Shift the joy stick on your time machine and turn the clock back. Put on your English-tinted spectacles. It is 1990: Margaret Thatcher is still flavor of the month and Nick Faldo is about to retain his Masters crown at Augusta. A group of weekend golfers arrives at Stoke Poges Golf Club in leafy Buckinghamshire—not that there are too many leaves on the trees in England at this time of year.
Our golfers set off for 18 holes and enjoy one of the better parkland courses they have played, although it is a little tired-looking. They marvel at the magnificent mansion clubhouse, surely the most striking 19th hole they have ever seen. But their enthusiasm is crushed the instant they set foot inside the building. It is completely dilapidated, and the sheer scale of its disrepair saddens them immensely. “What a terrible shame,” they agree. And then they start to wonder: “If only …”
“If only” has happened. Today, just a decade later, the golf course at Stoke Poges and the Stoke Park estate in which it lies, have been completely transformed: The course has been sympathetically renovated and its clubhouse, the Stoke Park mansion, has been fully and splendidly restored. To understand how and why such efforts were made to achieve this, you must first appreciate the history of Stoke Park.
The Buckinghamshire location is actually quite close to London. Heathrow Airport is not far away, nor is Windsor Castle. Stoke Poges and the Stoke Park estate are mentioned in documents that are a thousand years old. In the 16th century, England’s most revered judge, Sir Edward Coke, owned the land (his monument now towers over much of the golf course), and in the 18th century, it was acquired by the Penn family of Pennsylvania fame. It was the Penns who commissioned England’s two greatest landscape architects, “Capability” Brown and Sir Humphrey Repton, to beautify the grounds of the estate, and in 1795 invited James Wyatt to design the spectacular palatial mansion.
Golf came to Stoke Poges early in the 20th century. In his seminal book, “The Golf Courses of the British Isles,” published in 1910, Bernard Darwin gave a very favorable description of the golf course and its extraordinary clubhouse. In his inimitable way he described the latter as “a gorgeous palace, a dazzling vision of white stone,” and added, “It is a beautiful spot, and there is very good golf to be played here; the club is an interesting one, moreover, as being one of the first and most ambitious attempts in England at what is called in America, a country club.”
Harry Colt laid out the golf course in 1908. Originally 27 holes, Stoke Poges was one of his early projects, and although he was then still to craft his most famous English designs amid the heathlands of Surrey, as well as to assist George Crump in creating Pine Valley, Colt demonstrated his considerable talents when fashioning a beautifully wooded site within the grounds of Stoke Park.
The period between the wars were halcyon days. Stoke Poges established itself as a “high society” club and hosted an important annual challenge match between the country’s top male and female amateur golfers, with Bernard Darwin being a regular participant.
During World War II, the club relinquished some of its land to assist the war effort; as a result Stoke Poges became an 18-hole golf course. The “dazzling” mansion lost its sparkle and, metaphorically speaking, the lights remained switched off for half a century. The golf club continued to operate after the war but the members could not afford—or were not responsible for—maintenance of their lavish 19th hole. A local corporation now owned the property and, unsurprisingly, had little interest in restoring the grandeur of bygone eras. Stoke Park began to decay. The golf course fared much better than the mansion, but even Colt’s layout began to look a little frayed around the edges.
In the 1960s Stoke Poges was the venue for the filming of James Bond’s golfing duel with Goldfinger. Bond, as you may recall, caught his opponent cheating and claimed the match. Goldfinger’s assistant and caddie, Oddjob, responded by vandalizing the mansion, including decapitation of a lion statue with his bowler hat. So, in a way, even Goldfinger contributed to Stoke Park’s decline.
The amazing turnaround began in the early 1990s. The estate was purchased by an ambitious U.K.-based international company that determined to restore Stoke Park to its former glory. In fact, plans went well beyond restoration—an immense task in itself—for they aimed to transform Stoke Poges from a rather sleepy golf club into the most stylish club in Europe, a place where first-rate golf would partner with unrivaled off-course facilities.
Under the skillful guidance of Course Superintendent Alex Millar, a five-year plan was implemented to upgrade all tees, fairways and greens. It was never the intention to redesign Colt’s work, but rather to renovate existing Colt features and to modernize the course, for example, by lengthening certain holes. As Millar says, “We very carefully scrutinized the original plans, and any time we considered deviating from them we asked ourselves, ‘What would Colt recommend if he were advising us today?’” Indeed, so proud is the club of its association with Colt that it has initiated the “Colt Cup,” an annual tournament involving clubs from around the world whose courses were designed either by Colt or one of his associates.
By the mid-1990s the positive results of the five-year plan were plain to see, and today, with the exception of Royal Worlington, Stoke Poges has perhaps the truest and quickest greens of any inland course in England. The bunkers all appear beautifully sculpted, and the fairways have benefitted from a new state-of-the-art irrigation system.
A fresh look, then, has been given to Colt’s artistry. From the championship tees, the course now measures almost 6,700 yards with a par of 71. The most famous hole at Stoke Poges is the beautiful yet mischievous par-3 seventh. It is thought that this hole provided the inspiration for Augusta’s notorious 12th, the centerpiece of “Amen Corner.” Certainly there are real similarities.
The third and the 11th are also outstanding short holes—although the former can be a brute when played into the wind. The real strength of the course, however, lies in its superb mix of par-4s. Among the best of these are, on the front nine, the fourth, with its deceptively raised green, and the ingeniously bunkered sixth. On the back nine, there are the sweeping down-and-up 10th, its green framed by an attractive stand of pines; the long 12th; and the 17th and 18th—two excellent closing par-4s. The former has a fairway that tumbles down to a green sited on the far side of a creek, followed by an exacting home hole with a green that’s fiercely defended by natural swales and plenty of sand.
While the changes to the golf course could be termed “subtle yet significant,” the only appropriate adjective to describe the result of the restorative works on the Stoke Park mansion is “astonishing.” In essence, the 18th-century building and its original ambience have been recreated. Beautiful paintings, vast tapestries and glittering chandeliers greet you as you enter the building, while outside and all around, fountains have sprouted and statues mushroomed amid emerald lawns and gleaming terraces. It is a wondrous sight, and for golfers, a wonderful 19th hole.
On-site accommodation—being able to stay overnight within or adjacent to a golf clubhouse—is quite rare in Britain. But at Stoke Poges you can stay in the most sumptuous surroundings imaginable. The entire first tier of the Stoke Park mansion has been converted into a 21-bedroom luxury hotel. As evidence of the quality, Stoke Park recently became a member of the “Leading Hotels of the World” group. To spend an evening here after a day’s golf, on what is surely England’s finest parkland course, and combine those experiences with perhaps a dinner in the club’s ballroom or its chic art deco-themed brasserie, is to know the true meaning of the phrase “gourmet golf.”
It is tempting to conclude with another French-inspired expression by describing Stoke Poges as a golfing tour de force. That description is certainly true, but if we’re going to put all our cards on the table, let’s be thoroughly English about it: Stoke Poges is the King of Clubs.