“Vinnie Jones!”, exclaimed my Hankley Common host as my promising approach to the first hole veered off to the right.
“Sorry?”, I replied, bemused. “A nasty kick that you weren’t expecting,” he said with a smirk. He had a celebrity for every shot – the Salman Rushie was an “impossible read” on the greens and an Arthur Scargill was “a good strike which got nowhere.”
This anecdote summed up the word I would best associate with Hankley Common – fun. This is one of the most attractive courses in the south-east – with its bright yellow gorse alongside the clinging heather which was a couple of months from blooming when we played on a glorious May afternoon. A colleague had warned me that keeping straight and selecting the right club would be essential for success and I was determined to gain revenge on a former England cricketer and pal who had defeated me and another compadre at Royal Wimbledon the previous week.
The omens weren’t good when I slipped into greenside sand on the first hole – a super par-four which has one of the course’s rare blind shots into a downhill target.
This was followed by a deep sigh on the picturesque par-three second which is over sand and heather. I took the pro’s advice by taking an extra club only to see the ball drop just over the back of the green and sidle up to a tree. The start of my rejuvenation was an improvised chip which finished eight feet from the flag. The third is a bending par-four with sand traps and heather lurking either side and a fiendishly placed bunker in front of the green. This, I would venture is a typical Hankley hole – it punishes those who are offline and yields to those who stay straight. Meanwhile, it offers splendid views over the stunning 850 acres owned by the club.
This is a site of special scientific interest and, among the wildlife, we were advised that smooth snakes and adders are seen regularly on the heathland. “You’ll be pleased with that,” said my amiable host after I had drawn a drive towards the path which crosses the sixth, the first of the course’s par-fives. In my opinion, they give the best opportunity to score with greens comfortably findable in two by longer sloggers than me.
The same cannot be said of the par-threes – especially the 183-yard uphill seventh, the stroke index four. I struck what I thought was a good straight ball with my driver only for it to become almost submerged in sand. “Close your club almost shut and then smash it,” advised my host.
This was the opposite to my plan of an open face but, as he said: “Every day’s a school day” and the ball popped out on the side of the trap, allowing me to score an improbable four. The long par-four, dogleg tenth is one of the many holes at Hankley which demand strategy rather than bravado. The obvious big hitter’s choice might be to cut the corner and drive over trees and heather.
Our host said this would be a mistake and, thus we benefited from playing to the widest part of the fairway and opening up the green. The 11th is another fiendish par-three - 200+ yards up over heather, inspiring even the musclemen in our group to reach for their big guns. I was about ten yards short with mine but my seven-iron runner, used most often on links, turned out to be a handy shot at Hankley Common and, consequently, landed my approach gimme-length from the hole. The 12th is a lovely hole with heather awaiting either side of a narrow fairway before a heavily undulating green.
The short dogleg par-four 15th is one of my favourites because it reflects the course’s sense of fun combined with sharp teeth. Low handicappers rarely try to drive the green because if they get it wrong they could easily lose their ball in heather or gorse. Instead, two clips and a putt provide the favoured route to birdie. It was the beginning of a glorious run-in to come with another very trick uphill par-three on the 16th and super dog-leg par-four on the 17th.
The 18th is arguably best of the lot with its green perched above a small chasm and reminds me a little of the ninth at Delamere Forest. The clubhouse which frames the hole is a beauty, mixing modern-day with traditional and was the perfect venue for tales of what was (from us) and what might have been (from our opponents).
It was a truly excellent day at Hankley Common and I was thrilled that our host should offer to ask us back again. After all, Hankley, with its hallmarks of Braid and Colt had been, in my view, a Lisa Kudrow… very attractive, great fun and requiring skill to avoid put-downs.