Heavenly Hankley Common
There was I thinking West Lancs Golf Club was the most underrated course in England only to spend three days tramping around Hankley Common Golf Club during the R&A Home Internationals. As Fagin sang in the musical Oliver: “I’m reviewing the situation.”
West Lancs doesn’t get the fame it deserves because of its proximity to Royal Birkdale, Formby, Hillside and Southport & Ainsdale. Perhaps Hankley common suffers from the same geographical fate. Maybe its location not far from great sand-belt courses like Sunningdale, The Berkshire, Swinley Forest, the three Ws of West Hill, Woking, Worplesdon and others means it get similarly overlooked.
Writing in his book Frank Pennink’s Choice of Golf Courses, published in 1976, the renowned architect wrote of Hankley Common:
“One of the most delightful sand-based clubs of my acquaintance, with a big natural course on dry heathland, bounded by heather and gorse.”
The heather on each side of the fairways is a joy to behold when in bloom, as it was during the Home Internationals. Get into this wiry stuff and you might not actually need to worry about playing out of it. Finding your ball in the heather is as difficult as trying extricate it.
The best amateurs in Great Britain & Ireland certainly had a job finding balls in the heather, even though the landing areas are actually far wider than they look from the tee. Thankfully, players didn’t find too many of the local adders either. It’s not just the golf course that has some bite at Hankley Common.
Those adders are a protected species, since Hankley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Aside from the slithery things, you’ll find woodlarks, night jars, Dartford warblers, badgers, sand lizards, deer and other wildlife. Indigenous trees on the course include silver birch, rowan and oak, along with Scots Pine.
Like many courses in the British Isles, Hankley began as a humble nine-hole layout. The club made a significant investment to employ five-time Open champion James Braid to extend it to 18 holes. Harry Colt came along in 1933 to make a few tweaks to create the existing course.
Braid and Colt were lucky to be given a piece of land with sandy soil just perfect for golf. What they’ve created is a course that winds through heather and gorse that was good enough to test the best amateurs in the British Isles in the Home Internationals. Those lucky enough to play Hankley came away raving about the golf course.
“This course is an absolute masterpiece,” Scottish captain Matt Clark said. “It is a fantastic golf course.”
Winning Irish captain John Carroll added:
“It’s a superb course in fantastic condition. We knew nothing about it before we arrived but the boys have been raving about it all week, and how lucky they are to get to play it.”
I always consult Tom Doak’s book The Confidential Guide when writing course reviews. After all, as an architect Doak sees things the rest of us either can’t see or can’t appreciate. So it was with disappointment that I read:
“I wasn’t that impressed by my one walk around, especially considering the competition. It is a bit less tree lined and more open to the wind than the norm, but the only really memorable hole I saw was the short 7th.”
To each their own, but I beg to differ. There is much competition among the great heathland courses of the area, but Hankley more than holds its own. It may not have the tree lined fairways of, say, The Berkshire, but the way it winds its way through the heather is magical.
The par-3, seventh is in indeed a superb hole, but so is the one-shot second and 16th holes. The second can be played anywhere from 172, 145, 116, 104 or even 88 yards. The R&A put the pin on the front of the green for the second day of the Home Internationals, and moved the tee up. I didn’t see many birdies even though the best amateurs in the British Isles were hitting flip wedges to a flag guarded by a deep front bunker.
The uphill 16th can play from 162-129 yards. It has a false front. Come up just short and the ball will spin back off the green. The flag on the final day of the Home Internationals was on the front, and players had no choice but to go past the pin and hope to make a long birdie putt.
Pick of the par-4s for me was the uphill 10th. It’s a strong hole at 423 yards off the whites, but brutal at 477 off the purple tees as it played in the Home Internationals. No surprise it’s Hankley’s stroke one hole. Most regular amateurs might actually need two shots here.
As for the 432-yard, par-4 finishing hole with the green sited over a deep grass gully, the Home International boys may have been hitting short iron approaches into the green but they didn’t rip the hole asunder. Neither will average players. The course guide describes it as “probably the most difficult finishing hole in the South of England.” Not many would disagree.
There may be another reason this course is so underrated: maybe the members like it that way. Then again, why wouldn’t they want to keep heavenly Hankley to themselves?
#JustSaying: “One of the best inland courses in Britain.” Architect Charles Lawrie