Through Bernard Darwin’s eyes
For many, Bernard Darwin was one of the great golf writers. His classic ‘The Golf Courses of the British Isles’ of 1910 mentions Sandy Lodge and there is a painting of ‘First green looking towards the clubhouse’ by Harry Rountree. But there is no description of the club or course. Darwin made amends in an article written in 1934, which remained unpublished until it was included in the 50th anniversary booklet of Sandy Lodge. This classic deserves to be reprinted in full.
No Golf Course better lives up to its name than does Sandy Lodge, for there is nothing sandier among inland courses. It takes it from the farm house which stands close to the 5th green and to that farm and its sand there belongs a romantic story.
It was nearly twenty-five years ago that Mr Markes conceived the notion that a golf course on sandy soil was badly needed to the north of London. Through his mining experiences in Australia he was more than something of a geologist: so he got a geological map and began to take solitary walks of exploration in likely parts of the country. For some little time he drew blank. Then one day – a blazing August day in 1908 – having started from Northwood, he was walking along a roadway through a cornfield across what is now the course. In the bank of a hedgerow he saw a rabbit burrow: from it he took a handful of earth, put it in his handkerchief and hastened homeward with a wild hope surging in his breast. He went into his bathroom, washed his precious burden and behold it was sand! Like another Archimedes (who, if I remember rightly, also did it in his bathroom) he shouted “Eureka”; the sand course to the north of London had been found. A lease of the ground was obtained (it is now the club’s own freehold); Mr Markes took as his ally in laying out the course Harry Vardon, and on a snowy day in the following March work was begun on what it today the 6th green.
That is in brief the story of the making of the course but it does no sort of justice to all the work that was done. Probably only two people, Mr Markes and the greenkeeper, Field, fully know how much was done. I pass over all the removal of hedges and trees and the sowing of nearly the whole area, and give just one example. The course possesses many noble bunkers on a seaside scale alike in sandiness and magnitude. Most of them were made in beds of sand and so no water lies in them; but in the case of those made not actually in sand there is not a single one without a drain beneath it.
When the course was in the making Mr Markes used to come down from London late in the evening of a particularly wet day and look carefully to see if possible the moonlight might be shining on any puddles in the then rough meadow which is now the 14th hole. That was true enthusiasm and certainly there are no puddles at Sandy Lodge today. It is astonishingly dry:
Let the rain pour as it will, let the Colne Valley next door be in flood, the course is as dry as can be.
I mentioned the bunkers but they are not the only things on the course to remind us of the sea. The putting greens are of true seaside quality: nay, they have a quality which seaside greens once possessed but in many cases have lost. It is recorded of a famous golfer that having holed a long putt on the 3rd green he exclaimed in delight “This reminds me of Old Gullane”. It was a true word, for the Sandy Lodge greens have that fineness and delicacy and keenness which used to mark greens by the sea but which today they have too often exchanged for something richer, slower and duller. I am no expert in these matters and I cannot say exactly how this has been achieved, but the greens are there “to witness if I lie”. And this fineness is, generally speaking, a mark of the turf everywhere on the course. Even on those portions of it, where the subsoil is not so ideal as in the best parts, the constant use of sand has done great things and there is a truly magnificent sandpit which can provide an inexhaustible supply for continuing this good work. Finally one more word about the bunkers. Their maritime aspect and likewise that of the sandy hills has been greatly enhanced by the planting of bent grass which really does make them look like “the real thing”. These bents have come from different places, amongst others Deal, Le Touquet, North Berwick and Aberdovey. There is a sandy hill on the right of the 17th fairway which is called “Mount Vardon” and this is planted with bents that the great man brought back with him from Le Touquet. Those who are botanically inclined will be interested to know that they differ from the true blue British variety. My hopelessly unscientific eye sees no difference but anyone can see that the bents in general bring with them a real breath of the sea to inland Hertfordshire.
The making of these bunkers and sandhills was essential to the course because nature, having provided the sand, did not provide a great deal in the way of natural hazards. There is some gorse, a solitary tree or two, such as that capital one at the 12th hole, and the sinister wood into which we are apt to hook at the 17th; there is also some imported heather , and since heather grows slowly it has not yet assumed the importance that it will some day. So for the most part the country lies rather open. There is rough of course, but the general aspect is one of stretches of fair green turf and bunkers in the grand manner. Consequently the course is, if I may so term it, a sociable one, on which we are not cut off from our friends but see how they are faring at neighbouring holes as we make our way round. And now that is enough of preliminaries and let us start at the first hole, close to the windows of the very comfortable club house.
We begin with a long hole, and that is always a good plan as it gets the couples more easily and quickly away; but we are not going to be let off easily. Our first drive is not very alarming, neither is our second shot, but the third may shake our early morning nerve. Right across our path to the green is a cross bunker, very deep and horrible, and we have to pitch across it and stop reasonably quickly on the other side. Very eminent persons, such as Havers, can sometimes get home in two, but I am not talking about them for the hole is 495 yards long and ordinary mortals will have to face that short pitch and will be thoroughly well pleased if they start with a good steady five.
With the 2nd hole we come back towards the club house and there is another formidable bunker to be carried, this time with our second shot. It is made the more formidable and also the more “seaside” in appearance by being shored up with black sleepers that remind one pleasantly of Prestwick or Sandwich. These sleepers are 304 yards from the back tee, and I believe that despite a standing offer of £5 reward no one has ever succeeded in hitting them with his tee shot. A good iron shot ought to get us home in two, but it must be straight as must be the drive, for there are flanking bunkers and altogether this is a good four-hole. So is the 3rd (150 yards) a good three, for not only are there bunkers to carry, but more of them lurking on either side. So if we begin with an average of fours (we probably shall not) we shall be very well on our way.
It is still more improbable that we shall go on with three more fours because the 4th, 5th and 6th holes are all what I term, with senile envy, “modern fours”: the player must have plenty of length or fives will be his fate. These three holes run more or less parallel with one another, the 4th away from the farm, the 5th back to it and the 6th finally away again. They are a certain family likeness, but each has its separate and interesting features: the 4th severe bunkers for the hooker and a gently sloping green that demands a sure and delicate touch; the 5th a fine carry off the tee of 150 yards (and more from the back tee); the 6th an out-of-bounds hedge and road running all the way on the left and a plateau green.
Having so far worked uncommonly hard and taken, unless I am a bad prophet, several fives, we are now given a little something to cheer us up: we might get a three at the 7th and we certainly ought to get one at the 8th. The 7th is 229 yards long but it is downhill and in summer, at any rate, strong players need only their irons. There is a really superb bunker in front of the tee eighty yards long and in it, by the way, is a tiny islet of grass having a sentimental interest. Mr Markes transplanted it from the sacred soil of Hoylake. No green-man must lay sacrilegious hand on it and in summer it is yellow with vetch. There is something else at the hole to remind us of the Cheshire links, since, if we hook, we shall get into a sandy ditch at the foot of a grass bank like one of the Hoylake “Cops”. Also, as at Hoylake, we may go over the bank and out of bounds. Having, I hope, got our three at the 7th, we walk back into a little clearing in a wood and play – I also hope – a high stopping shot with a mashie niblick (105 yards) to an island green. We must hit the green and must stop on it; otherwise sand will inevitably be our portion – and serve us right! The 9th is 353 yards long and that ought to mean a four, but the prevailing wind is against us, and a gentle rise of tussocky ground of a quite innocent aspect produces by some subtle terror a large number of bad tee shots from all classes of players. There are big cross bunkers for our second and there is gorse on the left, but that which I personally like best about the hole is the sandy, benty hill behind it. It does not actually affect the play but it supplies a capital golfing background and makes picturesque and interesting what might otherwise be a little prosaic.
That brings us to the turn and we do turn back, more or less, in our tracks, to the neighbourhood of the 7th and 8th holes. Indeed, the 10th green was built up by the aid of a little matter of 500 cartloads excavated in making that big bunker at the 7th. This 10th is a one-shot hole – for tigers. It is 235 yards long with a plateau green. On the right of the green is a big bunker, crowned with more of those ominous sleepers, and the sides of the plateau run away pretty steeply to modified perdition. There is something to be said for being too short a driver to reach the green and so getting home with a drive and a little run up; but it is an interesting and exhilarating hole for players of all lengths and all classes.
We have been getting, or we ought to have been getting, some threes. Now for a five, for the 11th is the long hole of the course – 543 yards. It runs a little downhill towards the finish and sometimes Havers will doubtless carry the cross bunkers (470 yards from the tee) with his second shot; but doubtless also we shall not. We shall, if all is well, avoid the big right and left hand bunkers from the tee, play a steady second and so home with a pitch to a closely guarded green. There are Saharas, bristling with North Berwick bents on either side of the green, and when there is a strong south-west wind and the third is consequently an iron shot this approach is really difficult. Indeed, Mr T.A. Torrance, who certainly ought to know, says it is one of the most terrifying he knows anywhere. The 12th, called Aberdovey from the birthplace of its bents, is a good dog-leg two-shotter, with big sand hills to carry from the tee and a lone tree to stymie us if we drive to the wrong place. It is a good four, whereas the 13th ought to be a reasonably simple four if we know how to play a running approach down a gentle slope and don’t play it too hard. The 14th, on the other hand, will be a five, for it is 520 yards long. It is a sort of distant cousin of the 11th, but with this difference, that there are sand hills to carry with the second shot and no cross bunker in front of the green.
The 15th is 190 yards long and it looks every yard of it as we stand on the tee contemplating, with some trepidation, its sandy perils. It has a sand hill for background, a big bunker for a slice and another small one on the left – an ingenious little beast to catch us when we make too sure of not slicing. There is, I think, some more sand in the foreground. At any rate I know that I always feel particularly frightened and correspondingly pleased if I get a three. The 16th is a good honest hole of just under 400 yards, with a ditch threatening us on the left-hand edge of the fairway, and then comes the 17th, which, as befits a good 17th, may very easily ruin our score, if we have not ruined it already. It is 520 yards long and our object is to play two full shots, skirting and not too nearly skirting a long out-of-bounds wood of larch and pine trees on our left. Then, if all is well, we shall be past the corner of the wood and get our five with a pitch or a pitch and run to a pretty green a little below us. Even now our troubles are not over; we may come to the most absurd grief in our very last lap. The home hole is only 149 yards long, no more than a high mashie pitching shot; but the shot must be high, because we go down into the depths of a pit to play it, the pit has a sandy precipitous face and if we take our eye off the ball, goodness only knows what may happen. If we keep that eye from wandering, there is a nice green awaiting us and we ought to finish with a three.
In the whole round we ought to have done a fair number of threes, but we shall also certainly have taken a fair number of fives (I say nothing of sixes and sevens) so that anything approaching the scratch score of the course, which is 75, is emphatically good. We shall carry away memories of gorgeous bunkers and beautiful greens, and also, unless we have been singularly immaculate in our play, a little sand in our shoes to remind us of Sandy Lodge.