Banner: Woking Golf Club © Jason Livy Photography. Image courtesy of Woking Gold Club

"The most important shot in golf is the next one." – Ben Hogan

During lockdown, golf has been an outdoor sport much missed by many of those seeking physical exercise, and with the current easing of regulations, the many golf courses in the borough are busy once more, even though their clubhouses may remain closed. 

Golf originated in Scotland, so it is not surprising that it is the home of all the oldest courses, starting with a charter of 1552 allowing golf at what became St Andrew’s Old Course; Mary, Queen of Scots was allegedly a keen golfer. In England, the oldest club is the Royal Blackheath Club, established in 1608, but as they no longer play on their original course, the Royal North Devon Club at Westward Ho claims to have the oldest used course dating from 1864. 

A great growth in sport of Victorian and Edwardian times, with increased leisure and better living conditions, had especial resonance in the Woking area, with all the factors of open land, proximity to London by train, and later by car, and a growing affluent middle class.  Golf was one sport which gained from all this, with courses opened from the 1890s. It played an important part in marketing many expensive properties, with more courses per acre than almost anywhere else in the country. 

The four earliest courses were Woking (Hook Heath), New Zealand, Worplesdon, and West Hill, and later, West Byfleet.  Even more have come on ‘set-aside’ agricultural land from the 1980s:  Sutton Green, Pyrford, Chobham, Twisted Stone, formerly Traditions (Pyrford) and Hoe Bridge. 

Woking Golf Club is the oldest and was the first to be fashioned from typical Surrey countryside, leased from The Necropolis Company. The course was one of 137 courses laid out by Tom Dunn and is reckoned among his best.

Originally, it was founded for 100 members from the Bar who paid 2 guineas (£2.10) subscription, and few members lived within twenty miles of the course, but membership was soon extended, notably to women.    

Among these was Ethel Smyth, the composer, who invited Mrs Pankhurst to Woking to practise stone-throwing for suffragette window smashing.  This was carried out on the course, probably on the 13th fairway, Mrs Pankhurst’s first stone narrowly missing Ethel Smyth’s dog. Ethel’s ashes were scattered in woodland next to the golf course, at her request. 

Other well-known members included A.J. Balfour, the former prime minister, whose brother, Gerald, lived at Fisher’s Hill, Hook Heath, the cricketer Alfred Lyttleton and the golfer and prolific author of books on golf, Bernard Darwin, grandson of Charles Darwin.

Tennis courts were built in 1914 but were removed in 1923 due to lack of use. A curling rink on a pond was created about 1900 and used when the links were frozen. The club’s fortunes declined during both world wars. During WWI soldiers were housed in the club house and in December 1915 Surrey CC asked that the course be used for sheep grazing, and there were also complaints that the course was being damaged by officers riding on it, although the club was saved by a reduction in the rent paid to the Necropolis Company.

During WWII all competitions ceased, the club house was used by the Home Guard and the curling rink was used as a rifle range. In 1941 a German bomb fell over the course, and the numbers of members declined seriously. The Necropolis Company failed to sell the freehold of both Woking and West Hill courses in 1961, but the former was eventually bought by the members in 1972. 

Notable post-war members were Stephen Potter, of 'one-upmanship' fame, and Doug Sewell, who won the English amateur championship in 1958, continuing his success into the 1960s.

Another lady golfer and friend of Ethel Smyth's, until a falling-out, was Amy Pascoe, a resident of Woking, but not a member of any of the Woking clubs: she was one of the foremost lady golfers of her generation, winner of the British Ladies’ Golf Championship in 1896, and captain of Surrey Ladies’ County Golf Association in 1900.

Amy Pascoe on the golf course

New Zealand Club was the next of the Woking clubs to be founded. In 1885, Hugh Fortescue Locke King inherited land on the north side of Woodham Lane. He accepted a challenge that he could not build a golf course there on land which was mostly fir and pine forest, and New Zealand Golf Course was built in 1894-95. There are two theories as to why the course was so named: the census of 1861 has the first mention of New Zealand applied to two cottages; and Locke King married Ethel Gore-Brown, daughter of a former governor of New Zealand. 

The course was opened on 25 May 1895, designed by Samuel Mure Fergusson who was the first secretary and chief executive of the club and died in the clubhouse in 1928.  It has always been seen as a place for business and professional men from London to drive down to, rather than a local club.

Locke King was criticised by the local community as the ‘toffs’ who came to the club were badly behaved. His wife persuaded him to build a race track, which became Brooklands, but this caused him to run into serious financial trouble, so the club was bought by the members.

The earliest list of members, for 1928/29, shows 336 members, 37 of them titled, and 39 ladies, including HRH Princess Arthur of Connaught. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was proposed for membership in 1896, and assigned a locker on which his name was inscribed. By tradition, all members have their names so inscribed, with a line being painted through them on their death. There was also an artisans’ section for tradesmen, with restricted playing times.

Bleakdown Golf Club was built as members of Sheerwater Court Club were frustrated by the limitations of their nine-hole golf course and inability to gain admission to New Zealand Golf Club. The members approached Hugh Locke King about an area of Pyrford and Byfleet known as Bleakdown with a view to having their own 18-hole course. Locke King agreed and built the course. Most of the Sheerwater club joined the new club and the Sheerwater club closed. 

In October 1916, Bleakdown club house was used as an auxiliary military hospital with 46 beds. In December 1921, West Byfleet Golf Club Ltd was formed, with Locke King conveying the freehold of 134 acres to the new company.

Worplesdon Golf Course lies in Woking Borough; it was laid out 1908 combining features of Woking, Sunningdale, and New Zealand courses. Its main claim to fame is that Joyce Wethered (later Lady Heathcoat Amory), judged by Henry Cotton to have been “the best golfer ever” was a member, when she won the Ladies’ British Open Championship in 1922, 1924, 1925, and 1929 and the English Women’s Amateur Championship for 1922 to 1924, being club President from 1963 until 1997. HRH the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) was captain in 1933.

Joyce Wethered in action

West Hill Golf Club, the last of the major clubs in Woking, was founded by Lady Tennant as a wedding present for her second husband Major Geoffrey Lubbock. The London Necropolis Company granted a lease for 21 years for 150 acres of land adjoining the cemetery, the course opening in 1909. 

West Hill Golf Club ladies, c. 1910

John B. Walker, the General Manager of the Necropolis Company, was a keen golfer, being captain (1922-23, 1942-43) and president of the club from 1932-43. Thus the company and the club turned a blind eye to the arrival of men pretending to be mourners taking advantage of the special 2s (10p) return fare on the special funeral trains to play at West Hill, and other local clubs.  

After Mrs Lubbock’s death, the members had several chances to buy the freehold, which nearly fell to a property developer, but in 1974 the club fought off rivals and was able to buy the freehold, after which, and following a fire at the club house in 1978, facilities were improved.  Several well-known cricketers have been members including B.J. Bosanquet (inventor of the googly), A.P.F. Chapman (England cricket captain) and the Bedser twins, who joined in 1948, and continued to play there almost until their deaths. 

The newer clubs, established in the 1980s and 1990s often combine membership and pay and play facilities, as well as courses of various lengths and challenges, and continue to attract players of all abilities from Woking and the surrounding area.