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The name Cuthbert Butchart is known only to a few of the more assiduous of golf antiquarians and whilst the rest of us know names such as Colt and Braid and probably Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie we tend to look blank when Butchart is mentioned. And yet it was he who designed West Hill Golf Club which, quirkily, was always attended as a huge burial ground by its owner the London Necropolis Company given that 19th century London cemeteries were filling up far too rapidly.
Whilst many thousands of Londoners are buried nearby at Brookwood cemetery a senior member, one JB Walker, of the Necropolis company was a very keen golfer who decided that a plot of some 350 acres would make a very fine golf course which is where Butchart comes in.
A club professional and a Scotsman, he oversaw the delivery of the course working with two former Open champions, Willie Park junior and Jack White. He left the club shortly after it opened in 1909.
Before we head off to the first tee we must mention one other person, a lady golfer of some renown named Marguerite Lubbock. Her first husband Sir Charles Tennant, club captain at New Zealand Golf Club just six miles away, died and his widow swiftly remarried another talented player in Major Geoffrey Lubbock.
Rumour has it that the wealthy widow had the golf course built because she was not allowed to play on a Sunday elsewhere although those more romantically inclined say she had it built for her second husband.
Having covered all that and enjoyed some refreshment in the light and airy clubhouse it is time for us to change our shoes and head for the first tee and find what West Hill is all about.
A high part of what it is about is summed up as we stand gazing to a distant green 381 yards (348 meters) away if we are playing off the men’s forward yellow tees and which is recommended for the first time visitor. We see lots of heather immediately in front of us, mature pines that overhang parts of the fairway and take note that there is a ditch out there that big hitters can catch with their drives.
The green also slopes as does pretty much every green on the course with their subtle borrows and breaks but, at least, unlike other holes we are not playing uphill to a raised green although there are two pairs bunkers of varying sizes guarding either side of the front of the green. There are a lot of bunkers at West Hill Golf Club.
Although we come back on ourselves on the second the course generally runs in an anticlockwise direction and it is better to move the ball left to right than go left. Hooked shots can be severely punished.
There is no let-up in these opening holes and the third hole would be a stroke one index at many clubs, not four as it is here. At 459 yards (420 meters) from the yellow tees with the railway line running all down the left behind the pines, a narrow fairway to aim at and a stream that slants from top left to bottom right 90 yards (82 meters) from the green. Mere mortals should play it as a par-5 and be happy with bogey.
After another gruelling par-4 at six of 402 yards (368 meters) with a blind tee shot uphill and a steeply sloping green, it comes as blessed relief to reach a shortish par-3 hole of 158 yards (144 meters) although there is a forward bunker ahead of three more guarding the front of the green that can deceptively shorten the distance so your ball must be carried onto the putting surface not to make par very difficult indeed.
Looking at the course guide as my group made our way round, phrases such as ‘A tough test’, ‘a tough par-3’ and ‘an intimidating tee shot’ stuck in my mind. However, provided your scorecard has gone been torn up by the time you reach the 12th, as mine was having visited far too many green-side bunkers than were good for me, we have another oasis of calm at the charming 273 yard par-4 12th.
These delightful holes, and I am reminded of the fifth at Royal Aberdeen and the sixth at Deal, conclusively demonstrate that holes do not have to be miles long to be tough and they can be subtle as well.
The 12th at West Hill is just such. Nine bunkers are dotted about and the green is two tiered with a steep slope up to the back level and again, according to the guide, ‘fives are far more common than threes here.’ It is a beauty.
There is something of merit to all the holes but two more stick in my mind vividly and they are the last two. At the par-5 17th we meet the little brook again over what looks like an ocean of heather and a grisly horseshoe-shaped bunker on the right that devours second shots greedily as they tumble left to right down into its bowels.
Finally, when we can see the clubhouse on the 418 yards (382 meters) last and when we are more than ready for restorative adult refreshment we may be faced with a heinous little approach shot if we do not get safely on in two. The reason? All that glass on the front of the clubhouse just at the back of the green and the general manager’s office just one hideously thinned lob-wedge only a few yards away.
Best play the bump and run shot for safety to lower the blood pressure and avoid broken glass and then enjoy what the clubhouse has to offer and there is much to enjoy. And very many reasons to return to play some more testing golf at this most excellent of Surrey courses.
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