect of increasing their fine grasses.

Wilmslow is well worth a visit and let them know that FineGolf’ recommended you.

I promised some advice from George Duncan earlier, so let us finish with these two reminisences from Derrick Bolton a member of Wilmslow, born in 1899: “George Duncan told me not to waste time addressing the ball as too many points for consideration came into the mind and led to confusion. He said ” Look ahead – at the ball and then drive it”. Tom Fernie said “the main thing was to remember how a pendulum swings and copy it – don’t alter speed or hit at the ball – let the club swing backwards and forwards and don’t bend it!”.

Surely good advice from Fernie for modern hickory players, nevertheless today’s golfing equipment has surly long left behind any idea of anything but power!

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2016.