We return to two of the finest courses in the Midlands.
Six times an Open Championship Regional Qualifying course, Blackwell Golf Club is the quintessential English gem and has a proud history dating back to 1893. The club’s original 9-hole course occupied part of Viscount Windsor’s Hewell Grange estate, a couple of miles south of where today’s 18-hole layout is located. In 1923, Herbert Fowler and Tom Simpson were hired to set out the club’s new course within a compact 102-acre tract of land just outside the village of Blackwell.
Today, the course extends to a moderate 6,260 yards, playing to a par of 70, with three par fives on the card, the 490-yard 4th which has a green that’s heavily protected by deep bunkers to the front, the 486-yard 8th, doglegging downhill to the left and the 512-yard 12th featuring a very long narrow bunker that runs along the right side of the fairway – we suspect this is a modern hazard that’s been added to deal with a drainage problem or a similar conditioning issue.
It’s known for a fact that Bobby Jones played the course immediately after he won the Open at Hoylake in 1930. What’s not so certain is the story that he allegedly based the design of the famous 12th hole at Augusta National on the 181-yard 13th at Blackwell. Now that might just be taking the realms of speculation a bit too far but, if it’s true, then it’s some accolade for a heavily-bunkered little beauty in Worcestershire.
Tom Doak made a point of playing Blackwell in 2016 and commented as follows in his Christmas 2017 Confidential Guide update: “My late friend Woody Millen, a member at Piping Rock and Palmetto, was also an overseas member of Blackwell, which I’d never heard of. He always played it off as being more about the club than the golf course, but I knew him well enough to know the golf must be pretty good, too. The course is tightly packed into a small parcel between suburban Birmingham and open farmland – it’s a par 70 and the longest of the three par-fives is 512 yards. As a consequence, they’ve planted a few too many trees to try and keep up the level of difficulty, as if the difficult set of short holes were not up to the task. The camaraderie of the club is no doubt enhanced by having the 10th tee and 18th green play up to within a few feet of the clubhouse, and the 1st tee right up against the building, so that all your friends are out to watch you finish [and possibly gamble on your approach to the last].”
Always to be found well placed in the English Top 100 rankings, the club has recently developed a 10 year masterplan to restore Simpson’s original design strategies with the help of Frank Pont’s Infinite Variety Golf Design firm. Much of the bunker renovation work has already been carried out which has significantly improved a course that was already very good indeed.
Edgbaston sits on a rolling, albeit compact, parcel of parkland just one mile from the centre of Birmingham. Established in 1896 Edgbaston had a couple of different homes before the current layout was designed by the legendary H.S. Colt in 1936. The quality of his green settings are clear to see during the round and this makes a round here one of the best in the West Midlands.
The course, a par 69, measures just over 6,100 yards and includes an ornamental lake as well as mature and extensive woodland with small greens that have just the correct amount of borrow to make the holes strategic and challenging but still extremely playable. You’re unlikely to lose many balls at Edgbaston and whilst there are lots of trees on this established property there is still a certain roominess to it despite the small acreage. The set of four short holes, three of which come early between the third and seventh, are all very impressive with deceptive targets, excellent bunkering and taxing greens. The fifth is a favourite with an egg-timer shaped green much wider than it is deep with a good amount of slope. The downhill seventh is also a gem with the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower acting as a unique backdrop.
Classic Colt design can be found at many holes but the green complexes around the grand clubhouse – Edgbaston Hall – are the most ingenious. The brilliantly located ninth has a ridge angled across it, the 15th is cunningly located at the top of a steep incline but the putting surface itself is slightly gathering whilst the adjacent 18th – after an awkward drive – is played more down the shoot and features a significant slope from right-to-left.
The driveable par-four 11th may go under the radar of most visiting golfers but is protected perfectly with a tiny green, traps either side and steep fall-aways at the front. Indeed many of the greens, especially at the shorter
and medium-length two-shotters, feature sharp run-offs and pleasingly most of these are cut to apron length to heighten the degree of accuracy required and increase the punishment for those just slightly wayward.
There are many enjoyable par fours on the course and a handful require solid hitting. The second, sixth, eighth and 10th will all likely require a mid-to-long iron at least to reach in two but these holes are not the strength of Edgbaston, despite being very good. In my opinion, the holes where you are approaching with a shorter club is where the most fun and best golf is to be had. Meanwhile, the lone par-five arrives at the penultimate hole and is less than 500-yards but also has an excellent green complex to assist in defending its par.
Length may not be a major requirement to score well here but careful course management, accurate play and a deft touch with the putter will be rewarded in spades. Edgbaston has undergone an extensive bunker renovation programme by renowned course architects Mackenzie & Ebert in recent years which has elevated the course’s standing considerably in the world of golf course architecture.