And overall, I think that this is justified. The main St. George’s Hill course is a great course. The land is second-to-none among heathland courses and Colt used this brilliantly to create a set of diverse driving challenges. The bunkering is aesthetically and strategically on point and the choice of green sites is excellent. Moreover, the third nine—the Green nine—is not far off in quality. As Doak also mentioned in the yellow Confidential Guide, the third nine isn’t far off the first two in quality. In fact on my first round there, I found myself arguing with the club pro that the third nine was comparable to the first two because of its excellent short par 4s (he and is group—I think some members—had a laugh about that). Maybe it’s not quite on the same level, but it’s very good; certainly worth playing if you visit and way better than the standard relief nine at British clubs.
Despite all the positives, I don’t think that I love this course quite as much as everyone else seems to now. It is undeniably well thought-out and strong. It has several excellent holes. But it also lacks a sense of quirk, a sense of unusualness that my favorite heathland courses—like Sunningdale’s Old Course and Swinley Forest—possess in abundance. And this minor complaint is probably just a personal idiosyncrasy. Most people would point to the lack of quirk as a positive. The course has excellent sightlines and when there are blind shots, there are very receptive areas on the other side. The bunkering is as thoroughly thought-out as on any course that you’re going to find. And the greens, while mostly modest in contour, contain interest and are expertly shaped into their surroundings.
All in all, I understand why this has become a world top 100 course. It’s long on strengths. But, as I’ve said in other reviews, while I can’t really say whether this is a top 100 course—I haven’t seen enough of the contenders—it doesn’t have some of the highs of the other best heathland courses. It’s still likely got a spot in my London heathland top 5 but misses out on the top 3, which are Sunningdale Old, West Sussex, and Swinley Forest.
I played St. George’s Hill twice during my 3 year stay in London; first in the spring of 2016 then again in the spring of 2017. The course underwent some changes during this time, most notably on the first hole. I liked the original version of the first hole (starting with the Red nine), which played across the entry drive to a wide fairway running uphill to a green tucked off to the left in a shallow valley.
As was evident on that wet April day though, the club was having trouble with the drainage at the front of the green and was in the middle of completely reworking it for my second visit in 2017. Already completed was the addition of two fairway bunkers on the left and one right, which made the hole much more difficult off the tee, turning one of the easiest driving holes into one of the hardest. They were in the middle of building a new green, which appeared to be a bit higher and to the right of the previous green. It was clear to me that the new version would be substantially harder than the first version that I played. How difficult would depend on how large and receptive the new green was. I never played to the new green but assuming that it was reasonably large and receptive to a shot played close to the left fairway bunkers, I’d imagine that the new version was an improvement on the old.
The reason why I think that this hole works so well is that the green slopes pretty good from back to front so you want to be in the front. But if you miss short, especially if you miss short-right, your ball can roll several yards back off the front. Fortunately there’s a lot of room in the back left and there isn’t any trouble here…that just leaves you a very nerve-wracking putt if the pin is in the front. It’d love to see a restoration of the front bunker because this hole was originally about that awesome feature, but I think that it’s still a very interesting hole from a playing perspective without it.
You also want to be up the right because the green is shallow and two-tiered, with the high tier left and the low tier right. If you drive up the right, you’ll also be playing into the general slope which is probably helpful if it’s summer and the ground is running hot (not so important in April). I don’t know if I’m quite as enamored with this hole as others seem to be, but there’s no doubt that it’s an excellent hole.
Well yes…but then no. No because unless you place your drive in a part of the fairway that gives you a favorable like, you may have an extremely awkward uphill approach to the green. The best placement is ~240 up the right side, which places your ball on the upslope and gives you an open angle to the green. Go beyond this and you’ll either have a downhill like or a super awkward blind, uphill 60 yard shot. The left side of the fairway is flatter, but then you’re playing into a shallower aspect of the green. This hole doesn’t look that interesting in plan, but the contours in the fairway make it very interesting.
Well, the bunkers are actually a bit of a red herring here because the primary driving hazard is the big ridge beyond these that runs diagonally from short-left (off the left bunker) to long-right. If you hit a straight ball that carries the left bunker, you’ll be find; your ball will bound forward and you’ll have a simple approach uphill to the green.
But if you push your drive a little, the slope in the fairway will carry your ball away toward the trees on the right. Admittedly this feature doesn’t work so well when the ground is soft. Playing in April, I hit my drive right into the middle of the ridge and it stayed there. But I’ve played enough in summer British conditions to know that that same drive in the summer—barring an odd straight kick—would have resulted in a search for my ball in the right trees.
But unless you hit a very accurate drive or put a slight fade on the ball, it will likely run off to the left because the fairway slopes hard right-to-left. Provided that you don’t go too far, the approach is playable from over here but the shot is longer and the angle is much worse. The hole is short enough that it shouldn’t be an issue for longer hitters. But it will matter for the shorter hitting ones.
I guess my only criticism of St. George’s Hill is that it’s almost too perfect—I felt that there was a lack of grit in the course. Now most would probably see that as a positive. While there are blind shots, they’re kept to a minimum and the landing areas on the other side are generous. The sight lines to the bunkers and greens are very good. As I’ve discussed, it’s a very strategic golf course. It also doesn’t have some of the modern shaping (i.e. mounds) around the greens that turned me off a bit at Sunningdale—New and Swinley Forest. Really it’s hard for me to come up with a strong argument why this isn’t a strong world top 100 candidate.
But I don’t have to make that judgment so I don’t really care. It would have been nice to have the occasional highly contoured, blind green, some odd mound in the middle of the fairway a la Walton Heath, or awkward, straight uphill drives that opened into splendor on the other side like the seventh on Sunningdale—Old. On many of the best British courses, inland and links, it was some of the odd quirks that I relished the most.
Still if that’s all I’ve got for criticism of this course, it must be pretty good. And it is. It’d certainly be in the small handful of heathland courses that I’d recommend to an architecture aficionado as a must see if planning a golf trip in England.