Appeared in May/June 1999 LINKS
You’ve landed in London and you want to play some quality golf. Where do you go? Since this is the capital of England, you’d better pay a visit to Royal St. George’s, once described as “the patron saint of English golf.” It is a superb links course—very traditional and brimming with character. It is also extremely challenging. Play Royal St. George’s on a tough day and you are likely to be blown off course. Literally.
After such an experience, where next? If you are a sucker for punishment you could always stay at Prince’s or Royal Cinque Ports, both of which have staged British Open Championships in the dim and distant past. Or perhaps you could explore Rye, further west along the coast, and where the golf is even more traditional and unpredictable than Royal St. George’s. Alternatively, you could seek respite and venture inland. You could and should sample an English heathland course.
After links golf, heathland golf is undoubtedly the most interesting type that Britain has to offer. For one thing, the playing conditions are excellent. The terrain is sandy (a al Pinehurst) and not unlike that of a links, although the courses are generally much less exposed. Not only is there no sea to whip up a frenzy, but in place of sand dunes, which rarely provide shelter, are avenues of pine, oak and silver birch trees. Heathland courses are very scenic. In addition to the attractive mix of trees, heather adorns many of the fairways and frames some of the hazards; in season there may also be splashes of gorse and wild rhododendrons. All in all, it is a wonderful environment for golf.
While they are certainly not unique to the region, the greatest number of outstanding heathland courses are to be found within a 50-mile radius of Greater London. You have probably heard of southern England’s three most famous heathland courses: Sunningdale, Wentworth and Walton Heath. You may also be familiar with another excellent trio: The Berkshire, St. George Hill and Swinley Forest. But have you heard of West Sussex (sometimes called Pulborough after its location)? Probably not, I imagine, and in which case more’s the pity because West Sussex might just be the finest and most enjoyable heathland course of all. It really is that special.
So why isn’t West Sussex as well know as it should be? Its location is one reason. Pulborough is situated a little beyond the 50-mile radius, and is detached from the famous heathland belt of Surrey and Berkshire, lying to its south and west. Moreover, since much of the land in between is chalk rather than sand-based, West Sussex is something of a golfing oasis. In this respect, it is reminiscent of Woodhall Spa, that splendid heathland course in the north of England.
Another reason for its relative anonymity is that the club prefers a low profile. “Low profile,” however, should not be confused with “unwelcoming,” as it sometimes is, for the atmosphere is sedate, not stuffy. West Sussex is quiet most days of the week, and at such times the Clubhouse has a genteel, newspapers-on-Sunday morning ambience. The golf course is younger than the majority of England’s more traditional layouts, having opened in 1931. Rather interestingly, the greatest lady golfer of the day, Joyce Wethered, performed the official opening ceremony.
Location and low profile aside, I believe the major reason West Sussex is so underrated is because it is widely perceived as being “too short” by modern standards. This is non-sensical. From its back tees, West Sussex measures 6,221 yards. For sure, it is not a very long course, but then par is a meager 68. There is only one par-5, but no par-4 hole measures less than 350 yards. No fewer than seven of the two-shot holes measure in excess of 400 yards while two of the five par-3s are more than 200 yards in length. Does the course suffer in any way because par is not 70 or 72? I don’t think so. Analyzed on a hole-by-hole basis, I believe West Sussex compares favorably with any of the great heathland layouts. As for its scenic qualities, Pulborough is an absolute jewel.
Golf course architect and course critic, Tom Doak is a strong West Sussex supporter. Doak writes in his book, “A Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” “I think [West Sussex] is the most idyllic of all the heathlands’ magnificent courses … there are as many good holes here as on any course you could name, and the setting is all one could ask for: somehow, the grass seems greener, the sand whiter and the heather a deeper purple than a Wentworth or a Sunningdale.”
West Sussex was designed by Sir Guy Campbell and Cecil Hutchinson. In terms of routing, the course takes full advantage of a gently undulating site and flows wonderfully from tee to green to tee. In response to those who are critical of its length, there frankly wasn’t room to extend the course significantly (if indeed at all); and yet there isn’t the slightest feeling of encroachment. If anything, the fairways are on the generous side, and this enabled Campbell and Hutchinson to incorporate plenty of strategy into the layout. Actually, the golf course architecture is quite brilliant. There is variety, charm and challenge in abundance. If the putting surfaces are essentially subtle, then the bunkering—both fairway and greenside—is essentially dramatic. A few holes have no bunkers at all, relying instead for their defense on natural mounds, gullies and the general contours of the land.
The round commences with the lone par-5. The green here can be reached with two good shots, although to do so the second has to be shaped from right to left. Traces of an old Roman road are visible in front of the second green, so complicating the approach and at the third comes the first of many impressive fairway bunkers.
It is difficult to say which is the best run of holes at West Sussex, because the ninth is possibly the only modest hole on the card. The most spectacular sequence, however, begins with the second shot to the fourth and culminates with a glorious drive at the seventh. The green at the fourth is elegantly perched against a backdrop of tall pines. Then comes the fifth, a very attractive short hole whose putting surface appears, from the tee, almost overwhelmed by sand. The sixth is a colossal and intimidating downhill par-3—you must hit over a sea of heather and a natural pond to find a seemingly minute target that backs up to trees and out of bounds. The seventh requires a long uphill tee shot to carry some thick heather and scrub, not to mention an enormous sand bunker. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this stretch of holes bears comparison with the fourth to the seventh at Pine Valley. Believe me, the sixth at Pulborough is as tough as the fifth at Pine Valley.
A cleverly angled green is the making of the par-3 eighth, and after the aforementioned ninth (not a bad hole, really) come two demanding par-4s: the seriously left-angled 10th, with its MacKenzie-style bunkering on the corner of the dogleg; and the curving, down-and-up 11th.
Just when you think the quality of the course must surely start to wane a little, it in fact steps up another gear. The 12th is a marvelous one-shotter, a big and strong par-3; the 13th is often cited as the best par-4 on the course-the bunkering in front of the green is tremendous; and the 14th features old-fashioned fairway cross bunkering and a green wedged between sand and water, another of West Sussex’s marshy ponds. Water on a classic English heathland layout? Why not? It doesn’t look remotely artificial, as the par-3 15th again demonstrates. There is no water and no sand on the 16th, but the challenge here is to pitch across a heather-filled chasm. Finally, two contrasting, heavily bunkered 400-yard plus par-4s lead you back to the clubhouse. Fittingly, it’s a stout finish to a sensational course—even for one that prefers a low profile.