Herbert Fowler is one of those architects whose name, curiously, isn’t readily attached to the many great golf courses he laid out and/or substantially retooled. Cruden Bay? That’s a Fowler. Royal North Devon? Fowler’s fingerprints can be found all over this west country masterpiece. Indeed, his renovation of the Old Tom Morris original (a.k.a. Westward Ho!) fairly well accounts for the superb course we know today.
This lack of name recognition begins to explain why a venue like Beau Desert Golf Club, which Fowler designed nearly 100 years ago in the Staffordshire hamlet of Hazel Slade for the Sixth Marquess of Anglesey, rings few bells. Yet a better heathland course golfers are unlikely to come across, as indeed many have not.
For his own part, The Marquess (nee Charles Henry Alexander Paget) recognized immediately that Fowler had created something extraordinary on his Beaudesert estate. When the course was completed, in 1913, Paget whisked Fowler off to the family’s “other” ancestral estate at Plas Newydd on the Welsh island of Anglesey. There the architect laid out a second course for the Marquess, Bull Bay Golf Club, another obscure Fowler product you’ve probably never heard of.
The majority of Fowler’s brilliant work was done in his native England, but he did get around. Fowler was the man who transformed a ho-hum par-4 at Pebble Beach into one of golf’s most heroic, par-5 finishing holes. His Cape Cod design at Eastward Ho! (whose peculiar moniker now makes perfect, book-ending sense) is an old-world delight. Fowler also refurbished the ancient Welsh links at Aberdovey where venerated golf writer Bernard Darwin learned the game and played all his life.
Darwin would complete the Fowler circle by eventually visiting Beau Desert’s 160 acres of elevated, exposed ground some 25 miles north of Birmingham. Afterward he asserted that, “Here might be one of the very best of courses, for the turf is excellent and there is a flavour of Gleneagles about it. It stands high and is pleasanter in hot weather than cold, for the wind can blow there with penetrating shrewdness.”
The Ryder Cup may have played nearby at The Belfry; Little Aston may be the region’s most fashionable golfing address. But the finest course in this part of England is Beau Desert. And yes, Herbert Fowler designed it.
If you believe the term “links” is too often misapplied (and it is), then perhaps “heathland” is the source of even greater misunderstanding. To grasp the qualities of heathland golf, think links. The soil is similarly sandy, only inland, upland and very much bared to the elements. Walton Heath is a celebrated prototype (Fowler did that one, too) and Beau Desert (www.bdgc.co.uk) is a worthy sister, laid out on the treeless heath that was Cannock Chase.
It’s not treeless any longer, of course. Many heathland tracks, even the very best ones, haven’t survived to the present day unchanged. Not by a long shot. After decades of tree growth, most heathland designs don’t look anything like they did immediately post construction. What’s more, many tree-infested heathland courses not only look but play very differently, as they’ve become veritable parkland hybrids.
But some still play as a heathland course should and Beau Desert is one of these. Its trees are numerous but, in the main, they merely frame the enormously broad, menacing rough areas, which in turn frame generous fairways. Indeed, if one could reach them, the trees that loosely border the magnificently blind, Himalayan 15th would be preferable to the rough. This mindset, this value system (whereby a lie amongst the trees will likely be better than one you’ll encounter in the rough) is a sure sign you’re playing a heathland layout.
The Old Course at Walton Heath was Fowler’s very first design job, and one he secured only because his brother-in-law was an investor. But Fowler proved a quick study. A world-class cricketer, he was 35, for example, when he first took up the game of golf; within two years he played off scratch. Walton Heath was his first foray into golf course architecture and he nevertheless produced one of the world’s great layouts (the New Course, also Fowler’s work, is no slouch either).
Why Fowler’s name doesn’t roll off the tongue alongside that of Morris, Mackenzie or even Colt is a mystery. He was certainly in their class. After all, this was the man who would go on to design both 18s at Saunton and another pair of superb courses at The Berkshire. This was the fellow entrusted with the sweeping and well regarded redesigns of Royal Lytham and Ganton, homes to Open Championships and Walker Cups by turn.
Beau Desert may not ring many bells but it, too, belongs in this rank. It’s perhaps best heathland course you’ve never heard of, much less not played.
When he commissioned design of Beau Desert Golf Club, some 100 years ago, the Marquess of Anglesey lived in the ancient Hall at Beaudesert, a splendid country manor dating back to 1289 (when it was occupied by the noble Trumwyns of Cannock). Known in 13th century Latin deeds as Bellum Desertum, “beautiful wild place”, the estate was later inhabited by all manner of British peerage; indeed, the place is cited by name in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”
The Pagets didn’t come into the Hall and its attendant properties until 1549, when Sir William acquired the estate from a friend: King Henry VIII, who threw in a baronet for good measure.
The ninth Baron Paget of Beaudesert, Henry, was the son of Caroline Paget and Sir Nicholas Bayley of Anglesey. Henry’s son, Henry William, was created the First Marquess of Anglesey in appreciation of his services at Waterloo, where, thanks to French mortar fire, he parted with a leg. [Legend has it that upon receiving this not-insignificant wound, the future Marquess exclaimed to Wellington, “My God! I’ve lost my leg!” His Lordship dryly acknowledged this fact by remarking, “My God. So you have,” and promptly returned to his spyglass.]
The historical serendipities attached to this land and its aristocratic governors would fill several chapters of a book. Indeed they already have; “Beau Desert: The Marquess of Anglesey’s Course” was published in 1992 (and reissued in 2013, to mark the club’s centennial).
Yet for all but six years of its existence, Beau Desert GC has been a local club, played and administered by local commoners.
From the beginning, the Sixth Marquess extended play to a favored group of area businessmen, most of whom worked for nearby mining concerns. “Permit Holders”, these unlanded folks were called. When Paget was obliged to abandon his estate in 1919 (when many nobles did the same, due to heavy tax burdens assessed following World War I), he first leased the course to this group of proto-members; then, in 1932, he sold it to them.
Unlike the Pagets’ great Hall (demolished for scrap during the Depression) the clubhouse at Beau Desert has always been a modest affair, befitting its middle-class membership (that’s British middle class, mind you). This remains a very low-key place, its “common” sensibility — along with its distance from Greater London — beginning to explain why few Americans have heard of the place, much less played the course.
There is another distinctly working-class legacy at Beau Desert, a peculiar one having to do with the fluid, physical characteristics of the golf course itself. Because it was laid out over an abandoned network of coal mines, the ground at Beau Desert GC literally buckles and shifts with regularity as ancient, subterranean shafts slowly deteriorate and collapse. The folks at Beau Desert refer to this phenomenon rather clinically as “subsidence”.
Some of these transformations are subtle. Others are fairly dramatic, such as the lengthy 4-foot depression that abruptly positioned itself in the 2nd fairway a few years back. This “ditch” was eventually filled in for safety reasons by the National Coal Board, “whose staff”, according to the club history, “are regular visitors, repairing subsidence damage as required by the terms of the Deed of Sale.”
Big or small, these changes occur quite suddenly in the context of 100 years’ time. “The hills and hollows on the greens seem to change from one year to the next,” the club history reports. “Hardly a year has gone by without plans being made to level at least one.”
Some have been leveled but they aren’t easily identified; as a group, the 18 putting surfaces at Beau Desert remain most flamboyant. They are, in short, some of the wildest, most interesting greens in the Midlands. In 1974, British architect Fred Hawtree was consulted about “leveling” a few. To the members he wrote, “There are a great many eccentric contours on greens which lead to approaches and putts which go beyond a spirit of adventure.”
Ultimately, few of Hawtree’s proposed changes were implemented at Beau Desert, suggesting the membership here smartly adheres to Goldwater’s golfing corollary that extremism in defense of high adventure is no vice.
It’s very much in vogue today to develop golf courses in and around abandoned quarries or gravel pits. Beau Desert was a forebear in this regard, as Fowler routed his 18 holes amid and directly atop centuries-old coal-mining operations (the last of which ceased activity only in 1993). Indeed, the opening drive here plays across a derelict collier works, dead uphill to an inventively canted punchbowl green. Check out the club’s online photo gallery featuring this and the other 17 holes here.
Fowler particularly liked his cross-bunkers and Beau Desert is replete with these perpendicular hazards. At the 2nd — a titanic par-4 which plays 458 yards along the crest of Cannock Chase — he coyly positioned one well short of the putting surface. It juts in from the left and appears to closely guard the green. This is the illusory gambit Fowler creates here for A) those unfamiliar with the course; or B) those with short memories.
The bunkering at Beau Desert is uniformly strategic and comely. Deep and rugged-looking, the greenside hazards complement well the hugely pitched, severely undulating putting surfaces, which come in all shapes and sizes. The 9th, for example, is situated at the business end of a 263-yard par-4; it’s drivable, in theory. But the volcano green is so small and severely tilted right-to-left that approaching it with a sand-wedge is harrowing enough.
At nearly 10,000 square feet, the 18th green is one of the largest in England and chock full of cunning movement (it has more pin placements than you’ve had hot dinners). Cutting this behemoth with an old 14-inch greens mower required the operator to walk some 6,300 yards, Beau Desert’s full yardage from the back tees.
Fowler also indulged in a bit of elephant-interment — in some unlikely places, such as along the perimeters of putting surfaces. The humps at nos. 4 and 5, for example, are most disconcerting as they obscure portions of their respective greens from the landing areas; they also make putting anywhere in their general vicinity a stern test (read: complete nightmare).
The one-shot holes at Beau Desert are all strong, yet the best one (the 167-yard 7th) is also the longest. Some might find fault with four par-3s all measuring between 142 and 167, and this begins to explain why the par-70 course measures just 6,310 yards from the tips.
Yet length has little do with the challenge here. The trick is negotiating the greens and keeping the ball out of the ubiquitous rough areas, a roiling sea of hillocks and hollows covered with heather, bracken and knee-high native grasses — no small task in Beau Desert’s ever-present wind, as Darwin made clear.
The R&A held final British Open qualifying here for 17 consecutive years, ending in 2000. Former Club Secretary John Bradbury noted that many players preferred Beau Desert as a qualifying site “because they knew good golf would be rewarded. In other words, it was possible to qualify and still be over par.”