Appeared in January/February 1999 LINKS
Historically, heathland golf was not intended to be superior parkland golf. It was meant to be an imitation of links golf, or rather an attempt to emulate links conditions. In particular, those conditions consisted of a playing surface comprised of compacted, sand-based turf, which heath invariably provides,and the unfettered influence of the wind.
Walton Heath occupies high ground, approximately 650 feet above sea level on the edge of the North Downs. It is very exposed; what trees there are provide little protection from the elements. While there are no rhododendrons to beautify the surroundings, there is a sprinkling of elegant pines, and during autumn the scattered silver birches turn bonfire orange. Then, of course, there is the profusion of rust-cum-purple colored heather, and no heathland course has a greater or thicker coating of heather than Walton Heath.
It was between 1902 and 1904 that this landscape was transformed into a golf course by Herbert Fowler. It is said that he spent week upon week riding horseback through the heather searching for ideal green settings. He positioned many greenside bunkers several yards short of the putting surfaces—not to deceive golfers and confuse their perception of distance (though it achieved this), but because he wanted players to be able to bounce and run the ball onto greens, just as they would do on a links course.
Fairway cross bunkering, seldom seen nowadays even in Great Britain, is another prominent theme at Walton Heath. The majority of Fowler’s bunkers, both fairway and greenside, were built deep and framed—sometimes enveloped—by heather, and they remain so today. In fact, almost a century after its opening, and despite some minor revisions necessitated when a motorway was constructed adjacent to the property, Walton Heath appears very much as it did in Fowler’s time.
More to the point, it plays very much as it did in Fowler’s time: Walton Heath is maintained firm and fast, so encouraging the diversity of approach shots he intended; the wind is a constant factor; and the swathes of dense, tangling heather that patrol the fairways and the network of obstacle course-like traps are punitive. Yet, the fairways are generous in width, the placement of bunkers often rewards strategic play and the greens are generally large, surprisingly quick and extremely true. The examination the Old Course sets is tough but fair.
In terms of routing, if not general character, Walton Heath is a tale of two halves. After a stuttering start—the club cannot decide whether its opening hole plays better as a short, potentially drivable par 4 or stern par 3—the front nine marches away from the clubhouse in an out-and-back links-type fashion.
The back nine is the more memorable and occupies more exciting terrain. In contrast to the front nine, every hole runs in a different direction from its predecessor. From the 14th in, the course rises to yet another level. No less a judge than Tom Weiskopf has described the finishing sequence at Walton Heath as one of the best he has ever played.
Many distinguished figures have been associated with Walton Heath over the years. The club’s first professional was James Braid, winner of five British Opens, who served the club from 1904 until his death in 1950. Before the war, both Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales were Walton Heath members. Numerous important amateur and professional events have been staged on the Old course, including five European Open Championships and the 1981 Ryder Cup.