Among the counties to have cropped up during recent office discussions about this feature came Northamptonshire. Its a county you read little about in the golfing context and where Id only played twice previously at Northamptonshire County and Whittlebury Park. So when an email from a PR arrived a day or two later extolling the virtues of Northants golf, we took it to be a sign from above.
A quick trawl through The R&A handbook revealed perhaps why the county is so rarely featured a total course count of just 25 or so, with seven of those arriving in the 1990s and four in the 1970s. Prior to that, it appears the county had no more than 10 courses far fewer than many other counties of a similar size. These figures were broadly verified to me by Martin Izzard, one of the founts of golfing knowledge in the region, whose forthcoming book Golf in Northamptonshire is due to be published in November.
Beyond the two courses Id played, my only other golf-related experiences here had been fruitless applications for club secretary jobs at Staverton Park and Northampton golf clubs more years ago than I care to remember. As I trudged disconsolately away from the latter after a woeful interview performance, I glanced across at the demanding closing stretch of a course where I was no longer destined to be secretary. Both the 16th and 18th appeared to be capable of testing ones water evasion skills to the full in any attempt to get back to the 19th with the scorecard safely intact.
As I drove away deflated, with time on my hands, I felt like a game somewhere to clear my head. A quick phone call secured a tee-time at highly regarded Northamptonshire County. Its an excellent layout whose defence systems are bolstered in no small measure by abundant gorse. Its centenary may lie just around the corner in 2009, but the club has been going through a progressive stage of late. Improvements include three extra holes to facilitate a playing route back to the clubhouse for those only wishing to play nine; added yardage on six holes bringing total length up to 6,750 yards; and most impressively, a new six-hole short course featuring artificial tees and greens, which should have opened for play by the time you read this. With a full days golf setting you back just £55, its definitely one to pencil in.
The only other place Id played in the county was Whittlebury Park, right on Silverstones doorstep. I played the Royal Whittlewood and Grand Prix nines, with a number of par 3s over water and the roar of a practice session on the nearby circuit sticking in my mind. I didnt get to play the 1905 loop, which has an intriguing history. A private course here, dating back to that year, was converted to farmland during World War Two, but when plans of the layout came to light in the library at St Andrews, the creators of modern-day Whittlebury decided to reinstate the holes as closely as possible.
But two courses do not a feature make, hence my recent visits to Wellingborough GC and to the 1990s handiwork of Donald Steel at Overstone Park and Johnny Miller at Collingtree Park. Wellingborough moved to its new home at Harrowden Hall in 1975, adopting the stately home of Lord Vaux as its clubhouse and laying out an 18-hole course which can stretch to 6,711 yards on adjacent land more than enough for most, even in these 7,000 yard times. Before tackling it, I looked up in amazement at the sheer size of the paintings still adorning the staircase walls in the grand clubhouse, and down on the most perfectly rectangular putting green Ive ever seen on the front lawns.
The holes are often reasonably generous, and though there are trees that can stymie your progress, the scope to lose a ball within the courses boundaries is fairly limited. In places, newly planted saplings will tighten things up for future generations, most notably on the 5th. But overall, the freedom to swing is welcome, as length alone is enough of a test, especially on a back nine measuring 3,501 yards, even with two short par-4s. One of these is the 18th, a risk-reward hole demanding a fair degree of accuracy even when playing safe. Position is everything.
I couldnt decide whether the grey-and-white lakeside lodges at Overstone Park were Scandinavian or New England in style (probably neither), but then architecture has never been my strong point. I tackled the back nine first with my 7-year-old son, Oliver, who suffered a traumatic experience on the 11th when his treasured blue ball shot down a rabbit warren. I thought we were in for tears, but he regrouped quickly and a few holes later I caught him saying, Ill give myself that one. Now where did he get that from? There are some good holes here, among them the 600+ yard 11th sweeping down towards those lodges, and the par-3 17th across a lake the signature hole. But for me, it was eclipsed by the 4th, which I went on to enjoy once Oliver had retired to the clubhouse to thaw out with a hot chocolate.
It may have been 50 yards shorter than the 17th, but with a green boasting the characteristics of an upturned saucer, and only one real bail-out option (short right), it seemed much the harder hole from the tee. On the 9th, a rare eagle after an unexpectedly good approach meant supper tasted wonderfully good back at our Barceló Hotel base in Daventry and it also crossed my mind that should I never return to Overstone, there will forever be at least one hole in world golf I have well and truly conquered.
Collingtree Park is the only Northants venue to have hosted a Tour event, and some readers may remember issues with the greens at the 1996 British Masters. Theyre still a talking point, but its now for very different reasons they are excellent. Gentle opener, tough finish would be one way to sum up Collingtree, and with residential properties flanking the course in places, I sometimes got the feeling I was playing in a rather grand back garden nowhere more so than on the par-3 8th, whose long green will catch out anyone paying inadequate attention to pin position (the voice of experience).
Above all, Collingtree is renowned for its finishing hole a par-5 with water down the left and an island green to round things off. I can still picture Sam Torrances winning approach in 1995, but my efforts to emulate him came unstuck when, after a good drive, I couldnt work out whether I was 240 or 190 yards out in gloomy light fairly critical when eyeing up a distant island green. Flattering myself it was the latter, my ball landed safely on dry land… but sadly the wrong side of the hazard, before gently rolling in.
Northamptonshire may not be nationally renowned for its golf, but I drove home thinking that its enviably accessible location must make it a shortlist contender when planning a golf break, especially when you consider the extremely competitive all-day rates available at most of these courses.
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Barceló Hotel, Daventry