European Golf Vacations

What Can be Better than Links Golf in the British Isles? The Heathlands

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Now is the time of year when many of you start to think about your big 2017 golf trip(s).

And like many golfers who are looking to take advantage of the weaker Pound and Euro as a result of the “Brexit,” you may have the UK and Ireland in your sights…and you may be looking to visit more often than you ever anticipated.

For 99% of prospective visitors from North America, a trip overseas probably means one thing: links golf.

And for good reason. The “usual suspects” are incredible. Even some of the lesser-known links are gems, too.

But if you want to be a real rebel while still having an incredible golf trip across the Atlantic, you could avoid links courses altogether.

Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not, because here’s something that almost no one else will tell you:

There are some non-links courses that are incredible in their own right and totally worthy of your consideration.

For the sake of the next couple tips, let’s divide these courses into two categories: the heathlands, mostly situated south of London, England; and the superlative inland courses, which are neither heathland nor links – mostly parkland layouts, but potentially worth a visit.

Let’s start with the more limited (but higher average quality) heathlands.

The Heathlands: The Northern Hemisphere’s Sandbelt

What makes heathland golf courses so special?

Perhaps the biggest factor is the one it shares in common with all links courses:

Sand.

Some links courses actually don’t have much in the way of formal bunkers, but what makes the turf so firm and fast, even on wet days, is the sandy soil, through which water drains extremely quickly and easily.

Likewise, heathland courses are set on sandy soil and tend to be much firmer and faster than other inland golf courses. While there’s no ocean to gawk at during your round, the more inland setting tends to make for more rolling and grandiosely rumpled terrain, whereas some links can be a little flat.

Given the ready availability of sand on-site, many heathland courses are known for their bunkering, which at some clubs is as bold as you will find anywhere in the world.

The dramatic par-3 eighth at St. George's Hill.

The dramatic par-3 eighth at St. George’s Hill, a classic heathland course south of London.

Like their links cousins, the best heathland courses are decades – usually more than a century – old, and as a result are absolute joys to walk.

These courses transport golfers through ancient forest, over patches of purple heather (a unique hazard if you’ve never hit your ball into some before), past rock outcroppings and sometimes past stately English estates.

Though, like the great links many of the best heathland courses belong to “private” clubs, visitors are far more welcome here than they would be at private clubs in the U.S.

You may have to have your home club pro to arrange your round at a couple of these courses, but the experience will be well worth it.

Stately clubhouses, sumptuous sit-down lunches (jacket and tie sometimes required; be sure to inquire with each club before visiting) and a traditional vibe reigns at these clubs, turning them into great golf experiences – not just great courses.

Which Heathland Courses Should You Target?

The Old Course at Sunningdale Golf Club is justifiably regarded as one of the best courses in the world. (Sunningdale Golf Club

The Old Course at Sunningdale Golf Club is justifiably regarded as one of the best courses in the world. (Sunningdale Golf Club)

But in the end, the courses are most important. And for a relatively limited geographical region, they punch well above their weight.

Indeed, on  Golfweek‘s most recent list of the top 40 classic (i.e. built before 1960) courses in the British Isles, seven are heathland courses:

  • Sunningdale Golf Club (Old and New)
  • Swinley Forest Golf Club
  • St. George’s Hill Golf Club
  • Walton Heath Golf Club (Old)
  • Wentworth Golf Club (West)
  • Woking Golf Club.

Of these, only Wentworth is inaccessible to visitors, and it’s just as well, because the course has been largely “Americanized” in recent years in order to continue hosting the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship, so it’s an outlier either way. 

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All these courses are all within 30 miles of one another, and there are still others to play beyond this shortlist.

Here are some other outstanding heathland courses you should consider:

  • The Berkshire Golf Club (Red and Blue Courses)
  • Camberley Heath Golf Club
  • Hankley Common Golf Club
  • New Zealand Golf Club
  • Walton Heath Golf Club (New)
  • West Hill Golf Club
  • Worplesdon Golf Club

Finally, another mark in favor of this micro-region of incredible golf is pure geography.

All of these golf courses are in relatively close proximity not just to each other, but to London. Heathrow Airport is one of the world’s most accessible, and it’s less than ten miles from Sunningdale and other heathland courses.

All in all, though we would never actively encourage people away from the great links of Scotland, England and Ireland, we also don’t think an education in golf courses is complete without a healthy dose of heathland golf. Take that as you will.

Have you played England’s heathland courses? Which ones are your favorites? Let us know in the comments section below!

13 Comments

  1. Stuart King

    November 1, 2016 at 9:47 am

    You obviously have not looked at one of the “Gem” as described by Peter Alliss, I am talking about Hindhead. Rated higher than most of the course that are mentioned by the golfers that visit the courses.
    So next time you are in South West Surrey visit Hindhead.

  2. Cal Kelso

    November 1, 2016 at 10:08 am

    I’ve played all of the great links courses in the Great Britain and a few in Ireland (including every Open course). In my opinion, the Old Course at Sunningdale is easily in the top three amongst all of them.

  3. Bobby Jones

    November 1, 2016 at 10:45 am

    My opinions for what they are worth.

    I have played the following all of which are authentic, traditional heathland courses and are definitely worth going out of your way to play – Swinley Forest, Sunningdale (both courses), The Berkshire (both courses), Wentworth (all three courses), Hankley Common, Woking, Worplesdon, West Hill, St George’s Hill, Walton Heath (both courses) and New Zealand. Of these courses, I would not rank any of the Wentworth courses above 4; I would re-rank Woking at 4+, New Zealand at 4 and Walton Heath at 5.

    I have also played Temple, Mill Ride, Wisley, Burhill and Foxhills and none of them should be described as proper heathland courses indeed I would describe them all as parkland courses. Having played them I would not be bothered if I never played them again. None of them should be rated higher than 3.

    I have not played Royal Ascot, East Berks, North Hants, Milford, West Surrey, Pyrford or Bearwood Lakes. I have heard good things about Bearwood Lakes but it is not a heathland course. I have never heard anyone say anything about the rest of this group of courses. However, I have never heard anyone mention their names when discussing the best heathland course of Surrey and Berkshire.

  4. Old Tom Morris

    November 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Sunningdale Old is a fabulous golf course. Clearly my favourite. One of the best in the world. And Walton Heath Old, Woking, Worplesdon and West Hill are true crown jewels. Wonderful courses. The rest I haven’t played yet, but they are all on my “must play” list, except Wentworth. I wouldn’t want to go even close to that one …!

  5. Steve

    November 1, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Travel further north and save $$ Hollinwell, Coxmoor, Sherwood, Woodhall Spa and Ganton to name a few!

  6. COLIN SHOTTON

    November 1, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    BEAU DESSERT ON CANNOCK CHASE A REALLY TESTING HEATHLAND COURSE PLENTY OF GORSE BUSHES AND TREES A LOVELY FINISHING HOLE OVER WATER TO THE GREEN BELOW THE CLUB HOUSE WINDOW

  7. mike

    November 1, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I have played many of these, including Sunningdale, Walton Heath, Berkshire, Wentworth when it was not Americanized, and some others, and they are all excellent. Only problem now is they are very expensive, even with the decline of the pound. In 1972, I played both Sunningdale courses and had lunch thrown in, for 5 pounds! It’s twice that per hole now.

  8. Mike Hope

    November 1, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    I lived in the UK for forty years, so I’ve been lucky enough to play all of your recommended courses (including Wentworth, when it was open for public play). All of them are magnificent and are worth playing.
    You have listed Swinley Forest as a recommended course. Unless they have had a recent policy change, this is an extremely difficult course to access – to all intents and purposes it is “private” (like the Wisley, Bearwood Lakes etc). If you want to play Swinley Forest, you may need to get your home pro to email or call the Swinley pro.
    It’s a relatively short course (by modern standards), but is worth the effort to get on if you can.

  9. Scott Martin

    November 1, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Great piece. I’ve been fortunate to play many of the courses on your list. I also like West Sussex which is closer to Gatwick. If you plopped Pinehurst #2 in the middle of these heathland courses, it would be middle of the pack, at best.

  10. Barry D

    November 1, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Having played most of the Golfweek rated courses, I agree with the comments above about them. I would add Royal Ashdown Forest and The Addington. Both have dramatic elevation changes and spectacular views.

  11. Alasdair Sutherland

    November 15, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Of the great Surrey courses. for me Swinley is the best. But my favourite heathland golf course is the charming and very welcoming Piltdown in East Sussex. It can be difficult, with long carries and plenty of punishing heather-covered bunkers to get stuck in if you go off-fairway, but no sand bunkers at all.

  12. Randal Schultz

    January 18, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Great list and I hope to play many of them. I have played 60 courses in GBI over the last 15 years, but most have been links courses. This past year, on a trip to Wales and southwest England, my group decided to add St. George’s Hill due to it’s proximity to Heathrow, and boy, are we glad we did! What a fabulous routing with many wonderful holes. Just as pleasurable was reception we received from the starter, who made absolutely sure we received the full experience of being at St. George’s Hill. Tried to get on Swinley by writing a letter (a lost art) but never got a reply. But I am not giving up as my group now plans a trip solely to play other heathland courses based on our experience at SGH.

  13. Tim Gavrich

    January 19, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Randal–

    That is awesome to hear! I can personally vouch for Sunningdale as a can’t-miss stop for your group on that trip. I’ve only played the Old Course but am told that many golfers believe the New to be every bit its equal. If that is true, it’s hard to fathom many better 36-hole days in the golfing world.

    Best,
    –Tim

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