Golf in Shropshire: Jeremy Ellwood bases himself at Hawkstone Park to play six – both Hawkstone layouts, Shrewsbury, Shifnal, Wrekin and Church Stretton
Several years ago I made my one and only golfing foray into this county, which forms a delightful bridge between the urban heartland of the West Midlands and the more northerly counties of Wales. I remember vowing to come back to play more golf in Shropshire, but for whatever reason, it took me nearly a decade to honour that vow. I finally made it in late 2014…
Today’s two layouts provide wonderfully contrasting tests, with the Hawkstone playing up to and around the extraordinary cliffs of the Hawkstone Park Follies. The par-5 8th stands out on the front nine, doglegging sharply to the left, with everything cambering awkwardly away from you. It’s then still a long way in to a green beautifully framed by trees, a demanding target which I concluded only the brave, foolish or highly skilled would risk taking on in two. The 10th takes you down to the highest of the cliffs, while the 11th then plays between them, with folly visitors possibly charting your progress from up on high. The Championship course is more of an American-style layout with water aplenty, although I couldn’t help but think that the trees around the 3rd green gave it a Spanish flavour. Over the final stretch, the 17th stands out – a shortish par 3 across a pretty pond with a steep-fronted green.
The front nine plays over flatter terrain with trees forming the main adversaries, though mercifully, nearly all have short grass beneath them so you’ll rarely suffer the double blow of also losing your ball. Moving it right to left is a big advantage on the demanding 5th, while the par-5 7th has a massive tree in the middle of the fairway, which I obviously took dead-aim on to ensure safe passage one side or the other! The back nine the other side of the railway has a very different character as the course wends through the Shropshire countryside via much more undulating terrain.
The grand white Georgian clubhouse forms the impressive backdrop to the 2nd, 9th, 13th and 18th holes on a course I can only describe as delightful, blessed with enviable variety and the right balance of challenge and chance. The 4th is a lovely risk-reward par 4 with the green tucked away to the right and plenty of bunkers to discourage wanton aggression, and I particularly enjoyed the very long 6th where my driver off the deck strategy reaped birdie dividends. Scores can certainly be made or lost on the 9th and 10th, first a long par-4 doglegging up and round to the left with a steeply sloping green, then a 220-yarder down the hill with bunkers lying in wait. Much as I would always say links golf is my preference, courses like Shifnal really make me appreciate just what parkland golf has to offer when done well.
This is a pretty little course full of plunging descents, as on the par-3 7th, and pulse-racing climbs, as on the tempting short par-4 9th. The 13th is another downhiller sweeping round to the left with a sleepered bank just short, while the tight-looking 15th takes you further down. At this point you will realise you are now at the course’s lowest point, while the clubhouse, most assuredly, is not! Thankfully, the climb back up is via three very good holes, and if you par all three, you can reward yourself with a pint on the balcony as you watch others making the final ascent.
No golfing visit to Shropshire is complete without testing yourself against this short but stunning hillside layout. It opens with three extraordinary par 3s, the 1st possibly the hardest starting hole in the county as you contemplate a green perched atop a steep bank seemingly miles away. Once on top, the views are simply breathtaking, and short though the course is, stamina comes into the equation here too, as this is definitely golf with more than a hint of fell-walking thrown in.