Why you should not overlook heathland golf courses

Despite sitting well away from the sea, these great classic golf courses demand respect and are a treat for visitors.
Rumpled terrain, firm conditions and old-time course architecture are not limited to the links courses of Great Britain and Ireland. England's heathland courses, like Sunningdale Old, have a greatness all their own.

For 99% of prospective visitors from North America, a trip overseas probably means one thing: links golf.

And for good reason. The "usual suspects" are incredible. Even some of the lesser-known links are gems, too.

But if you want to be a real rebel while still having an incredible golf trip across the Atlantic, you could avoid links courses altogether.

Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but it's not. You don't hear much about them, but there are several non-links courses that are incredible in their own right and totally worthy of your consideration.

I'm talking about the British heathlands, perhaps the most underrated golf region in the world.

Heathland golf: the Northern Hemisphere's Sandbelt

What makes heathland golf courses so special?

Perhaps the biggest factor is the one it shares in common with all links courses: sand.

Some links courses actually don't have much in the way of formal bunkers, but what makes the turf so firm and fast, even on wet days, is the sandy soil, through which water drains extremely quickly and easily. Likewise, heathland courses are set on sandy soil and tend to be much firmer and faster than other inland golf courses. While there's no ocean to gawk at during your round, the more inland setting tends to make for more rolling and rumpled terrain, whereas some links can be a little flat.

Given the ready availability of sand on-site, many heathland courses are known for their bunkering, which at some clubs is as bold as you will find anywhere in the world.

Like their links cousins, the best heathland courses are decades - usually more than a century - old, and as a result are absolute joys to walk. These courses transport golfers through ancient forest, over patches of purple heather (a unique hazard if you've never hit your ball into some before), past rock outcroppings and sometimes past stately English estates.

The eighth hole at St. George's Hill Golf Club, a Harry Colt design and one of England's great heathland golf courses, plays across a ravine strewn with bunkers.

Like the great links, many of the best heathland courses belong to "private" clubs, but just as at those great seaside courses, visitors are far more welcome here than they would be at private clubs in the U.S. You may have to have your home club pro to arrange your round at a couple of these courses, but the experience will be well worth it.

Stately clubhouses, sumptuous sit-down lunches (jacket and tie sometimes required; be sure to inquire with each club before visiting) and a traditional vibe reigns at these clubs, turning them into great golf experiences - not just great courses.

But in the end, the courses are most important. And for a relatively limited geographical region, they punch well above their weight.

South of London, in the county of Surrey, lie more than a dozen excellent heathland golf courses, the vast majority of them accessible to visitors on certain days of the week.

The most famous British heathland golf courses
Consider these the "heavy hitters" among heathland golf, concentrated in Surrey south of London.
Sunningdale, Windsor and Maidenhead
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Sunningdale, Windsor and Maidenhead
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Ascot, Windsor and Maidenhead
Private
0.0
0
Weybridge, Elmbridge
Semi-Private
5.0
1
Walton-on-the-Hill, Reigate and Banstead
Private
5.0
1
Walton-on-the-Hill, Reigate and Banstead
Private
0.0
0
Woking, Woking
Private
0.0
0
Other excellent heathland golf courses
These heathland courses may be somewhat lesser-known, but they are all unique gems, including some layouts outside of the Surrey Sandbelt.
Ascot, Windsor and Maidenhead
Private
0.0
0
Ascot, Windsor and Maidenhead
Private
0.0
0
Camberley, Surrey Heath
Private
0.0
0
Croydon, Croydon
Private
3.2467941176
27
Farnham, Waverley
Private
0.0
0
Ganton, Ryedale
Private
0.0
0
Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Ashfield
Private
4.0
1
Woodham, Woking
Private
5.0
1
Woking, Woking
Private
0.0
0
Woking, Woking
Private
0.0
0
Alwoodley, City of Leeds
Semi-Private
0.0
0
Liphook, East Hampshire
Private
0.0
0

If you're a keen golf fan, you probably noticed an omission from the list above: Wentworth Golf Club. It's come under private ownership in recent years, and no longer takes any non-member play. While the East Course remains a charming heathland layout, the West Course, which hosts the European Tour's BMW Championship, has been largely Americanized in recent years. Even if you could get on Wentworth, you will find more authentic heathland golf experiences elsewhere.

Finally, another mark in favor of this micro-region of incredible golf is pure geography. All of these golf courses are in relatively close proximity not just to each other, but to London. Heathrow Airport is one of the world's most accessible, and it's less than ten miles from Sunningdale and other heathland courses.

All in all, though I would never actively encourage people away from the great links of Scotland, England and Ireland, I also don't think an education in golf courses is complete without a healthy dose of heathland golf. Take that as you will.

Have you played England's heathland courses? Which ones are your favorites? Let us know in the comments section below!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
15 Comments
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Commented on

Just to let you know: Irish people don't like being classed as British Islanders...we are IRISH Islanders...thanks.

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Commented on

West Sussex is one of the most highly rated inland courses in the Uk and is always talked of as being a 'GEM' but for some reason is missed by many commentators.

West Sussex is considered to be one one of the best inland courses and a hidden GEM but is more often than not missed by many commentators.Perhaps just as well.
Also one of the few remaining 2 ball Clubs which is good news when a round of golf is now taking so long.

Dormus

Staff
Commented on

Randal--

That is awesome to hear! I can personally vouch for Sunningdale as a can't-miss stop for your group on that trip. I've only played the Old Course but am told that many golfers believe the New to be every bit its equal. If that is true, it's hard to fathom many better 36-hole days in the golfing world.

Best,
--Tim

Commented on

Great list and I hope to play many of them. I have played 60 courses in GBI over the last 15 years, but most have been links courses. This past year, on a trip to Wales and southwest England, my group decided to add St. George's Hill due to it's proximity to Heathrow, and boy, are we glad we did! What a fabulous routing with many wonderful holes. Just as pleasurable was reception we received from the starter, who made absolutely sure we received the full experience of being at St. George's Hill. Tried to get on Swinley by writing a letter (a lost art) but never got a reply. But I am not giving up as my group now plans a trip solely to play other heathland courses based on our experience at SGH.

Commented on

Of the great Surrey courses. for me Swinley is the best. But my favourite heathland golf course is the charming and very welcoming Piltdown in East Sussex. It can be difficult, with long carries and plenty of punishing heather-covered bunkers to get stuck in if you go off-fairway, but no sand bunkers at all.

Commented on

Having played most of the Golfweek rated courses, I agree with the comments above about them. I would add Royal Ashdown Forest and The Addington. Both have dramatic elevation changes and spectacular views.

Commented on

Great piece. I've been fortunate to play many of the courses on your list. I also like West Sussex which is closer to Gatwick. If you plopped Pinehurst #2 in the middle of these heathland courses, it would be middle of the pack, at best.

Commented on

I lived in the UK for forty years, so I've been lucky enough to play all of your recommended courses (including Wentworth, when it was open for public play). All of them are magnificent and are worth playing.
You have listed Swinley Forest as a recommended course. Unless they have had a recent policy change, this is an extremely difficult course to access - to all intents and purposes it is "private" (like the Wisley, Bearwood Lakes etc). If you want to play Swinley Forest, you may need to get your home pro to email or call the Swinley pro.
It's a relatively short course (by modern standards), but is worth the effort to get on if you can.

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Commented on

I have played many of these, including Sunningdale, Walton Heath, Berkshire, Wentworth when it was not Americanized, and some others, and they are all excellent. Only problem now is they are very expensive, even with the decline of the pound. In 1972, I played both Sunningdale courses and had lunch thrown in, for 5 pounds! It's twice that per hole now.

Commented on

BEAU DESSERT ON CANNOCK CHASE A REALLY TESTING HEATHLAND COURSE PLENTY OF GORSE BUSHES AND TREES A LOVELY FINISHING HOLE OVER WATER TO THE GREEN BELOW THE CLUB HOUSE WINDOW

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Why you should not overlook heathland golf courses