Golf Course Review of Woburn Golf Club (Marquess, Duke's & Duchess')
Woburn Golf Course
Reviewed by Ed Battye -
Quick Summary: 54 holes of beautiful woodland golf
Our 5 Star Rating: 4.2 (Marquess), 4.2 (Duke's), 4.2 (Duchess')
Woburn can boast no less than three golf courses that all regularly feature in the various top 100 rankings.
That in itself is just about unique but what impresses me the most whenever Woburn is debated is that if you ask three different people which course they prefer you are likely to receive three different responses.
My first taste of any of the courses at Woburn came in August 2014 when I played in the Men’s Open held over the Duke’s course. I wasn’t disappointed.
My second helping came that same evening when I enjoyed an evening stroll around the Duchess’ course instead of what would likely have been time spent sitting in rush hour traffic on the northbound M1 for the journey home. Again I wasn’t disappointed.
My most recent visit to this popular golfing venue occurred in July 2017 when I revisited the Duke's and also saw the Marquess for the first time. Yet again I wasn’t disappointed.
All three courses, set in a stunning forest location, are cut from the same high quality piece of cloth but each also has its own individuality and character, albeit only slight. Many of the holes have a similar feel to them but collectively they work well together and this creates a consistent feel across the board.
Immaculately conditioned and carved through beautiful wooded areas there is also the natural challenges of heather, bracken and gorse that add to the charm of all the courses and magnify the need to find the fairways with your drives.
In my opinion the Marquess just takes the top honours as the best course on the Woburn Estate, but it's a points decision.
Designed by Peter Alliss and Clive Clark, European Golf Design (Ross McMurray) and Alex Hay it opened as recently as 2000 and overlaps the county boundary dividing Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Set within 200 acres of mixed woodland the predominant tree species are pine, spruce, sweet chestnut and oak, while there are also a number of rare specimens such as Corsican pine, yew, rowan and beech.
The demanding par 72 course, which can stretch to over 7,200 yards, has hosted the British Masters, the English Amateur Championship, Final Qualifying for The Open Championship and the Ricoh Women's British Open. It is a course that is well loved and respected by elite golfers.
The standout holes, arguably the best on the entire property, are the third, seventh, ninth and 13th. Each features a tantalising approach shot to superb green location. The par-five seventh also has the added factor that you can choose one of two fairways to drive down; one gives you a shot at the green in two but is riskier.
A word should also be given to the 12th with its island fairway which is not easy to find into a head-wind. Down the breeze bigger hitters will have the option of going for the green but with water edging up the right-hand-side this is a high tariff shot.
The main thing I didn't like about the course is that the undergrowth in the trees, mostly bracken and fern, is horrendous. A wayward drive is not only punished by being in the trees but you have virtually no way of hitting the ball should you even find it. Clearing this out would make it much more playable, encourage riskier tee-shots and speed up play.
That aside I enjoyed the course and particularly found the par-fives interesting, despite playing them all poorly! You have options to go for them in two if you get a good drive away but there are many complications around the greens and approaching from 100 yards is often the better policy.
The course certainly favours a draw ball from the tee. By my reckoning no less than seven holes are set up for a right-to-left ball right and only the fourth asks you to work the ball the other way.
The Duke’s, the oldest of the trio having being founded in 1976, is around 300 yards shorter than the Marquess but a similar distance longer than the Duchess’ and has a little bit more seniority about it.
This layout, designed by Charles Lawrie, has hosted several prestigious professional and amateur golf tournaments in its relatively short existence. And apart from a short stretch of holes, just before and around the turn, each hole is memorable and at times breathtaking.
I must admit that by the time I had played the tenth (after commencing at the sixth thanks to a shotgun start) I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Holes six and nine are sound par three’s, played in opposite directions over a deep valley, but don’t compare to the other short holes on the course and whilst there is nothing wrong with the seventh, eighth and tenth – all strong 400+ yard par fours – these weren’t quite up to the admittedly very high quality I was expecting.
However, it didn’t take long for the course to start going through the gears and virtually every other hole from there on in was superb and everything I had imagined and hoped it would be. Each hole is played in almost glorious isolation from the next and the round as a whole is enthralling as you walk the peaceful fairways.
The tree lined nature of the par 72 course, each hole flanked mainly by towering pine, silver birch and chestnut, inevitably requires straight driving and you don’t have to be far off the fairway to be totally blocked out from the green. Indeed at times you can actually be on the fairway and still have to work the ball slightly if the hole is located in a certain part of the green.
There’s no denying that the Duke’s course becomes very narrow at times and I must admit that I’m not a fan of ‘strategically placed’ trees but for the whole the Duke’s remains very playable. My only other major gripe was that there are quite a few times where steep slopes will feed the ball towards trouble; to the right of the first, to the left of the fifth and to the right of the 14th are three cases in point. On each occasion you may well lose your ball and be overly punished for only a slightly wayward shot.
There are many holes I could mention in more detail but amongst the highlights were the short third, played dramatically downhill to a wickedly sloping green in a mini amphitheatre of trees, rhododendrons, gorse and other shrubbery, the 13th, where you must play across a chasm to a plateau green, and the 17th, which curves beautifully through the surrounding trees.
However, the hole that trumped the lot for me was the right-to-left dog-leg fourth that climbs imperiously through a valley of pines and is played to an elegant two-tiered green. But just like the courses themselves everyone is likely to have their own personal favourite.
Despite many holes being played through mature trees the routing of the course does have a little bit of a feeling of going ‘up and down’ at times and many holes do run parallel to one another but this is a minor point as is my pet hate of the course finishing on a relatively weak hole from a playing perspective (long iron, flick). There’s actually nothing wrong with the 18th hole, except that it is the 18th hole.
On my first visit I found the greens to be true enough but only medium paced, possibly in protection of the European Seniors Tour event to be staged shortly afterwards. However, when returning in July 2017 they were immaculate and much quicker.
Meanwhile the Duchess’ course starts off in scintillating fashion with a couple of absorbing holes and has a much better and compelling routing than the Duke’s. The course is also slightly more undulating as well as being shorter in length.
Many also say it’s much tighter but, whilst it possibly is a little bit, I didn’t think this was too noticeable. That said it’s still a course where you must keep your ball in play! The greens are certainly smaller too and, with the exception of a couple, much flatter.
The par four opener has a particularly narrow fairway that starts to gradually tumble down approximately 150 yards short of the green before rising back up steeply to the ‘dance floor’ at the same level as most of the fairway. The par three second has the most wonderful green setting, deeply seated amongst tall pines, with a narrow and twisting putting surface protected by three bunkers.
The remainder of the course, also a par 72, doesn’t quite live up to this early billing but there are many more fine holes to come, especially amongst the closing stretch. Indeed I was very impressed with the final third of the course which has a lovely mix of holes and requires both length and finesse. The 11th and 12th also work nicely together and whilst not stand-out holes play very well.
The Duchess’ may live in the shadow of its more famous siblings, and is often regarded as the little sister of the group, but please don’t think this isn’t good quality golf for one minute.
As somebody who loves their links golf, and usually tends to shy away from heavily watered courses with pristine carpets for fairways, Woburn is the polar opposite of my preferred type of golf and isn’t somewhere I should logically enjoy. But I did and that speaks volumes for the place. To be critical, because of the softer nature of the course, you don’t quite have to use your imagination on shots around the green as much as you do at seaside and top heathland courses but this actually made a refreshing change for me.
As far as inland golf goes Woburn is very close to the pinnacle; a fine English venue and certainly a worthy match for the three courses at the more famous Wentworth. It's a shame there isn't more variance in the three courses at this impressive 54-hole facility but that is more to do with the similar terrain and setting than anything else.