In 1974 the 14th Duke of Bedford, who was then the Marquess of Tavistock was faced with the possibility of Bow Brickhill Heath being taken over as a country park for Milton Keynes. Fortunately he had the vision and the courage to see that a world class golf facility could be created. The weather was set fair but I had been struggling with a severe case of man flu and was distinctly under the weather upon arrival. I hit a bucket of balls on the range and everything ached and I felt so weak and tired. Not what you want when facing two tough examinations of golf.
The Marquess' Course at Woburn Golf Club opened for play in 2000. The course is laid out over 200 acres of mature woodland featuring tall pines, oak, beech and birch trees. Winding through this fabulous landscape is a collection of tree lined holes which are unrivalled anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security here as a feature of the course is big, wide fairways. Stand on the first tee and there seems to be acres of space to drive the ball. The fairways are wider than The Duke or Duchess Courses, but finding the right place on the fairway is just one of many keys to playing the Marquess' well. We were to learn that lesson very quickly.
Where the layout differs most from the other two courses is in the construction and siting of the putting greens. Big undulations combined with subtle borrows and lightening fast surfaces are the order of the day on The Marquess. Put the ball above the hole on many greens and getting down in two putts is going to be difficult. Of the three courses at Woburn this is the one that will yield the most three putts, and is not the sort of course to play if you suffer from a case of the yips. A premium is placed on the tee shot to ensure that you can hit the right part of the green with your approach shot. Hit the wrong spot and getting the ball close to the hole is going be a challenge. The Marquess' course requires a golfer to take risks and hit good shots. Hit good golf shots and you will be rewarded. Be slightly off your game and you will pay penalty.
|Our motley crew ready for the off|
I started poorly and didn't score on the first through a combination of poor driving, wild bunker shot, nervous chipping and tentative putting. The second didn't fair much better although I opened my points tally despite a three putt. To be honest the combination of feeling dog rough and some indifferent play meant I was struggling. It didn't help when I peached a drive out of the screws on one of the iconic holes, the par five 7th and hit it dead straight.
|The view from the 7th tee. Left is the safe option but go right and you might make it in two|
The back nine is just as impressive as the front. Every good course has its controversial hole and the 12th is it on the Marquess. You have to drive over a pond onto an island fairway before hitting the approach over another pond to the green.
|The 12th - the signature hole requiring you to hit a small island fairway and then over more water to the green|
Lunch was an exquisite two course carvery but I have to be honest and say I passed on most of it. My flu was getting worse and I really didn't feel up to playing the Duke course. Having come all this way and paid my money it would have been criminal not to have experienced it.
With all the feel and regal splendour of a woodland golf course that's been around for a hundred years or more, the Duke's course at Woburn in fact dates from 1976. Its the oldest of Woburn's stunning triumvirate of championship layouts. This is the quintessential English wooded parkland layout. Towering pines, silver birch and chestnut trees line the fairways, together with copious amounts of rhododendrons.
|A map of the Dukes Course|
At the unforgettable short downhill par-3 3rd, the rhododendrons encircle the green with a dazzling burst of colour when they come into flower in late Spring. The first six holes on the Duke's are all classic examples of how undulating woodland terrain can be shaped into dramatic and testing golf holes. The middle six continues the theme although on slightly flatter ground, before bringing you to the superb closing six holes.
From the very first tee shot on the par five opener on the Dukes course I was out of sorts. I barely troubled the scorers but knew I had to hit a good one at the 3rd. It is an iconic hole and one I'd been waiting to play long before we arrived. Although the rhododendrons weren't in bloom I wasn't disappointed. A tiny hole but a hugely impressive one.
|A small hole but a stunner|
|So much like Augusta - the Dukes is a real test of golf and an iconic venue|
Even for the time of year the greens were on the quick side. Hit this too hard and I was off the green. I barely set the ball rolling and it looked as though I'd under-cooked it and it wouldn't make the distance to find the edge of the drop and would leave me a terror putt. However it literally got to the precipice and gravity took hold and it rolled down the tier. Roll by roll it was looking better and better and it finished an inch from the hole. I couldn't have played it better.
In the end I was done for and my game disintegrated completely. I tried my hardest but to be honest I just wanted to get back to the sanctuary of the 19th, have a drink and head off home and collapse into my pit and sweat the fever out. In the end 20 points total was nowhere although it wasn't last. It was a real shame as I loved every step of the walk and just wish I could have played some decent golf.
What else can I say? It was a magical day at a magical venue made by the weather and the company. There are plans already for a repeat in 2013 and I will be back for more and this time without the lurgy. The Dukes in particular owes me but whatever combination we play I am already counting down the days. Woburn has the Wow factor.