Fergus Bisset played at Notts and Sherwood Forest Golf Clubs and was delighted to discover two of the country’s finest heathland layouts.
A few years ago though a couple of my pals got jobs in Nottingham and I thus had cause to take a trip there. They were living on one of the leafy avenues in West Bridgford, close to the River Trent – a gorgeous spot. We went for a tour of Trent Bridge, for a stroll on the river bank along Victoria Embankment, took a fascinating trip to Nottingham Castle where I was amazed by the collection in the museum and art gallery – also worth doing is the cave tour to explore the network of tunnels carved into the sandstone beneath the castle. We went to a number of great pubs (well, I hadn’t seen them for a while after all. My favourite was the Canal House with the canal actually going into the building, plus a great outdoor seating area.) In general I was just seriously impressed by the place – a busy, friendly and exciting small city. This June I returned to the East Midlands to enjoy more of what the area has to offer. This time, though, I went with my golf clubs in the boot.
Notts Golf Club is to be found just to the north of Nottingham, only a few miles from junction 27 of the M1. But it couldn’t feel further removed from the rush and hubbub of the city and motorway. As you turn into the course, a single track road takes you, innocuously at first, between fields and down through trees, leading on out into a hidden swathe of beautiful heathland. Driving up to the attractive clubhouse, past the extensive practice area with a dew glistening on the wisps of long grass bordering verdant, sweeping fairways, I had a feeling I was about to be let in on a rather fabulous secret.
Notts Golf Club was founded in 1887 at the instigation of the Reverend Arthur Hamilton Baynes. At first there were just five members but by the end of the following year there were over 40 and they were playing competitions over a piece of land at Bulwell Forest Station. The course there became 18-holes and the club hosted exhibition matches featuring the likes of Vardon, Taylor and Braid. But the land over which the course was laid out became increasingly popular with the non-golfing public who began to play football and cricket and to take picnics on the greens. In the late 19th century it was clear a move was required and so the club relocated to the present site at Hollinwell.
The course was designed by Willie Park Junior and it opened for play in 1901. Alterations were made by Tom Williamson in 1912 and since then, save for necessary additions to the length of the layout, the track has remained largely unchanged.
Over the years, Notts GC has frequently welcomed prestigious championships, including the News of the World Matchplay, the Dunlop Masters and the John Player Classic. Notts hosted the 2012 Boys Amateur Championship won by Matt Fitzpatrick and, in 2015, the Brabazon Trophy won by Cormac Sharvin. Hollinwell is a course with a great pedigree, presenting a challenge sufficient to test the very best. As, I’m rather far removed from the “very best” I approached the 1st tee with more than a degree of trepidation.
The 1st hole though is relatively gentle: a short, straightaway par-4 with bunkers guarding either side of the fairway. This is one to ease you in, although stray left or right off the fairway and you’ll get your first taste of Hollinwell’s testing rough. When I played, the longer grass wasn’t so brutal that you wouldn’t find your ball but it was generally penalising enough to demand a shot back towards the fairway rather than a slash towards the green – tough but fair.
Rules video – identifying your ball in the rough:
The approach to the 1st is slightly downhill and when the greens are firmer through the summer months, you’ll likely need to land just short to allow the ball to bounce and run up across the springy heathland turf.
Having navigated this friendly opener, the test ramps up immediately on the 2nd. It’s a long par-4 playing uphill all the way, turning from right to left with heather down the left side. The temptation is to cut a portion off the corner but this brings the tangly stuff into play. The safe tee shot is to the right but this leaves a long and difficult second to a raised green. This is the first of many excellent long par-4s on this course. It’s a layout that demands good ball striking – not only because finding the fairways is imperative but also because a number of the targets require an accurate and flighted approach.
Although, there are a series of testing holes – the uphill 4th in particular, the front nine is the easier of the two at Notts and the challenge builds as you make your way into a superb run of holes after the turn.
The 11th snakes up a natural valley to a small green. It’s only 360 yards but it requires two precise shots. The 12th is a cracking long par-4 that demands a strategic approach. At 474 off the backs, you feel like you must hit driver, but this could be too much as the fairway dips into a bowl where your ball could find rough. The best play is to lay back onto a plateau leaving yourself a clear, albeit, long second to the green.
Although Notts is a long course – over 7,200 yards from the very back pegs, it’s a requirement for placement rather than power that is to the fore here. Finding the short stuff is imperative both from the tee and then on approach. This is a difficult track but it must be stressed, not unfairly so. It’s simply a fantastic design where each hole asks a clear question of the player and, if they deliver the answer, they’ll be suitably rewarded. The par-5 17th provides a great example. The fairway is further right than it first appears and the temptation is, once again, to cut the corner by aiming close to the bunkers on the apex of the right to left turn. But if you do so, you’re liable to find either those bunkers or the rough to their left. If you can bring yourself to hit for the meat of the fairway, you’ll have a chance to reach in two.
Back in the clubhouse after the round, enjoying a rather splendid pint of Captain’s Pale Ale, we reflected on the game and could find no fault. This is a wonderful, varied heathland layout comparable to the best the home counties have to offer. It delivers peaceful seclusion, immaculate surfaces, historic and effective design making use of the natural terrain, a firm but fair challenge and, overall, a thoroughly memorable experience. I was hoping for more of the same the following day at Sherwood Forest GC and I wasn’t to be disappointed.