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North Hants

Yardage
6565
Par
70
SSS
71
Built
1904
Architect(s)
James Braid, Harry Colt, Tom Simpson, LJ Torrie, Donald Steel
Nature:
Braid/Colt/Simpson designed heathland with heather, trees and superb par fours.
Location/Address:
Minley Road, Fleet, Hampshire GU51 1RF
https://www.northhantsgolf.co.uk/
Secretary
Rob Climas
Telephone
01252 616443
Professional
George Porter
Green Keeper
Sam Evans
justin rose
hampshire Hog
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
well behaved dogs are welcome
Open Meetings:
The Hampshire Hog - April
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£95 - 2020

Review

North Hants GC, near the town of Fleet (sometimes confused with Northants County GC near Northampton) has an illustrious history of design, the traditional condition of a heathland course, an architecturally beautiful clubhouse and a high reputation within the amateur game.

North Hants clubhouse

The clubhouse beside the 18th green.

It opened in the Edwardian period of 1904 with easy railway access, operating then as a croquet, tennis and golf club, and with the atmosphere of a London gentlemen’s club.

Lord Calthorpe

Lord Calthorpe, landlord and first President of the club

Lord Calthorpe of the Elvetham Estate, the landlord, was the first President and of the 153 members a third were from London and only a third from Fleet and local villages.

A degree of exclusiveness and structural formality with which the professional and leisured classes were more at ease was the norm with four peers and a dozen or so knights as members.

The course has a fine heritage in design architects, with the initial course created by James Braid at the age of 33 and already Open Champion. Braid was somewhat of a celebrity architect at the time with his playing career in full swing and being the pro at Walton Heath.

The 12th tee in the 1930s showing gorse but few trees.

This was at a time when the new rubber-cored Haskell ball was yielding twenty to forty extra yards with the driver, gained primarily because the new ball on landing ran much further than the comparatively inert gutta-percha. This aspect would have been particularly noticeable on the fast running fescue fairways of courses built on Bagshot sand such as North Hants. Braid later returned in 1908 to lengthen the course from 5,500 to 6,000 yards.

As a small aside, a century on The R&A is today still struggling to gain purchase with the professional game to agree to the curbing of how far the ball should be allowed to fly. Elite golfers were driving it 278 yards in 1995, twenty-five years later they are driving it 310 yards on average. It should also be noted that this yardage is measured at tournaments that predominantly are played on ‘target-golf’ courses where there is little run.

While back at North Hants, in 1913 Harry Colt was engaged to change nine of the holes while keeping holes one to five, nine to eleven and eighteen. He also expanded the yardage to 6260.

This layout has survived to today though the highly respected Tom Simpson made many subtle changes in the 1930s enhancing doglegs at holes Two, Five, Nine and Fourteen.

The 4th green with the pin on the bottom tier

He changed the Fourth to a par three which Donald Steel in 2001 restored to the original short par four (300 yards) with its deep two-tier green. In the 1930s, Bernard Darwin described this hole as being played with a shot that carries a rough knoll, pitches in the hollow and runs up the bank, which with soft greens is an unlikely play these days!

The new 3rd green and lake

Steel also extended the third hole (489 yards) to a par five bringing the lake into play.

Tom Simpson liked to challenge the scratch player and saw bunkers as opportunities to make them think strategically rather than imposing them as punishments for higher handicappers.

In the mode of John Low and Stuart Paton at Woking’s historic fourth hole, he placed a bunker in the centre of the fairway of the Sixteenth (425 yards) that he described as a full frontal attack on the hill with no bunkers and was “a very bad hole”.

The drive at the 16th today with left-hand bunker.

Tom Simpson working with L.J. Torrie, an able member, who suggested the central fairway and greenside bunkers, they transformed this hole into a risk/reward giving an easier second shot if the drive was placed between the railway line behind the trees and central bunker, while a bale-out sent left would give a more difficult approach.

The hole became subsequently one of the definable holes of the entire course. Unfortunately in the middle of the “target-golf” decade of the 1990s, the Club leadership sent some confusing signals to the membership about a number of design changes and the Sixteenth’s central bunker was voted away to be replaced by a left-hand one, thereby reducing the hole’s noteability.

The 17th green, after the St Andrews road hole.

But there are many other distinctive holes at North Hants and while mentioning Captain Torrie it was he who extended the Seventeenth to a par five with a raised green with a bunker tucked into the middle of the forty-five degree green, much as in the mode of the ‘Road Hole’ at St Andrews.
When the raised green and its narrowness was challenged, Torrie commented that it was not intended to allow a pitch on to the green, but only to be approached by a bump and run; “firm turf for the running shot“ was written in his very own hand on the original design!

Nevertheless these days with soft receptive greens of predominantly annual meadow grass (Poa annua) a full high approach no longer pings through to below the bank at the back but can be stopped quickly near the pin, in the mode of throwing a dart.

The North Hants club has had some long serving head greenkeepers.

Alf Hindley greenkeeper

Alf Hindley and his team of greenkeepers

The most famous of these was Alf Hindley (1910 to 1951) who is a member of FineGolf’s Pantheon of the Finest Greenkeepers.

The agenda for a meeting of the Green Committee in Oct 1931 refers to a suggestion from some ladies that the greens are “too fast”!

FineGolf's Pantheon of finest greenkeepersThese were the years before sapling trees were allowed to grow unhindered and before automatic watering softened the greens and encouraged meadow grass to crowd out the fescues. Along with the belt of Surrey courses built on Bagshot sand, North Hants played like an inland seaside links.

Mark Openshaw (2008 to 2020) was the latest well experienced course manager, previously at Sunningdale, who was striving strenuously to return the course to the open, fast running heathland with the firm surfaces of yore.

Nevertheless, Mark was operating with a membership inflicted with Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD) and within the still fashionable London-centric culture that simply views the performance of the greens on the principle of how quick they putt. This trend contrasts with the sustainable (low input, lower costs) conservation greenkeeping that offers firmness, smoothness and trueness all year round.

Consequently, Mark had to mow at a lower height than fescues like and use chemicals that are fast being banned, so as to manage the Poa.

1933 map of North Hants

Mark told me that he remembered when a speed of 8’6” was considered fast but he now needed to produce speeds of around 10’ plus. The stressed grass and incidents of summer anthracnose and winter Fusarium disease are difficult to avoid with this ever-present pressure to cut lower.

As a second aside; The R&A calculate that every foot over a 9′ speed will increase the time of the round by fifteen minutes, so slowing ‘pace of play’.

The Club has increased their over-seeding since 2017 to improve the perennial browntop bent percentages and have been seeding the fairways with fescues.

An aerial photo of 1930 shows no more than a dozen trees in the whole of the wide expanse from the boundaries of the course to the right of the seventeenth and eighteenth holes across to the tree lined avenue running from the first to the thirteenth greens. There was not a tree to be seen between the third and fourth holes.

2001 aerial photo showing tree lined fairways and the beginning of the Railway Heath development bottom-left.

Following an unfortunate tree planting exercise in the mid 1980s however, when one studies the 2001 aerial photo of the course showing the tree encroachment along every fairway, the Club clearly had a long way to go before they could expect any wind and sun being allowed in to dry out the course again.

The Club’s leadership sensibly retained John Nicholson (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel)  to advise on tree, undergrowth and gorse removal and some of the fine grassed roughs are being opened up which is also an advantage to ‘pace of play’.

North Hants story on Daily Mirroir frontpage

An episode when Harry Colt cleared large trees between the eighth and ninth holes by dynamiting them, made the front page of a national newspaper, The Daily Mirror, in 1913. Most golfers these days accept that to conserve the diminishing heathlands and the enjoyable ‘running-game’ such trees require removal and this is more readily achieved with the use of modern machinery!

By the late 1920s the Club became known as an ‘Army’ club from its proximity to Aldershot and in many respects its halcyon days were in the 1930s when there was a roughly equal number of members of both sexes and the heathland course was open with few trees and had firm, fine perennial grassed greens with fast-running fairways.

Nearby Bramshot GC was another heathland up-market club and was opened in 1905 with a design by JH Taylor and perhaps outshone North Hants in the nation’s imagination but it never re-opened after the Second World War.

hampshire Hog

Michael Bonallack receives the Hampshire Hog cup from Reg Pearce, a distinguished member

The 1950/60s were difficult financially and the Club opened up to a wider membership as well as inaugurating the ‘Hampshire Hog’ a 36 hole competition in 1957 which became one of the most famous of amateur events with all the finest players competing.

The winners are a roll call of the greatest amateurs, including for example Sir Michael Bonallack who won in 1957 before returning to win in 1979 in one less shot, without visiting in the intervening years.

justin rose

Painting of Justin Rose in clubhouse.

It was perhaps when Justin Rose, who has been a most supportive member of North Hants since 1992, won the Hog in 1995, aged just fifteen, that he broke through into the limelight.

The membership turned down the opportunity of acquiring the land from their landlord, regarding the offer as too expensive. Though often such decisions are followed by having to accept a much higher offer at a later date, it so happened that through luck or good judgement they were fortunate as the Elvetham Estate wanted to develop the area called ‘Railway Heath’ beyond the course for housing and they needed access across the second green and third tee.

Negotiations were concluded in 1998 with substantial compensation to the Club that paid for the re-development of four holes and the building of a new clubhouse along with a new 999-year lease at a mere peppercorn rent.

1929 Watercolour of 10th with ragged bunker and few trees.

There are not many courses with two loops of nine holes both starting with a par three. The First of these is a straight forward 214 yarder with a long green. The Tenth, at one time having been 225 yards, is now 189 yards and is a fine heathland hole, sited adjacent to an enjoyable, well-staffed, half-way house. Neither of these is an easy starting hole.

The 10th as it is today, surrounded by trees.

A new reservoir has been built to the right of the left-hand dogleg Second (433 yards) and we play here to the first of the two new Donald Steel greens. The mounding around these greens is unlike the other Braid/Colt green complexes and indeed the Third green has now been moved bringing the attractive natural lake even more into play and it has lost those ‘1990s’ moundings.

After the Fifth hole (443 yards), a testing up-hiller, we have the fun of two blind drives.

The drive at the 6th

The Sixth (377 yards) can be played in a number of ways. One alternative is played over the trees on the right, then pitching on the downslope that will run the ball left and leave a hanging-lie pitch across the greenside bunkers to a long green. This is a dangerous play as the trees and heather down the right are thick so most people take less yardage from the tee to put their drive on top of the escarpment leaving a mid-iron to a green located well below you.

The 7th green from behind the fairway bunker that hides dead ground available to run one’s ball through.

The Seventh, Ninth, Twelfth, Sixteenth and Eighteenth are all tough par fours between 420 and 450 yards and are the heart of the course. These holes have fair bunkering where you can run the ball in to the greens during a dry summer if you place your drive correctly.

The pretty 8th

The Eighth at 122 yards from a high tee to a raised green, requires accuracy and as it is surrounded by trees and is in a bowl the wind which is often present can swirl.

The other par three, the Fifteenth (164 yards) is not notable and having had to move the tee away from the new houses on the Railway Heath is now even less notable.

The drive at the 11th.

This leaves the Eleventh (374 yards) Thirteenth (334 yards) and the Fourteenth (392 yards) where placement of the drive is all important. The Fourteenth, a right-hand dogleg, has been improved with the undergrowth on the left of the blind drive area having been cleaned out.

The old clubhouse

I thought the old clubhouse was beautiful and delightful but the new one, with much space for modern facilities, is an excellent replacement with a wonderful roofing system of grey slate.

The new clubhouse

It was opened in 2003 by the great, great, grandson of Lord Calthorpe, thus tying each end of the Club’s first century together, his full, unique name being that of Sir Euan Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe.

Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, DL, FRAeS carrying his pencil golf bag.

A review of North Hants would be incomplete without mention of that hero who allowed us to title the shot that “looks good in the air but doesn’t have the legs”, namely the Douglas Bader, who after losing his legs in an air crash in 1931 took up golf at North Hants.

He regularly, it is said, played eighteen holes in less than two hours and his name is on the honours board as winning the Hood Cup in 1937. Bader went on to be one of our fighter aces in the Second World War, was a prisoner of war in Colditz and saw his life and RAF career immortalised in the film ‘Reach for the sky’. He also campaigned for the disabled and was knighted in 1976.

 

See ‘North Hants Golf Club, Centenary History 1904-2004‘, a good read put together by John Littlewood.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2020.

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