Because I don't keep my scorecards or buy ball-markers everywhere I play, I don't know precisely how many courses in my native England I've tackled. There are approximately 1,500 altogether; and, as the man with the silkiest swing in Europe, I reckon I've taken divots out of roughly 250. But which were the best?
Having lived most of my life in the southeast corner of the country, there's something of a southern bias to my favorites. And, as a huge fan of links golf, quite a few are within sight of the sea. With apologies to the other 240, here are my top 10:
West Sussex is a glorious heathland course in the south of England that drains wonderfully well and is eminently playable throughout the winter. With a rich assortment of towering trees set well back from the fairways, the course creates the misleading impression it's quite open. Heather, which dazzles at the height of summer, is a real threat. The course isn't long but contains numerous bunkers filled with fine white sand extracted from a pit near the second tee -- a "two-ball" club where only singles and foursomes can be played.
St Enodoc Golf Club's Church Course
Designed by James Braid, the Church Course at St Enodoc on the north Cornish coast in the southwest of England is a fabulous links that is up there with the very best. Spectacular hole follows spectacular hole. The sixth is a little bewildering as you can't see anything of the fairway from the tee, only an enormous bunker. It's the start of the famous "Himalayas Complex" where the dunes grow mightier and mightier.
Not far from the popular race course at Ascot in the famous heathland belt to the southwest of London lies The Berkshire. There are two great courses, and it's hard to choose between them. Perhaps because it's the more striking, the Red Course is usually regarded as the better. But both Red and Blue Courses sit remarkably comfortably amongst the heather and silver birches. The club allegedly lost its "Royal" status when entry to the clubhouse was denied to a pro accompanying the then Edward, Prince of Wales. Thankfully, things have relaxed a bit since the 1930s.
If it wasn't in such an isolated spot on the north Devon coast in southwest England, there's every chance Saunton would be on the British Open rota. There are two fabulous links courses, the East and the West. Both are stunning, but the former is generally regarded as marginally better. There's a glorious stretch of spectacular beach running alongside, which further adds to the appeal of this stunning spot. It's so perfect you might want to live here, especially when you discover how inexpensive membership is!
A little to the north of the popular south-coast town of Bournmouth, sitting on sandy soil, lies lovely Ferndown. Peter Alliss was once the pro here, as was his father Percy before him. The Old is a wonderful inland track with plenty of pine trees and even more heather. It's not very long, and precision, rather than power, is what's required. Sometimes short is beautiful. It can get very dry in summer when awkward bounces make it even trickier.
Royal Cinque Ports
On the Kent coast in southeast England, Royal Cinque Ports used to host the Open Championship but has now been superseded by Royal St George's. Far more accessible and a lot gentler than it's rather exclusive (and sexist) neighbour, it's a lovely links that won't beat you up too badly unless there's a strong wind whistling in off the sea. Call it "Deal" (after the adjacent town) in casual conversation, and endear yourself to any members who may be listening.
If you thought "inland links" was a contradiction in terms, visit glorious Ganton. Situated in the county of Yorkshire in the north of England, the land upon which it was built at the beginning of the 20th century used to be next to a North Sea inlet. The distinctive firm turf and sandy subsoil are still there thousands of years later, and, even though it's a little more than 10 miles from the sea, it's unmistakeably linksy. The British Amateur Championship is always played on a genuine links; Ganton is the only exception. The Walker, Ryder and Curtis Cups have all been staged on this great course.
Right in the heart of the country about a 90-minute drive north of London is wonderful Woburn. There are three courses -- the Duke, Duchess and Marquess -- all of which are superb. Carved through mature woodland, there's a warmth and intimacy about them which can sometimes conceal the menace that lurks behind the mighty trees that line the fairways. Forced to pick a favourite, I would opt for Marquess, which is the newest, principally because it's slightly more forgiving than its neighbours.
The small Channel Island of Jersey has famously produced a number of great golfers including the legendary Harry Vardon. It also punches well above its weight when it comes to courses. Royal Jersey is terrific, but, in my opinion, La Moye is the best. Designed by James Braid back in the 1930s, it's a links course par excellence with wonderful sweeping fairways and glorious views over the English Channel.
There are three great courses at this famous venue just to the southwest of London. Wentworth's West Course receives all the attention and hosts the championships, but the East, in my opinion, has more character and is less of a slog. Loads of elevated tees and wonderful views enhance its considerable appeal. Designed by Harry Colt, it's the oldest of the three and probably the least costly in terms of lost balls.