Dale Concannon has a favorite quote about Swinley Forest: “‘If Augusta National is the cathedral in the pines, Swinley is the holy grail.’ The quote comes from Henry Cotton.”
Swinley Forest is a lovely ‘heath and heather’ course in the town of Ascot, county Berkshire, 25-odd miles west of London. It was designed by the venerable Harry S. Colt in 1910 and stands among Colt’s great treasures, though it’s a treasure that has escaped the notice of all but aficionados. “What makes Swinley so special is that it’s a stone’s throw from two other famous courses by Colt—Sunningdale and Wentworth—but few people who aren’t immersed in the world of course design know about it,” Dale, an unabashed lover of Colt’s work, said. “Those in the know, however, feel passionately about it. When a dear American friend of mine, course architect and restorationist Keith Foster steps off the plane at Heathrow, the first thing he says is ‘Take me to Swinley.’”
Harry Colt was one of the pioneers of early 20th century British architects. His work on such gems as Rye, Moor-Park West and Stoke Poges (now Stoke Park) in England—as well as Sunningdale and Wentworth—took design on inland sites to new levels of artistry. (Colt also consulted George Crump on the routing of Pine Valley, and completed holes 12 through 15 after Crump’s death; his other noteworthy courses in North America include Burning Tree in Bethesda, Maryland; CC of Detroit in Grosse Point; and Toronto Golf Club.) The heathlands of southern England were an ideal place for Colt to apply his craft, as the sandy soil could be easily contoured without heavy machinery. His layouts are notable as much for their strategic elements as for their attention to more practical issues of course maintenance, such as drainage and soil preparation. At Swinley, Colt married the serenity of the setting with a thoughtful design that’s challenging for skilled players, yet not overly punitive for the rest of us.
Dale’s opinion of Swinley has evolved since the first time he played. “A friend I used to teach was a member,” Dale said, “and he made the proper introductions so I could play. I was a professional golfer at the time, and thought I’d murder the course. Well, suffice it to say, I shot a figure I’d rather not share here! At the time, I didn’t realize how great Swinley was. I’m a bit of a golf historian and a collector of antique golf equipment and memorabilia. In the course of my travels, I came upon some of Harry Colt’s drawings and collections. As I learned more about Colt, I began to appreciate this course more and more. Some courses you need 14 clubs and a cannon to play effectively. This course is only 6,000 yards. But you can’t touch the solid gold quality of Swinley. It’s the essence of British golf.”
Swinley Forest is diminutive by modern standards, in part because the course has five par-3s. “When Harry Colt was brought in to design the course he explored the site in great detail,” Dale explained. “He soon identified five swales that he felt would be perfect for greens. The five swales that he picked out are the five par-3s, and he built the rest of the holes around them.” There’s not a bad hole on Swinley, and the coure’s long par-4s are comparable to Great Britain’s best. However, most visitors come away with a lasting impression of the one-shotters – numbers 4, 8, 10, 13 and 17. Among these, the 185-yard Redan 4th may be the most memorable. More uphill than it seems from the tee, the green is perched on a natural shelf and is guarded by a gaping bunker on the left.
A visitor to Swinley gets a flavor of the distinctive experience that awaits before they reach the first tee—or the clubhouse, for that matter. “You can’t merely walk into the pro shop with a member and plunk your green fee down,” Dale continued. “You have to go through a mini-interview. First, you must call the club secretary. He’ll suggest that you come along at a certain time, and he will have a chat with you. When you arrive, you’re ushered into a little room. Then the secretary will chat with you for 45 minutes or so to see if you’re worthy of the course. Even the pros have to go through the process. Ernie Els played there recently, and he had to meet with the secretary—though his meeting was probably shorter than yours or mine. It’s a quaint Edwardian throwback. In some respects, the whole course is. You half expect Bernard Darwin to walk into the clubhouse.”
When asked to speculate about what the secretary might wish to hear from interviewees to grant access to Swinley Forest, Dale laughed. “I asked him once. His reply was, ‘It depends on two things, young man. The way you stand, and the type of shoes that you wear.’”
Dale shared a tale involving a member of the royal family—perhaps apocryphal—that speaks to the very Englishness of the course. “Edward VIII—the King who abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson—was “crazy keen” about golf, and was reputed to have played every course in England. He came to Swinley Forest one day to play, and brought along his personal teacher, Archie Compston. After they played their round, prince and his pro repaired to the clubhouse for tea and sandwiches. As they sat down, the secretary came to their table and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that professionals are not welcome in the clubhouse.’ Edward VIII was incensed, and left the clubhouse along with his teacher. The rumor is that Swinley Forest was slated to receive the coveted “royal” designation, but thanks to the Prince’s pique, the designation was not to be proffered.”
Dale Concannon is the author of 12 books on the game including his Sunday Times best selling biography of Nick Faldo: Driven. In 1982, he became the first professional golfer to play an exhibition match inside a British prison on a three-hole course laid out by the inmates! Taking no blame for the riot that saw the place razed to the ground not long after, he became a full-time golf writer in 1985. A contributor to many international golf magazines, his previous books include: Golf the Early Days; From Tee to Green; The Round of My Life; The Worst of Golf; Bullets, Bombs and Birdies – Golf in Wartime and The Ryder Cup Story. A long time collector of antiquegolfing memorabilia, he currently has one of the finest private collections of pre-1950 golf photography in the world. He is also a member of Golf World (UK) Top-100 panel for selecting the best golf courses in the United Kingdom.
Getting There: Swinley Forest Golf Club is situated in South Ascot, roughly 30 miles west of Heathrow Airport near London. Ascot is less than an hour’s train ride from London’s Waterloo station, or 1.5 hours from Heathrow.
Course Information: Intimate Swinley Forest plays just 5,952 from the back tees, and plays to a par-68. The course is private, though guests are allowed with members, providing that they pass muster in their interview with the club secretary. Fees then are £65.00.
Accommodations: While Swinley Forest can easily be reached from downtown London, the Stoke Park Club (+44 1753 71 71 71; www.stokeparkclub.com) offers five-star accommodations close by, with rooms beginning at £280. The mansion that now serves as the hotel was built in 1795, and previous owners include Queen Elizabeth I. The course here is another H.S. Colt design; while Dale Concannon feels it’s not among Colt’s best work, it has two claims to fame—it was the 7th hole here that inspired Alister MacKenzie in the design of the 12th at Augusta National; and, the golfing scene from the movie Goldfinger was filmed here.