The 10th hole (once the 7th) known as Death or Glory, painted by Henry Rowntree

The Day They Came To Northwood

13th May 2011

It’s 120 years since the founding of Northwood Golf Club. Emma Carter looks at its history – intertwined with that of the suburb it serves – and recalls an occasion on which it took its place at the heart of golfing history.

Imagine the crowds there would be if the world’s top golfer – Lee Westwood, at the time of writing – was joined by stars such as Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, plus others from the current top ten, to play a 36-hole challenge at Northwood Golf Club…

In this age of international celebrity the idea is scarcely credible, but on one of the most exciting days in the club’s history, 10 May 1902, four of the game’s greatest ever champions – Harry Vardon, James Braid, John Henry Taylor and Alex Herd – played two rounds over the club’s newly-extended 18-hole course.

These were, indeed they still are, eminent golfing names. Harry Vardon won the Open Championship on six occasions, more than any other player in the history of golf; James Braid was the reigning Open Champion, and both he and John Henry Taylor each went on to win the Open five times. Together, they are known as The Great Triumvirate. Alex (Sandy) Herd, who scooped the prize at Northwood in 1902 must have been in the form of his life: a couple of months later, he won his only Open Championship at Hoylake.

The leading scores over the two rounds here at Northwood were Herd 146, Braid 149 and Vardon 150. Taylor finished in sixth place on 156.

Harry Vardon

Although Vardon came third on the day, the event delivered ‘the best shot’ he ever played. “The occasion was a tournament at Northwood,” he recalled a few years later. “At the eighteenth hole, I sliced my second shot. The ball lay within about four feet of the club house, which was now between me and the hole… The people on the veranda looked rather surprised when I asked them to stand aside in case I should strike them. I used a niblick for the shot. The ball flew up, moving forward no more than a yard until it was about thirty feet in the air; then it went on, carried the club-house, and stopped a yard from the hole.”

Perfection? No. “And then I missed the putt.”

Harry Vardon had to admit that it was “a wretched finish”, adding, “but the shot from directly behind the building was the best I ever played, and I am frankly and boyishly proud of it.”

Local residents today probably pass the golf club on Rickmansworth Road with scarcely a thought as to how closely it has been linked to the sporting life of Northwood. The town’s railway station was finished in 1887 and, when the first nine holes opened just four years later, the golf club was practically the first outdoor social amenity.

The growing popularity of outdoor sports in the Victorian era went hand-in-hand, curiously, with the advance of the humble lawn mower. Golf, football and cricket all needed better playing turf, and companies such as Ransomes took up the challenge, manufacturing machines that took the place of the scythe and the sheep.

As a result, there was an explosion of golf courses at the end of the 19th century. Northwood is one of nearly 30 golf clubs that were founded in 1891 alone. The original nine holes – around the present club house – were laid out by a prolific golf professional named Tom Dunn. Naturally, he was Scottish, although he had, in fact, spent most of his early years in London, where his father had been custodian of the links at Blackheath. Between 1890 and 1902, Dunn laid out 140 links in England, Ireland, Scotland and France and was also involved in golf courses at Hampstead, Stanmore and Chorleywood.

Northwood Golf Club (NGC) began humbly enough. The first greens staff consisted of one boy, and the members themselves did most of the work, helped at a later stage by a couple of horses. Like the fast growing hamlet of Northwood, the golf club made a successful start, however, and by 1900 had acquired Northwood Farm, between Copse Wood and Haste Hill, in order to expand. NGC called upon John Henry Taylor, one of the players who later took part in the 1902 tournament, and was then able to announce, with pride: “The new nine holes are on undulating ground, with hedges, water, gorse, and sand as hazards; and the ground having been previously reported on by JH Taylor, was thoroughly investigated and planned out by Tom Dunn.”

Building golf courses at the rate of around one each month for 12 years suggests that Dunn may not have been a sophisticated designer. The 18-hole course is broadly as Taylor intended, although it wasn’t long before Dunn’s early work was modified by other course designers with fresh ideas. Many of the early features remain, however, and it is still just about possible to play a game on the original nine holes.

At the time when Harry Vardon hit his shot over the clubhouse, the building was much more modest than it is now, and situated close to the road. Even so, it was still no mean achievement to hit a shot over it and on to the green. No doubt Vardon would barely recognise today’s clubhouse, a rambling building with ample facilities.

In the 120 years since it was founded, NGC’s fortunes have flourished alongside the suburb it serves. It has not always been plain sailing, though, and occasionally – particularly during the war years – the playing of golf has taken a back seat. In the 1940s, land around the paths that lead to Haste Hill and Ruislip Lido was restored to agriculture, and the clubhouse used to house servicemen.

On 5 June NGC will celebrate its anniversary with a special Open Day, and a nine-hole game played on its original links. It seems unlikely that the world’s top golfers will be there this time but, nevertheless, it promises to be an enjoyable occasion with lots on display about the club and its long history.

Looking at old photographs, it is remarkable how many more trees there are on the course today compared with the early days of the golf links. The club has planted several areas of woodland and some trees are now very substantial. It is a fortuitous and an unintended consequence of the founding of the golf club that the suburb of Northwood has 120 acres of open space at its heart, and attractive public footpaths to link it to Ruislip Woods. On the golf course itself the views can be magnificent and it is always surprisingly peaceful…

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