Appeared in Summer 2012 LINKS
While opposing views argue that it is either the world’s greatest celebration of international unity and peaceful optimism or a quadrennial extravaganza of commercial opportunism masquerading under the guise of sport, the reality is that the eyes of the world are now focused on London as the torch of the 30th Olympiad hovers ready to light the flame that will burn brightly above the Olympic Stadium for the 17 days of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
From July 27 to August 12, 10,500 athletes from 204 countries will compete for gold in 302 events covering 26 sports. Millions of visitors are expected in London and other parts of the UK to catch the action.
What none of them will see is any golf. Golf has not been an Olympic sport for well over a century. It featured in the official program in 1900 and again in 1904, but not again after the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews came out steadfastly against the inclusion of golf in the then exclusively amateur London Olympics of 1908, pointedly stating that “golf was not suitable for the Olympics.” Times have changed, however, and golf will be back as an Olympic sport when the Games move to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2016 when it will take its place beside the myriad sports that make up the modern Olympiad.
But if there is no golf to watch for the Olympic visitor to London this time around there is no need to despair. When you can’t stand the excitement of the synchronized swimming or archery any longer you can always slip away for a few holes because, surprisingly, the great metropolis that is London is a lot better served with golf courses readily accessible to the visitor than might first appear.
Close to the nine venues in London’s Olympic Park, and the 13 other venues in and around the city, there are far more fine courses to choose from than we can list here. But if you’re looking to stay close to the Olympic event venues, here is an ideal trail to follow.
First up is the course closest to the Olympic Stadium itself. Wanstead Golf Club is only three miles from the center of the Olympic action where 205 of the Games’ events will be held, although if golf had made it into this year’s Olympics Wanstead, by its own admission, probably wouldn’t have been the chosen venue. This isn’t a multi-million dollar, high-profile golf course built to host Olympic competition, as will be the case for Rio in four years time, but it is a pleasing Tom Dunn layout in a beautiful setting offering excellent sport.
Today the members are rightly proud of their club’s rich and venerable history and are keen to welcome visitors during the Olympics, or indeed at any other time.
With a visitor round costing a modest $60 and a full day ticket to play as much as you want for only $20 more, Wanstead is not only a delightful place to play, it’s pretty good value, too. Wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was a member here, which says much for its standing. But a word of warning; this is one place you don’t wear your backwards baseball cap in the dining room!
The east end of London will see much of the Olympic action. The popular equestrian events for both the Olympics and the Paralympics are being held in the historic Greenwich Park, London’s oldest royal park, dating back to 1433. It’s also close to Royal Blackheath, the subject of sometimes-heated debate on whether or not it is the world’s oldest golf club. That’s an argument for another time but there’s certainly no excuse for missing a tee time here, the home of Greenwich Mean Time is just down the street.
Again this is entertaining but not too stressful parkland golf in a surprisingly beautiful setting so close to the center of London. The golf is well worth the visit but it’s the Royal Blackheath museum that’s a must for any golfer with a sense of the history of the game. On display is a spectacular collection of artefacts and trophies that trace the lineage of this famous club back to its founding days at the time of King James I in the 17th century.
Another royal connection is Hampton Court Palace, home to many of Britain’s most famous kings and queens, including Henry VIII. The palace, set in historic Richmond Park in southwest London, is hosting the road cycling events but the visitor won’t miss much of the action by slipping away for a few holes. There are two 18-hole golf courses right there on the palace grounds and open to visitors for a very modest fee of less than $30.
The Dukes Course is slightly longer than the Princes Course at just over 6,000 yards, but both offer good Olympics escape golf with the added advantage of knowing you are playing in a park established by King Charles I in 1637. Hundreds of deer roam free in this pastoral landscape of hills, woodlands, ponds, and gardens only 12 miles from St Paul’s Cathedral, which can be clearly seen from the higher points of the park.
Another Olympics escape option here is the ancient game of real tennis. The palace is home to the oldest surviving real tennis court in England, one of fewer than 50 real tennis courts in the world.
Having acquired a taste for the royal connection, stay with it if your Olympic plans include taking in the more modern version of tennis. Royal Wimbledon is, of course, the venue for the tennis events and conveniently there are two golf courses right on the doorstep there, too.
Royal Wimbledon Golf Club is an exclusive and very private club that guards its privacy jealously, allowing occasional visitors but only after pre-arrangement with the club secretary.
Much more easily accessible is Wimbledon Common Golf Club, a short but delightful layout built by Tom Dunn in 1871, where the traditions of the early days of the royal and ancient game still prevail. All players must wear pillar-box red outer clothing to warn other users of the Common that golf is afoot. But don’t worry if your Olympics wardrobe doesn’t lean heavily toward that particular shade—appropriately colored polo shirts and waterproof garments may be rented from the pro shop for about $5. With green fees at less than $30 can there be any better value?
But again a word of warning; don’t succumb to the temptation to take a cell phone into the clubhouse, otherwise the price of your day will go up severely after a hefty donation to the club captain’s favorite charity!
Since we are on the royal trail anyway, let’s stay with it. Out at Dorney Lake near Windsor Castle the 2012 Olympians will do battle for the rowing, paralympic rowing, and canoe sprint honors, with 30 gold medals to be contested at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre.
The closest golf course is the Royal Household Golf Club in the Windsor Estate but a tee time could be a little tricky to come by. The club is the preserve of members of the Royal Household and visitors play there by strict invitation only.
Unless one is suitably well connected the best alternative is in nearby Ascot, while still of course retaining the royal connection. Royal Ascot Golf Club celebrates its 125th anniversary in this Olympic year, having moved from its original site in the middle of the famous Ascot racecourse to a new layout in 2005. Queen Victoria granted the club royal status back in 1887 and the royal connection is maintained in the present day by HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who is patron of the club. A modest outlay of around $60 will secure a round here as distraction from all that rowing going on down the road, and good sport it is.
The final stop on the Olympics Golf Trail is Brands Hatch, the historic former F1 motor racing circuit to the southeast of London at Sevenoaks in Kent. Thirty-two gold medals will be contested for here in the Paralympics road cycling and time trial events.
The golf escape is to London Golf Club, a modern 36-hole complex that hosted the European Open in 2008 and 2009 and is a regional qualifying course for the Open Championship. It’s the ideal venue to ease gently out of the historic backdrop so far and return to the modern world of risk and reward and the demands of a Jack Nicklaus championship course.
The Golden Bear fashioned both The International and The Heritage courses at London Golf Club with everything that comes with that bald statement of fact. It’s spectacular and demanding with facilities that are nothing short of first class, but you will need to pay a little more than at the other venues on our right royal tour so far. Something around $150 will see you through to complete this Olympics Golf Trail around London.
Play the whole trail and you should probably qualify for a gold medal all of your own.
Malcolm Campbell is a former editor of Golf Monthly, author of several best-selling golf books, and captain of the James Braid Golfing Society.