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  • Neil White

Woburn (Marquess)

It was the top 100 quest’s most poignant moment – a son teeing off, yards from where the ashes of his parents are buried on his dad’s favourite hole.

Television commentator Alex Hay played a huge part in Woburn’s history and it was a rare privilege for my compadre and I to be hosted by his lad, David, and his pal.

Alex was its PGA professional when it first hosted The British Masters in 1979 and, after he became managing director four years later, he began to process of change from a traditional club to a much more ambitious business.

He was also credited with being part of the design team of the Marquess course – the third to emerge from this superb tract of land.

Today, Woburn is an impressive corporate venue with a five-year waiting list for memberships and is a place to be seen as well as play.

Its huge modern clubhouse, where Alex’s wake was attended by 800 people, includes a room dedicated to him and photos with the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Nelson Mandela.

There is even a framed reminder of the hacker’s song which he loved so much.

Peter Alliss, Clive Clark and Ross McMurray worked with Alex on the Marquess which was in fine fettle when we tackled it on an early June day.

This was before it was in full bloom but it was certainly attracting an unusual array of wildlife.

Muntjac deer, originally imported into Woburn Abbey from China at the end of the 19th century, a BLACK squirrel, ducks and a kite were course companions.

I confess, there were moments when any of them might have yielded better results with my golf clubs than I did. Nevertheless, we had a spectacular day.

Being at Woburn is an event, so we had a gentle lunch and sampled its impressive practice area before embarking upon our round.

Immediately, it was clear that the Marquess has wider fairways than the Dukes which I found so tough a couple of years ago.

Thus, buoyed by a decent round a couple of days previously, I began with a swagger. It wasn’t to last.

The opening hole is intended to be a generous start – a straight par-four, comfortably reachable in two - followed by an equally scoreable par-five with the trade-mark tall, thin pines lining the route.

David told us about the design process for Woburn and how his father and the owner, The Duke of Bedford, have been great defenders of trees.

This was particularly so of the one on the fourth hole which is intended to have a similar presence as the famous Eisenhower pine on Augusta’s 17th which was sadly removed after storm damage in 2014.

The first wow-factor hole is the dogleg fifth with handily placed beech trees lurking to thwart those who try to cut the corner while the fairway dips down to a green protected by one of Woburn’s many devilishly placed bunkers.

The greens have plenty of slopes and borrows and judging pace is a real test. This is especially evident on the par-three sixth where balls are attracted to a hollow on the left-hand side.

This is followed by the most dramatic hole on the course – the signature par-five seventh which divides into two fairways around a central copse.

The ninth is nearly as exciting with its sharp descent and then rise into an angled green. Shot selection is trickier here than on any hole on the course.

When I played on Woburn’s Dukes track, my disappointing round was revived by the sausage roll with its special marmalade ingredient at the halfway hut.

This time around, it failed to pep me up but clearly had an impact on my compadre who went on to play the best nine holes of his life.

Once again, the opening two holes engender hope – a straightforward par-four and a par-five with the trickiest slither of green between bunkers of either side.

But my wheels really came off on the truly memorable short par-four 12th.

This demands a carry of 190 yards to an island fairway between two ponds connected by a brook. I went for a meek lay-up with a nine-iron before a 150-yard shot to the target.

I committed the sin of going for the flag, coming up a yard short before seeing the ball disappear into the reeds.

The three-legged muntjac who lives on the 12th looked on in bemusement.

He would have been equally bewildered had he seen my efforts on the 210-yard par-three 14th, a heck of a hole which I barely reached with driver and then watched with dismay as my long putt caught a bank and sped off the green.

The 15th is the aforementioned hole which Alex Hay loved so much because its outlook is so different from any others at Woburn.

Here the otherwise omnipresent lofty pines are replaced by a line of fir trees and bunkers also pepper the view. It is a heck of par-five.

Commentator Ewan Murray described the final five holes on the Marquess as the toughest of the European Tour when Woburn was part of the circuit.

I empathise.

The long 16th, protected by a huge bunker, is followed by a tantalising par-three with a dramatically sloping green and the long par-four 18th where a greenkeeper famously found a Second World War mortar bomb.

They were the climax of a truly glorious day in which the company was every bit as good as a course which was in super condition.

Thus, we adjourned to the bar in a clubhouse which is more relaxed than many top 100 courses.

I could have stayed and listened to David’s anecdotes all night.

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