“Are you with the society?” said the jolly chap who met me before I had taken even a step into the clubhouse at Stoneham.
I confirmed that I was and he provided me with a goodie bag, pointed me in the direction of my colleagues and the breakfasts which we would down before our game, presented with similar smiles from the catering staff.
“Please come down to the academy before your round – I will be there in case there is anything you need,” he added.
Stoneham’s was the most friendly welcome of the 80+ courses I have visited on my top 100 treks thus far.
Should it matter when reviewing courses? After all, it is nothing to do with the architecture, routing, conditions etc.
I believe so because it puts the customer/player in the mood to enjoy all of the above.
Stoneham’s team were on point from beginning to end.
The practice facilities are among the most impressive in the UK, the young woman in the pro’s shop was helpful and wished me a fine round, the veteran starter was light-hearted and pointed us in the right direction and there was even a course marshal to keep play at the correct pace.
I say ‘even’ because Stoneham is not known as a major golf destination but its management clearly likes things to be right.
This attention to detail is translated onto a picturesque heathland course where the greens run true and the fairways are in great nick.
It is also a heck of a walk on a warm day with dramatic undulations which literally left us gasping for the water fountain.
The first hole sets a tone of warning for folk who want to try to smash the ball around the course. It is a relatively short par-five but heather and trees await on either side of the target and deep bunkers lurk.
One of our group tried to be greedy out of fairway sand and, consequently, failed to emerge.
Indeed, there was frustration from our four’s bigger hitters whereas I scored better by plotting and just making sure the ball stayed in play.
I preferred the first nine at Stoneham because of their admirable variety.
After a gentle start, the course begins to bite on hole three, an uphill par-four with a steep slope from left to right. It’s a toughie and where I realised that this was going to be a day for stern course management. Thus, I was happy to take three to reach the target.
The fourth – a long par four- is a belting hole, going downhill towards an attractive stream before rising to the green. A high mirror near the tee helps spot those in front.
Being a fan of the quirky, I was happily sated at Stoneham with the likes of the fifth.
This short dogleg lured our big guns who successfully cut off the corner but sand traps, bushes on the right and subtle borrows on the putting surface assured that the job was far from complete.
The par-fives are short but really tricky and include the sixth which goes up, down and up again with heather, bushes, bunkers and trees ready to thwart the errant.
Conquering par-threes is essential to success at Stoneham and following the fiendishly long one at the seventh comes the picturesque and shorter eighth.
The most drama, though, came on the ninth with its undulating fairway and plateau green with steep drop-offs.
I was playing my approach oblivious to my trolley setting off and gathering pace across the fairway, eluding one of my compadres and crashing into trees.
To add to my woe, I then discovered my ball in a swirl of heather to the left of the green.
The 11th is another memorable hole with its green above a dip which goes down to a brook. Strategy and precision are necessary for any hope of a score here.
The ups and downs continue apace – and the 12th offers the added obstacle of a wide heather-lined bunker directly across the fairway.
However, if I were to offer a criticism of Stoneham it is that the holes between the 13th and 17th are not quite as memorable as those which had gone before – although I did nip in with a nearest-the-pin and birdie two on the 16th.
The penultimate hole was one of my favourites – a downward dogleg right over a stream to a green with sand on the left and water on the right.
And then there is the home hole – a long par-five up yet another weary incline.
Stoneham was a fine course which tests stamina as well as skill and the welcome of its team and prompt delivery of food and drink meant our return to the clubhouse finished off the day perfectly.
Many clubs should take note. Visiting a club is an all-around experience. I would imagine that players return again and again to Stoneham because it ticks so many boxes.