Now is the time of year when many of you start to think about your big 2017 golf trip(s).
And like many golfers who are looking to take advantage of the weaker Pound and Euro as a result of the "Brexit," you may have the UK and Ireland in your sights...and you may be looking to visit more often than you ever anticipated.
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, because here's something that almost no one else will tell you:
There are some non-links courses that are incredible in their own right and totally worthy of your consideration.
For the sake of the next couple tips, let's divide these courses into two categories: the heathlands, mostly situated south of London, England; and the superlative inland courses, which are neither heathland nor links - mostly parkland layouts, but potentially worth a visit.
Let's start with the more limited (but higher average quality) heathlands.
The Heathlands: 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:
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 grandiosely 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.
Though, like the great links many of the best heathland courses belong to "private" clubs, 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.
Which Heathland Courses Should You Target?
But in the end, the courses are most important. And for a relatively limited geographical region, they punch well above their weight.
Indeed, on Golfweek's most recent list of the top 40 classic (i.e. built before 1960) courses in the British Isles, seven are heathland courses:
- Sunningdale Golf Club (Old and New)
- Swinley Forest Golf Club
- St. George's Hill Golf Club
- Walton Heath Golf Club (Old)
- Wentworth Golf Club (West)
- Woking Golf Club.
Of these, only Wentworth is inaccessible to visitors, and it's just as well, because the course has been largely "Americanized" in recent years in order to continue hosting the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship, so it's an outlier either way.
All these courses are all within 30 miles of one another, and there are still others to play beyond this shortlist.
Here are some other outstanding heathland courses you should consider:
- The Berkshire Golf Club (Red and Blue Courses)
- Camberley Heath Golf Club
- Hankley Common Golf Club
- New Zealand Golf Club
- Walton Heath Golf Club (New)
- West Hill Golf Club
- Worplesdon Golf Club
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 we would never actively encourage people away from the great links of Scotland, England and Ireland, we 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!