Greetings one and all and welcome back to another slice of the Three Off The Tee blog. I hope you are all well and your golfing handicaps are tumbling especially in this exceptionally warm weather we are having, at least in deepest, darkest Berkshire.
I recently did a course review on The Caversham which you can read here following my visit after the merger with Reading golf club and some extensive changes to the course. I am back with another review which I hope will whet your appetite to visit and play there if you are ever in the vicinity. With that teaser lets crack on.
Have you ever heard the term "hidden gem" regarding a golf course that you perhaps should have played or have never even heard of but paly and it is a real joy. My visit to East Berkshire falls very much into the first of those and it is a course almost on my doorstep that I have never played despite it being perhaps even close to my home than my home club Royal Ascot. It was time to rectify this. Perhaps even stranger is the fact we have East Berks on our club reciprocal list so there has been no excuses.
I took advantage of my own club being severely impacted by the Royal Ascot race meeting to book a tee time for a four ball. I arrived early (as is normal for me). I don't know about you but I am always a little nervous arriving at a new club for the first time and wary of the reception I may get. Even in these modern times with golf enjoying a boom, some clubs seem to have a very archaic view to visitors. I had no worries on this score and the staff in the professional shop were very friendly and accommodating and let me know where everything was.
As I was there early I was able to avail myself of the practice facilities including a really well kept short game area (including several bunkers) and a large putting green. The short game area was a welcome site given the flaky nature of my chipping and pitching at the best of times, and the putting green was a real eye opener to the speed of the greens we'd be facing on the course and did little to put me in a putting comfort zone.
The East Berkshire Golf club was founded in 1903. I've taken their history from the club website which you can visit here
Designed in 1903 by Peter Paxton, East Berkshire was originally a heathland course but has evolved into a mature tree-lined parkland course. Paxton was adept at using the natural water courses that flow on the land to guard the greens. Heather too was used as a feature to provide cross hazards on some of the longer holes, reducing the need for bunkers and maintaining a natural look to the course. These natural barriers and cleverly designed doglegs mean the course plays a lot longer than the 6,200 yardage suggests. Coupled with fast undulating greens, this makes for a real challenge of not only a player's striking ability but also their discipline and course strategy, as the competitors of the annual East Berks Stag will testify. Shaped fairways leading into well-defined semi rough helps to identify the driving areas and carefully placed greenside hazards ensure that wayward shots go unrewarded. East Berks' famous guests are too numerous to mention. The South Africans Bobby Locke and Gary Player were frequent visitors to the club in the 60's and 70's.
We were invited to enjoy the course off the white tees which was a nice touch and although this wouldn't make much of a difference in the overall distance as the scorecard below shows, it was nice to see what the members would face in their monthly medal.
All of the golf holes are named and the first is called Paxton after the original designer. It is a strange hole, not long in length but one that poses a real dilemma on the tee to ensure the right club is taken to avoid the danger. While it is a gentle start, it is not to be underestimated. Long hitters can try to drive the green but invariably this is a rash decision, especially as the first hole of the day. Heather, trees and bushes encroach on all sides. The percentage play is to determine the pin position and play a positional club from the tee. If the pin is tucked right, favour the left half of the fairway, without concern for distance. The longer you stand on the first tee the more the trouble seems to pinch in and make finding the fairway harder and harder.
It is definitely a well designed course and the third hole, called "Trackside" as it runs along a railway line, is a fine demonstration that you don't always need bunkers to make a hole difficult. Measuring 429 yards off the white tees with out of bounds down the left longer hitters can get home in two but anything long and right will be blocked out and as you have to favour the left side to get optimum distance and so are always flirting with the out of bounds.
The first par three is a real gem. Called Garnett's Gem it is only 148 yards off the white tees it has a large green and so club selection can be hard and there is water lurking left and it is preferable to be longer rather than short.
"Heather Drive" marks the tenth hole and at 437yards it is a test. East Berkshire has seven par fours that play over 400 yards off the white tees and so all are a challenge for the average club golfer. The tenth is a great hole that can reward brain and brawn equally. At last, long hitters will get the feeling they can wind up a little, an opportunity here to hit a high draw around the corner. But anything left will be in the garden of the houses adjoining the course and is a reload and anything long and right will be blocked out. The smartest play is for the right side of the fairway, leaving a longer shot in. The green entrance is narrow and the left side must be avoided at all costs.
The closing hole "Nearly Home" is yet another par four that is over 400 yards playing 413 yards. It is a great finishing hole. The longer a golfer can drive, the more they should keep snug right off the tee, as anything left can leave a difficult approach over trees or sharply round them, I actually played it well and despite putting it in the right hand green side bunker I played a great bunker shot that rose high over the lip, checked on landing and then rolled at dead weight into the hole for a closing birdie.
If you are familiar with all my product and course reviews you know I always conclude with marking in several categories and giving my final score. As always, these views are strictly my own and impartial and East Berkshire has had no input and I have not received any remuneration for my thoughts.
Course Layout - As I've mentioned, East Berkshire has been a bit of a hidden gem and has sat there in plain view since I moved to the Bracknell area of Berkshire over three decades ago. It is a beautiful layout and although not long compared to some of the more modern courses, it is a thinking golfers course. The long par fours, of which there are many over 400 yards are a challenge without feeling like a slog. There is only one par five, which is relatively short at 495 yards off the whites. Only one par three is over two hundred yards but all of them ask their own questions.
The course does undulate a little in places but it couldn't be considered a hard walk. We played in the middle of June with the thermometer touching 30 degrees and while it was hot and humid I didn't feel overly fatigued at the end of the round.
The layout flows nicely and there isn't too many overly long walks from green to tee. The greens are large in places but not like the modern green complexes on many newer courses.
The layout has a very old fashioned feel to it and is perhaps an epitome of the club as a whole. It is one take requires guile and in places playing a few times to discover the nuances and a strategy to navigate your ball around successfully but it is none the worse for this. 8.5/10
Course Condition - What can I say? A hidden gem on my doorstep and one that was in magnificent condition throughout. As I've mentioned it isn't a long course but the tees, fairways, bunkers and greens were all in top order. In fact I'll go as far as to say the greens were the best I've played on all season. They were covered in an even swathe and were quick. Lightening quick. They were also very true and so while the speed was tricky to deal with initially, if you picked your line the ball didn't deviate from it.
The standard of the greens should have come as no surprise given the condition of the practice green but even the green on the chipping area was good enough to putt on.
It was hard to pick fault with any of the course presentation. It was all in top nick and there were a large number of staff on the course working away as we played and it was evident they took great pride in the product they were producing. 9/10
Facilities - The club doesn't have a lot of room but it makes the most of what it has. There is a very good short game area with numerous flags to aim at on a contoured green along with a practice bunker. There is a large putting green as well which was the same speed as the greens on the course which is a real bugbear of mine when the practice facility bears no resemblance once you start putting for real.
The clubhouse is perhaps a little old fashioned and quaint for some with its large leather sofas and honour boards on the wall but for me it was none the worse for it. The bar was well appointed with a number of lagers and local bitters on offer. There is a large changing area and visitors are able to use this and aren't shunted off into some small area elsewhere.
The professional shop was well appointed and the staff were friendly and welcoming as were the staff serving in the bar and we were made to feel welcome. The few members we met on the way round and as we came off the eighteen were all polite and we didn't have any issues. 8.5/10
Welcome - I arrived very early but it wasn't an issue and the professional shop staff told me all I needed to know and then pointed me towards the short game area to idle some time and to hone my flaky technique. Once the rest of the fourball arrived we were dealt with well and when we brought up the option of playing off the white tees there were no issues.
I had heard stories over the years from various quarters about East Berkshire being a stuffy place, set in their ways and a very cliquey place to be. I saw no evidence of that during my visit. The service in the 19th was swift and efficient. I would need to go back a few times and see how the club worked for example at the weekend and how new members get acclimatised into the club and how easy it would be to get a game but that is perhaps nit picking and not for this piece. 8/10
Value For Money - As this was a reciprocal, we got our round for free which of course is ideal. The green fees are on the club website (check them out here) and while on the face of it they seem high, and of course we know how tight money is for many people at the moment, I think given the condition of the course once you play, on balance it is pretty on trend with East Berkshire's closest neighbours and for the area in general. County cards are welcome and on presentation will give a not insignificant discount, which may be worth bearing in mind if you are thinking of visiting. Value for money is always a subjective section and perhaps the hardest to be objective but given the flourishing interest since lockdown I think the pricing is representative. 8/10
Overall - Why haven't I ever been here before? What a wonderful place and right on my doorstep. What was I thinking? It is a reciprocal so why have I not been all over this before especially when the Royal Ascot race meeting makes playing my own course so awkward.
It was a very interesting course, immaculately presented and there was plenty off the course for members and visitors to enjoy from the practice facilities (I'm not sure I'd ever move from that short game area given my current woes) to the clubhouse and all that had to offer. Haven't waited so long for my first visit I won't be leaving it as long before the next. 8.5/10