Sunningdale Golf Club – Old Course
Designers: Willie Park, Jr.
The heathland near London is, without question, among the finest regions for inland golf in the world and owes much of its notoriety to the emergence of a dynamic pairing: Harry Colt and Sunningdale. The two began their relationship in 1900, when the club selected Colt as its first secretary from a pool of over 400 applicants. Colt spent the next 13 years molding Sunningdale into London’s preeminent club, while simultaneously building a booming business in golf course architecture. It was this foray that would eventually see his name stamped to the likes Muirfield, Royal County Down, and Pine Valley, as well as many of the landmark courses in the heathland area.
While Harry Colt’s work around the M25 beltway laid the foundation for the heathland region, it was Willie Park, Jr. who placed the cornerstone at Sunningdale. The two-time Open champion was given a budget of £3000 and a charge from the club to “build a course of exemplary character.” Park weaved the course through the towering pines and sprawling heather in expert fashion, not only fulfilling the club’s directive, but leaving behind a layout which has stood the test of time.
What would come to be known as the Old Course – following the arrival of the New in 1922 – was considered both revolutionary and exceedingly long for its time. The evolution of modern golf technology has taken some of the bite out of that initial length, yet a host of long and challenging par-4s still force the golfer to earn their keep. Sprinkled among these brutish tests are a number of opportunities to relax, such as the wonderfully strategic short par-4s found at #3 and #11. However, one shouldn’t let the guard down too far, as the ever present heather stands ready to swallow the ill-conceived shot.
Although Park’s original layout has indeed stood the test of time, the Old Course has seen its share of evolution as well. From almost the moment he arrived, Harry Colt set to the task of fine-tuning the course into the masterpiece it is today. Several blind par-3s were altered, greens were shifted to better locations, and the 1st, 17th, and 18th holes were significantly changed to make way for construction of the New Course. Perhaps the most notable change wasn’t instituted by Colt or another secretary, but rather the German Luftwaffe. A bombing raid in 1940 left a number of craters on the Sunningdale course, one of which was adjacent the 18th green. After careful consideration, the club deemed the new “bunker” an improvement to the hole, and it has remained ever since.
At Sunningdale, history and tradition run deep. It was here that Bobby Jones recorded what many have called the “perfect round” in qualifying for the 1926 Open Championship: a 66 consisting of all 3s and 4s. It’s also here that one finds 36 holes paired with a sumptuous carvery lunch – to be enjoyed in coat and tie – a combination that gives Muirfield a run for its money as the finest day in golf. And as that day draws to a close, with the last moments savored from the clubhouse patio overlooking the trademark oak tree, one thing will be abundantly clear: the heathland near London is a special destination for golf, but it all begins and ends at Sunningdale.