What Can be Better than Links Golf in the British Isles? The Heathlands

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:

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 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!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor and the Managing Editor of the Golf Vacation Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
14 Comments
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Dormus

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

TimGavrichGA Staff

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

Randal Schultz

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.

Alasdair Sutherland

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.

Barry D

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.

Scott Martin

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.

Mike Hope

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.

mike

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.

COLIN SHOTTON

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

Steve

Travel further north and save $$ Hollinwell, Coxmoor, Sherwood, Woodhall Spa and Ganton to name a few!

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