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Beau Desert

By: Hal Phillips

Appeared in January/February 2002 LINKS

Herbert Fowler is one of those architects whose name isn’t readily attached to the many great courses he laid out or substantially retooled. Cruden Bay? That’s a Fowler. Royal North Devon? Fowler’s renovation of this Old Tom Morris original (a.k.a. Westward Ho!) made it the superb course we know today.

This lack of name recognition begins to explain why a venue like England’s Beau Desert Golf Club, which Fowler designed in the Staffordshire hamlet of Hazel Slade for the Sixth Marquess of Anglesey, rings few bells. Yet golfers are unlikely to come across a better heathland course.

For his own part, the Marquess (née Charles Henry Alexander Paget) recognized immediately that Fowler had created something extraordinary on his Beaudesert estate. After the course was completed in 1913, Paget whisked Fowler off to his family’s “other” ancestral estate at Plas Newydd on the Welsh island of Anglesey. There the architect laid out a second course for the Marquess, Bull Bay Golf Club, another impressive Fowler design you’ve probably never heard of.

Fowler performed most of his brilliant work in his native England, but from time to time he got around. He was the man who transformed a ho-hum par 4 at Pebble Beach into one of golf’s most heroic par-5 finishing holes. Fowler also refurbished the ancient Welsh links at Aberdovey, where venerated golf writer Bernard Darwin learned the game and played all his life.

If you believe the term “links” is often misapplied (it is), perhaps “heathland” is the source of even greater misunderstanding. Like a links, a heathland course is sandy, only inland, upland and very much open to the elements. Walton Heath is a celebrated prototype (Fowler did that one, too), and Beau Desert is a worthy sister, laid out on the treeless heath that was Cannock Chase.

It’s not treeless any longer, of course. Many heathland courses, even the very best ones, haven’t survived to the present day unchanged. After decades of unchecked tree growth, most heathland designs don’t look anything like they did when they opened. In fact, these veritable parkland hybrids not only look different, their playing characteristics have also vastly changed.

But some still play as a heathland course should, and Beau Desert is one. Its trees are numerous but they merely frame the enormous, menacing rough areas, which in turn frame generous fairways. Indeed, if one could reach them, the trees would be preferable to the rough—a sure sign you’re playing a heathland layout.

It’s very much in vogue today to develop golf courses in and around abandoned quarries and gravel pits. Beau Desert was a forerunner in this regard: Fowler routed his 18 holes amid centuries-old coalmining grounds. Indeed, the opening drive here plays across a derelict collier works, straight uphill to an inventive punchbowl green.

Beau Desert is replete with perpendicular hazards, particularly cross bunkers. At the 2nd, a titanic par 4 that plays 458 yards along the crest of Cannock Chase, Fowler coyly positioned one well short of the putting surface. It juts in from the left and appears to closely guard the green.

Beau Desert’s greenside bunkers, deep and rugged-looking, complement the hugely pitched, severely undulating putting surfaces, which come in all shapes and sizes. The 263-yard par-4 9th, for example, is driveable, in theory. But the green is so small and severely canted right-to-left that approaching it with a sand wedge is harrowing enough.

In 1974 British architect Fred Hawtree was consulted about leveling several of Beau Desert’s greens. To the members he wrote, “There are a great many eccentric contours on greens which lead to approaches and putts which go beyond a spirit of adventure.”

Ultimately, few of Hawtree’s proposed changes were implemented. Apparently, club members shared a spirit of golf adventure that ran deeper than Hawtree’s.

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