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Uncommon Land

Reconnecting to the game on an altogether different category of open rota

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Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

The sun rises slowly, gifting its soft, golden light to the bumps and contours of the land, showing me a path to the green while the dew sparkles in the early morning air. I take a stance, shifting weight from one foot to the other, testing the ground. It’s spongy; the mossy moorland below gives under my feet but still pushes back, and when I move on, it will forget I was ever there. I take a breath—that last one just before the swing. I can hear the sheep pulling at grass 100 yards away. There is no other sound but my heart, slow now, but urging me to go on. The swing comes like a crashing wave over which I have no say. It finds me from the ether and I move with it. I feel the impact with the ball and keep my eye on the ground where my club connected. There is no sign of my presence, the grass simply shrugging it off and settling back into its morning routine. I don’t look up to see if the shot was good, to see if the high draw has caught the gentle breeze from the right and started making its turn toward the green.
I already know.

This is an ancient land, cluttered with exaggerated hills and far-off mountains hewn tens of thousands of years ago by the crushing weight of the last ice age. It shuffles quietly through the streams of time, shrugging off change and the vagaries of human fancy. The only forces of power on this hill are the sun and the seasons. Even the wind, which often whips and snarls around its most intimate secrets, barely invokes the most cursory of responses.

And that is why I am here. So much of modern golf is controlled, manicured, even sterile. Every blade of grass at Augusta feels and looks as if someone has been sent out with a protractor and spirit level to make sure each stands at the same precise height and angle. At other courses, the “authenticity” is manufactured in—a choice of design aesthetic, most likely birthed on a mood board and shared with committees in a pitch meeting. Which is fine. I mean, I’m not ever likely to turn my nose up at Augusta, or that place in Georgia with the onions everywhere and a name I can never remember, except that it sounds like the noise someone makes when they win the lottery. But few courses these days can truly lay claim to wilderness golf. Even St. Andrews, the grandfather of that scruffy British links look, has a managed, polished feel to it nowadays.

What I was after was something…else. Something that placed itself so naturally in its surroundings that it was impossible to know where one world ended and another began. Something that connected me to more than irrigation systems and soil profiles and clubhouse arguments about first cuts. What surprised me was where I found it.

Scotland, as we all know, is the home of golf. It features, as we also all know, the well-branded Home of Golf in Fife. Today, even the most stubborn of municipal courses in Scotland have greens reading 9 on the Stimp, and although you fight the wind almost every day, you are not usually fighting to stay upright next to a sheep. That’s not to say these courses no longer exist. But they are increasingly rare.

What I discovered this year, however, is that in the west of England, in that no man’s land north of Bristol but south of Birmingham, there is a collection of four courses that make East Lothian seem positively immaculate. They share what we call common land, where there is significantly more livestock on the course than golfers, and golfers must watch out for others using the land simply as something of a public park. It must be said that their rustic charms are not for everyone. They are walking courses with no caddies, and a post-round meal is probably best taken at your hotel. They are without luxury. But they are also without pretense. They force you to see the world from the world’s point of view.

Kington

A true inland links, where the arresting views include sheep and the remnants of an outlaw past

Bradnor Hill, on which I now stand, rises sharply from the valley and patchwork of small holding fields below. The other side of the valley is Wales; to the south, Hergest Ridge, the inspiration for ancient Welsh stories and a Mike Oldfield album from 1974 written during his “the world offends me” phase. At the foot of the hill, the border town of Kington is just waking up. Smoke starts to puff from the chimneys of farms and cottages, as it has done for centuries. I know that inside the families busy themselves with breakfast while catching up on the personal lives of turgid celebrities via super-fast Wi-Fi, but only because most days I am one of them. From the top of the hill, you’d barely know the 21st century was into its third decade.

In the 1920s, the gentlemen of Kington were keen to golf and persuaded the landowner of Bradnor Hill to lease them the land for a course. It seemed a reasonable suggestion, as Bradnor had been the center of village entertainment for long before golf had been popular in England. In 1770 a course for racing horses was laid out across a natural amphitheater just below the summit, and horse racing there continued throughout the Victorian period and even after the golf course opened. This was lawless, unregulated competition over dangerous terrain, and it spawned the illegal betting common amongst the marginal communities who live in the murky netherworlds at the edge of any country. On the fairway of what would become the 16th hole, there remains to this day a pit for fighting cocks, where hard men would hurl invective before scattering into the inky night the moment a lookout spotted a policeman coming up the hill.

The founding members of the club employed Major Cecil Hutchison to lay out a course. Hutchison was a partner in one of the world’s first professional golf course architecture firms, earning a living, a reputation and, ultimately, a legacy from exporting the virtues of Scottish links. Of course, Bradnor Hill was not on linksland. It was high on a hilltop in the northwest of Herefordshire, some 35 miles from the coast. Undeterred, Hutchison built a links anyway, using the techniques he had learned at home and applying them to this windy outcrop some 1,200 feet above sea level. Sand bunkers were troublesome, so he instead created grass ones, pushing and pulling the land around the greens into bumps and mounds that catch, divert and frustrate golf balls. The land, however, was very similar to the linksland near his home, with uneven, untrustworthy surfaces impervious to rain. And the course today follows much the same route as it did nearly 100 years ago. Some tee boxes have moved. One or two green sites have mellowed. But the course as it is now is almost identical to the one that opened in 1926.

At the clubhouse, you will find men like Glyn Whitcome, who is too old to play now but visits every day, sitting by the window and enjoying the camaraderie of schoolboys with those who come off the 18th younger and lighter than when they started. Whitcome was born in Wales but ended up in Kington after he finished his university degree and “lost all ambition.” He says it as an avuncular joke, but underneath he is proud to live here, and to have lived here all his adult life. The comment hides something he realized in his 20s, but that he knows we all have to discover for ourselves.

Cleeve Hill

The ghosts of an ancient illegal horse-racing track still swirl at Kington.

An unfussy highland howl built by Old Tom Morris, praised by Tom Doak and loved by the locals

Cheltenham is a spa town that literally sprang from the ground after the discovery of a mineral source in 1716. A period of explosive growth followed as the Georgians and Victorians got serious about leisure, and sometime around 1890 a golf club was formed with members employing no less than Old Tom Morris himself to lay out a course atop Cleeve Hill, a high escarpment overlooking the town. According to an article in the Cheltenham Chronicle at the time, Old Tom was “enraptured with it, declaring that few golf links in the kingdom are equal to those on Cleeve Common.”

Cleeve Hill is the high point of the Cotswolds, a place established by the government as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty wherein every postcard image of the quintessential English village you have ever seen can be found. It is home to rock stars and royalty. It’s also a place of ancient human endeavor. The hill was cleared of trees some 6,000 years ago, and on it can be found the remnants of ancient Iron Age forts, the largest framing the green for the 13th hole. The entire 1,000-acre site of Cleeve Common was quarried for centuries, giving the lovely buildings of the Cotswolds their character from its golden stone and lending the golf course, which plots its way around, through and over the contoured land left behind, its unique personality. Indeed, Tom Doak gave Cleeve a 7/10 in his Confidential Guide, stating that he “does not often use the word ‘unique’ in my reviews of golf courses, but Cleeve Cloud fits the bill.”

It is impossible not to be both awed and charmed by the views, routing and shots required when playing Cleeve. A full nine of the tee shots are blind or semi-blind. The elevation change is extreme as you walk up, down and around a series of peaks and half-valleys, sometimes driving the ball to fairways and greens 100 feet below you, only to come back up again a hole or two later on a different part of the hill. No two holes are the same. But what strikes you most about the course is not the complex strategy or shot-making it demands; it’s the wild, rugged nature of the place. And I’m not just talking about the ever-present wind. Cleeve refuses to change with the times. There is no irrigation, even on the greens, which are super slow by today’s standards. There are no frills here, like cart paths or comfort stations. There are barely any trees to shelter under if the rain blows in. And from March to October the fairways are not mown, instead kept short(ish) by virtue of being eaten by several hundred sheep allowed to graze by commoners who pay for the right to do so.

The greens and tees are maintained, but only so much as they need to be in order for you to play, and those greens, though comparatively slow, are full of intrigue. Legend has it that Alister MacKenzie remodeled them at some point, and with several false fronts it’s easy to see where the Good Doctor might have had a hand. Small and surrounded by trouble, they are a lesson in smart course strategy. The blind tee shots do not hurt here as they do on some other courses because the grass from fairway to rough is eaten uniformly by the sheep, so it’s hard to lose a ball. But if you are in the wrong place, the greens, with their deft bunkering, make attacking a flag either foolhardy or lucky. It’s also not short, for a course that is 129 years old, at 6,400 yards off the tips and a par of 71. If the wind is blowing in from the west, you will fight for every one of those yards.

That ruggedness seeps into the souls of its members. You have to be a certain type of person to keep going up there every day for years—even in winter, when the wind chills you to the bone before you start the long, steep climb up the third fairway. This is not a place for fancy cars or fancy people. No one cares what you wear, and you’d better leave your Royal Albartross shoes at home unless you want them scuffed and covered in sheep shit. Even the battered old shoes you do wear are best slipped on in the car park, because, to be blunt, the clubhouse and changing rooms are more Skid Row than Magnolia Lane. Instead, it’s a place for a single strap, a half-set and a windbreaker. A place where you worry more about stopping to look at the view than you do about checking the time on your watch. A place where every day you are forced to rediscover that childish fun you lost somewhere along the busy commute of life.

Hugh Fitzsimons has been a member at Cleeve for more than 40 years and at one time or another has served as captain, director and secretary; he will even make you a coffee. In his late 70s now, he still plays every day. “I wouldn’t want to ever play anywhere else,” he says with determination in his eye. I believe him. Fitzsimons can still get it out there for a gentleman of advancing years, and his short game is profound, especially on these greens, which he knows so well. While playing a round, he will keep you entertained with stories of epic battles—some with other golfers, some with local walkers who also call the hill their playground. “We usually win,” he says. “Golfers are stubborn. And we were here first.” 

Golf means many things to many people. For some it is about competition, an opportunity to win. For others it is a test, a thing to be mastered. To many it is a status symbol. To people like Fitzsimons, golf is something else. The last six holes at Cleeve run back to the clubhouse along the edge of the escarpment, affording views over the Vale of Evesham to the Malvern Hills and, on a clear day, into Wales and the same Brecon Beacons you can see from Kington. Fitzsimons stops on the 17th tee and takes it in, staring across a landscape he has never tired of looking at for more than four decades. “It keeps you humble,” he says, pausing a moment. The view seems to replenish him, like a fading flower given water. He then turns to the fairway and tonks another one down the middle.

Painswick

Navigating crisscrossed fairways and local walkers is merely the beginning of the fun on this bumpy thrill ride 

Thirty minutes south of Cleeve is Painswick, home to another hilltop course that must be the quirkiest golf I have ever had the fortune to play. I say “play,” but Painswick is more of an experience. It shares the scruffy, rough aesthetic with Cleeve and Kington, but adds its own frankly bewildering flair to the mix. Painswick was called “awkward” and “crazy” by Doak and then added to his guide of must-play courses in England. It’s easy to see why. Other than the surprisingly intense roads leading up to the clubhouse giving the game away, little about your arrival prepares you for what lies ahead. The clubhouse is unassuming, if still functional. The practice green and 18th hole (a par 3—there are a lot of those) seem innocuous. Even the scorecard appears benign: a par 67 at 4,831 yards with seven par 3s (told you).

It’s not until you get to the first tee and look straight up what must be the steepest fairway on the planet do you realize everything will be thrown at you. It’s only 224 yards off the tips, but I’m confident it’s 225 up. Even if you can drive a ball up there—and it’s not a given you can hit driver, due to the angle you need—there is a huge hole in the ground from an old quarry you have to carry before approaching a tiny green. It’s an exhausting start, and though the second is easier, with only a 30% incline, that green is perched on the side of a cliff where you do not want to go down searching for a ball, never mind hitting one back up. 

The real fun begins on the 5th, the first of those par 3s. It’s the start of six holes in a run without a par 4 among them. The fifth is only 114 yards from the back, but your shot goes straight over a hill. “Blind” does not really cover it here; it’s more a massive wall of earth, with only a small stick showing the line. You swing and simply shrug your shoulders before setting off up the steps, which wind back and forth, to see if you landed in the tiny bowl of a green. Then, having navigated the shortest, wildest par 3 you have ever played, you hit the high point of the course on Painswick Beacon, stop for a while to admire the 360-degree views, forget that you are there to play golf, and marvel at the wonders of the universe.

Maybe you have a chat with the many walkers who are also milling about on the summit. Maybe you simply try not to get blown off the peak by the wind. Eventually, when you can be bothered to remember you must continue playing, you turn back to the sixth, which is the only long par 3 in the world actually worth playing. At 203 yards, often back into the wind, you have to carry the ball almost all the way across the ruin of a 3,000-year-old fort. The same fort will be navigated again on the way back with a 246-yard par 4 and another blind tee shot into the smallest green in England, maybe anywhere. On any other course, a 246-yard par 4 would be an immediate birdie opportunity and an assumption that you will at least be trying to hit the green. At Painswick, only a proper fool would pull anything but a mid-iron from their bag, because God only knows what lies between you and the hole.

There aren’t many simple fairways at Painswick, other than the cliff face of the first. The second and 14th share a strip of land that is as full of walkers and picnickers as it is golfers. The same for the third and 13th. The fourth and 12th kind of share a fairway, in as much as the 12th is a 257-yard par 3 (what?!) where the shot required is to drop it on the fourth fairway and let it roll down onto the green. In total, 10 holes cross over each other—more than at the Old Course at St. Andrews. 

But to dwell too long on the numbers and details is to miss the point. Painswick needs to be played because it is not often that well-seasoned golfers are truly baffled. Ours is a game of limits and regulations, of habits and traditions. Painswick was opened for golf in 1891 and evidently decided to hell with the rest of the golf world from that day forth. Why fit in when you can go your own way? Painswick forces you to forget about scorecards and handicaps, and it is all the better for it. The breaking of the rules allows a freedom and abandon that I have not felt since playing golf as a boy. The glee from a pured shot here is more visceral, more nerve-tingling and life-affirming than an arrow-straight long iron into a green at Birkdale. For what an Open venue gives you in earnest reverence, Painswick returns in joy.

Old Minch

Strategy is paramount in this gorgeous, wide-open test, for both executing golf shots and avoiding livestock

A similar sense of childhood jouissance can be found some miles to the south at the Old Course in Minchinhampton, where a 580-acre common owned by the National Trust is circled by fairways. Golf has been played here since 1889, and evidently the designers were determined not to be outdone by their neighbors at Cleeve and Painswick, using the overgrown hollows and redoubts of ancient quarries, bulwarks and fortifications to enliven an otherwise flatter piece of land. 

Minchinhampton shares many qualities with its neighbors, though it is not as wild or exposed as Cleeve. Nor is it as quirky or extreme as Painswick. It may be on a hill, but not one that affords the same views as Kington. It feels a touch more civilized, yet it is the uncivilized elements that give it such charm. From spring till autumn the common is shared with livestock, mainly horses and young steers, which are turned out to graze on the abundant grasses, keeping them short in the summer months. To city dwellers the sight of a large cow on your intended line can be intimidating, and you need to learn quickly how best to shoo one away. It can also be somewhat daunting to play a delicate chip into a green with the munching and snorting of a very large animal just yards behind you. Cattle are, by and large, gentle animals, but quite curious. It’s not unheard of to find a couple cows that have wandered over and slipped a wet nose into your bag during a shot. And by the end of the summer, the entire estate is covered in dung, affording you many free drops (though not ones you’d fancy cleaning).

Playing Minch with some friends is high on the giggle factor. Not many courses on the planet afford the opportunity to enjoy your playing partner negotiating with a cow stubbornly refusing to move. But it would be wrong to assume that is the only perk of the course. The rough is grazed away in summer, providing the option to miss anywhere off the tee, but each of the green sites were chosen around some land works that surround them with humps, hollows and banks, meaning placement is key here to score. Yes, you can be 150 yards left. But you can’t get near the hole from there. As at Cleeve, the greens are not irrigated, so they are left long and rough to cope with the summer sunshine, and occasionally a cow will leave a hoofprint on your line. But you play it as it lies.

Minch feels like a playground. The 11th green is sunken in an old hollow. The 13th is hidden round the corner, so you can’t figure out where it is from the fairway unless you have a satellite picture on your phone. The 16th, part of Minch’s wonderful quartet of par 3s, is achingly gorgeous and inviting. And it’s all located in the epicenter of an area widely regarded as the prettiest in all of England. The common is surrounded by ancient cottages, castles and churches that peak through tree lines and suggest Agatha Christie intrigue. 

The club owns another site just outside town with two 18-hole courses built between the 1970s and 1990s by the Hawtree family. If you find yourself craving standard, modern golf, you can get your fix there, but I will always be out chatting to the steers about life and love, because I remain convinced they know more about it than I do. And that is the real reason I went searching for these courses. Golf is often broken down into science, its mechanical virtues analyzed and dissected. We judge courses by numbers and statistics. We see golfers through the shroud of handicap. But the game is also a soulful reflection of ourselves, a mirror of our successes and failures. Our best golf comes when we find the flow that accompanies peace in our lives. It’s why so many pro golfers hit purple patches when they are happily married or become parents. When all is right in our world, all is right in our swing. Knowing that, or believing that, I search out places that enable me to find some peace and balance. And I do not find that in the over-manicured lawns of a country club and the stiff, starched collars of its fawning employees. I find it out here, in the rough-hewn fairways and scruffy clubhouses of these 19th-century anachronisms. The failure to tame the land on which they sit simply roots them to it, forcing me to commune with something older and wiser than myself in some sort of atavistic struggle. 

The first hole at Kington takes me sharply higher and farther away from the world that I need to leave behind. The second hole takes me to that amphitheater once used as a racetrack for illegal betting, and then up, via the fourth hole, onto the top of the hill. The bracken that lines the fairways will be in some part of its annual cycle of growth and harvest, reminding me of the simple rhythms of time and fate. The greens, slick and true, will be generous but ruthless, reminding me that not everything is in my control. I will have lucky bounces and unlucky breaks. I will make birdies and I will make bogeys and I will treat them both the same, all the while surrounded by sheep that ignore me. Sometime around the 13th hole, after I have made the turn for home and slowly started to head downward, the purpose of my trip will be realized and I will feel my worldly struggles fade to insignificance. In that moment, I simply let the swing move me and hit that high draw without the need to look up.