The course at Stoke Park is probably the finest example of parkland golf in the British Isles. The Buckinghamshire estate dates back to the Norman Conquest, but much of the surroundings today can be attributed to the giants of eighteenth-century landscape architecture, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. It is on this gently rolling, elegant canvas that an architectural titan of a different nature was called upon to design a golf course.
An article on Stoke Park in The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper, dated 12th June 1909, reads:
"As to the course itself, fortune seems to have been very kind … The ground is undulating, while some natural hazards are as sporting as one could wish to see. With such advantages as these to start with it is not to be wondered that Harry Colt has been able to construct a fine and testing golf course."
Development of the course
After the property developer Nick ‘Pa’ Lane Jackson bought Stoke Park in 1908, he wasted no time in commissioning Harry Colt to create a superb golfing layout. Within seven months Pa’s course was completed, tennis courts were set out and the magnificent mansion at the heart of it all was converted into a luxurious clubhouse and hotel. The course was officially opened in great style in 1909 when James Braid, J.H. Taylor, Arnaud Massy and the Club’s newly appointed professional James Sherlock played in an exhibition match.
Unlike other courses in this part of England, heather does not play a part in Stoke Park’s natural defences. Rather, mature trees of fir and oak, together with clever bunkering and exceptionally swift greens, are the particular features of the course.
The front nine has a fine sequence of holes, and one of Harry Colt’s trademark par 3s comes early in the round at the 3rd, a long, uphill hole of 175 yards that plays to a strongly bunkered green, set in the side of a hill. Most golfers do well to hold the ball on the putting surface with a long iron. The 4th fights you from start to finish, doglegging right from the tee to a green 425 yards away. Out-of-bounds and clumps of fir trees hold the right side of the hole, and once on the fairway there is a bunker to carry some twenty yards short of a sloping green. This is a hole that fully lives up to its number 1 stroke index. The 7th is undoubtedly the feature hole of the course. An outstanding par 3 played 150 yards from a slightly elevated tee, the hole was the inspiration for none other than the par 3, 16th at Augusta National. Dr Alister MacKenzie, Colt’s sometime colleague, was familiar with the hole and mentally carried it with him to America when laying out the famous Georgia course with Bobby Jones. Like Augusta, the Stoke Park green is angled diagonally on the line of flight and is set into a slope with bunkers waiting immediately at the back. At the front, the green falls away sharply down to a recently remodelled brook and lake.
Another hole from which the course gains its reputation is the 17th. Again, we have a dogleg par 4 to the right played from a slightly elevated tee to a green over 420 yards away. Ready to catch the slice on the right of the fairway lies a cunning bunker and a tree-filled hollow. The second shot plays slightly downhill to a green that has a stream running across the front, 30 yards short. The flag is often cruelly positioned behind the large greenside bunker on the right, with any direct approach calling for a brave carry.
As the round comes to a close, many first-time visitors may sense they have seen parts of the course before. The Club has been used as a location for a number of films, but none more famous than the most legendary golf match in cinema history, when Sean Connery’s agent 007 took on the villainous Auric Goldfinger and his hat-throwing manservant and caddy, Oddjob, in Goldfinger (1964).
Bernard Darwin best summed up the experience of Stoke Park when he once wrote:
"Stoke Park is a beautiful estate, and there is very good golf to be played there … We may get very hot at lawn tennis or keep comparatively cool at bowls or croquet, or, coolest of all, we may sit on the terrace or in the garden and give ourselves wholly and solely to loafing. The mansion is a gorgeous palace, a dazzling vision of white stone, of steps and terraces and cupolas, with a lake in front and imposing trees in every direction."
The eighteenth-century mansion still dazzles today, being home to the clubhouse, a luxury hotel, tennis and a spa complex. It has a history just as interesting as the surrounding golf course and was designed by James Wyatt, architect to George III. The grand Palladian exterior is reflected by the wealth of decoration within: carved fireplaces, marble columns, fine antiques and paintings. There is no lack of sumptuous hospitality found here.
As for the ‘very good golf’, three loops of nine can now be played in the estate grounds. The original course is made up of the Colt and Alison nines (a nod to Colt’s long-standing partner), with the newer Lane Jackson nine (after the club’s founder) lying around the long boating lake to complete the challenging trio. There is no better example to be found anywhere of Colt’s classic sand-faced bunkering style than at Stoke Park. Around every green and near every tee-shot landing area the ground is riddled with well-placed sand to catch anyone who relaxes too much in this beautiful setting.