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Woodbridge

Yardage
6300
Par
70
SSS
71
Built
1893
Architect(s)
Davie Grant, FER Fryer, James Braid, Martin Hawtree.
Nature:
Sandy based heathland with dramatic, natural ground. Being returned to fine grassed open aspect.
Location/Address:
On the Suffolk 'Sandlings'. Post Code IP12 2PF
https://woodbridgegolfclub.co.uk
Secretary
Sean Clark
Telephone
01394 382038
Professional
Robert Joyce
Green Keeper
Paul Lawrence
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcome
Open Meetings:
Various
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£75 pm, £90 am - 2022

Review

Woodbridge GC, situated on the ‘Sandlings’ along the Suffolk coast, is among a number of fine ‘running-golf ‘ courses (CHECK HERE) led by Aldeburgh who since the millennium and after the dark days of the 1980/90s ‘target-golf ‘ ascendancy, have been pursuing a return from the creep into parkland with encroachment of trees and gorse, back to fast-running, fine grassed heathland, with open spaces and views across the course.

9th green at Woodbridge. Click to enlarge.

This is a similar movement to what is happening at most of the famous heathland courses around London, where trees, gorse and particularly rhododendrons are being torn out.

Heather notice on 3rd hole: “Heather Conservation Area. No trolleys please”

FineGolf is all in favour of this trend because the most enjoyable golf is played on firm, fine grasses and fine grasses only prosper when air and light is let in. FineGolf is nevertheless aware that it remains a battle for club officials to pursue this policy, let alone the concomitant move to an agronomic change from soft annual meadow ‘weed’ grass (Poa annua) to firm, perennial fescue/browntop bent ‘fine’ grass on their greens.

Some friends, even a cousin, let me know they prefer to play without seeing the nearby fairway. Fair enough, but talking to people at lots of clubs that I visit I have developed a

FineGolf Tree Rule:  “It takes about six months for golfers to get used to a tree change”.

If the club communicates efficiently with its membership as to the good reasons for a tree coming out the vast majority of golfers then support the change. A good start is to read FineGolf’s TREE article.

It is also good that there is often guilt around having ‘weed’ grass and club officials often like to say they have ‘fine’ grasses even when they actually have Poa annua (and to help them get away with it most people cannot tell the difference by sight, though firm performance of ‘fine’ grasses helps identify).

The Greenstester that provides more accurate measurement of putting speed than the stimpmeter as well as objective measurement of grass performance.

The hub of the problem is that it is fashionable among the London memberships to judge the quality of their greens not by firmness but merely by how fast they run, i.e. in excess of 9.5 feet on the Greenstester.

The short-term method of creating speed is for greenkeepers to scalp mow which quickly drives out the ‘fine’ grasses.

Fearing they will otherwise lose their jobs greenkeepers go along with this and in order to keep the resultant ‘weed’ grass alive, have to manage their courses with high inputs of water, fertiliser and pesticides, exactly the opposite of the correct conservation policy  to fit with the direction of the wider Society.

Sheep’s fescue is a natural grass found in the rough at Woodbridge.

Nevertheless, outside of London, heathland golf club officials are generally leading their memberships towards acceptance of Conservation Greenkeeping and firm turf.

The most obviously successful example is chronicled in ‘The story of Hollinwell’ and now we can happily come back to Woodbridge.

Here, Paul Lawrence, (deputy for twelve years to Chris Whittle, the ‘fine’ grasses greenkeeper at Royal Birkdale) appointed seven years ago, is being given support, managed by Club Secretary Sean Clark, also appointed seven years ago, to transition Woodbridge’s 27 holes from what had become a self-seeded, scrub oak-encroached course where the heather and light was being excluded, back to a traditional, fast-running, opened-up heathland.

Golfing agronomic conservationists, such as FineGolf, are sometimes accused by ‘tree huggers’ of wanting to fell all trees on heathland as well as links courses. This is not true as was clarified by the FineGolf article on Trees – just a lot of them!

As occurred at Woodbridge, trees and gorse have so often been allowed over the last fifty years to spread and alter the character of our finest heathland (and downland) courses. It is the correct conservationist policy to remove the encroaching trees and return the holes to ones set in open heathland clearings.

The most famous forest, Sherwood, was composed of deciduous trees with large heathland clearings where the wildlife and birds thrived in the open spaces. The idea of forests being regimented dense woodland, which house scavenging crows, foxes, stoats and buzzards that collapse biodiversity, comes from the type of disastrous Forestry Commission planting of sitka spruce across the northern moors after the First World War. Even the Forestry Commission these days is fully in support of taking trees out to preserve heathland areas.

1933 aerial photo when open heathland and another in 2017 densely tree-lined.

 

An aerial photo of Woodbridge in 1933 shows why the great golf commentators like Bernard Darwin and Charles Ambrose who came to Woodbridge described it as “a golfer’s paradise, admiring the wiry heathland turf and panoramic view of the surrounding county”.

The other aerial photo in 2017 shows how the club allowed all the holes to become densely tree lined, much like the bog-standard lush parkland down the road.

This appalling change was recognised in the centenary booklet of 1993 but it has taken twenty-five more years to start implementing Conservation Greenkeeping policies to get a grip on the course.

Aerial from the opposite direction taken in June 2021 showing new areas of open spaces

Here is another aerial photo taken in summer 2021 showing new areas of open space. They are moving in the right direction, with much work still to be done.

It will now not be long before the club starts to rise in the rankings, visitor numbers increase and the finances improve also helped with reduced expenditure on water, fertiliser and pesticides. (Poa annua courses are in for a big shock when the fertiliser costs rise 30/40%, as is on the way with fertiliser plants being closed because they cannot afford the increase in energy costs following the emergence of CO2 Net Zero policies).

Paul Lawrence

The course manager Paul Lawrence has an opportunity to convince the membership that tree and gorse removal, development of heather and ‘fine wiry’ turf will help create a more enjoyable game of golf.

He is taking the opportunity with both hands. The fairways are already predominantly fescue and the greens, with a good proportion of browntop bent, are firmer and run smoother than my previous visit three years ago and he is now pumping fescues into them.

Why, when fescue fairways at courses like Walton Heath were burnt up by the six weeks of over 30 degrees in July/August 2018, did Woodbridge’s fescue fairways turn back to a green colour from brown after rain came in September 2018 and are thriving?  Perhaps it has something to do with no fairway fertilising encouraging the fescues roots to grow deep with a mycorrhizal soil biology helping them to be drought resistant.

Though there is a long way to go before fast-running golf is fully established within an open vista, FineGolf applauds the Club in setting the correct policy direction, backed up with the necessary budget to achieve the tipping point when reduced: 1) mowing costs (they box-off clippings to reduce fertilising the fairways resulting in less need to mow) and 2) inputs, prove that:

the conservation way is a win-win in both enjoyment and finance.

Woodbridge is a picturesque course of 27 holes across some 250 acres with much undulating movement in the ground, while the ‘Forest’ nine holer is on flatter ground.

The ‘Heath’ course is only 6300 yards though drives at 3, 10, 13, 16 and 18 are into rising ground and it is quite long enough with doglegs at 2, 5, 17 and 18 where it is easy for one’s drive to run-out if strategy is not considered.

Major Jack E W Howey, founder and first president.

The Club was founded in 1893 by Major Jack E W Howey, an officer in the Indian army, who benefitted from a colonial legacy when inheriting from his uncle property in central Melbourne worth over a million pounds in those days. He came to live in Melton as a member of the local landed gentry who were generally more interested in the sport of shooting and hunting than golf which was though starting to attract the English upper middle classes in the 1880/90s.

Davie Grant who set out the course.

On holiday in France he tried golf, caught the bug and brought the North Berwick professional down to spy out the local ground. Davie Grant, with the good sense of a man on to something profitable, recommended renting the Sink Farm on Bromeswell heath and within six months Woodbridge GC had a nine-hole course.

This was soon extended to eighteen holes with a number of people contributing to its design. The amateur F E R Fryer and Thomson (the professional at Felixstowe) are mentioned while the Club emphasises the contribution that the five times Open Champion James Braid made in the late 1920s returning the 17th and 18th holes to their present positions, adding the par three twelfth and re-bunkering the course.

Cartoon of James Braid.

Another nine holes were added in the 1960s and the Club was fortunate to acquire more land from the Forestry Commission after the great storm of 1987 devastated much of the surrounding area which paved the way for the present ‘Forest’ course.

The main ‘Heath’ course starts with four quite gentle scoring holes. The first (‘Cherry Tree’ 346 yards) where one runs one’s approach down to a green sloping away hoping to finish below the hole.

Indeed many of the greens have large borrows, their sites being chosen and placed on the ground that was lying there without much earth in need of being moved, as is seen in so many of the finest ‘natural’ historic courses.

The second green (‘The Butts’ 329 yards) has a green above the fairway and beyond a pond and is cut into the hill behind. It is a good example of a testing short par four with a tight downhill drive, where it is best to leave the driver in your bag before you have warmed up.

Heather on the 3rd with notice: “Heather Conservation Area. No trollies please”

The third (‘Long Hole’ 529 yards) is on rising ground and the drive gathers into the left hand bunker. A blind second is to a fairway over the crest of the hill that slopes left and is lined by the first of the abundant heather found on the course.

Heather seeded on the 6th

Much work is going into the seeding of new heather and extracting the dead deciduous leaves that blow in the autumn under the heather (see article), mulch down and by fertilising eventually kills it.

Another more simple short par four (‘The Corner’ 330 yards) finishes what is quite an easy if tight introduction to what becomes a most enjoyable and testing full round.

The drive at the 4th.

I should mention a ‘wags’ comment from the centenary booklet where at the fourth he advises “Play your usual slice and come back to the green from the 18th fairway using a 7-iron. This can have a most demoralising effect on your opponent. When playing your second shot ignore any approaching players on the 18th, indicating to them, without actually saying so, that you have done it on purpose”!

The fine approach to the 5th green.

At the fifth (‘Hole O’Cross’ 371 yards) one needs to hold one’s drive up from skidadaling down into bunkers on the outside of a slight dogleg right, in order to give youself the opportunity for hitting a superb iron to a raised green with protective bunkering.

The sixth (Long Barrow’ 401 yards) is longer and more straight forward in running one’s long iron into a large flat green where for once there are no borrows.

Paul’s team has been working hard on firming up the aprons and they are much improved with a greater consistency of bounce, which is crucial for the running-game.

The first par three, the 7th.

The seventh (‘Sutton Hoo’ 149 yards) is named after the two local Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of the 6th and 7th centuries that were discovered in 1939 providing a rich find for English archaeology.

It is a typical heathland par three on flat ground at the corner of the woods and the easiest of the four excellent short holes which says more about them than this well bunkered hole.

‘The Carry’ 514 yards is next and the two tier green is best approached from the right without catching the bunkering along the outside of the fairway.

The 9th, now with a view of the clubhouse across the 16th, 4th and 18th fairways.

‘Magazine’ 198 yards is a most attractive hole down a slope with a vista of the clubhouse now opened up across the sixteenth, fourth and eighteenth fairways.

The drive at the 11th.

We now turn away from the clubhouse and ‘Holly Tree’ 431 yards is on rising ground with a narrow long green, before we descend steeply down the eleventh (‘Lion’s Den’ 392 yards) having to play from a hanging lie across a valley to the strongly front sloping green protected by a front middle bunker. Best to be below the pin for your putt but achieving this is not easy, though helped if your ball gets a kick off the apron on the right.

Braid’s deceptive bunkering at the 12th.

Braid’s twelfth (‘Five Winds’ 184 yards) is open to the elements and deceptively bunkered.

The drive across the valley to the 13th.

We now have the opposite to the eleventh with a drive across a valley to a steeply rising fairway and a sloping green behind a cross bunker. It is difficult to judge the distance at this ‘The Ditch’ 310 yards.

One’s shoulders are opened at the fourteenth (‘St Andrews Hill’ 425 yards) with a drive to a wide fairway which also slopes right leaving a hanging lie with an iron to a deeply two tiered green tucked to the right.

The 14th green.

As Frank Pennink said in 1962 in his ‘Golfer’s Companion’ this hole is full of character and may stand longest in the memory. The whole area behind this hole and around the sixteenth tee has had hundreds of trees extracted and it has so improved the open feel and design of these holes.

The 15th in 1947.

The centenary booklet wag has some good advice here. “Your approach shot to this green may well lie on the route being taken by players coming off the 16th tee. They may ask you to play first. This can be embarrassing: you should insist that they cross first.”

The 15th in 1987.

If the fourteenth is accomplished well it helps boost your confidence to attack the quite superb run-in of the four final holes. The finish to a course to give the good player a chance to win is so important and we have this test at Woodbridge.

The 15th in 2021.

‘Punch Bowl’ 188 yards is as named with a high tee across heather to a well bunkered green nestling under the hill on which is the sixteenth tee.

As can be seen from the three photos taken in 1933, 1987 and in 2021 it now helps the aspect that a lot of gorse and scrub trees have been extracted and my one iron to the back of the green was kindly applauded by my recent playing partners.

Woodbridge’s sandpit behind the 15th green.

As one walks round the back of the green to the next tee a detour can be taken to inspect Woodbridge’s own sand pit. Nevertheless unfortunately the type of sand is not fit for bunkering or top-dressing of greens.

It does though remind one that the course is on naturally draining sandy subsoil and with the dramatic movement in the ground the new conservation greenkeeping leadership will be rewarded as Woodbridge takes its place as one of the finest running-golf courses in GB&I. Visitors should scamper to play there before the green-fees catch-up with the market.

The drive at the 16th in 1947, showing two bunkers no longer there and a lack of trees on the right.

The drive at the sixteenth (‘Hog’s Back’ 445 yards) needs to be your best. It is played from the high tee to crest the fairway’s hog’s back and gain a downhill forward run. Then a low running one iron again will bring you close to the open green and a bump-and-run up and down reminds one that the greatest holes are often around 440 yards.

The drive at the 16th in 2021, where the self-seeded oaks to the right screen the greenkeeper sheds and some should be due to come out soon, hopefully.

Despite today’s new equipment helping to hit balls ever further, this is counteracted now by the length that is lost as the years creep up upon one’s self. All this means that 440 yards continues to excite.

Nevertheless, for the young tigers some new back tees are being put in with help from Martin Hawtree.

Most fine courses need to be played a few times to appreciate the subtlety of the best designs and particularly their blind shots, such as at St Andrews Old, Perranporth and Pennard.

At the seventeenth at Woodbridge (‘Gallow Hill’ 400 yards) the drive across the blind dogleg right has to be judged depending on run and wind, with a run-out left and block-out right, which if hitting the right line leaves another hanging lie to a high front sloping green across a valley. Not easy playing the first time!

A new ragged edge bunker on the 18th.

We finish this most natural and delightful course with another drive to rising ground (‘The Valley’ 357 yards) with beckoning newly constructed ‘ragged’ bunkering around the corner of the left hand dogleg. The bottom of the pin is blind on a large green that slopes away.

A Ransomes triple at Woodbridge in the 1920s.

The Club has always had a close relationship with the Ransomes turf machinery company based in nearby Ipswich and though there is not much mention of greenkeepers in the centenary booklet, apart from a general appreciation of them, there is this lovely photo of a Ransomes horse-drawn triple from 1923.

The Club’s motif.

The motif of the Club is a crested bird first mentioned in committee minutes in 1906. Sky larks abounded on Bromeswell heath and as late as the mid-seventies their soaring notes were a joy to be heard over the 1st and 3rd fairways. Alas they are gone. Why? Received wisdom, says the centenary book, is that ‘you can have trees, heather and gorse, but not all together. The trees will win in the end and the other two will disappear’. Perhaps it is the same with ground nesting sky larks: certainly there are still sky larks a mile away on the meadows on the north bank of the Deben.

Is this another good reason for the membership to support Paul’s work that it might bring back the crested lark of the Club’s motif? It is reported that woodlarks, who also are ground nesting and enjoy the open heathland, are now recolonising Woodbridge.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2021.

Reader Comments

On December 25th, 2021 Martin Izzard BEM said:

Good to see that the Wood Lark is re-establishing at Woodbridge. At Woodhall Spa they used to be present, sadly not at the moment, and we hope they will return after the recent course changes with lots of trees taken out.

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