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Player's Journal

The lost Harry Colt course in my mother-in-law's garden


All golfers are prone to daydreaming about the game. But Jon Davie found that the truth was much more revealing than he could have imagined.
The lost Harry Colt course in my mother-in-law's garden

It’s a journey that we’ve made dozens of times. We turn off the main road, pass the gatehouse and head up the drive towards the manor house – a Victorian pile long since converted into apartments. The kids in the back seat know that we’ve arrived at their Gran’s, and a weekend of home baking and grandparental indulgence awaits.

But my eye is inevitably drawn to the undulating farmland that lies to the left of the driveway. The landscape slopes gently upwards from the main road to the house. A copse, a small pond and a dozen or so mature trees break up the open grassland, while gentle humps and hollows reveal themselves as we slow down for the speed bumps.

It’s at this point that my imagination starts to add features to the landscape. A tightly cropped fairway pinches in between the copse and the driveway, narrowing the landing area at around 230 yards. That means the hole must start at the top of the hill, where the formal gardens of the house provide a perfect setting for the first tee.

A natural green site presents itself a further 100 or so yards down the hill, creating a gentle dogleg to the right. Greenside bunkers left and right would frame a putting surface that slopes away from the player, adding a subtle challenge to a short par four that would measure only 350 yards from my imaginary back tee.

Once I’ve putted out on my fictional first green, I start plotting the rest of the course too. As we reach the top of the drive, I can visualise the final hole – another par four, this time playing up the slope, to a green in full view of the members enjoying a post-round drink on the terrace of the house.

I must confess that this is not the only place where I indulge my inner fantasy architect.  Back home in London, I walk the dog on Hampstead Heath – 800 acres of open heath and ancient woodland, a glorious open space in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities. It’s a much-loved resource enjoyed by countless ramblers and sweaty joggers, hardy wild swimmers and dedicated fellow dog walkers.  But in my imagination, I’m plotting a glorious golf course across one of London’s busiest parks – a routing to match the sublime Surrey heathland courses of Swinley Forest, Sunningdale, The Berkshire or Woking.

What club would I need to carry the Ladies Bathing Pond to a par three green between the changing rooms and the sunbathing lawn?  Would a big hitter be able to carry the trees on the southern flank of Parliament Hill, gaining a better angle to the green that sits next to the bandstand and the cafe?  And what would the golf architecture world make of my bold decision to nestle a green right up against Spaniards Road – an homage to the Road Hole at St Andrews, but probably a health and safety issue for dozens of Range Rovers making the school run between Hampstead and Highgate.

It turns out I’m not the only one that sees golf holes everywhere.  Golf course architecture is one of the many niche communities that thrive in a world of social media, and the #holesthatarentholes hashtag is full of windswept dunes and open heath just crying out for a flagstick and a lawn mower.

It was from that community of golf nerds and architecture geeks that an unlikely injection of reality pierced my fantasy world.  A tweet from a gentleman I’ve never met named Simon Haines (@hainsey76) appeared in my timeline.  As a resident of the same town as my mother-in-law, and a member at nearby Copt Heath Golf Club, he too had been plotting imaginary golf holes in the landscape at Chadwick Manor.

 

But not content with idle daydreaming, he actually did some research – and he discovered something extraordinary. Because it turns out that golfers really did hit little white balls across the fields around Chadwick Manor. And the course they played on was designed by Harry Colt, one of the greatest architects in the history of golf.

HS Colt was responsible for some 300 courses across the world, including some of the most storied clubs in the game. As a young solicitor in Hastings he was responsible for laying out the links at Rye in 1894, before giving up the law to take on the role of secretary at the Sunningdale club in 1901. Over the next 40 years he laid out courses across the UK, Europe, the Americas and Asia, arguably creating the discipline of golf course architecture in the process.

Chadwick Manor was opened for play with a match featuring Henry Cotton on 26 March 1938. The reigning Open champion didn’t disappoint, treating a crowd of two or three thousand to 10 birdies in his afternoon round of 67, according to the Birmingham Gazette. Cotton’s heroics helped his partner AR Weildon triumph against two local amateurs – a Mr Charles Stowe and Mr KR Frazier – the professionals eventually securing a 2/1 win in the 36 hole exhibition.

Cotton’s score of 67 is all the more impressive given that the course measured nearly 7,000 yards, with a standard scratch score of 75. The challenge facing the club’s 350 members is clear from the results of the club medal in May 1939, won by a Mr W Davidson with a gross score of 86. Players at the club were drawn from the dormitory towns around Birmingham’s southern fringe, and the course was served by the nearby railway station at Knowle (now named Dorridge).

 

Course plan provided by @jaypeegolf

Twitter was able to furnish me with a course plan for the layout, and there really was once a par four hole running parallel with the driveway. Colt’s routing shows three holes in a loop on the other side of the entrance driveway, an area now completely overgrown with dense woodland. The hole of my imagination was the 12th rather than the first, and it played the other way, from a tee opposite the gatehouse to a green at the top of the hill.

There is still the suggestion of a flat area where the 12th green once lay, but in truth, there’s little trace of the course on the ground now. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, given that the course only lasted for two years, before World War Two led to the house and grounds being requisitioned by the War Office as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. The manor house re-opened as a hotel after the war in 1949, but the course was never put back into play, and the land is now a mixture of arable farmland and pasture.

The outbuildings that served as a clubhouse for golfers are now a farm. A chain-link fence and a ferocious dog put a swift end to my attempts to look for evidence of the building’s former occupants. And 80 years of farming have removed any obvious evidence of the features laid out by one of golf’s great figures.

While Chadwick Manor enjoyed a brief existence, there is plenty of evidence of Colt’s work in the surrounding area. Copt Heath Golf Club is less than five miles away, and offers a fine example of Colt’s design principles – routing his courses across the natural terrain, and introducing subtle angles and bunkering to challenge the better player without unduly penalising the weaker golfer. Moving further towards the city of Birmingham, Edgbaston has invested in a programme of works to restore the principles of Colt’s 1936 design, while Robin Hood and Ladbrooke Park offer further examples within a 25-mile radius.

One summer evening I sneaked out onto the land with an 8-iron and a couple of balls while the rest of the family tucked into Gran’s famous Victoria sponge. I walked down to the fish pond where Colt’s seventh hole once lay – a hole described as “being extraordinarily good” in the Birmingham Gazette. “The tee shot has to be played over a small lake and a wood,” wrote the author of the Golf Gossip column... “when the tee is played correctly it will be found that the chip shot has to come round the wood left-handed”. Sadly a combination of modern agrarian practice and my agricultural golfing technique saw the last of my practice balls disappear into a ploughed furrow on the other side of the pond, and I never did get to practice that left-handed approach shot.

Nowadays, it takes a lot of imagination to see the Harry Colt course that once played out in the farmland surrounding my mother-in-law’s home. But then, for an armchair architect like me, a lack of imagination has never been a problem.