Royal Automobile Club’s Woodcote Park golf club in Epsom - Tales from the 19th
PUBLISHED: 15:27 09 October 2013 | UPDATED: 15:30 09 October 2013
It’s been a long and sometimes bumpy road, but the Royal Automobile Club in Epsom has much to celebrate as it looks back on one hundred years of golf, writes John Whitbread of the Surrey Golf Partnership
The two beautiful and demanding courses at the Royal Automobile Club’s Woodcote Park are adjacent to another home of British sporting excellence: Epsom Downs racecourse, where a different form of horsepower is celebrated.
Thirty-six holes sweep across 360 acres of the North Downs, weaving through copses of beech, pine and oak – and, at the centre of it all, stands one of the grandest mansion clubhouses in British golf.
Originally owned by the Abbey of Chertsey, Woodcote Park was purchased by the Royal Automobile Club in 1913 as a complement to their clubhouse in Pall Mall. The idea for this country club retreat was for members to drive their cars 16 miles from the centre of London to somewhere they could enjoy 18 holes of golf and other popular sporting pursuits such as archery, cricket, polo and tennis. Today, members can enjoy tennis, squash, a swimming pool and gym, a golf practice range and 36 holes of golf.
The Royal Automobile Club chose renowned course architect William Herbert Fowler to design the original layout. A leading first-class cricketer in his early days, Fowler made a remarkably successful switch to golf, finishing 26th in the 1900 Open Championship. He also designed the majestic Walton Heath, and was called in to re-design the 18th hole at America’s famous Pebble Beach. Such was his skill at positioning clutches of shallow but very tricky bunkers that even with the advent of modern clubs and balls, they are still a challenge to today’s big hitters.
The storm clouds were gathering over Europe, however, and Woodcote Park’s tranquillity was soon disturbed by the First World War. The War Office commandeered the south-western corner of the estate as a military camp for the Universities and Public Schools volunteer brigade of the Royal Fusiliers. Tragically, the Somme virtually wiped out the brigade and the camp was handed over to Canadian forces as a convalescent home.
On August 1, 1934 the clubhouse was destroyed by a fire and although some walls remained they were deemed unsafe, so the architects who had designed the Pall Mall clubhouse were called in to oversee the reconstruction.
When the Second World War began, 110 acres were handed over to the Surrey Agricultural Committee for arable and livestock production. One unexpected guest at the time was pilot Peter Simpson. His Hawker Hurricane had taken several hits from a Dornier and with his cockpit filling up with debris he was preparing to bail out only for him to spot the club’s swimming pool glittering in the sunlight.
Simpson managed to land his damaged plane on a fairway, but then faced another challenge: proving he was friend not foe to a couple of golfers who were fast approaching with raised clubs. In a moment of inspiration, he produced a packet of Player’s cigarettes and was carried into the clubhouse as a hero for a well-deserved brandy!
It was not until the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 that the land which had been lost to wartime agriculture was restored for play. Architect FR Smith’s design for the Coronation Course proved both challenging and exciting. Measuring 6,170 yards, with a par of 70, its signature hole is the ninth – a tough 441 yard par four with a tricky sloping fairway.
The Old Course, meanwhile, has a par of 72 and measures 6,723 yards – its signature hole is the 18th, a classic par five closing hole set against the backdrop of the magnificent clubhouse.
While both courses remained highly praised, the late 1970’s proved a more challenging time for the club. However, a radical programme of improvements and renovations turned the fortunes around, with a major boost coming in 1980 with the Bob Hope Pro-Am Classic. Music publisher Bill Martin was club captain at the time and he was able to welcome such famous stars as Telly Savalas, Sean Connery and Jimmy Tarbuck plus the cream of the European Tour.
To this day, the Tesco Pro-Am has remained an established annual fixture and the club’s revival of fortunes continues as they now look forward to the next one hundred years.
The Royal Automobile Club, Woodcote Park, Epsom KT18 7EW. Tel: 01372 276311
The Surrey Golf Partnership comprises 111 clubs, also affiliated to the Surrey Golf Union and the Surrey Ladies Golf Union. For details, see surreygolfpartnership.com