It is hard to think that in many years to come discerning golfers could be recommending golf courses known as the Blair and the Johnson.Thankfully the chances are zero, but here I am in the rolling countryside of Hertfordshire, just over 27 miles from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster with the option of playing either the Melbourne or Palmerston course named after the English Prime Ministers of 1835 and 1855 respectively.
A house has been situated overlooking the River Lea since 1239 and Queen Elizabeth I was once kept prisoner near here when her sister, Mary I, sat on the throne of England and would often walk along the banks of the river with a confidant, John Brocket, after whom the house became named.
The neo-classical, red brick mansion that we see today upon our arrival was built in 1746 taking 15 years to complete. The house passed into the ownership of the Lamb family who became peers taking the title Lord Melbourne. William Lamb, the second Lord, went onto become Prime Minister as did his brother in law, Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston.
Moving swiftly up to date we do not need to know much more of the history as we are here to play golf. Suffice to say during the 1920s the house and 543-acre estate passed into the ownership of wealthy brewers, the Nall-Cain family, whose head took the title Lord Brocket. It was the present Lord Brocket who rented the property out on a 60 year lease having been jailed for an insurance fraud committed in 1991, the year before the first golf course was opened.
Having changed our shoes in what was once the old laundry to the hall but has now been converted into a stylish split level clubhouse with exposed oak timber beams, we head off to the first tee very much hoping that we are not suffering from a slice.
The reason being that the par 72 Melbourne Course that opened in June 1992 to a design by former Ryder Cup players, Peter Alliss and Clive Clark, starts with a 330 yard, par four hole that not only has the river running all the way down the right hand side but a fairway that slopes, quite steeply in places, towards it.
Having negotiated that safely we have to deal with an even greater expanse of water as the Lea bows out and we need to cross it to get to the front of the green 176 yards away. All in all quite a stressful and potentially wet start.\
We start to climb uphill at the long third and then turn back on ourselves. It was here that we need to have a course guide in our hands or on our wrist as, having skirted the trees down the right hand side, I hit what I thought was a perfect shot to the front of the green on this lengthy par four only to find that I had landed on the 16th green and the fourth green was the other side of the river that I had avoided on holes one and two and was still some distance away!
It is such a shame that the English winter has been so cold and wet as the Melbourne would be a joy to play when the fairways are firm and lush when you can get some extra distance because, at 6,616 yards from the silver tees, this course plays long.
However, the greens were in excellent condition although many of the very strategically placed bunkers were extremely wet and there were still a number of worm-casts that will not be there in a couple of months time to the great relief of the course manager.
The Melbourne is very popular with societies and it is easy to see why as there are some tremendous risk and reward holes and enough wide open spaces to have a crack at from the tee. By picking a tee time at lunch time, I was lucky to have the course almost to myself.
There are no weak holes here although amongst my favourites were the par four eighth where big hitters can attempt to cut across the trees and cut off the right hand dogleg although mere mortals like me must simply aim at the left sided bunker and hope for some roll down the slope towards a raised green.
Having plotted our way carefully round we come to what is a thoroughly exhilarating finish starting with a long par three hole at 14 that is well protected by sand, the subtle 15th that requires an accurate drive so as not to be obstructed by pines before playing into an undulating green that brings the ball into the left had side where a bunker lurks. My only query is why it is called ‘Four gates’ as I could not see any?
The 422 yard 16th takes us back down to the river and the green I hit whilst playing the fourth. Does one lay up short of the water or go for it? Fortunately the flag was at the front so I was able to hit a five wood to the green and just made it. My shot of the day had me beaming with delight.
The 17th holds few perils provided we stay on line and that brings us to the wonderful 18th where Brocket Hall can be seen on its hill in all its glory, and what a hole it is- we even get to ride a ferry over the water to the green.
Having done the hard bit on the 531 yard par five and sensibly laid up short of the water, my horribly fat third shot stood no chance of making it and now my ball, with many hundreds of others, sleeps quietly with the fishes.
The old stable block has been converted in first class accommodation and is a perfect way to enjoy both courses in a most relaxing fashion. After a wonderful breakfast served by Robert and the very helpful staff in the clubhouse, on the morning I was due to go out onto the Palmerston Course, favoured by the lower handicap players, the heavens opened and I had no chance to experience what is widely regarded as a tighter, more difficult challenge than its older brother.
Featured as one of England’s top 100 courses I am eagerly looking forward to going back to this leafy part of Hertfordshire to take it on.
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