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  • Alistair Tait

Short and sweet at Sunningdale Heath

Sir Henry Cotton might have had Sunningdale Heath in mind when he called for short courses to help newcomers and children get into golf. Pretty sure we could grow the game if we had more wee gems like the short, Harry Colt designed course that sits beside its more illustrious neighbour, Sunningdale Golf Club.

Cotton called for every town to have a short course where newcomers and children could learn the game. That was 40 years ago. Too bad his idea never took off.

In an age when length seems to be everything, Sunningdale Heath is a reminder that short is sometimes sweet. That’s especially true when a round can take about two hours.

Colt is obviously famous for courses like Wentworth, Royal Portrush, Pine Valley, Sunningdale New and many more. For those who can’t sample those championship layouts, a wee trip to the course once known as Sunningdale Ladies will give you a lovely sample of Colt’s work in miniature.

The course came into existence in 1902 thanks to the inherent chauvinism in golf’s dark ages. Women weren’t allowed to play nearby Sunningdale, and so those women who had the temerity to want to play golf had to create their own club. Bloody upstarts!

Think where our game would be today if prevailing attitudes had been so different. Maybe women wouldn’t make up just 13% of registered golfers in Great Britain.

Sunningdale Heath might not have the Ladies tag in its title any more, but the club is still a hot spot for women who love the game in the Ascot area. That was certainly true the day I played. The women who played in front of me were obviously having their Christmas soiree. How else do you explain the woman up ahead wearing a Christmas pudding outfit?

And some thought Tyrrell Hatton looked out of place in a hoodie?

Sunningdale Heath reminds me vaguely of Western Gailes. I remember the first time I played the Scottish gem, I stood outside the clubhouse, surveyed the land and thought: there can’t be 18 holes here? Ditto for this Ascot jewel. Yet it winds its way through the trees, over the heather native to this landscape and delivers a wonderful 18-hole experience.

I played here on December 8th this year, a cold winter’s day. Despite the time of year, the small greens were in mint condition. Subtle signs of Colt are everywhere. So you get small mounding around greens. A corrugated look as you peer up to the second green (above), with the land subtly rippling and rolling.

Colt didn’t have the use of bull dozers or earth moving machines, so he just blended the course into the countryside as it was at the time. The bunkering fuses naturally into the heather and the landscape. Ditto for the greens. The green for the 9th hole is a wee beauty, set back into a natural little amphitheatre that surely was created for something other than golf. I stood on the tee 142 yards away and imagined druids convening on the green to celebrate the summer solstice.

The heather and bunkering that separates the 11th and 12th holes is simple, subtle and beautiful when viewed from the seventh green.

Best of all, Sunningdale Heath isn’t a slog. It measures just 3,705 yards and plays to a par of 58. There are only four par fours. The longest hole, the fourth, is just 328 yards. The shortest, the 17th, measures 138 yards. If ever there was a course for kids and newcomers, then this is it.

I’ve often said the worst thing anyone can do is start their children out on a long golf course. Give a child a short course where he or she can reach greens with one good shot, short par 4s with two good shots, and it’s a sure-fire way of growing confidence. Not just kids but adults, too.

Just after the London Club opened, course architect Jack Nicklaus held a press conference. A golf club member plucked up the courage to ask the 18-time major winner the single best way for handicap golfers to improve.

“Play from the shorter tees,” Nicklaus replied. “Most handicap golfers play courses that are too long for them. They should play from shorter tees more often. That way, they’ll develop confidence that they can hit fairways and reach greens, and that will help them when they go to longer courses.”

Pretty sure I my own game would benefit from playing a course like Sunningdale Heath on a regular basis. Same goes for the majority reading this blog. The fact we can play a round of golf in about two hours is just added bliss.

It may be short, but Sunningdale Heath is oh so sweet.

#JustSaying: “I firmly believe that the only means whereby an attractive piece of ground can be turned into a satisfying golf course is to work to the natural features of the site in question.” Harry Colt

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