Swinley Forest Golf Club

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Club History

Swinley's History

Early in 1909, the legendary golf course architect Harry Colt and Alexander Davey, a near neighbour, explored the possibility of constructing a links on the land virtually on their doorsteps on the edge of the Earlywood Estate, on the Surrey-Berkshire border not far from Windlesham.

Over the next few months, Colt walked the 50 acres of farmland and the adjoining block of thick pine woods, heath and scrub that belonged to the Crown Estate. He soon knew that he could create something really special with the place, and was indeed fortunate that the ground that was to become Swinley Forest Golf Club would lend itself so well to his genius and visionary approach to golf course design. Colt himself was to become the first secretary of the Club.

Also, Colt and Davey, were fortunate to be joined at the outset by the publisher Sir Hubert Longman and the 17th Earl of Derby.

A founding member of Sunningdale Golf Club, Longman brought experience to the team, while Lord Derby, (an enthusiastic player) with his resources and influential circle of  friends and relations came up with the finance and the initial membership (drawn mainly from the aristocracy, fellow landowners and Titans of the Turf). Some also came from the City through other members on the committee, and that initial membership has set the tenor of the Club ever since.

And so the work began on turning that meld of forest and desolate heathland into the wonderful place it is today. In designing a golf course from scratch, Harry Colt strove for variety, but the single feature that is so instantly recognisable of one of his courses is the collection of par  three holes and, to a marginally lesser extent, the short par fours. Colt began by placing five par threes, their positions dictated as far as possible by the terrain, in particular on his favoured ‘natural plateaux’.

Today, each one is unique for its distance, difficulty and beauty. Colt then worked all the other holes into this framework using the same perfect rhythm and harmony around them and the wetlands towards the far end of the course.

Another typical feature of Colt so evident at Swinley is his usual ‘long plain-sailing hole’ for the first, followed by another to send on the players from the first tee. This was desirable from a secretary’s point of view as if his members cannot start they always become ‘critical and impatient’.

It has often been suggested that Swinley was designed to accommodate Lord Derby’s game as he had a tendency to slice the ball. Colt was such a perfectionist that he would never have compromised his design for anyone, and Lord Derby would certainly not have even thought of suggesting it, let alone demanding it. That said, Colt’s fairways were wide enough to accommodate the most moderate shots. (It is another myth that the costs were divided equally between the members in lieu of a subscription).

What is the most remarkable about the whole design is that Colt put it together virtually before a single tree had been felled, something that Bernard Darwin found ‘a mystifying experience, and nothing is quite so mysterious as the way in which the architect (Colt) can map out his whole course in considerable detail when in many places he can only see a few yards in front of him...the man must surely have a sixth sense’.

But it is not just the course that makes Swinley unique. There are no handicaps, no medal competitions, just golf with friends. It is unpretentious. For the members, their guests and visitors who play there, Swinley is a very special and private golf course. Colt himself called it his ‘least bad course’.

Today, one hundred years on, Swinley is a great British golf course on a path of continuous improvement - but it also holds great affection for its Edwardian past. 

The membership remains small and is made up of many of the same families, with a few boasting an unbroken line from a founding member, all with the original ideals and criteria – ‘ a quiet atmosphere, with agreeable colleagues and an old-fashioned lunch’.

The course too, although stretched for modern play to over 6400 yards off the back tees, would still be recognised by Colt, his legacy carefully preserved by the present Club Secretary, George Ritchie.

With thanks to Nicholas Courtney, author of Swinley Special.

Swinley Forest Course
It is said that that Swinley packs more interesting shots and possesses more memorable holes than any 7,000-yard course built since the last War. No wonder Colt himself would talk about 'craving for my usual game around Swinley Forest Course' after he moved away to Oxfordshire.