A Great Heathland Course: Beau Desert Golf Club

Herbert Fowler is one of those architects whose name isn’t readily attached to the many great courses he laid out or substantially retooled. Cruden Bay? That’s a Fowler. Royal North Devon? Fowler’s renovation of this Old Tom Morris original (a.k.a. Westward Ho!) made it the superb course we know today.

This lack of name recognition begins to explain why a venue like England’s Beau Desert Golf Club (pronounced bo-deh-zare), which Fowler designed in the Staffordshire hamlet of Hazel Slade for the Sixth Marquess of Anglesey, rings few bells. Yet golfers are unlikely to come across a better heathland course.

For his own part, the Marquess (née Charles Henry Alexander Paget) recognized immediately that Fowler had created something extraordinary on his Beaudesert estate. After the course was completed in 1913, Paget whisked Fowler off to his 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 impressive Fowler design you’ve probably never heard of.

Fowler performed most of his brilliant work in his native England, but from time to time he got around. He 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 design at Cape Cod’s Eastward Ho! (whose otherwise odd moniker now makes perfect 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 eventually visit Beau Desert’s 160 acres of elevated, exposed ground some 25 miles north of Birmingham. He came away asserting, “Here might be one of the very best of courses, for the turf is excellent and there is a flavor of Gleneagles about it. It stands high and is pleasanter in hot weather than cold, for the wind can blow there with penetrating shrewdness.”

They may play the Ryder Cup 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.

If you believe the term “links” is often misapplied (you’re correct, it is), then perhaps “heathland” is the source of even greater misunderstanding. Like a links, a heathland golf course is sandy, only inland, upland and very much open to the elements. Walton Heath is a celebrated prototype (Fowler did that one, too), and Beau Desert is a worthy sister, laid out on the treeless heath that was Cannock Chase.

It’s not treeless any longer, of course. Many heathland courses, even the very best ones, haven’t survived to the present day unchanged. After decades of unchecked tree growth, most heathland designs don’t look anything like they did when they opened. In fact, these veritable parkland hybrids not only look different, their playing characteristics have also vastly changed.

But some still play as a heathland course should, and Beau Desert is one of these. Its trees are numerous but they merely frame the enormous, menacing rough areas, which in turn frame generous fairways. Indeed, if one could reach them, the trees would be preferable to the rough—a sure sign you’re playing a heathland layout.

The Old Course at Walton Heath was Fowler’s first design job, and one he secured only because his brother-in-law was an investor. But Fowler was a quick study—within two years of taking up golf, for example, he was a scratch handicap—and his initial foray into course architecture produced one of the world’s great layouts. (The New Course, also Fowler’s work, is no slouch, either.) He went on to design Saunton and a pair of superb 18s at The Berkshire, as well as carrying out sweeping and well-regarded redesigns of Royal Lytham and Ganton, site of next year’s Walker Cup matches.

Why Fowler’s name doesn’t roll off the tongue alongside Morris, MacKenzie or even Colt is a mystery. But he certainly was in their class.It’s very much in vogue today to develop golf courses in and around abandoned quarries and gravel pits. Beau Desert was a forerunner in this regard: Fowler routed his 18 holes amid centuries-old coal-mining grounds. (The last of these operations didn’t cease until 1993.) Indeed, the opening drive here plays across a derelict collier works, straight uphill to an inventive punchbowl green.

Beau Desert is replete with perpendicular hazards, particularly cross-bunkers. At the second, a titanic par-4 that 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.

The same ruse is trotted out on No. 5: From the landing area on this spectacular, 418-yard dogleg left, one looks uphill and is convinced he must fly a mid- to long iron over a yawning, presumably green-fronting bunker, then quickly stop the ball on the green. Such a shot would be impossible, since Beau Desert plays appropriately hard and fast in the heathland tradition. What’s more, it’s not necessary, the cross-bunker being 30 yards shy of the putting surface.

Beau Desert’s greenside bunkers, deep and rugged-looking, complement the hugely pitched, severely undulating putting surfaces, which come in all shapes and sizes. The 263-yard, par-4 ninth, for example, is driveable, in theory. But the green is so small and severely canted 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 full of cunning movement.

The par-3s at Beau Desert are all strong. Yet the best one, the seventh, is only 167 yards and it’s the longest of the one-shotters. This helps explain why the par-70 course reaches just 6,310 yards from the tips. Some might find fault with that relatively short measurement, but length has little do with the challenge here. The trick is negotiating the slick, difficult 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 British Open qualifying here for 17 consecutive years, ending in 2000. Club secretary John Bradbury notes that many players have 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.”At the time he commissioned the design of Beau Desert, the Marquess was living in the ancient Hall at Beaudesert, a splendid country manor dating to 1289. Known in 13th-century Latin deeds as “Bellum Desertum,” or “beautiful wild place,” the estate was later inhabited by all manner of British peerage; it’s even 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 Paget acquired the estate from a friend—King Henry VIII, who threw in a baronet for good measure.

The historical serendipities attached to this land and its aristocratic governors would fill several chapters of a book, and indeed, already have: “Beau Desert: The Marquess of Anglesey’s Course” was published in 1992. Yet for all but six years of its storied existence, Beau Desert has been a local club, played and administered by local golfers.

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 commoners were called. When heavy post-World War I tax burdens forced Paget to abandon his estate in 1919, he first leased the course to this group of proto-members, then sold it to them outright in 1932.

Unlike the Pagets’ great Hall, which was 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). Beau Desert remains a low-key place, which along with its distance from greater London begins to explain why few Americans have heard of, much less played, the course.

There is also a 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 literally buckles and shifts as ancient shafts slowly deteriorate and collapse. The folks at Beau Desert refer to this phenomenon as “subsidence.”

Some of these transformations are subtle. Others are fairly dramatic, such as the lengthy four-foot depression that abruptly positioned itself in the second 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. … The hills and hollows on the greens seem to change from one year to the next. Hardly a year has gone by without plans being made to level at least one.”

In 1974, British architect Fred Hawtree was consulted about leveling several of Beau Desert’s greens. 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. Apparently, club members shared a spirit of golfing adventure that ran deeper than Hawtree’s.