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West Hill

Yardage
6386
Par
69
SSS
71
Built
1907
Architect(s)
Cuthbert Butchart
Nature:
1907, pretty woodland/heathland course with heather. Tricky Butchart greens.
Location/Address:
Off the A322 near Brookwood Cemetry. GU24 0BH.
https://www.westhillgc.co.uk/
Secretary
Patrick Dawson
Telephone
01483 474365
Professional
Guy Shoesmith
Green Keeper
Ben Edwards
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcome
Open Meetings:
Father and Sons Foursomes - April.
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£125 - 2020

Review

The four early London courses on the commons of Mitcham, Tooting Bec, Clapham and Wimbledon and the even earlier Blackheath all had to cope with the restrictions imposed by public access and rather muddy conditions. London’s upper-middle classes who took to golf in late Victorian times looked for ‘fine golfing turf’ based on draining, poor soil located further out of town.

Dexter in front of clubhouse

The railway to Southampton, completed in 1838, ran via Woking and the 1851 Act that allowed the Necropolis Company to acquire a large acreage for cemeteries among the pine forests and heathlands around Woking made it financially viable.

The three ‘W’s, courses which almost touch each other to the west of Woking, along with New Zealand to the north of the town, were part of the boom in this ‘heathland’ golf course development.

Lady Tennant to become Mrs Lubbock.

Woking GC took a lease from Necropolis in 1893 as an incentive to build expensive houses on Hook Heath and New Zealand in 1895, attracted many dignitaries including a Lady Tennant.

She was married to a keen golfer from a wealthy family founded on the industrialisation of weaving and the chemicals and dyes that support those processes. We will not go into their fascinating history; suffice it to say Sir Charles Tennant died and Lady Tennant remarried and created West Hill GC in 1907 either as a wedding present for her new husband or to secure golf for herself as a woman on Sundays.

For whichever reason, Lady Tennant took the lease for the 150 acres of West Hill from Necropolis, sited just across the road from the large Brookwood cemetery.

Cuthbert Butchart

Though Bernard Darwin (who perhaps had not yet attained the god-like status of the finest golf writer) recommended Willie Park Jnr, who created Sunningdale Old and Huntercombe (both in 1900) and later Temple and Worplesdon (both in 1909) as course architect, Peter Bathhurst, who authored the Club’s centenary book “The West Hill Story” says there is compelling evidence that a different Scottish professional, Cuthbert Butchart, laid out the course.

This was set partly among a thick pine forest, requiring the removal of over 3,000 trees (Harry Colt similarly removed 14,000 trees to create Swinley Forest in 1909) and partly open heathland.

Enormous debate continues over the relative strengths of the four Woking heathland courses that are each quite similar in many design respects, all being built as ‘running-golf’ courses on firm, fine perennial bent and fescue turf.

The first green.

The golf challenge that resulted has excited both high and low handicap players ever since with the subtlety in the movement in the land, the naturalness of the design fitting into the landscape and the strategic requirement of how best to approach each hole depending on one’s ability.

If you play bogey plus golf they are reasonably simple, providing one keeps out of the heather and trees. The scratch player is challenged and there are some stretchy holes and they are drawn to play close to, but not quite into, the gathering-in hazards, a strategy giving the opportunity of playing to the green from the best angle and often using the firm, well-cut aprons to send one’s ball as close to the pin as is reasonably possible.

Butchart became known for his daring greens, very different from the billiard tables some of the earlier architects had built around London. Here they are tricky with slopes, curves and bumps meaning that where one’s ball finishes on the green can easily threaten a three putt.

Stuart Paton

Stuart Paton, who with John Low changed many of the flat Tom Dunn greens at Woking during a twenty year period, into the characterful movements on which we play today, was on the board at West Hill from the start and might well have learnt from Butchart’s West Hill green complexes.

Butchart’s design and layout has largely withstood change, apart from lengthening the course from 6080 to 6368 yards, the amalgamation of two holes into one at the seventeenth, a new green at the tenth, the addition of two par threes (mentioned later) and the odd bunker added or removed.

The 16th green

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the agronomy and during the 1980/90s, years when ’target-golf’ was fashionable, the West Hill greens were changed to annual meadow weed grass (Poa annua) and softened, allowing low handicappers to carry all the trouble and stop their high approach shots on a dime near the pin and protect their handicaps.

This policy undermined the fundamental challenge of firm turf of  not ‘pinging through’ and how to run one’s ball in to a hazard protected pin and avoid that dreaded three putt.

Since the millennium the fashion has been swinging back towards running-golf across firm turf throughout GB&I, with heathland clubs around London being initially slow to change but who are now chasing to catch-up. This trend is embodied by thousands of trees, rhododendrons and undergrowth being taken out to open up the courses again to the light and air, giving greenkeepers the opportunity to return their courses to fast running heathlands with fine perennial turf.

The first of five par threes. The fourth hole.

This is not always a straight forward process as the FineGolf article “The Story of Hollinwell” epitomises while showing how success can be achieved.

Nevertheless, even where the greenkeepers have the technical knowledge to change the grass species (and that is not a given, since most greenkeeping training these days is focused on how to best manage annual meadow weed grass with the latest chemical products), the club membership and particularly the lower handicappers are often infected with Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD). This condition is typified by a preference for soft, scalped greens, which leaves those greenkeepers, who want to go down the fine grasses route, on a hiding to nothing.

Sir Alec and Eric Bedser

My association with West Hill goes back to when I spent five years at the University of Surrey during the ‘flower power’ era and there was a most enjoyable annual match between the Alumni and undergraduates at West Hill. The one nostalgic vision I retain is of the famed Bedser cricket twins always being at the club.

The famous Bedser bowling action.

Being more of a cricketer in those early days, it was an enormous privilege to have spent an evening alone over dinner with Sir Alec when we were both staying at the Melbourne Club while following the Ashes series in the winter of 2006/7.

One likes to imagine that the Bedsers’ gentleness is typical of the membership of this club. The Club is certainly well known for its friendliness and visitors can usually feel this.

Bunkers on the eighth

On meeting the young, newly appointed, enthusiastic course manager some six years ago, his declared aim was to produce dry smooth surfaces year-round and he estimated the greens to be composed of 30% fine grassed browntop bent and 70% Poa annua.

The 300 tonnes of pure inert sand top-dressing he was applying to them (a controversial policy that now seems to be also promulgated by STRI) may have in the short term helped create better firmness but for whatever reason (and it usually comes back to what members demand) the greens are now even more Poa dominant.

The 1st hole.

The fairways, however, are mostly high in fine grasses and although a watering system was installed in 1999, this is perhaps only used sparingly, as they brown-off beautifully in dry spells. The course is presented in an immaculate condition with most of the aprons and run-offs set-up for running-golf. There is a prettiness to the course in its setting amongst pine and heather.

The drive at the second.

The opening holes on heathland ground are all testing. There is a hanging lie approach to the first (393 yards) and a blind second to the second (377 yards) if one avoids the gathering-in right-hand drive bunker and the large oaks that really should have no place on this course. They set us up for the brutal third (473 yards) .

These holes are near the railway line but the trains never seem to intrude much on one’s back-swing, so unlike their effect when playing the fourth at Woking! Perhaps the line is in a cutting here or they are slowing down to stop at Brookwood station.

The third green

Anyway, this hole requires a drive that either hugs the left-hand side as your ball will run to the right or a draw to bring it back into the fairway. Then a well-flighted second is required across the brook that lies in echelon and runs beyond the green so it often captures one’s ball as it goes with the un-asuming but significant slope of the green to the left. The green nestles innocently under the trees. It really is a very fine hole and a par feels like a birdie.

The first of five par threes comes next (193 yards), played to a bunkered sloping green and then we are into the wood proper.

John Nicholson,

Although the club has removed hundreds of Scots pine recently from the wood around the next two holes, which is excellent, it is a pity they did not engage a professional such as the experienced John Nicholson to guide them on wider tree removal, as the course would be much enhanced if many more trees, particularly of the deciduous type, were cut back.

Playing to the 6th green

The fifth (553 yards) and the sixth (420 yards) require uphill drives and have greens below you for the approaches, and they begin a run of good par fours to the eleventh, interrupted by two pretty ordinary par threes, neither of which are Butchart holes.

Whisky decanter atop hole-in-one plinth

The seventh (170 yards) even lacks the honour of the ninth (173 yards), that gave me an ace. This is commemorated with others equally fortunate, from a most clever idea started in the 1950s, on a placque plinth that is kept behind the clubhouse bar. The fact that mine was attained by a thinned ball that struck the pin at pace and dropped in is neither here nor there.

The eight (390 yards) and the tenth (424 yards) are a touch sloggy though the bunkering has been upgraded to the more natural looking ragged edge type and gives a rampart to be scaled at the eighth green or scooted around up the left, but the eleventh (393 yards) is superb.

Dogs on the tenth fairway

After ensuring your ball does not run into, but is placed close to, the scrub and heather across the fairway, your second will be a blind long iron over rising ground to a flat green in a corner with the inevitable Butchart subtle movement in it.

It is remarkable that much of the natural ruts, gorse scrub and heather on the hill have been replaced by a wide, dark-green, ryegrass path! How on earth anybody thought this was a good idea I don’t know and they can have little feeling for the historic nature of the West Hill ecology, ignored for the sake of immaculacy.

‘Practical Greenkeeping’ the Bible of Conservation Greenkeeping.

As FineGolf has reported elsewhere the new supposedly ‘dwarf’ perennial ryegrasses are being used on some tees (Portstewart) and on paths (Royal Aberdeen) and on aprons (Parkstone).  Ryegrass seeding generates quickly and after the 2018 exceptionally hot six weeks around 30 degrees (not seen since 1976) when even fescues struggled, ryegrass was over-seeded on some London heathland fairways dominated by Poa, (Woking, The Berkshire) to quickly produce some grass cover, subsequently needing high inputs of fertiliser and water.  Nevertheless, FineGolf has seen little evidence that ryegrass, with its ‘sticky’ playing properties, is as drought resistant as fescue, and indeed the ryegrass experiment at the wonderful Pennard, during an unfortunate interlude now in the past, being an example of ryegrass failure in drought.

Perhaps we should remember that  Jim Arthur said on Page 154 of ‘Practical Greenkeeping‘ the bible of conservation greenkeeping. “Ryegrass is for football and cricket tracks and has no place on a (running) golf course”.

A hole that can be argued to be a fill-in is the flat, short par four twelfth, though it has its supporters and can be a fun waft at 288 yards with tight bunkering and a two tier green.

The fourth par three, the thirteenth (149 yards), is squeezed in behind the halfway house, after which comes an unusual hole of 432 yards played as a parabola around trees (a hole that once allowed a dramatic drive over the once shorter trees by the tiger player but no longer) with cross bunkers coming into play. Considered a bit of a marmite hole, a power faded drive helps as it is quite easy to run-out left.

Aerial of the iconic West Hill fifteenth

This is the start of a fine loop of four holes containing the iconic West Hill hole the fifteenth (211 yards) which has a divided Butchart green that not only slopes to the right but also has a major ridge running front to back through the middle.

The fifteenth green

The sixteenth (386 yards) gives another hanging lie second across the brook.

The second par five (541 yards) is only the second dogleg on the card and brings us to the last (440 yards) which is a classic, straight, long par four driving to rising ground, providing a very fine finish in front of the single storey clubhouse.

An analysis of the average scores was conducted over two years of competitions on this par four hole. The results were: all categories 5.7, category one 5.3 while Sir Alec apparently once had a two, holing out with his second shot, played with a two iron.

It is a most enjoyable round, which early in the spring has hosted since the 1920s the famous Father & Sons foursomes open knock-out tournament. The friendships, camaraderie and particularly the bonding between father & son makes this fixture so very special, with at least 3 families having competed for over 40 years.

Golf Illustrated cartoon giving response to 5 inch hole. Click to enlarge.

At a time when there was much discussion of enlarging the 1.62 ball, in 1929 a competition was played at West Hill using a hole of five inches. The UK ball size eventually increased in size to 1.68 in the 1980s but the hole size remains 4 ¼ inches.

Peter Bathhurst is an amusing and interesting writer and he gives a catalogue of the fine amateur, both male and female, golfers who have been members here, particularly in the 1920/30s and he talks about them all almost as though they were his close friends.

Less impressive is his lack of recognition of the importance of those who have been in charge of the course. In fact only one page in a total of 175 pages refers to the condition of the course, and without mentioning the names of greenkeepers, despite detailed full chapters on secretaries and professionals. It is as though “The turf gives the Club its greatest asset” has been forgotten.

The drive at seventeen

As I have gradually come to realise, the leadership of some of the fine golf clubs up to around the millennium, did not allow greenkeepers to converse with members directly or even have them on the green committees. At last this lack of respect is changing in some clubs as they recognise that if they wish to return to their heritages as ‘running-golf’ clubs, and wish to learn how to manage the change back to fine grasses, with a ‘save the planet’ reduction in the use of water, fertiliser and pesticides, that this all requires technical expertise to explain the simple dichotomy between conservation greenkeeping and ‘target-golf’ chemical greenkeeping.

Most golf club officials are out of their depth and though the egos of some may continue to get in the way, the sensible ones appreciate the need to encourage an open discussion in the club about the vision of where they want to get to, coupled with the importance of a course manager who is allowed to communicate with the membership in order to bring them along with the change.

Greenkeeper blogs, website ‘environment’ pages explaining policy, email deliveries of course updates, regular course walks and evening meetings are all initiatives that should take place continually.

“The West Hill Story, 1907 to 2000 – from wilderness to golfing gem” by Peter Bathhurst published in 2000.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2020.

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