We invented golf. Well, the Scottish did, really. But the ‘British’ made it what it is today – an elitist sport enjoyed by rich people more interested in excluding others than actually hitting balls. This British take was imported by Americans, who have, for over 100 years, reveled in its exclusivity. No-one does snobbery better than the Yanks, who just use money instead of lineage as a pre-requisite for entry. Democratic, as usual.
In every UK golfer is the suspicion that, just perhaps, golf is really about Scottish Presbyterian stoicism. Play in the wind, the rain, on scratchy grass. Play in shorts, in the winter. Play courses with no clubhouse and get changed in the car park. And carry your clubs, ya big Jessie! It’s not about luxury. It’s about endurance. We take perverse pride in feats of bravery in arduous conditions. The course may be rubbish, but as long as it’s near the sea, with a force 9 blowing, then we’ll tell that story all day.
Americans aren’t too fussed on endurance golf. They prefer luxury golf. Easy golf. Fun golf. A few years ago I played at a course in the US called The Highlands. The affable chap in the pro shop cheerfully enquired if I wanted a ‘cart’ for my round. Once I’d figured out he meant a buggy instead of a two wheeled wooden contraption pulled by a drey horse, I replied that no, I wouldn’t be needing a cart. I was British, damn it, not a fat American. I would walk the course and carry my clubs, like the good Lord intended. I should have twigged by the name of the place that this was a mistake - Highlands wasn’t just a romantic reference to some long lost clan affiliation. The place was a series of gullies, valleys and inclines that I had to trudge over, down and through. I gave up on the 14th hole, suffering from heat exhaustion and exposure. Paramedics were called. “Silly Britisher”, they said.
The Highlands was a feat of endurance, but the Americans did everything they could to make it enjoyable. The rounds were cheap, the ‘cart’s were cheaper still. They had water stations at every hole, along with toilets. There was a drive through hot dog stand at the turn. They had phones to call for liquid relief every now and again. I’ve barely played a course in the US without a refreshments cart passing by every few mins to ask if I wanted anything. If it wasn’t for golf course refreshment trucks I’m not sure the American youth would have anything to do of a summer, employed as they all are to drive them with a smile. And The Highlands isn’t a fancy resort course. It’s a local club with members who, on the whole, live around the course. This isn’t special treatment in the US. This is their normal.
In the UK you’re lucky to get a plastic bottle of water in the pro shop. And maybe a banana. Frankly, we’re rubbish at it. If you want pampered, luxury golf, don’t look for it in the UK. Go to America, or anywhere else for that matter. At least, that’s what I thought. Then I visited Woburn.
Woburn has a beautifully appointed locker room, with plush carpets and showers and hairdryers. “So?”, you might ask. “They all have that”. True, but this was just for the visitors! The members have their own, I presume even more plush, locker room. I stood there in wonder and thought “Could it be? Is this an American style golfing experience? In the Home Counties? Surely not.”
As it turns out, it was.
Woburn, as a golfing mecca, isn’t actually that old. The first course was laid out in the 70’s by some old aristocrat who had to do something with the land to stop a compulsory purchase order and it’s being turned into a park. The horror! A second course was added soon after and they became known as the Duke’s and Duchess’ respectively. Not content with 2 great golf courses a third, the Marquess, was added in 2000. Though technically a marquess is one rung down the aristocratic hierarchy than a duke, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an inferior peer of the realm. Longer, bigger, wider, and often more difficult than the other courses, it’s become perhaps the premier track. International championships are played there.
The Marquess is a modern course, built to accommodate the modern game. This is a place where the driver is in your hand more than any other club, except maybe for a putter (though perhaps you’d fair better on the greens with a driver, but more on that later). It’s long and the fairways are wide. It’s a place to rip the hell out of the ball off the tee. It’s not a dainty course where accuracy is at a premium. That being said, it’s not easy. Huge bunkers are placed at the drop zones for big hitters. The greens need to be approached from the right angle. And if you do go off track and land in the rough, you’re in trouble. The course was wrought through ancient oak forest and the trees are huge, tall and resolutely unyielding in the face of any protestation. One of the great pleasures of the course, however, is the sound that reverberates around the holes when you hit a sweet shot. The great trees absorb nothing and their leaves are so high up that the noise bounces back and forth across the fairway like you’re in a pin ball machine. It makes the thrill of a great stroke even better and worth the entrance fee alone.
The first and tenth are famously designed to ease the golfer in and although long enough they’re pretty tame. Even the greens are modest. As you get further into the holes it starts to get more interesting. The second, a shortish par 5 dogleg left, let’s you know this is no pushover and the run of par 4’s in the third, fourth and fifth are just lovely. You can grab the driver, hit a big bomb and then a solid long iron into the greens. The most visually stunning hole on the course is the par 5 seventh, which has a split fairway, giving you the choice to go right and have a chance at a second 3 wood into the green for a birdie chance, or to play safe and take the long route round the left. Of course, everyone in my 3 ball went for it, and all of us were 3 off the tee. The folly of youth! The 9th hole has a stunning green surrounded by rhododendrons that looks like it’s been stolen from Augusta. It’s not an easy hole but its certainly a beautiful one.
The back 9 continues the trend of big, noble golf. They aren’t gimmicky. They don’t rely on tricks or deceit to catch you out. They just use the natural contours of this rolling countryside to make you use every club in the bag. You can out a score together here, but you need to be striking the ball well. And long.
If anything the par 3’s are the most forgettable holes. None of them are surrounded by the usual water or sand or gorse filled gullies we’re so accustomed to. Only the 14th requires a long iron over some lower ground. They aren’t that pretty but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good holes. Deep bunkers and difficult greens make them a challenge.
Did I mention the difficult greens? My goodness, they are hard. So often club golfers see the pros miss a putt on the Tour and ask how they could miss that. But, there is a big difference between the greens at an average club and those of the courses like Woburn. They are big, expansive and beautifully manicured. They are also hellishly contoured. And those enormous trees that surround the course make it really difficult to read those contours because they throw your perceptions out. I three putted maybe 11 or 12 holes. And I’m having a good putting season. As a contrast I played 9 holes at my own course a few days afterward and holed 6 or 7 holes with one putt, often from more then 10 feet away. I actually played the Marquess pretty well tee to green. But my disastrous green display cost me a good score, and beers in the bar.
Having said all that, it wasn’t a spectacular golf course. It was good. Great even. It was a solid, well laid out and well maintained golf course. But I didn’t walk away feeling it was special. I didn’t get that tingle standing on any of the tee boxes that I get at Royal County Down or the island green at Coeur d’Alene. In many ways I applaud the fact they didn’t artificially embed these kind of things and instead used what they had available in the best way possible. But it doesn’t feel extraordinary. That doesn’t diminish the quality of the golf or the great time that I had there. It just explains perhaps why some people feel underwhelmed by it. If you played great courses all day then maybe you wouldn’t be enthralled. As it was, I was enthralled.
But, the course, good though it is, doesn’t explain why Woburn is such a marvelous place to visit. To understand that you have to accept how American it is. In the UK we love to sneer at all things American. We love America, of course. Deep down. We’ve assimilated all their ‘stuff’. We eat their hamburgers, watch their movies and listen to their music. In return they eat our afternoon tea, watch Downton Abbey and listen to our music. It’s a symbiotic relationship but we just don’t like to admit it. Instead we dismiss everything American in public as rubbish, while privately addicted. But the whole experience at Woburn is designed, from arrival to departure, with enjoyment in mind, and that’s very American and that’s why it works.
The clubhouse is lovely, well made and laid out. The guys in the pro shop are polite and friendly. The putting green and driving range are in nice places and well put together. The tee boxes are impeccable, flat and clean. The course bumph (things like the tee markers and the flags themselves) are high quality and well placed. The halfway hut at the 10th tee is a fairy tale little wooden cabin, selling food and drinks that wouldn’t be out of place in Borough Market.
It’s the kind of golf we don’t usually do in this country and it’s the kind of golf we should do, because the evidence here is that we can do it well, when we try. The only other places in the UK that I know which are similar are Celtic Manor and Gleneagles (though admittedly I haven’t played any golf at either of them) and on the face of it they are world class resorts. Surely we are savvy enough to combine our golfing prowess with some good service. We can mix the golfing experience with a better all round adventure, something that rewards all the senses and not simply that puritanical sense of achievement under hardship.
Because it’s places like Woburn that make you realize just how lazy everywhere else is.