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Woking

Yardage
6531
Par
70
SSS
72
Built
1893
Architect(s)
Tom Dunn, Stuart Paton, John Low
Nature:
Historically significant, tree-lined heathland course with subtle greens
Location/Address:
South of Jnt 3 of M3 in Surrey. (Postcode: GU22 0JZ)
http://www.wokinggolfclub.co.uk
Secretary
Kim Brake
Telephone
01483 760053
Professional
Carl Bianco
Green Keeper
Jon Day
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome Mon to Fri
Dog Policy:
No visitor's dogs
Open Meetings:
Alba Trophy-June, Bath Club Cup-Oct
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£60

Review

As the Old Course at St Andrews has influenced the design of links golf, so Woking’s has influenced the design of heathland golf.

Woking, built in 1893 and designed by Tom Dunn, was the first of the great Surrey heathland courses. Founded by a group of London barristers, the Club in its first years played an enormously important role in the development of English golf.

Its members have included Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers; Arthur Balfour, who made golf fashionable for the middle classes in the 1890s and was captain in the same year as being Prime Minister(!); the double Amateur Champion, Freddie Tait, whose cavalier golf made him the best-loved amateur golfer of his day until killed in the Boer War; Roger Wethered, the British counterpart to

John Low

John Low

Stuart Paton

Stuart Paton

America’s Bobby Jones in sportsmanlike behaviour; the brilliant artisan Doug Sewell – one could go on but the two members whose abilities have turned out to be most enduring were the little known Stuart Paton and John Low, who revolutionised inland golf course architecture.

In 1901 these gentlemen had the effrontery to place a bunker in the middle of the 4th fairway at Woking thereby creating a risk/reward choice for the first time and placing a hazard exactly where the ‘expert’ golfer wanted to put his ball. Previously the function of bunkers had been to penalise ‘really bad shots’. The new bunkers at Woking were positioned to penalise the ‘not quite truly hit ball’. This single shift in emphasis had seismic implications and ‘strategic’ golf architecture was born. (See Robert Crosby’s interesting article in the BGCS’s September 2009 magazine Through The Green on the beginning of the golf architect ‘profession’.)

There is some debate as to whom was most important. My inclination is to believe that perhaps John Low was the more dominant initiator while Stuart Paton was the determined implementer. Whatever, they were a team whose work influenced all the great golf architects thereafter.

Bernard Darwin

Bernard Darwin

Dunn’s original greens were square and unsubtle. However, over forty years, with the help of ‘Old Martin’, Woking’s first greenkeeper, Stuart Paton gradually recontoured them into the intricate slopes and mounds we enjoy today. He was nicknamed The Mussolini of Woking in 1937 by Bernard Darwin at a time when the Italian dictator enjoyed widespread respect for getting things done efficiently.

The Oxford and Cambridge GS has always had a close association with Woking GC and Stuart Paton was a distinguished member, being elected without attending either University!

In the early 1970s the Club got caught up in the great watering debate but it had the foresight to bring in Jim Arthur, the R&A’s agronomist, in 1975 and accepted his visionary advice until his retirement in 1990. James Connelly, writing the very readable and enormously enjoyable centenary history book A Temple of Golf: A History of Woking Golf Club 1893-1993(recently reprinted), felt that Jim Arthur helped maintain the Club’s reputation as one of the finest all-weather courses in Britain.

The club is determined to promote its heathland characteristics of a fast running course among renovated heather and lets hope that the new fairway watering system and reservoir built since 2006 does not influence towards the “green is great” route of ‘target golf’.

In recent years much good work has been done in re-bunkering with attractive heather tops and the thinning out of deciduous trees between the fairways will help circulate air around the greens and reduce the dampness so loved by Poa annua (annual meadow grass), as well as helping the heather.

The loss of the huge chestnut tree at the short 7th in a storm has unfortunately devastatingly transformed that hole to an ordinary one.

The 2nd

The 2nd

Nevertheless, there isn’t a bad hole at Woking; some, like the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th are great, from which you will deduce that my view is that the magic of not quite seeing the bottom of the pin only adds to the fun and unpredictability that is fine golf.

Being a two-ball course, it is a toss-up when playing foursomes as to whether one wants the glory of a simple drive at the first where a slight draw can find the green but bunkers left and a copse right infiltrate the brain before you are warmed up, or the intimidating long iron shot, over a heather valley, to the two-tier 2nd green.

I am advised the approach to the 3rd green from off the bank on the right is the clever play, as there is seldom a bump and run par from the left and, as for the deep, sandy chasm in front of the green, no more need be said!

The 6th

The 6th

The new drive bunkers at the 6th are a visual improvement but I am really not sure about the new sculptured banks of the stream. The ragged lines of the same stream at the 8th are more natural to my eye.

More change has been applied to the routing and architecture of holes 9 and 10 over the years than anywhere else on the course. New tees at the 9th and a cleaning of undergrowth on the corner of this sharp dogleg have clarified the tempting risk/reward play over the trees but which ever choice is taken, it is still a stiff four.

I have bemoaned the loss of the funny and characterful fence at the 10th in the past but actually it is now a much improved mid-iron short hole.

The 10th

The 10th

The drives at 11 and 12 are visually polar opposites but both need to be kept left away from the dogleg corners, to open up the greens. The 12th and 13th greens can give fiendish pin placements.

If one approaches the 14th four down, one can be tempted to give up and join those members with a drink in hand on the verandah of the clubhouse next to the par five 14th green and partake of an early lunch! However, it would be a shame, as two very good shots give the real opportunity of a birdie. The always excellent fare will not spoil and there is much good golf to be had in the last loop of four.

Dexter on 14th, clubhouse behind

Dexter on 14th, clubhouse behind

Since writing the Royal West Norfolk (Brancaster) review, it has been suggested to me that the delightful story of the ladies on the verandah actually applies to Woking, though others again have claimed it for Little Aston in the Midlands!

It did take some time for ladies to achieve a status at Woking. The suffragette, Dame Ethyl Smyth, who lived on Hook Heath adjacent to the course, was a member. It is reported that she gave Mrs Pankhurst some stone-throwing training on the 13th fairway before their window-smashing campaign! For whatever reason, Woking’s greens escaped suffragette anger unlike some others in the locality.

There is no testimony as to Dame Ethyl’s golf prowess but her close friend, Victoria Sackville-West, wrote of her with affection: “Blinkered egotism could scarcely have driven at greater gallop along so determined a road. But although often a nuisance, Ethyl was never a bore”.

Joyce Wethered who, with ‘Cecil’ Leitch, dominated ladies’ golf between the wars, played at nearby Worplesdon. It is interesting to note the difference in equipment from that day to now: her brother, Roger, playing with a “gutty” ball in 1923 was the only player in a field of international calibre to carry the stream at the 6th with his second shot.

The 15th is the longest hole on the course and called Harley Street, being originally very plain and straight but now has plenty of features to break up the landscape with an elderly Scots pine protecting the interesting green.

woking golf club, tim lobb,

The new short sixteenth

The 16th, the fourth short hole and over a lily and carp pond, brings you to the 433 yard 17th where the drive needs to be kept left through a tight avenue of trees so that Johnny Low’s bunker cut into the green can be taken on with a green sloping away from you.

The 18th is a pretty, short par 4 with another devilish green, where there are whispers of tightening up the approach and bringing the pond more into play. I am not sure it needs it.

Woking was the venue of the triumph of the Moles GS over the full US Walker Cup team in 1926, including Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet, and has been the home of the Seniors Golfing Society since 1949. It is also home of the over-55 public schools’ scratch foursomes event named after Bernard Darwin.

Although the Club’s greatest honours may have come in its first 60 years, it has been an enduring supporter of university, public school, artisan and seniors’ golf and the members’ generosity in handing over their course to these outsiders has had the advantage of attracting income that helps pay for the immaculate up-keep of this fine heathland course where it is simply a ‘joy to be alive’ .

See A Temple of Golf: A History of Woking Golf Club 1893-1993 by James Connelly

Reviewed by Lorne Smith, 2009. Updated 2014

Reader Comments

On December 2nd, 2009 Robin Brown Said:

I feel Woking is a great example of an enjoyable and still testing proper heathland course.Managed to play 32 holes in the time it takes to play 18 at some venues!
Historic, great value and wecoming to visitors who treat Woking with the respect it has earned.
Worthy of an annual visit

On December 3rd, 2009 Jonathan Poole Said:

Hi Lorne

Much enjoyed the latest newsletter.

Reading it I was reminded how unknowingly the past passes by the young. As a 17 year old I did odd gardening jobs for a lovely old lady called Mrs Wethered. She lived in a beautiful house that abutted the 1st fairway at Royal Wimbledon sadly demolished in the late 70’s for a development of ugly executive houses. She used to give me tea and cakes after I had done a couple of hours sweeping etc and chatted and seemed to be just a kind little old lady.

I repaid the kindness by returning late at night to pick roses and flowers in pursuit of romantic pleasures.

Recently I discovered that it was the famous Roger Wethered who lived in the house and the little old lady was either his wife or even his famous sister Joyce. Roger himself never spoke to me although I did see him usually reading in one of the rooms looking over the garden. He seemed a sprightly if old looking man but without any suggestion of his golfing prowess although friends at RWGC tell me that he played regularly almost up to his death a good few years later.

Well done with the newsletter I do enjoy reading it.

Regards Jonathan

I do appreciate you sharing with us this interesting recollection and lets hope she did see you in the garden at night and decided not to apprehend you !
Lorne

On December 13th, 2009 Michael Estorick Said:

I’ve played Woking a few times this year and the recent changes,clearing out a lot of woodland and removing a lot of bushes (remember the back of the 10th green) and whatever they’ve done to the greens has transformed it. As you say, playing there is a complete delight, whereas in the past there were times when one didn’t know what all the fuss about Woking was about. It’s shot up the rankings this year, though you probably don’t think or care much of those!
Mike

I am sure George Ritchie and Jon Day will be pleased with your comments Michael.
I find it difficult enough reviewing and allocating ‘joy to be alive’ stars to beleive ‘rankings’ can be objective!
Best wishes Lorne

On June 4th, 2014 Alan Howick Said:

Lorne

I have enjoyed the privilege of managing the MCC Golf Day at Woking for the best part of 14 years and after every visit my MCC colleagues always remark what a beautiful club and course is Woking. Or as a few of my Essex golfing friends say, “it’s a proper golf course!” For me, it’s one, if not the best, golf club I have visited and played. Then there is the lunch……

Alan.