HERTFORDSHIRE, England -- Thoughts of golf clubs in the United Kingdom often are painted mental images of dark mahogany rooms with white-haired, aging barmen serving jacketed, pipe-smoking gentleman drams in the drawing room before a fire whist the kidney pie bakes in the back, Guv' nuh.
Images of London, meanwhile, conjur thoughts provocative: groovy, cosmopolitan cocktails, gourmet dining, swank décor and the sort of electric atmosphere that prompted movie character Austin Powers to exclaim, "Yeah, baby! Yeah!"
A successful transplant of the "Yeah, baby! Yeah!" of London into an English countryside manor has resulted in The Grove, a completely unique golf resort that opened in September 2003.
Just 35 minutes from central London, The Grove already has been visited by the likes of Hugh Grant, whose former consort Liz Hurley starred in Austin Powers. Grant, known certainly as a witty and urbane socialite, was drawn by the golf -- a 7,170-yard, par-72, Kyle Phillips-design laid into 300 acres of the estate's stately parkland.
Phillips designed the golf course in a minimalist fashion that, like the resort, blends the strategy of modern golf with the time-honored traditions of British golf course architecture. The result is a chic, nouveaux track that oozes quality and is fun to play.
"What I am doing now is looking back at the architecture and landforms of the classic British course and recognizing that we haven't been moving forward in the past decades," said Phillips. "My goal is to create equally great new courses that appear as if they have existed naturally for many years, where artificial landforms are indistinguishable from natural ones."
A luxurious 15-month grow-in period has ironed out any wrinkles raised in the construction process, and The Grove's golf course is as natural as any backyard of nobility can be.
Indeed, The Grove's hotel is an 18th century house, the history of which can be traced back to 1753, when the Earl of Jersey, British Ambassador to France, owned it. According to Grove literature, in 1776, the Earl became the first Earl of Clarendon, and the family grew in political stature. In its time, The Grove was one of the most fashionable homes in England, and an invitation to weekend parties there were highly sought after and prized. A sense of such "arrival" still remains for visitors of The Grove, but the good news now is that guests can invite themselves!
Weekenders from London, Dublin, Paris, Manchester and Milan are expected, and the near proximity to Heathrow Airport makes The Grove easily accessible to Americans and others traveling to and from or even through the airport. While notable golf clubs like Wentworth, Walton Heath, Sunningdale, and Stoke Poges are also outside London, The Grove, with a spa and three restaurants, is one of the only all-inclusive golf resorts in the United Kingdom.
"We won't allow any stuffiness at The Grove. We simply won't stand for it," said managing director Michael O'Dwyer, who wears a tie but insists guests needn't bother. "I have stayed in fantastic hotels all over the world but only a few stand out in my memory. They have the indefinable something special."
While The Grove does have some special indefinable qualities, some of its features are definitely quantifiable, namely the golf course.
"Building this golf course was like peeling an onion," said Phillips. There were layers of detail, and it is that subtle detail that separates the great courses from the others. I hope my work at The Grove will broaden the vision of developers and designers."
Phillips worked under Robert Trent Jones Jr. for 16 years before breaking out on his own in 1997. He is best known for Kingsbarns, his recent links creation in Scotland near St. Andrews, which has been rated among the world's top-50.
The Grove mansion serves as an elegant backdrop to the open holes of the golf course before players move down into a forested corner. Therefore, playing golf at The Grove is a veddy, veddy English experience. The yardage book refers to the 351-yard, par-4 opening hole as a "gentle warmer," and players must take care whilst hitting their approach shots on the 445-yard, par-4 second hole lest their ball be "tossed away by slopes or snaffled by sand."
The 436-yard, par-4 fifth hole "rumbles away from you like a crumpled green blanket," and the 150-yard, par-3 seventh hole allows golfers to "spy only a furtive glimpse of a sliver of the green."
What is described as a "dastardly, secretive bunker ready to gobble up the unwary on bold" awaits drives on the 435-yard, par-4 eighth, and the advice for the 567-yard, par-5 ninth is to "Let yourself off of your tether and give it a ride."
"What does the 'poetry' say for this hole?" asked The Grove's director of golf on the par-3 16th tee during a round in which he easily could have broken the course record of 67 were it not for his hospitality. The 184-yard 16th is described as "Hoodwinkingly great" because your eyes are "deceived by a trap that is deliberately and dishonestly well shy of the green." Reid chuckled at the descriptions, but having served terms as the golf professional at Turnberry in Scotland and Fancourt Hotel and Country Club in South Africa -- venue of the 2003 President's Cup Matches -- he knows The Grove is a worthwhile facility to be reckoned with. "At some point in the future The Grove will host an important golf tournament. We're in no hurry though. We'll wait for the right event. One that is suitable for our course and destination."
With 211 rooms, 16 suites, 25 meeting rooms, a 500-capacity ballroom, 20 green keepers, a helipad, close proximity to London, a walled garden that can host an outdoor banquet for 1,000, and a traditional golf course easily walked, what, indeed, is to stop The Grove from updating the rota as a modern addition to the Open Championship venues?
Before joining the team that conceived of The Grove, O'Dwyer revamped the Marriott Forest of Arden Hotel and Country Club in Warwickshire. The golf course is now a regular venue of a European PGA Tour won by the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam.
"This is an amazing venture," said O'Dwyer of The Grove. "What really makes it different is that it is privately owned. This means The Grove is driven by a real passion that is not accountable to a corporate head office." The Grove is owned by Ralph Trustees Limited.
To say that The Grove resort is stylish is to be guilty of dreadful understatement. Tradition with a twist is as good a description as any. The Grove is as stately a manner as can be imagined with none of the stuffiness. Formality and fun makes for a sensual mix. Contemporary artwork and countless curious dioramas delight -- the funky "naked gardener" loop film in one hallway is certain to be the most talked-about. Wandering the halls offers constant surprises as each common room and parlor is completely different in color and light than the next. The mix of modern and antique furniture with original stone and wooden flooring is sly and subliminal. Pinewood Studios, at which many of the 007 James Bond movies have been filmed is just down the road, and being at The Grove leaves one feeling like Bond himself, having been captured but being treated very civilly by an eccentric wealthy villain.
Diners enjoy contemporary British cuisine, not classic, in what The Grove calls a "Theatre of Cooking," with performances from breakfast through dinner. There's a cozy wood-burning stove restaurant in the clubhouse area, which is built into the old stable block. The Grove's luxurious spa is intimate, not intimidating. Comfortable enough even for the most macho of men to feel at ease during the "Golfer's Tonic," very thoughtful special extended care for the feet and lower back.
Other features include air conditioning, plasma screens and broadband Internet in every room, indoor and outdoor swimming, nature trails through 100 acres of woodlands, World War II air raid shelters, a Saxon burial ground and the Clarendon family crypt, croquet lawn and tennis courts, gardens, and a CD/DVD library.
Rates at The Grove vary from 240.00 British Pound Sterling to 900.00 per-night. Hotel guests receive special considerations for starting times, though walk-up play and reservations are welcome any time. Non-hotel resident rates vary.
The Grove has three restaurants: The Stables, The Glasshouse and Collette's. The Stables is the most informal, with fare such as fried salmon and pizza. The Glasshouse is a relaxed gourmet buffet. Collette's is cozy, distinctive, and up-market. All three have views of the grounds.
For more information contact The Grove at +44(0) 1923 807807 or thegrove.co.uk.
April 3, 2004
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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