Appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of LINKS.
by Philip Truett
While we might all love playing golf in Scotland and Ireland, some of the best golf in the United Kingdom can be found remarkably close to London. It was realized in the 1890s that the heathland of Surrey, the county immediately south of the city, resembled the seaside links courses with their exposure to the wind, their fine, fast-running fairways, their treeless landscapes, and where, at the time, it was thought that only “proper” golf could be played.
Woking (1893) was the first course to be laid out in Surrey, followed by New Zealand (1895), Sunningdale (1900), Walton Heath (1903), and subsequently a number of others such as Worplesdon, Swinley Forest, and The Berkshire. There can be few other districts with such good quality golf and generally unknown to the traveling golfer. To a greater or lesser degree, they are all accessible, subject to the correct approaches being made.
Walton was developed by the local land-owning grandee Cosmo Bonsor, who was also chairman of the railway company that had just opened a branch line to serve the area: A new golf club could only increase traffic. Bonsor’s brother-in-law, Herbert Fowler, was a fine golfer who he asked to lay out this new course. Little could they have imagined how successful this new venture was to become.
Knowing that the course would resemble the links of his native Fife in Scotland, James Braid, winner of the Open in 1901, wrote to the club asking to be its professional. He started when the course opened in 1904 and was still pro when he died in 1950. On the way, he won the Open on another four occasions, became a prolific course architect, and, in the year of his death, was an honorary member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.
Shortly after the course opened, the club was taken over by George Riddell, chairman of the News of the World newspaper and later to become Lord Riddell of Walton Heath. The club became a haven for Parliament and the press with no fewer than four Prime Ministers (Balfour, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Churchill) enjoying membership. Both the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and the Duke of York (later George VI) were members, with the former serving as Captain in the year that his father died, thereby making Walton Heath the only English club to have had a serving monarch as Captain.
A second course was soon needed: Fowler’s first nine holes of what was to become known as the New Course opened in 1907; the second nine opened in 1913, making Walton Heath the first English club to have 36 holes.
The great feature of the two courses is that there is nothing to choose between them. They are equally good! The Old is more famous because that is where the challenge matches of days gone by and the tournaments of today are held. For largely the same reasons, it is the Old where changes have been made over the years while the New has remained Fowler’s almost entirely untouched masterpiece.
Both courses can be played to almost 7,500 yards. Wide open, relatively flat, and affected by the wind, the fairways are always fast running. (Winter rules, preferred lies, and, perish the thought, temporary greens are unheard of.) Meanwhile, work continues to restore the courses to their true inland links nature by cutting back trees, encouraging fine grasses, and promoting growth of the heather, which remains one of the course’s most strident defenses. There is nothing tricky or unnatural on either course and although many of the holes remain all but unchanged for more than a century, they have only strengthened over time.
The club has hosted a huge number of amateur and professional tournaments over the years, including the 1981 Ryder Cup and five European Open Championships. It recently hosted both the British Senior Amateur and Senior Open Championships, while the USGA’s International Qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open is held annually at Walton, as is the club’s own highly prestigious South of England Open Amateur Championship.
The clubhouse—still based on the original pavilion but much extended over the years—is a delight, most comfortable and packed full of portraits and interesting memorabilia depicting the club’s history. There is, for instance, a Fowler Room, a Holderness Dining Room (Amateur Champion in 1922 and 1924), and, of course, a Braid Room as well as a Braid Exhibition in his old pro shop.
Philip Truett, a past Captain and current board member of Walton Heath, has been the club’s archivist for more than 30 years.