Contributed by Sean Arble
Kington Golf Club
(Kington, Herefordshire, England)
Green Fees: 28 Pounds ($46 at June ’09 spot rate)
Architect: Major CK Hutchison
At about 5900 yards, many will dismiss Kington as far too short and nothing but a bit of fun, though fun Kington certainly is, the course should not be taken lightly. Hutchison’s fondness for North Berwick, a links famous for its variety and quirkiness, enabled him to value unusual concepts without discarding what was at the time modern design theory. In Kington, Major CK Hutchison produced a remarkably crafty course which relies greatly on gaining the correct angles of approach, for the greens often fall heavily away from the front or a side making recovery from the wrong position terribly difficult despite appearances to the contrary. It should come as no surprise that the Major could create such a gem. He was a well known figure in the game as an amateur (he reached the final of the 1909 British Amateur) and as a serious student of architecture through his membership of Huntercombe, an early Willie Park Jr ground breaking design. On a more practical level, James Braid relied heavily on Hutchison’s knowledge during the design and construction of Gleneagles Kings and Queens courses and for a brief period, starting in the late 20s Hutchison, was in partnership with Majors GC Campbell and SV Hotchkin. This “Trinity of Majors” was most famously responsible for the creation of Pulborough, a course well known for its combination of beauty and fierce hazards.
Kington (http://www.kingtongolf.co.uk/) can be described as an inland-super-mare. The sea is miles away, yet the golf at Kington is remarkably similar to seaside golf due to the keen terrain. There are no bunkers and the course is generally wide with practically no shaping of the fairways. In fact, Kington is the epitome of why wide is good. Let the golfer open the shoulders, but if he places the ball in the wrong spot he can be left with a devil of a recovery – often times from quite close to the hole. Bradnor Hill is among the chief defenses with its slopes acting for and against play. The mini undulations (presumably caused by grazing sheep) can leave a player confounded on how to make solid contact with anything other than short irons, or indeed the putter. The course climbs the hill for much of the front 9 and affords arresting views of the Brecon Beacons, Malverns and Black Mountains. The club claims that at 1284 feet Kington is the highest course in England, but that isn’t important other than to impart that wind is another of Kington’s primary defenses. The greens tend to be narrow and many are angled against fairways and/or over deep fall-aways. While there are plenty of unknowing breaks to be had, the greens could accurately be described as flat. Finally, Kington’s turf is as fine as one would find on most highly rated links. There is a springiness which encourages the player to be aggressive both on the fairways and greens. It must also be noted that the fairways are cut only once a year in mid-summer. Sheep graze the course freely, but even they won’t eat some of the tough grasses on offer.
The first three holes make steady progress up the hill. All are good and require a deft touch rather than brute force. Below is the approach to #1 after a big drive straight up the gut. Because of dramatic grade slopes, putting surfaces can be surprisingly fast and turn where it seems improbable.
1st Approach at Kington.
The 2nd turns hard right around a higher part of Bradnor Hill. It is very easy to hit a drive well past the turning point left or in a deep ravine right.
Pictured below is the 3rd, a lovely par 3 to a shelf green that is deceptively large.
One shot 3rd at Kington.
The gentle start abruptly changes on the 4th, still uphill, but a brutish 435 yards usually into the prevailing breeze. This is one of the few holes at Kington which requires a carry.
4th Tee at Kington.
The second shot doesn’t get any easier. The green is set down a left to right slope with two tiers in the same direction. Suffice it to say that a par here is well earned. One disheartening aspect of Kington is the scattering of trees behind some skyline greens. In the case of the 4th, this tree is lovely, and then there is the portaloo and the scrubby tree…
4th Approach at Kington.
The short 5th is a wonderful hole, as are all the 3 pars at Kington. The surface of the green is blind and the short iron needs to kick in from the left. As is evidenced by the road, this is farm country.
One shot 5th at Kington.
The 6th sports another green hanging down the side of Bradnor Hill and exemplifies how one had better know how to flight his ball and control it once it lands or Kington will eat you alive with niggling little recoveries. The 7th is an up and over reachable par 5 with a green split in two by the crest of rise. The visual clues tell the golfer the green falls from front to back, but mysteriously the putt from the rear of the green seems to be downhill as well.
#8 is a superb par 4 which can be driven from the old tees, but the club has built a new set of tees much further back and right. Unfortunately this addition completely ignores the original intent of Hutchison. The hole is reachable, but legs left if the player chooses to try for the pitch and putt birdie. For those going for the green, anything left all but eliminates any chance of birdie. Below is an example of where not to leave a drive. More than a few holes have a “gate” which is a free running access to the green for those in the correct position. Often times this gate is off-centre which creates a dogleg effect even though the fairways tend to be very wide. Kington is also known to have patches of gorse which cause a spot of bother here and there.
Left of 8th Green at Kington.
The course continues to wind its way around Bradnor Hill with blind drives, front to back sloping greens and skyline greens as particular features. Holes of special merit in this stretch are the wee par 3, 9th and the very drivable par 4, 10th.
Par 3 9th at Kington.
Par 4 10th at Kington.
#11 is a reachable par 5 with a tricky green which is back to front being fed from a downhill fairway. This hole marks the point of a general descent back toward the clubhouse.
We eventually reach the par 3, 12th. This hole is a perfect example of what golfers face at Kington. These awkward, sharp mounds surrounding the greens can be terribly frustrating unless one can find some of the available gateways or be precise with the approaches. This picture, taken from the right side and forward of the tee, highlights how a player can use the slopes to his advantage.
One shot 12th at Kington.
After another blind drive which requires one to shape their tee shot into the hill or ride the high side as long as is possible, this is what remains of #13, a terrific par 4 in the middle of Kington’s purple patch.
Approach to the 13th at Kington.
13th Green at Kington from the left.
From behind the 13th green.
13th Green at Kington from the back.
Fourteen continues the thrilling golf with this reachable par 5. More people than not tend to find the ferns when trying to have a two shot bash at this green. Unusually for Kington, the green sports a false front which gives the impression of an uphill approach. In truth, the green runs away from the player.
14th Tee at Kington.
The approach to the 14th. The green has a false front, but once past this deception it then falls away from the player. Brilliantly, Hutchison created a lip on the back left of the green which balls can roll off. If the player aims directly at the flag and is strong the ball is apt to roll 50 yards beyond the green.
Approach to 14th Green at Kington.
The 215 yard 15th plays downhill. I like how the penalty for coming up short is so imaginative. This photo just short of the 15th green showcases the humpty bumpty land which features prominently at Kington.
15th at Kington.
The obscured approach to #16. This green was significantly softened some 4 years ago. Bitter debate still rages over whether it was a good or bad idea to level the surface.
16th Approach at Kington.
The 17th, like nearly every hole at Kington, has a wide open fairway. Despite appearances, a well aimed drive up the left is required to gain the best angle of approach.
The great golf has to end sometime, but what a way to finish. It isn’t often that a significant percentage of handicap golfers can stand on the tee of a par 4 and aspire to a 3. However, on many days this is exactly the goal on Kington’s 18th. Choose a club, take aim at the pro shop, fire away and let the fun unfold.
18th Tee shot at Kington.
A closer look at the green.
Bernard Darwin had this to say about Kington: “Wisely, no attempt has been made toward a ‘set’ or stereotyped layout…outstanding in its variety, interest and charm.” In the past I have dismissed Kington as a good day out, but not worth serious consideration as a great course. As with Woking and Beau Desert, a gradual appreciation and admiration for Kington developed. The course can be played at par or better for many reasonably competent players, but much more often one will ask how quite so many shots were lost despite the consistently “apple-pie” conditions. If the keen player finds himself within a day’s detour of Kington, it is a must see.
3/4 – Walkability: The course is a fairly stout walk for the first half, but Hutchison had the good sense to keep greens and tees at close proximity and the yardage quite short.
3/4 – Architecture and Aesthetics: Kington is in a stunning location, though I understand that the mounding may not be for everyone.
2/2 – Strategy and Playability: Kington’s 5900 yards are packed with strategic options and there isn’t a shot that my grandmother can’t hit.
8.0 / 10 – Total
Review by Sean Arble (June, 2009)
All Photos by Sean Arble
The Walking Golfer Course Rating System
Total is out of 10 Points
0 – 4 points – Walkability
0 – 4 points – Architecture and Aesthetics
0 – 2 points – Playability and Strategy