By Robert Thompson
At 6 a.m., and Londons ritzy Sloane Square is just starting to bustle with bleary-eyed commuters heading to the Underground, as I duck out of the Draycott Hotel and cross the street, carefully avoiding the never-ending parade of red double decker buses. I slip a handful of pound coins into a machine on the wall of the tube station, grab my ticket and proceed down the escalator.
As I head to the platform and await the subway, those making an early dash to their downtown London offices shoot me looks between sipping their coffees. They have briefcases tucked under their arms, but over my shoulder Im carrying my golf bag. On a glorious day in mid-April they are heading to work. Im heading to Waterloo Station to catch my train to the town of Sandwich on Englands south-east coast, where Ill spend the day playing Royal St. Georges Golf Club before catching a late afternoon train back to the city just in time to catch the last rush of those heading home from their workday.
The notion of playing golf around London by train might baffle some, but it seems perfectly sensible to me. After all, London is surrounded by great golf, while the city proper is renowned for its vibrant city life, its theatres and historic buildings. Of course it is also known for having some of the most horrific traffic in the world. To most tourists, the concept of driving out of London “ with its narrow roads, roundabouts and the fact you drive on the wrong side of the street — instills fear, and rightfully so. While it might have perpetual gridlock and an often confounding system of roads, the United Kingdom has a remarkable network of trains. Slightly more than two hours after catching the Southeastern train from Waterloo Station, Im standing in the tiny town of Sandwich. It turns out that few turn up by tracks when it comes to playing Royal St. Georges.
We might get a few players “ 10 or 12 a year, says Bill, the locker room attendant at the club, soon after picking me up for the three-minute drive to the course.
I have no idea why more dont try it. The trip has been comfortable “ I work on my laptop and watch a series of villages fly by the window in a half-filled train. No traffic jams or morning rush to beat. The train system in the UK is also exceptionally reliable “ meaning you can be pretty much assured youll show up in time for your tee time.
Wandering into the clubhouse at Royal St. Georges is like stepping into a time warp. The club, which has hosted 13 Open Championships (with the most recent, in 2003 being won by Ben Curtis and its next coming in 2010), is decorated with photos of golfs past greats. Old black-and-white shots of Harry Vardon, and Walter Hagan, who won the British Open twice at the course, add to the character of the clubhouse. As well, male guests and members are expected to don a jacket and tie to fraternize in the mens lounge or to have a meal in the restaurant. These elements “ throwbacks to another era “ make the club both archaic and charming.
It is the golf that makes Royal St. Georges great. Set just across a road from the English Channel, the course is a magnificent links and the first English course to hold the British Open. It is easy to see why. The course is both imminently fair and challenging. Sure theres the occasional blind shot “ like the approach on the 5th hole, or the tee shot of the 7th “ but in those instances the course feels like a book that reveals itself page by page. When it isnt being set up to test the best golfers in the world, Royal St. Georges firm and fast fairways and false-front greens are very playable, even in with a stiff breeze blowing off the ocean.
The best holes on the course are the beefy and muscular par-4s, like the fourth, which plays a diabolical 496-yards from the championship tees (and a more reasonable 415-yards from the standard tees), and the 10th, which plays along a ridge line and ends with a green that looks like it is perched in the sky. The pace is brisk and I play two rounds in around three hours a piece and am back on the train to London in time for a late dinner.
The next day I sleep a little later with no rush to get to Woking Golf Club, a little-known heathlands gem thats about 30 minutes outside London by train. I dont have to duke it out with the commuters today, so I tuck into a breakfast at my hotel, the Draycott, a delightfully enchanting boutique thats a walk of a few minutes from the tube, making it pretty much perfect for golf by rails experiment. Woking is only a 25 minute trip and a short cab ride into an unassuming parking lot next to a public walkway.
The course itself is accepting of visitors, though the assistant pro acknowledges few come by. Woking is private, but like most in the U.K., the club also accepts outside play with some time restrictions. On a bright April day, I walk onto the first tee without issue. Part of a suburban network of heathland courses, built on rambling land and framed by heather, Woking harkens back to a time when the game wasnt dominated by titanium clubs and super-springy golf balls. Though short by todays standards at 6,500 yards, shifts in elevation, a set of tricky greens and the ever-present heather make the course trickier than it would appear on the score card. Despite an old-fashioned feeling, Woking is probably tough enough for any golfer, and its proximity to London makes it a great hidden gem worth investigating.
The last day of my train odyssey takes me to Sunningdale Golf Club, about an hours train ride to the south-west of London. I catch rush hour again, forcing my way with my clubs onto a tube full of Londoners heading to work. But the train ride to Sunningdale is again calming with only a handful of passengers leaving the city. The legend at Sunningdale is that many decades ago a former director at British Rail became a member at the club and a week later there was a train stop in the village. Whether thats an urban myth is hard to discern, but golf club resides less than 100 metres from the train stop.
Often regarded as the U.K.s finest parkland golf facility, there are two courses at Sunningdale “ the so-called Old and New (both of which are now about 100 years old). Visitors are welcome to the club from Tuesday through Thursday, but the tee at the Old Course is quiet when I arrive. Thats surprising given just how good both courses are. The Old Course, crafted by Willie Park Jr., is slightly more forgiving, but what it lacks in toughness is more than made up in scenic value, with holes wandering up and down rolling hills and breathtaking elevated tee shots. The New Course “ designed by Harry Colt, the architect behind Canadas Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Ancaster, Ont. “ is more challenging, while maintaining the remarkably aesthetic appeal of its slightly older neighbor.
Three hours after I hit my opening tee shot on the Old Course, I prepare to hit my approach to the 18th, a nasty par-4 with a green perched in front of the veranda where members are eating lunch only a few paces from the putting surface. I dont hold up to the pressure well, pushing an iron right of the green. But hardly anyone seems to notice “ and the scene is so appealing that I quickly stash my clubs and head to the clubhouse to sit outdoors and tuck into a sandwich.
I sit under the blazing sun watching golfers attempt to put the polish on their rounds as they approach the final green. The train back to London beckons, but Im in no rush to head back down the hill to the station. Instead I sit back for a few minutes more, drinking in a scene that is quintessential to English golf.
If you go:
Sunningdale Golf Club
Peak Season: Old – £190.00 New – £155.00 Both -£265.00
Woking Golf Club
Royal St. Georges Golf Club
Green fee: £140
44 (0) 20 7730 6466