When Effingham Golf Club decided they needed to bring the course up to date, they didn't look forward – instead, they looked back. After poring over old photographs they restored the vision of the genius architect who first laid it out in the 1920s: Harry Shapland Colt.
The areas of our lives in which we truly cherish the past are few and far between. But they are there, and they are growing.
Architecture is the obvious example, of course. The demolitions of country houses and national landmarks that punctuated the 1950s and 1960s have given way to a new appreciation of the gems of the past, and the register of listed buildings numbers over half a million in England alone.
Beautiful buildings are just the start, however: there’s a real feeling today that we are beginning to appreciate what we’d once lost. Take culture, for example. The digital download revolution was supposed to have killed off physical media, yet over four million vinyl albums were sold in Britain last year (the most since 1991); and printed books seem to be winning the battle against electronic books now that their initial novelty has died down.
Golf has always been a game that’s cherished its past. No sport is better at continuing to lionise the great figures of its history, from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods, via Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus et al. The outpouring of grief over Arnold Palmer’s death a couple of years ago, particularly in the USA, was astonishing given how few people alive today will remember him from his prime. Palmer last won a Major tournament in 1964.
Yet while those heroes are still lauded, many of the courses they played on have been trampled by history – new bunkers are added, tweaks made, courses re-routed. Even the most famous places aren’t immune: at the Old Course in St Andrews, the infamous ‘Road Hole’ bunker on the 17th seems to be a different size and shape every time The Open returns there; while Augusta National, home of the Masters, is unrecognisable from the track that made Gene Sarazen famous with his albatross in 1935.
Sometimes the changes are justified, sometimes they are a result of keeping up with technology. Often, they’re short-sighted, poorly thought through or both. Ernie Els’s ill-fated re-design of the West Course at Wentworth springs easily to mind.
This makes it incredibly gratifying to see a golf course which has taken its prompt from the past while trying to improve things. That club is Effingham Golf Club in Surrey, a course designed by the great Harry Colt – the same man, as it happens, who originally laid out Wentworth as well as a host of other famous venues. Roughly half-way between Guildford and Leatherhead, it’s blessed with a lovely stretch of the rolling North Downs, magnificent views, and a listed Georgian clubhouse (built in 1770) that’s full of character.
Effingham didn’t bring in a big-name player to put their modern stamp on the place. Instead they engaged the well-respected firm of Mackenzie & Ebert and gave them a simple brief: go back to the original Colt designs and reinstate the course as they believe he’d have wanted it today. Years of the usual ups and downs of maintenance – whether battling nature, greenkeeping budgets or both – had seen the original bunkers lose almost all their shape and relevance. Effingham had evolved into a pleasant golf course, but one where too many holes lacked any definition.
Tom Mackenzie spent hours poring over photographs of the course from the 1920s, and over a few years the work by his team (and landscapers M.J. Abbott) saw every single one of the 83 bunkers either re-shaped, moved or turfed-over to restore Colt’s vision. The results are, well, rather like the golfing equivalent of listening to a rich, characterful vinyl recording after years of low-quality MP3 downloads.
Right from the opening tee shot on the excellent par-5 1st, the course is a pleasure to behold. The front nine is the gentler of the two loops, with the back nine building the drama to its height – and the 15th hole is a particular triumph. Once a plain-looking trundle downhill, it is now a beautifully-inviting challenge where the eye is drawn to the sand traps, and the mind begins to guide its way around them. It’s the sort of hole that immediately excites the player at the thought of taking on the shot – and that, above all else, is the mark of a great golf hole.
The condition of the course when the Country Life two-ball turned up in the middle of this hot summer was very good – hard and bouncy, as downland courses always are in a dry spell, but the greens running true and remaining receptive to a well-struck shot, while both fairways and rough were carefully looked-after. As was everything else about the place – right up to the moment when we finished the day off sipping a beer on a sunny summer’s evening in the shadows of that glorious old clubhouse. They’ve done Harry Colt – and themselves – proud.
Visitor green fees at Effingham Golf club from £40 to £75 depending on time, day and month – discounts available with a county card.
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