Normally, I’m the sort of golfer who turns up just before the tee-time and plays. Sometimes I might roll a few on the putting green. Occasionally, but not often, I might swish the driver once or twice. Usually I’ll then smash said club into the unknown… otherwise known as the right rough. But occasionally, and usually at somebody else’s invitation, the opportunity arises to do things a little differently.
So it was last weekend at the Grove, a glorious golf, hotel and spa resort in the unlikely environs of Watford, just inside the M25. With five-star luxury and sensational facilities, it’s little wonder that it’s become the England football team’s venue of choice ahead of Wembley internationals. In fact, the last time I visited, one of the abiding memories was of then-manager Fabio Capello sclaffing a wedge through the 17th green and throwing his arms in the air as only Italians can. I suppose there’s little time for practising golf when you have six games a year to prepare for!
Anyway, if some of the players were to devote themselves to golf there is nowhere better to do so than at the Grove. Visiting is like being a tour player for the day; you arrive at the bag drop and attentive staff appear from all sides to remove clubs, shoes, trollies, umbrellas and any other golfing paraphernalia that might be lurking in your boot. Checking in requires minimal effort and by the time you emerge from the luxurious locker room your clubs are waiting, having even been given a little polish. A small thing, for sure, but one that is not unappreciated.
And then it’s off to the range. But this is not just any old practice ground.. oh no, it’s tour spec with pyramids of pristine balls, beautifully mown turf as lush as any fairway, bunkers that actually contain sand and not an ancient portion of brown porridge, and a lovely sheltered chipping and pitching area where the odd shank or thin won’t end up on the first tee or in the secretary’s office (not that I’ve ever done that, you understand). When you spend time preparing to play it’s easy to see why the professionals place so much stock in a proper warm-up. Here’s a newsflash: it helps you play better!
With long and short game sorted, all that remains is a leisurely stroll up to the most enormous, and billiard-table smooth putting green you can imagine. Tempting as it is to just crack straight on with the round, you ignore putting at your peril… the greens at the Grove are some of the finest you will ever land short, long or wide of.
When you arrive at the first tee a starter gives you a bit of a chat, hands you a free (yes, free!) course planner and scorecard and invites you to help yourself to tees, divot tools, pencils and anything else in his tray of goodies. Of course, when you’re paying a premium for a round of golf, you might say it’s the least they could do.. but you’ll be amazed how many courses don’t. At the Grove, though, service is king.
But enough of all the fripperies… what of the course , you cry! Well, it was designed by Kyle Phillips, who apart from being one of the nicest people in golf, is also one of the most talented. His most famous work is Kingsbarns in Fife where he transformed a dull and featureless piece of land overlooking St Andrews into a course that now ranks among the Top 20 in Britain. At the Grove, he’s worked another miracle, creating a lovely parkland course that looks like it’s been there for decades. The fairways rise and fall, the bunkering is very clever and water comes into play on a couple of devilish holes that run alongside the Grand Union canal. The fairways and greens are generous in proportions, but you have to be in the right areas. Tough but fair – and very enjoyable - is probably the best way to describe it.
It’s so good, in fact, that within just a couple of years of opening it was winning awards and hosting the world’s best players at the WGC American Express Championship. Fortunately for golf fans in the south of England, Tiger Woods was at his imperious best and on a five-tournament winning streak when he pitched up in Watford. Unfortunately for me I was at a trade show in Munich and missed one of world’s greatest player’s most commanding performances less than five miles from my house. Not that it still rankles, obviously. He won by eight in the end, obliterating both the field and the course.
With all the trauma of recent years and the insipid performances that have followed, it’s good to be reminded just how extraordinary Tiger was. The 9th hole at the Grove is a monument to that. A muscular par-five that plays uphill and usually into wind, it’s one tough hole. During that week in 2006 it was the 18th hole and Tiger eagled it on the Thursday and Friday. Just for good measure, he did it again on Day 3. Three plaques on the fairway, all within about 20 yards of each other, mark the feat. Just drop a ball and see if you can get it up and down from 250. I could stand there all day and probably not even get it on the green. In fact, the only way I’ll ever make a genuine three on that hole is by canning a 9-iron.
So, after a carving my ‘Tiger’ ball into the formal gardens with a 3-wood and not faring much better with my game ball I was grateful for the sanctuary of the half-way hut. One of the most important barometers of a venue’s quality, I’m delighted to report that the hot offerings did not disappoint. Real bacon, real sausages, brown sauce, chunky bap… perfection.
I won’t bore you with the details of my back nine (or the front nine for that matter) but suffice to say that the course lived up to its reputation for outstanding design and immaculate conditioning. And after retiring to the fantastic Stables bar for a pint and a post-round post-mortem , we emerged to find the car out front, the clubs polished and packed in the boot, with the trollies cleaner than they’ve ever been. In fact, the only thing missing was a complimentary air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror.
A round of golf at the Grove is a real experience, and from start to finish it never fails to impress. The American country club model might not seem like the obvious fit for the UK market, but at the Grove it really works. We all like to feel special… even if we don’t play that way.
One night’s B&B and a round of golf costs just £179. Click here for more.