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Walton Heath

Yardage
7462/7175
Par
72
SSS
75
Built
1903/1913
Architect(s)
Herbert Fowler, James Braid, Herbert Tippet
Nature:
Classic 36 holes of open heathland with fescue grassed, runnng fairways and heather.
Location/Address:
Close to Jnt 7 on the M25. Postcode KT20 7TP
https://www.waltonheath.com/
Secretary
Stuart Christie
Telephone
01737 812060
Professional
Simon Peaford
Green Keeper
Michael Mann
james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome pre-booked
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcomed.
Open Meetings:
The Walton Heath Trophy - July
Fees in 1960s
75p
Fees today
£180 - 2018

Review

Walton Heath has long been one of GB&I’s pre-eminent, distinguished inland clubs and with two courses of equal standing, is right up there with Notts (Hollinwell), Ganton and Woodhall Spa,  as one of our finest running inland courses and with considerable recent conservationist tree removal is of true open heathland.

james braid, walton heath golf club,

James Braid 5x Open Champion, pro at Walton 46 years.

The Club’s history is almost as much fun to talk about as playing its courses, with Sir Henry Cosmo Orme Bonsor, Lord George Riddell, Herbert Fowler, James Braid, Harry Busson, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, the Carr Family, the News of the World, all lifting their heads above a plethora of eccentrics and characters who have been members.

Foundation came in 1903 when the seriously rich Cosmo Bonsor built a local railway line to Tadworth/Walton-on-the-Hill (it’s 625ft above sea level and has a breezy local climate) and raised the value of the extensive land he owned in the area.

To understand Walton Heath’s history one should remember that it was founded at a time when Britain had the largest empire in history. Abroad though, 22,000 of our soldiers and 6,000 Boers were dying in the South African wars, at home the middle and upper classes flourished in comfort while the masses strove to make do on £1 a week.

james braid, walton heath golf club,

Sir Cosmo Bonsor Bt, MP, JP

Bonsor made his money as a brewer (Watneys), was an MP for Wimbledon, a JP, and a director of the Bank of England. He acquired the manorial rights to the heath and retained his brother-in-law Herbert Fowler, who up to that time was primarily an amateur County cricketer for Somerset, who had never designed a Golf Course before, to be the course architect.

This of course turned out to be decision of brilliance and was perhaps not quite so surprising as the profession of strategic inland golf course architecture (called the ‘Golden Era’ from 1900 to the 193os) was in its infancy, and though the twice Open Champion Willie Park jnr. was designing Sunningdale Old and Huntercombe, the likes of Mackenzie, Tom Simpson (who joined Fowler’s practice in 1910), Campbell, Allison, Hutchinson and Abercrombie had not even begun.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Herbert Fowler in full swing

Fowler also went on to design or influence many fine running courses within FineGolf’s 200 finest in GB&I including: Saunton, Aberdovey, Blackwell, Broadstone, Bull Bay, Burnham& Berrow, Cruden Bay, Delamere Forest, Southerndown, Yelverton, The Berkshire, Beau Desert, (and Eastward Ho in Massachusetts), and others such as Abbeydale and North Foreland. He designed his courses on the grand scale with big hitters like himself in mind, but he frequently denied this and said he put as much a premium on straightness and accuracy as mere length.

Fowler had vision and it was at Abbeydale in Yorkshire that Fowler advised them he knew what a good golf club secretary was: “A man of character who is capable, has good manners and is patient with idiots”. The military type became the norm for some years.

Walton Heath Old at 6424 yards was able to cope with the new Haskell ball that went further than the old gutty which was disappearing, but Fowler most importantly was constructing deep bunkers (and they were called ‘Fowler’s graves’) on the sides of the fairways. This was in order to create strategic choices rather than ramparts of cross bunkers in the old Tom Dunn penal style, though he did add some cross hazards later.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Some ‘grave’s and the heather ‘bump’ on the Old fourth hole.

The aristocratic Fowler was a shareholder in Bonsor’s golf project, becoming managing director and was on the board of Walton, giving his multi-talented, self-opinionated, industrious, faithful and flawed presence for some thirty years. Bernard Darwin, the most famous golf writer, called him “the erratic genius”.

While the aristocracy were tending to remain within their rarefied preserves of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ and racin’, golf clubs were populated by (and Walton is a prime example) the successful upper-middle class.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

James Braid various

In the winter of 1903/4 the professional at Romford was appointed at Walton and was to stay for the next forty-six years. This was no ordinary golfer but already an Open Champion in 1901 and holder of the ‘News of the World’ match-play tournament (a competition that was ranked second only to The Open).  A 33 year old Scot from Earlsferry, James Braid with his illustrious team of pro assistants (well choreographed in Through the green, BGCS’s quarterly magazine) was to not only win five Opens but also to design and influence some 400 courses, almost all in the UK as he suffered from sea-sickness.

These included Gleneagles (both Kings and Queens), Perranporth, Carnoustie, Brora, Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Fraserburgh, Boat of Garten, Lanark, Porthmadog, St Enodoc, Thorpeness, Royal Troon, Goswick, Powfoot, Blairgowrie, in other words some of the finest running-golf courses within FineGolf’s 200 finest in GB&I. He also developed one of the leading woods club-making businesses which was then taken on by Harry Busson after Braid died while still in harness as the pro. The card on the left showing a 64 round the New course was achieved when Braid was aged 68.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Walton’s centenary history book.

So much of this Walton history comes from the 250 pages of Phil Pilley and Philip Truett’s quite awe-inspiring centenary history book, called “Heather and Heaven, 1903 to 2003”. Of all the many centenary books I have read, it is up there with Worlington’s “Sacred nine” in its depth, social commentary and enjoyment, (though I did find one pedantic mistake when it mentioned Braid’s bunker at the seventh hole of “The Northamptonshire”, which was then changed in the reprint to be called correctly Northamptonshire County or, after the village it is situated in on the edge of Northampton, Church Brampton).

Inevitably people consider that the great man would have helped Herbert Fowler in Walton’s design but to quote the authors “while Braid certainly kept an eye keenly on Walton’s course conditions and presentation, not until 1935, when Fowler was nearly 80, is there any substantial evidence that James was intimately involved in major alterations or improvements to Walton’s two courses”.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

George Riddell

In 1905 the clique around the Bonsor family, except Fowler, all resigned from the board; enter George Riddell who dominated the Club for the next 30 years.

Riddell, a newspaper man, had taken the News of the World from a struggling 51,000 copies a week to a vibrant enterprise that allowed him to buy out Bonsor. The paper and Walton enabled Riddell to climb the social and political ladders along with Edward Hudson, also on Walton’s new board and owner of Country Life magazine whose contributors included Horace Hutchinson, golf correspondent, Gertrude Jekyll, garden designer, and Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect, all of whom helped create an Edwardian summer at Walton.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Prince of Wales playing Lady Astor at Walton in 1933.

Riddell nevertheless got the brush-off when he suggested the Club should become ‘Royal’ in 1911, a premature and arrogant request which may not have helped when later evidence of Royal association would be far, far stronger.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Duke of York’s fine swing at Walton.

It may have been sensitivity about George’s humble upbringing that left him with a chip on his shoulder and aggressive financial ambition but he nevertheless made Walton Heath something special. He invited the famous to join without interviews or payments, created honorary members on spontaneous whims and maintained a constant sequence of matches involving Parliament, Press, Church and the Law, while hosting many exhibition matches for the leading professionals of the era.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Sir Winston Churchill’s less fine swing at Walton

During the First World War with Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and Lloyd George, Prime Minister from 1916, both members, it was commented that “The war is being conducted from Walton”.

Riddell became their audience, listening post, sounding board, informant, occasional adviser and general confidant. His Rolls and his elegant Queen Anne’s Gate house were placed at the politician’s disposal, and he later built Lloyd George a house, Cliftondown, at Walton which was promptly bombed and damaged by suffragettes a few days before its completion!

The gathering of great political figures lent spice, the ingredient that established the Club’s character and lent drama, intrigue and secrecy to the place.

 

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Lloyd George at Walton in 1915. Painted by Michael Brown

As Henry Longhurst opined: “a kind of political eminence which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, attained by any other golf club in the world ……. Historic decisions were made there, Cabinet ministers appointed and the fate of millions decided.”

Riddell’s policy was elitist. The members had to be the best, everything first class and it was not until the 1990s after the “Carr Era” and after the first fifteen years of being a members club from the late 1970s, that relationships with the village locals and local council started to settle down.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

The clubhouse in the 1960s

This period has left a history of a number of attempts to move the clubhouse and the first Old course hole, south of the Dorking Road, stymied.

Since Fowler finished designing the New Course in 1913 and up to the late thirties there were no major changes and the Fowler traditionalists had their way, backed up in a belief that, as Philip Truett would describe it “Fowler did not build courses according to the fashions of the time, with their gun-platform tees, rampart like bunkers and square greens – a terrible symmetry. He laid them out using the natural contours of the land, blending in his hazards with the surrounding countryside”.  We will pick up later on the course changes at the beginning of the Carr era.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Cecil Leitch at Walton in 1910.

There has been much debate over the years as to which is the better course. Cecil Leitch from Silloth, who was a member, preferred the New as it called for a greater variety of shots. It is said that Braid thought the New two shots harder, whereas Sir Peter Allen (Famous Fairways, 1968) thought the New three shots easier and Harold Hilton preferred the Old.

Bernard Darwin is always worth quoting and here in the 1920/30s:  “The New seems to show Mr Fowler in rather a lighter vein. On the Old…. he shakes his fist at us more openly. Especially when the wind is against us on that long flog outward we are more directly conscious of his hostility. The New is just as difficult: in some ways more difficult, since there is no series of comparatively easy holes as there is coming home on the Old. But there is more variety, more tacking this way and that, in a way, more fun.”

The Green fee today is £180 for either Old or New during the week in summer and if we assume that the market is normally right, this suggests there to be an equality between the two courses in the high level of ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling they both give.

In the winter it is £75 for either which might be a reflection of the one aspect of weakness. The winter greens until recently have been like puddings, a subject to which we will return later.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Walton’s Artisans flying to Guersey in 1953.

Lord Riddell of Walton Heath to give him his full title, had started the Artisan Golfers Association and Walton Artisans and patronised the Royal Free Hospital to the tune of £1.5m, helping many poor and disadvantaged while being friendly with the wealthy and powerful, until his death in 1934.

Riddell had appointed Emsley Carr (later to be knighted) as managing Director of the News of the World and so began the Carr Era at Walton, with members of his family being the largest shareholders and three generations of Carrs, all being good golfers, taking over the management of the Club. This era continued right up until Rupert Murdoch acquired the News of the World and Alick Renshaw negotiated a buy-out by the members in the early 1970s.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Sir William Carr presenting the News of the World Trophy to Peter Thomson for the fourth time in 1967.

The Carrs realised change was needed and Braid with Fowler and secretary Captain Tippet made a number of hole changes on the Old in the second half of the 1930s. The fifth and sixth were put together and the much praised par three ‘Port Arthur’ green continued as the green for the modern fifth. The old straight-out seventh was scrapped along with the twelfth and thirteenth, while the tenth was extended and new eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth holes created. The fourteenth was extended to 560 yards and a new short hole added at seventeen which helpfully cut down the surprisingly long walk to the eighteenth back tee.

It is worth mentioning that Tippet, now a Major, who after going off to war returned and joined Rye where he oversaw some brilliant changes to that course including the creation of the famous par three seventh hole up in the dunes.

Denis Vidler in Rye’s 1984 history says “Although Tippet did not live to see the completion of his handiwork, he left an abiding memory to his skill as a designer of golf holes in the second and the seventh and by improving on Sir Guy Campbell’s fourth by bringing back the green to its present position”.

Ever since the 1930s Walton has continued to consider many course changes but none has taken place except following the building of the M25 which threatened things in the 1980s, when the ninth hole was moved and a new green created for the eighth.

During the Carr oligarchy the New of the World Match-Play tournament in 1949 offered £2,500 in prizes (while The Open Championship had a mere £1,500) and was played at Walton every three years until 1964 when Walton became its permanent home.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Fred Daly

Throughout the Riddell and Carr era the tournament was free-admittance to the public and all the great professional players of that era were seen at Walton including Fred Daly, Peter Thomson and Dai Rees, all being winners.

Nevertheless, Murdoch was not interested in Golf and 1969 saw the last News of the World at Walton, as the Match-Play moved to Wentworth sponsored by major corporations from cigarettes (The Piccadilly), then whisky and insurance, becoming the World Match-play.

The professionals returned to Walton in 1978 for the first European Open, after the course was fenced off to ensure the public paid an entrance fee. They used a composite course with winners including Tom Kite in 1980 and in 1991 Australian Mike Harwood, after which the Club requested a facility fee of £200,000 to the Club.

Professional golf was being transformed commercially by television by now with the promoters being able to lure new ‘target-golf’ Hotel courses who were happy to buy publicity, rather than demanding a facility fee. The European Open was bought by East Sussex National in 1993. Walton was the last running-golf club to host the Ryder Cup in 1981 before the ‘target-golf ‘ Belfry and then Celtic Manor bought the venue rights.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Nicklaus and Watson in wet-weather gear at Walton.

In 1981 the U.S.A. arguably brought over their strongest ever Ryder Cup team to Walton with 36 major titles between them and though there was a suggestion that small, un-receptive greens allied with fast running heathland fairways might negate the Americans’ formidable iron-play, nevertheless the course played soft due to rainfall and the greens agronomy, the Americans winning by 18.5 to 10.5 points.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Ben Crenshawe

Ben Crenshaw, the high priest of history among the Americans commented “I could feel the presence of James Braid all week”.

So Walton lost any hosting of a major pro tournament for 27 years until October 2018 when it will be the British Masters venue, hosted by Justin Rose who insisted it be played at Walton.  His insistence would have been helped by the successful way the club had held the Seniors Open in 2011 and for some years being the venue for International Qualifying for the U.S.Open.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Famous golf artist Harry Rowntree’s painting of the Old’s now 16th in 1910. Notice lack of trees!

As is usual with centenary books and indeed golf club archivists generally, the authors do not often understand agronomy and greenkeeper roles are downplayed. Sid ‘Soapy’ Saunders was head greenkeeper from 1922 to 1954 and experienced some criticism in the 1920s. This occurred when experimenting with new fertilisers creating some ‘lush’ conditions but it was not until automatic watering was put in around the greens in the 1960s (one of the first clubs in the UK to do so) that Walton began to suffer under Fred Dulake’s over-use of the expensive novel equipment, with ultra-soft greens. It was not realised that water was gradually filling up the soil on top of the base clay pan and creating a stinking stagnant bog over which only annual meadow weed grass (Poa annua) would grow.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Clive Osgood.

Clive Osgood was appointed as a twenty eight year old as course manager in 1979 and attempted to get to grips with the problem with Jim Arthur’s advisory help. More recently Ian McMillan of the famous greenkeeping family came up from Hankley Common during a period when many trees were taken out and after four years of service from Scotsman Alan Strachan, Michael Mann was appointed in 2015.

Every club thinking their course is the best is normally in denial that there is a need for any change. Walton with its elitist history has quite rightly a very high regard for itself particularly as regards the heather and the fast running fairways which, having been un-fertilised, are high in fine fescues that give gorgeous conditions for the running game. It is only in the small fairway hollows were the rain collects that we find any weed grasses.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Philip Truett on the New.

It has been a joy to watch the impressive Philip Truett with his hickory cleeks, and how he runs in the ball low from as far out as 100 yards across the mostly flattish aprons and between the bunkers.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Conservationist booklet

So it is not surprising that in 2001 the Club published a break-through booklet ahead of its time, called Caring for Walton Heath, as part of a changing philosophy of working with their neighbours and conservationist groups following previous bad relations. To quote from the booklet: “The finer grasses are managed at the lowest possible nutrient levels. As a general rule, fertilisers are not used at all on the fairways or semi-rough and Walton Heath has possibly the lowest rate of use of fertiliser of any golf course in the country.”

Nevertheless, we must remember that unlike the famous heathlands further north like Notts (Hollinwell), Ganton and Woodhall Spa which since the Millenium are all returning to the fine grasses on also their greens, it has been fashionable at the beautifully designed heathland courses around London (nearby Reigate Heath is an exception) to shave greens for ever higher putting speeds. This trend often stems from many lower handicappers being infected by Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD) who believe the performance of a green should be measured by its speed. This shaving below 4mm drives out the fine perennial grasses and requires a maintenance regime comprised of the over-use of water and fertiliser to keep the short-rooted annual meadow grass (Poa annua) alive and the use of much fungicide to protect the stressed weed grass from disease.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

R&A, WH and BGCS members waiting to play the 1st Old.

Michael was presented with badly draining Poa greens, high in thatch, which played like puddings in the winter. After two-and-a-half years of aggressive aeration, hollow-tining and many, many tons of pure inert sand top-dressing, the greens are starting to become physically if not agronomically firmer. They measured 115 gravities on the Clegg Hammer when I played recently in the enjoyable triangular six-some hickories match between the Club, The R&A and BGCS.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Jill Thornhill Walton’s finest.

Some of the greens do have some fine browntop bent grasses among the Poa. Will the membership allow Michael to go down the true fine grasses greenkeeping route to return the courses to their historic conservationist past? Let us hope so as Walton Heath’s leadership is so important to British golf, particularly as the sport now exists within an increasingly ecologically aware modern society.

Another progressive aspect of golf in which Walton has been ahead of the field is with regard to women, when in 2000, ten years ahead of Harriet Harman’s Equality Act, Walton members voted for equal rights and equal subscriptions.

Walton Heath has been described as the closest there is to a Scottish links inland and with its openness, flatness and running nature it plays an important role in offering the American golf  tourist who is looking for what he calls ‘links golf’ on an inland track.

How much more truthful to call ‘links golf ’ ‘running golf’ and link it to the fine inland heathlands, downlands and moorlands who also give the FineGolf  ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling of a wildness tamed with their ‘on the edge’ firm, running-golf.

 

 

 

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

The Old 5th green

We arrive here after 3,000 words having not even spoken about the detail of the holes but this is less important in this instance since so many others have done this before, so I shall just give some quick thoughts about aspects of the Old:

The first gets us away from the clubhouse while the second shot to the second played off a hanging lie is truly challenging and is best taken with a cut running shot. Avoiding the middle bunker on the fourth is key, while keeping one’s drive to the right on the fifth gives one a chance to stay on the tumultuous green with one’s second shot.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

The 9th Old.

The approach to six must not be allowed to be swept across the bank in echelon from the right and it is better, at the par three seventh, to have a pitch from behind and left than to play from the right-hand bunker.

I am not sure about the visual impact of the new plateau green at eight; why suddenly, when the only other raised green is the eighth on the New, (the sixteenth Old, though high, naturally runs with the ground) have your new green un-Walton-like? It might be supposed that as the only USGA spec constructed green on the course, it had to be that way but it could still have been created using drainage, with the green surface closer to the fairway height. The most likely answer is that being created in the 1980s it was influenced by the bull-dozered designs of that ‘target-golf’ era. It has been changed a number of times which might suggest the members have never been quite happy with it.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Dexter on the 16th Old.

The new heather hazards on the corner at nine are an improvement as is the removal of trees on the right. Ten is a very fine hole which I am still yet to conquer while the par three eleventh is supposed to be similar to the original ‘Port Arthur’ sixth and is indeed fetching. The small and sloping twelfth green can be reached and held from a well-placed drive by a thinking golfer but I have also seen cards wrecked here. Nevertheless, it must be fun to go for it in one for those who can fly 280 yards through the air.

I am not sure all the bunkers on the thirteenth are perfectly placed but the central one when playing one’s second shot is. The downhill long fourteen starts the tough run-in and with the cross-bunker and open green at the fifteenth still kept the same after years of argument, they must have something going for them! The sixteenth is perhaps the iconic hole requiring a good drive that then tickles one’s pride in asking whether to go for it across a long carry of rough and a chasm awaiting on the right.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

The 17th Old.

The par three seventeenth now has an open front which is much more sensible if the course is going to promote firm fine grasses. The raised new green on eighteen perhaps is also visually more attractive to those who think they can carry the cross-bunker.

james braid, walton heath golf club, Herbert fowler

Curly

There are so many more characters associated with Walton but not the space to mention them all in this review, such as common sense pro Ken Macpherson, Sir Ernest Holderness, the quiet Radleian whose swing was like a spring who never missed, Jill Thornhill the Curtis Cup star, the caddies Curly, Courtney, Punch and Eli and many more.

We leave Walton Heath at a time when yet again the controversial move of the clubhouse from its private enclosed position on to the heath to the south of the Dorking Road is up for discussion. With the Professionals returning for the British Masters, we wish it well for the future and hope the greens’ firmness and the back tees challenge the big hitting professionals sufficiently, as it would be so nice for these tournaments to return after some thirty years to the fine running heathlands.

Read “Heather and Heaven, Walton Heath Golf Club 1903-2003” by Phil Pilley with Philip Truett as the chief research assistant.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2018

 

Reader Comments

On August 25th, 2018 Hopper said:

Excellent and very readable. Thank you

On August 28th, 2018 John Phillips said:

Hi Lorne,
Played Walton Heath Old last week and found it in fine fettle despite the mid season maintenance to the greens. Didn’t realise there were discussions re: the clubhouse but always enjoy the helpful and friendly welcome it provides. Hope this won’t change should it ever be relocated. Looking forward to visiting in October for the British Masters and seeing how it ‘should be played’!

On August 29th, 2018 Terry Baker said:

Hi Lorne,
I greatly enjoyed reading your review as I have played both courses, but only the Old once, as it is sometimes too wet at the end of November when I play for the OMGS v Cranleigh. It is the only course that I have ever played that never has winter rules!

Dear Terry,
Thank you for your kind words. The quality of the Walton fairways that are predominantly fine perennial fescues, I guess, allows the Club to not have to impose ‘winter rules’. Yours, Lorne

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