Only 18 miles from the centre of London you can find an absolute gem of a golfing destination. Sitting in 300 acres of beautiful English countryside, The Grove not only boasts one of the top rated hotels in the UK and a world rated spa but far more importantly it boasts one of the best courses in South-East England.
What makes The Grove so special is that it manages to combine the best of British traditions with completely modern attitudes; while there has been a house at the site since 1400 and the core of the present structure dates from 1754 when was the home of the Earl of Clarendon, there’s no fustiness here. In fact, there’s not even an on-course dress code. That’s like being able to watch the Ashes from the Pavilion at Lord’s without having the wear a jacket and tie or fitting in at Ascot’s Royal Enclosure while wearing shorts and a T-shirt – you get to enjoy the occasion without focusing on the distractions. It goes without saying that the sort of golfers you find here are far more likely to be decked out in J Lindberg and Galvin Green than tracksuits but it’s incredibly refreshing and highlights the lack of pretensions.
The gorgeous changing rooms and bar were originally the stables (which tells you that the Earl did things in style) and since converted very stylishly. The pro shop is small but perfectly formed and most importantly, the staff are incredibly helpful. No snobbery here.
Now for any golf course, no matter how beautiful the surroundings or pleasant the staff, it has to be about the experience on the course. The Grove is a fantastic example of a modern stadium parkland course – a long demanding track that combines wide rolling fairways with sharp changes in elevation. A traditional links or heathland track would have looked out of place in this rolling countryside and as the course winds through mature woodland players will enjoy some swooping changes of elevation. The course takes pride of place alongside Kingsbarn and Loch Lomond as Kyle Philips’ best known creations and shares some trademark touches: a course that seems to have emerged from the landscape rather than having been mechanically hewn from it and hazards placed to allow it to be a challenge to the better golfer while still being enjoyably playable for us lesser mortals. Another noticeable feature is the large fast undulating greens. From the first green you will see that they normally consist of 3 or more completely separate levels. Leaving your ball on the wrong level can result in either a putt that requires a good thump to get it close or one that you barely need to breathe on. As you make your way around the estate the course is slowly revealed and while there are birdies to be had, the final 4 holes make for a grandstand finish for any standard of golfer.
It’s impossible to talk about this course without mentioning the AMEX World Golf Championship that was hosted here in 2006. Then, Tiger Woods was at his peerless best on his way to a 12th WGC title. Recording a score of -23, 8 shots ahead of Ian Poulter and Adam Scott, Woods played the 18th hole in 7 under over the 4 days of the tournament. Uphill and into a prevailing breeze, Woods eagled the hole the first 3 days and only missed out on the Sunday when his drive just missed the fairway and his pitch shot stopped next to the cup. Three plaques, all within 20 feet of each other, record where his drives came to rest on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday. As you walk past them, it’s almost impossible not to drop a ball and see if you can recreate those eagles. At around 250 yards and 30 feet below the flag, you may have swing that little bit harder to get it ball anywhere close.
The course was in great nick when we were there. Despite a scorching summer the fairways were perfect and the greens as smooth as if they were due a Tour event. The management of the course is the responsibility of Troon Golf who say they focus on agronomy and course health as much as managing the course as a business. This doesn’t always seem to be true for some big courses but it is here so you are practically guaranteed a great golfing experience whenever you play.
A must play.
Green fees from £139 – For more information contact, http://www.thegrove.co.uk/golf.aspx
Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure
My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.
Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.
Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.
I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.
First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.
Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.
Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!
Streamsong’s New Black Course Might Be Its Best Course
Up until four years ago, there wasn’t a lot to see or do in the flat stretch of Polk County, Florida, between Tampa and Orlando. That all changed in 2012 with the opening of Streamsong Resort, the wildly popular destination that seamlessly combines rugged golf courses and sophisticated indoor spaces in a way that’s completely unique and altogether appealing.
With its Red Course (designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) and Blue Course (designed by Tom Doak) firmly established among the finest public courses in the country, Streamsong unveiled its newest member of the family, the Black Course on September 25. Designed by Gil Hanse (designer of the Olympic Golf Course in Brazil, Castle Stuart in Scotland, and Mossy Oak in Mississippi), the Black Course has been among the most highly anticipated course openings in recent years.
Weighing in at 7,337 yards and a healthy 74.7 rating/135 slope from the back tees, the Black Course is both a beauty and a beast. In the spirit of its predecessors, Hanse has beautifully incorporated elevation and undulation to create a track that is visually stunning and challenging to play. The rolling land, resurrected from its previous life as a phosphate mine, has a firm sandy base that evokes the look and feel of the links-style tracks in the Melbourne Sandbelt in Australia. And in constructing the course, Hanse selected turf grasses that give maximum roll out and encouraged conditioning that allows the same kind of creative shotmaking that is available on links courses.
While there is a premium on shotmaking, The Black Course puts equal, if not more value, on good decision making. Throughout the journey you can choose to be Joe Citizen or G.I. Joe, going for safety or going for glory. Hole No. 4, a 601-yard par-5 features a cantilevered split fairway that gives the player several routes to negotiate the path home based on ability and the conditions of the day. Nos. 6 and 14 are short par 4’s that tempt the big hitter to go for broke, but failure results in a trip to one of the Black Course’s yawning bunkers or open sandy areas, both signature features of Hanse’s recent designs.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of the course are the sprawling greens that have contours that border on the surreal. Speaking of borders, there are none on the greens. Hanse decided to go with large greens that come right out to the fairway, allowing putting opportunities from almost anywhere. The most dramatic of the greens complexes is No. 9, a 450-yard par-4. Players hit a blind second shot into a “punch bowl” green that literally has to be seen to be believed. You’ll be talking about it after the round… whether you finish the hole with a 3 or an X.
Another distinctive feature is found on the par-4 13th, which features two greens that are alternated daily to give players another challenge and another story to tell after the round.
The clubhouse, designed by the award-wining Alonso Architechts (who also designed the Streamsong Lodge), is as stunning an accomplishment as the golf course. Employing the forward-looking design concept of the Lodge, the minimalist glass-and-steel design offers breathtaking views of the Florida sunrises and sunsets whether you are in the cool indoors or next to the Gauntlet putting green outside. And the Bone Valley Tavern is a showcase for Executive Chef Mike Ford’s mouth-watering food and craft cocktails (try the Black Martini).
Throughout the day of the preview and ribbon-cutting, there was a sense of pride and joy more similar to the delivery of a newborn than the opening of a golf course. Hanse was emotional while giving his opening remarks, giving special acknowledgment to his Lead Designer Jim Wagner.
“I am so proud that Jim’s name is beside mine on the plaque that says who designed the course,” Hanse said while fighting back tears. His passion was shared by all, including those present from parent company Mosaic, which owns some 200,000 acres in the area, including the resort property.
“This is a labor of love and I am proud of and grateful for everyone who contributed to making this happen,” said Rich Mack, the Mosaic executive who is the visionary behind Streamsong.
Those who expect to get a run at Streamsong Black had better get moving. Management officials said they’re already talking reservations for 2018. Anyone fortunate enough to get a slot will not be disappointed.
“We were aware of the level of excellence here at Streamsong, and we knew we had to meet that standard,” Hanse said. “But we also wanted to do something different, something special. We wanted to make a course that was beautiful and challenging, but above all it should be fun.” These will be welcome words to the traveling golfer who is faced with ever longer and more difficult resort courses.
In an industry that specializes in tradition but often lacks vision, Streamsong has planted a beacon on the horizon for what the future of the resort golf experience can and should be.
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