- Neil White
If there is any inland course which plays as well in the second week of January as West Sussex, I need to whizz around there, pronto.
It looked gorgeous in the dappled winter sun and the fairways were as firm and fluffy as if it were June.
Sadly, our golf didn't match the glorious surroundings, largely because we ignored the wisdom of the cheery chappy in the pro's shop.
"Have you played here before?" he inquired. When I replied that we hadn't, he said: "I have just one piece of advice - stay out of the heather."
Alas, Mrs W found the depths of the calluna on the first - a challenging but doable par five - or so we had read.
She took out the mandatory wedge and carved the ball... six inches. Yep, the assistant pro was correct - the heather can be a card-wrecker, even before the first score is recorded.
It had caused eyebrows to be raised when I had asked if it was ok to use the white tees.
It was soon apparent why the members were mainly playing off yellows - because this course is plenty hard enough without them punishing themselves.
We embarked upon our round at West Sussex after the friendly banter in the club shop and a splendid breakfast in a clubhouse which combines tasteful-modern with reminders of the club's illustrious past.
The course recently dropped out of the world top 100 listing but it remains part of mine because it was there when I began my quest (frankly, I would end up chasing my tail if I tried to update my ambitions every time an update is published).
Anyway, I can certainly see why it is held in such high regard.
After a few healthy blows on the practice ground next to the clubhouse, I felt my game was tuned in. However, several short putts during my warm-up gave a clue as to how my round may stutter.
The opening hole includes many of the features which are consistent with West Sussex. A carry over heather off the tee, wide white-sand bunkers and a sloping green.
For me, the third was the first wow factor on the card - a relatively short par-four with a drive over heather, three in-play bunkers blotting out the right-hand fairway and more tangly stuff awaiting those who drift to the left.
I found approaches really tough at West Sussex and the challenge of this one is to avoid the bunker on the left of the green but not slip down the slope to the right.
Pulborough, as West Sussex is often known, is a mere par-68 but do not be fooled. Only the best players will score well.
A feature is its brilliant but fiendish par-threes, beginning on the awesome fifth.
Its green is delightfully framed by trees but its real danger is the purple stuff and sand in front of it. However, Mrs W and I can testify that even shots which evade all traps may not yield pars. We both three-putted from the rear of the target.
Unusually, it is followed by another short hole - the magnificent sixth.
This is 226 yards over water but with a bail-out option around the right.
I went for it, thought I was crack on line, only to see my ball hit the bank in front of the green and roll back five yards. Mrs W. went for the detour option but was too wide and the inevitable heather awaited.
The seventh provided the next slice of intimidation - a blind drive into the low sun over a huge bunker.
Actually, the obstacle shouldn't be in play because it is well short of our expected landing distance but it certainly sows the seed of doubt.
There are several doglegs at West Sussex and I would venture the 10th is the most dramatic with heather and sand lurking for the errant on the left and trees on the right. Straight drives should be rewarded.
It is followed by a right-hand curve on the 11th with a carry over a brook and the inevitable calluna. Sensible folk will take the easier option of going down the left-hand side.
The 13th and 14th were two of my Pulborough favourites even though they tested us to the limit.
The 13th ascends to a green which is so well protected by bunkers that an approach seems next to impossible. Indeed, I was so fazed that I pulled into the heather on the left-hand side before a rather pleasing chip on to a huge uphill putting surface.
What goes up must come down and the 14th descends to a target which has sand and water to the left and a ledge of heather to the right. It looks great but is ruddy difficult.
They are followed by a gorgeous par-three over water. This demands more accurate club selection than we managed.
The reason that West Sussex has such acclaim is that it simply doesn't have weak holes. Each one has been carefully designed and poses threat - expect no gimmes.
It is a traditional course in that two-balls or foursomes are de rigeur. This results in an expectation of quick golf which may not suit everyone.
Nevertheless, we could not have picked a better course and club to have begun our 2023 adventure. We were gobsmacked by its standard in January if not by our own golf.
I would certainly like to return in summer although I'm not sure if the experience could be better.