The rather modest town of Berkhamsted is most famous for its ruined castle (the club's logo) and the place where after taking the surrender of the heir to the throne, William, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror. For film buffs, one of the largest tv and film archives in the world, British Film Institute National Archive, is a mere few miles away from the course. What exists today is in large part due to the generous £15 million donation made by Paul Getty Jr. This is a fascinating organization worthy of a few moments for viewing their site: www.bfi.org.uk
In addition to his film and well publicized book obsession, P Getty Jr was also passionate about cricket. So much so that he built what he believed was the ideal cricket ground on his 2500 acre Wormley estate in Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire. After becoming a British citizen and among the many philanthropic acts of kindness, a £50 million donation to the National Gallery earned Paul Jr a knighthood in 1998.
But we are in town to play golf. One of the oldest clubs in Hertfordshire, Berkhamsted is tucked away in the north Chilterns and was originally designed by founding members of the club with the advice of Willie Park Jr. Colt followed up in 1910 to add nine holes which completed an 18 hole design. The course was then altered by James Braid around 1926. In Golfer's Companion, Frank Pennink writes holes 4-9 are Braid's. While lacking in bunkers, the course does on several holes utilize Grim's Ditch (Grim being a generic Anglo-Saxon term for the unexplained) to great effect. The origins of the ditch(es) are thought to be about 2300 years old, but it isn't known why they were built. In addition to the ditch, mounding and shallow hollows are skilfully placed, sometimes at the wings and sometimes in the middle of the fairways. With the exception of a handful of two-tier greens, the putting surfaces are in the main flatish and rely more on broad contours to create interest. I can imagine summer green speeds would greatly perk the interest of many greens which seem rather dull in December. One final thing to note is the several roads which partition the course. #s 1, 2, 3, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17 & 18 are one section; 4-8 with the drive of #9 making up another section, perhaps the best three holes, 11-13 make up a third section and only the approach to #9 making up the final section.
Despite having to cross the road (a repeated theme throughout the round), the shortish par 4 first holds great promise as the Grim's Ditch makes an immediate short, sharp appearance. Driver is a dangerous play, but as is the case every time the ditch is encountered, the hazard is angled to tempt the player.
One of the best aspects of the ditch is the variable lies which can be drawn. This fact may lead golfers to be overly greedy.
Despite the promising opener, much of the following six holes are not terribly impressive. The drives are interesting enough, but the lack of trouble around the greens is certainly noticeable. Included among the highlights is the 4th drive turning left with the wind coming off the left. Same thing for the 6th.
The hollow short of the three shot 7th and the green are of interest.
It is almost as if the architect decided it was time to create some holes with a bit of ooomppphh for the entire hole. For starting with #8 Berkhamsted is full of interesting shots. #8 turns hard right between sentinel mounds to a green a bit below the fairway and running away. #9 curiously finishes in front of the house whereas the 18th is stranded across the road. Still, this is a good short two-shotter bending left around large earthworks. First, however, one must drive over a sunken road! Looking back at the tee!
The approach from a tight line down the left.
We now cross the road again for the back nine. Unfortunately, the par 3s are a bit wanting and to be honest, this is an unforgivable aspect of the design. So, onto the better things and the outstanding three-shot 11th.
Mounds dot the fairway left and right while the Ditch cuts off the direct line - forcing the golfer to make a decision...
#12 turns back on the 11th and is a cracking par 4 with a hollow/humps complex angling in to the left side of the green. The thirteenth too is very good and finishes this triangle of holes isolated by a road.
#14 takes us back to the main part of the course, but first we must once again drive (from the back tee) over a road. This has to be one of the craziest shots I have come across as its incredibly dangerous.
The approach conceals a large drop-off on the left and how the green runs severely right for the front portion.
#15 is a decent par 3 of a considerable length, but not terribly memorable. The 16th is a shortish par 5 which features a very clever drive. There is tons of space left, but it is easy to get caught out too far left. Playing from the forward tees on the final two holes is actually harder than from the back tees. Neither are long par 4s, but both run out of space at driver distance.
#18 is even more severe as the fairway is cut-off by harsh rough in a blind spot off the tee down the right. It is a shame to finish away from the house and it is a wonder as to why the nines aren't switched. Perhaps it is because the powers that be agree with me in thinking the back nine is much stronger than the front.
Its difficult to sum up Berkhamsted as a course. I think the course is best viewed as a whole rather than as individual holes because I couldn't point to any All England candidates. First the positives. Berkhamsted is a very easy walk. There are routing difficulties caused by the roads, but many of the holes are actually not far from the house thus creating a ton of options for short loops. The course is constantly changing direction making what wind that can penetrate the trees difficult to assess. The course was in very good nick and played dry - this is such an important element for all-year golf that it shouldn't be dismissed lightly. Finally, Berkhamsted has an undeniable charm which adds to the pleasure of the day. Now for the drawbacks. A huge disappointment for me are the lackluster short holes. Its perplexing as to why the club doesn't roll up its sleeves and get to work on this issue. Second and not to disagree too much with the Canary, but I do think bunkers would be a tremendous boon for the course. There are too many green complexes lacking in sufficient interest. The verdict: I would like to see the course in the summer. 2011
Previous stops on the Tour.http://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,46538.0.html
The Old Coursehttp://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,50086.0.html
The New Coursehttp://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,50078.0.html
The Castle Coursehttp://www.golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,30926.0.html
Next scheduled stop: Little Aston