“Shall we make it a shilling, a hole?”
I couldn’t resist a Bond reference as we warmed up in front of the Stoke Park hotel, made famous by 007’s classic game with Goldfinger.
Sadly, to many, there is a new villain in town – Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani whose company Reliance Industries Ltd. has bought the estate for £57m and given its members a few months’ notice of a two-year closure.
Rumours abound that the three nines of Stoke Park will be dug up and made into an 18-hole championship course that won’t be in the eye-line of the house.
Can this really be true? If golf is to be maintained, surely the iconic holes should be preserved.
Anyway, when I learned of the sale, I feared that my quest to play the top 100 golf courses in England could be under dire threat because, even if public access is allowed in the future, the chances are that the classic Colt/Allison course may not exist.
Charging to the rescue was one of my colleagues in the Press Golfing Society who has been a member for 14 years and was kind enough to be our host.
From the outset, our experience at Stoke Park was outstanding.
The gorgeous tree-lined drive into the estate builds up anticipation before the famous hotel outline emerges.
We were then greeted by the most enthusiastic starter of any of the top100 quest so far (he has plenty of impressive competition).
He was wonderfully engaging about the course, extremely proud of its condition and I’m sure would not have mentioned that he is about to lose his cherished job if we had not asked about the future.
The warm-up facilities are excellent as is the practice green – both in the shadow of a monument to former owner and Gunpowder Powder Plot prosecutor Sir Edward Coke.
Meanwhile, the course itself was a delight.
The opening nine, named after designer Harry Colt, is memorable for its outstanding bunkering but also pristine fairways and greens which appear flat but are far trickier than they look (at least they were to me).
This does not feel in any way like a course which is on its way out – the visual effects of the crossed fairways and manicuring generally were top-notch.
There are many cracking holes but the 7th is worthy of mention because it inspired Alister MacKenzie’s creation of the 16th at Augusta. I’d been having a very decent round so there was nothing more inevitable than chunking my ball into the water.
Actually, all par-threes at Stoke Park are of the highest quality. The third is 195 yards uphill, requiring a shot between bunkers, the 11th is a beauty over water and the 15th is framed by a picturesque bridge and St Giles Church where Bond laid flowers to his deceased wife Tracy in a later film.
I was shaken and stirred to knock my tee shot to within six feet of the flag and sink the putt for a birdie.
The final three holes have become legend because of Bond’s match with Goldfinger.
The 16th is a superb bending par-four with a target at the side of water with a deep bunker the only saviour from a loose shot finding a wet grave. The green is where Bond threw a gold bar at the feet of his adversary.
On the way to the 17th green is information about the most famous golf match in the movies before the hole in which jiggery-pokery went on with ball swapping. Anyway, it requires big decisions over whether to take on water in front of the green.
The 18th is a long curving par-four which I was utterly delighted to hit in two.
This was certainly up there with the most enjoyable rounds of my top100 challenge so far and we engaged in after-match discussion on the lawn in front of one of the grandest backdrops in golf.
I can only add my plea to the many that the new owner doesn’t devastate this great venue as much as people fear and that he will allow members to return.
To paraphrase Goldfinger, we shouldn’t expect it to die.