- Neil White
As soon as a review is written about a visit to Sunningdale, the question is posed: “Do you prefer the Old or the New?”
Our host – who is a member of this wonderful club – reckons the New is tougher but is often favoured by his friends.
It was a bit of a shame we didn’t play it in isolation because it was the equivalent of going to a Rolling Stones gig when they were at their peak an hour after watching The Beatles when they were at theirs.
I would always plump for the Fab Four in that battle of the bands but still love Mick, Keith, Charlie and co.
We were intrigued to know if the same greens team worked on both courses because there were rougher edges to the New with fairways not as meticulously manicured and greens not quite as true.
Perhaps they are deliberately going for a more natural look. Regardless, it is deservedly rated among the top 50 tracks on earth.
It also has quite a different layout. There’s a greater emphasis on long par-fours, the green complexes are more fiendish and the bunkers felt more cunningly placed.
The New course has been much altered from Harry Colt’s early design but it can easily be seen why it has been selected for championships won by the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Player is still a keen visitor – indeed, our host showed me photos of him giving him some free advice when he was occupying the adjacent berth on the driving range not too long ago.
From the get-go, the New sets the tone with a long par-four with menacing trees as well as heather and sand on either side.
The par-threes are memorable and tricky – beginning with the mid-range second which demands precision club selection to ensure best position on a double-layer green.
The short fifth has the greatest wow factor, revealed after a steep walk to an elevated tee, its plateaued green seems to stretch to infinity as it peers down over a huge sandscape and deep heather.
Thereafter, the identity of the New course becomes clearer and every ounce of concentration is required to score well.
For example, on paper the par-five sixth should be a cinch at just 485 yards from the whites but, even if tee shots clear the purple meadow, there are big decisions over what happens next with a ditch on the right and heather encroaching from the left.
And if that is overcome, there remains a fiendish layered green complex with bunkers greedily awaiting the inaccurate.
It would be wrong to give the impression that opportunities don’t exist on the New. Short holes such as the dogleg downhill seventh provide hope if the omnipresent purple growth is avoided.
Actually, by the time we had reached the ninth, heather was far too pretty a name for the vegetation which lays between the tee and the fairway. This was calluna – mean and tangly and ready to devour golf balls.
On this hole, a long tee shot was required over it followed by a long approach to the elevated green requiring power and precision which was, frankly beyond me.
The dogleg 11th prompted near-despair because I thought I had struck a fine tee shot safely onto the fairway only to discover the ball had fallen just short into the you-know-what.
I have played enough heathland golf to realise that the only way out of this stuff was with a wedge.
The curving 15th is arguably the New’s most picturesque hole with wild heathland recovering from the 2020 fire to the right and, as if to emphasise the picturesque view, a deer walked across our path.
I found it rather less beguiling than it might have been when my tee shot flew over a horizontal bush onto the fairway only to bend around into the course’s only substantial water hazard.
Every hole is worth of description on The New but I have to confess that, on one of the warmest days of the year, I was struggling for energy over the final few as we entered our eighth hour on Sunningdale’s 36.
Nevertheless, I must make mention of the 18th which is an absolute peach and has the wonderful clubhouse in the background.
On paper, it is a doable par-five because it is less than 500 yards but, after a straight opening, the purple hell awaits on either side and then the fairway curves towards a sloping green which is protected by bunkers for those who try for the short cut.
Fair play to my compadre who had been desperate to score a birdie at Sunningdale and had been close without success on several previous holes. He launched a second shot which landed within 25 feet of the flag and just missed an eagle.
He tapped in for a much-cherished four and rounded off the most spectacular day of golf we have ever had.
Sure, the New didn’t light my candle as much as the Old but it is, nevertheless, of the highest quality and I can see why some – probably lower handicap players - might prefer it.