Or, Pavlov's doglegs
I think it was Pavlov who said “if you want new ideas, read old books”. Thinking about the foibles of us golfers, and the work he did around psychological conditioning, he might have had a great deal to say about the hacker’s mindset, but that is perhaps a topic for another day. The point of the quote, though, was to clumsily illustrate that it can sometimes help to look back at what has worked well before.
It’s all there at Painswick, if you look hard enough. The past, the present and maybe even the future of golf. The original course had been laid out in 1891 - pretty early in the overall timeline of English golf. A past Open Champion, David Brown, had been charged with creating a nine hole course atop Kimsbury Camp, an Iron Age settlement in the Cotswolds.
This was before any of the Surrey & Berkshire heathlands; before many of the significant links were formed. It was before the Open was played south of the border; before the Victorian golfing boom really kicked in, and a couple of decades before what most architecture students would consider the heyday of strategic golf design.
Back then, they played with gutty balls and hickory clubs, and there was less of an emphasis on fairness. As a result, courses would sometimes include fascinating features like blind shots and punchbowl greens, elements which the modern designs all but exclude, a few remaining famous examples notable for their survival.
The course works its way across the Cotswold Escarpment, the ramparts of a two and a half thousand year old hillfort still heavily involved in the routing. Between these lie a number of craters, the remnants of disused quarries that would have provided raw materials for the gorgeous sandstone buildings that line the rural roads to this golfing backwater. But “backwater” implies a negative tone, and that is not my intention, for within that strong presence of the distant and ancient past at Painswick, there is much here that ought not to be forgotten in the present and future of golf.
Today the course is eighteen holes, though the story of the development from Brown’s original nine to what is played today is far from clear from my brief (read: almost non-existent) research. What is clear is that Painswick remains a testament to the courage and vision of those intrepid early golfers, and a severe test to each and every golfer. The scorecard states 4,831 yards from the back tees, with a par of 67 and slope rating of 110, but like most scorecards it tells you next to nothing about the experiences and difficulties ahead of you, or of the wonderful, sweeping, majestic views.
The presentation is intentionally simple, but the surfaces are firm and there are tight lies and interesting shots everywhere. This common land through which the golf is played has certain protections on it, which prevent artificial irrigation, and the club has only a couple of green staff. But as a result of this, and the free-draining soil, the fine-leaved grasses remain dominant in the strong, lean sward, and the contours on which the approaches and greens are so well positioned ensure plenty of variety.
Balls landing from a height provide a rare, hollow thump that is seldom heard in golf these days, a sound which echoes through the patches of woodland that line the hillside, and the fact that so many fairways and greens slope across or away from play makes judgement so important, and difficult, here.
Like thousands before me, I stand on the first tee (named “Attack”!) with no idea what to do next. The log markers seem to face up an impossibly steep hill with a tall marker post at its crest, and so attack we do, blasting our modern drivers towards the peak, and when, gasping for breath barely three minutes into the round, we reach the plateau across which most of the course runs, we see a flag on the other side of a treacherous gully.
The blind shot, along with the concept of crossing fairways, is much-maligned in modern golfing circles, but whilst I understand the arguments in terms of both fairness and safety, there is a part of me that agrees with Bernard Darwin about the simple joy of such “an awfully big adventure”; the thrill of hitting a shot, and then scrambling to a position where the result can be seen (much more on that here). At Painswick, there is no escape from either device, but it proves to be so much fun, and on many of the tees, we marvel at the challenge ahead - visible or otherwise - and of the courageous green sites and natural, rugged contours that lead you towards each flag, fluttering in the breeze. After a while, the phrase “this is a good hole” becomes both comical and unnecessary, for we use it on each teebox.
On about the third, or fourth perhaps (“Outlook”, or “Breach”) - Painswick is one of those fluid experiences where you’re too busy trying to work out what happens next to worry about your position on the course - it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve not seen a bunker yet, and I ask my playing partner if there are any. He pauses for a moment before confirming that the course is bunkerless, and to me this slight delay in response is indicative of the unique demands of golf here. For many of the greens slope away from play, or wickedly to one side, and all around are grassed banks, hollows and troughs that provide so much more intrigue than formulaic sand traps ever could.
Some courses are famous for being bunkerless - Royal Ashdown Forest (Old), for example, and Berkhamsted - but, perhaps as a result of my customary lack of preparation for this pilgrimage, I’d no idea that Painswick was also in that category. At least that provides some category for it, I suppose, for it is otherwise unlike anything else I’ve seen in the world of golf. I wonder to myself if anyone has ever got all the way round before realising this lack of man-made intervention, for there is plenty else to distract the player from noticing (footnote: it turns out there is a bunker at the club, but it is for practice only; a wonderful irony!).
We continue smiling as our modern clubs and balls provide little defence against the stark interrogations of Victorian design and Mother Nature, until we reach the final green (“Homeward Bound”), and shake hands after a couple of hours of sublime enjoyment. This type of course is inspiring and exciting - an example of what would have been a great walk not only unspoiled by golf but vastly enriched.
Driving home on roads that are now becoming familiar through recent, similarly uplifting visits to Cleeve Hill, I reflect on all of the past and present of Painswick, and start to think about the future of this glorious outpost. Such journeys are made in search of all that is best about traditional golf, and to that end this has been a roaring success, but the stark contrast between the presentation style in evidence atop Painswick Beacon and the green blankets of the typical PGA Tour venue bothers me. For the golf I love was never about soft greens and well-defined targets; it was about finding a way to work a ball through a running landscape, where human interference was hardly evident bar a flag or two.
In these times - where land is increasingly scarce amid a booming population, and with environmental integrity becoming as important to individuals and collectives as it always ought to have been - this sort of golf course, where the sport exists in harmony with the terrain and the other land users, must surely have a role to play.
The move towards stricter control of fertilisers, pesticides and other applications is already resulting in increasing issues for factors like wormcasts, but the benefits of a return to a more natural, fundamental style of course management can only be good for the sustainability of the game, long-term. Not only in the ecological sense, but financially, too. Not to mention the long-suffering worms.
If the courses are presented in a manner that not only minimises the impact on the local habitats and soils (and the neighbouring populations, human and otherwise), but also embraces the roots of the game, it will surely help bring this wonderful, varied sport back to where it belonged in the age of expansion that Painswick was part of - an inexpensive sport for everyone. A simple, wholesome, accessible pastime.
When David Brown laid out the original course, there would have been no option but for playing firm conditions and natural green sites, and to this day this version of golf remains true to these important factors. Our green fees this afternoon are a little under twenty pounds each, for two hours of delight in the origins of golf, and it seems criminal to have extracted so much joy from the afternoon for this paltry sum.
The course planner (which I buy more out of feeling awkward about paying so little to play rather than for the yardages, and in any case the wild landscape onto which we step more or less laughs in the face of anything but trial and error in judging the shots!) includes a nod to the traditional merits of golf presented in this style, calling Painswick “a sanctuary for the intelligent golfer”, and while my play clearly disqualifies me from that term, by the time we finish I know why the people who play here really, really love this place.
This is golf at its best, for me - as far away from the dyed blue waters and subsoil heating systems that will shortly appear on our television screens as any other course I’ve seen - but while I enjoy seeing the more upmarket courses as much as the next person, I feel in my bones that there is at least equal value in the experience at the rustic end of the scale, and there is a deeper connection available here. Perhaps that connection is to the magnetic appeal of the origins of the game itself; perhaps to all of the history that has taken place here, back to the first golf and way, way beyond.
For we stand perched in a landscape full of stories and meanings for those who have gone before us, and know that many of those who follow will also find the same enchantment here. It is simply a wonderful place to walk and play golf, and this Painswick could perhaps be a Beacon that shows the rest of golf a way forward, a future that will use some minimalist ideals to protect all that golf once was, and permit much of the rest could once again drop away.
A final glance at the logo on the card as I prepare to reluctantly leave, and I remember to look up what the club’s motto means. “Facta non verba” translates from the Latin as “acts, not words; actions speak louder than words” and, after an afternoon where the golf course embraces and demands those Victorian ideals of courage and fortitude, it couldn’t be more apt. There is little in the way of distr-action at Painswick; it is all about the action. Enough words already, you’ll no doubt agree. Just go and play it!
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