It meant an early start - just after dawn - for the 90-minute journey to Meriden, near Coventry but to play one of England’s finest inland course was worth it.
Posh satellite navigation in my pal's car took us right to the attractive rock garden gateway of the Marriott complex tucked away down a leafy lane, sandwiched between the M6 and the A45.
Indeed you can see a few holes of the re-furbished Aylesford course to the left of the northbound carriageway of the M6, just before Junction 4, but it was the tougher Arden which provided the magnet for the day.
It’s here that a few weeks earlier Darren Clarke had claimed the Compass Group English Open with a total of 17 under par round the par-72 course – a score that is totally off the radar screen for most handicap golfers. And as for Michael Campbell’s course record 63 in the event two years ago it’s a game with which we are not familiar!
Both had won serious cheques that would comfortably buy me a four-bedroomed detached house in the provinces, whereas I was paying fifty quid for the privilege of embarrassing myself and possibly losing umpteen balls in the process.
But that’s the beauty of golf. A footie fan couldn’t play at Old Trafford, a rugby devotee run out at Twickenham or a tennis player have a knock-up on Wimbledon’s centre court but for the cost of a nice meal with your missus in a restaurant, most golfers can follow in their heroes’ footsteps.
And the Arden course – 200 yards longer than its little brother – didn’t disappoint.
Indeed one member of our group was so excited he was warming up on the first tee before he realised he hadn’t changed into his golf shoes and had to dash off to his car as we, and two groups behind us, waited somewhat impatiently.
The first provides a gentle par-4 opener to get the butterflies settled but the second, though only 361 yards from the white tees, demands a precise, blind tee shot over water to leave a short iron to a shallow putting surface.
With our round being a qualifier for a possible chance of a trip to Las Vegas with the News of the World, the envious green keeper had tucked all the pins into almost inaccessible corners so there was much three-putting on greens that were still fast-running after being prepared for the European Tour pros, six weeks before.
But it gave us all a chance to match ourselves against the game’s best on a course set up to provide an examination paper much tougher than the current school ‘A’ levels.
The third is a long par-5 needing two big hits to get within 100 yards of the green and woe betide anyone with even a modest slice trying to find the putting surface at the fourth, tucked behind giant oak trees.
Finding the green on the par-3 5th is only the start of your problems on a severely undulating green, while at the 6th, which shares a giant green with the third, use the extra stroke (index 4) you’re offered and get out of there.
Deceptively long, the par-5 7th is well protected by sand and the par-3 8th – all carry over water - forces you into believing you can hit further than you think. It’s at least one more club than it looks when the pin’s at the back .
The uphill 9th (par-4 423 yards) is one of the toughest on the European circuit. With the fairway hemmed in by dense willows and bushes, you feel almost claustrophobic as you consider your tee shot over a gaping lake. Find the short stuff and you’re still faced with 200 yards uphill to a green defended by out of bounds left and two deep bunkers guarding a narrow entrance.
Taking the 400-yard walk to the tenth tee across the front of the hotel and beside practice putting green, allow yourself a glimpse at the 18th, a monstrous par-3 closing hole demanding a 200 yard carry. It’ll be waiting for you later.
The downhill 10th and uphill 11th are gentle introductions to the back nine but the par-5 12th asks a number of questions of your course management and your patience. Two solid hits will get you 50-80 yards from the lake which intimidates your final approach to a green which slopes steeply from back to front.
Don’t be distracted by the young deer which graze nearby. They will quietly snigger at the result if you don’t give the shot 100 per-cent concentration.
The 13th – a 432-yard par 4 - is regarded as having the highest degree of difficulty (Stroke index 1) but its toughness is not reflected in its character which is as dull and lifeless as a horizontal heavyweight boxer. The 14th provides a similarly long but mundane challenge.
The 187-yard 15th is a terrific short hole with a ridge across the middle that makes you pay full attention with your putter even if you find the green with your long-iron or fairway metal tee shot.
At 399 yards the stark figures hardly scratch the surface of the challenge that greets you at 16 – one of the finest short par-4s in England. Two giant oaks at the angle of the left-to-right dogleg beckon you to take them on, mocking anyone not reaching for their driver rather than the conservative route to the left.
As we all found to our cost, the carry is further than it looks. Come up short and tangly scrub will trap you into running up big-numbers as you go for the lake-protected green in two. Face it, it’s not SI 3 for nothing! It’s ruined thousands of medal cards, including pros’.
After a couple of solid, well directed clumps towards the 17th green I felt a little miffed not to walk away with a par five. But I hadn’t spotted the shaved bank to right of the green which pitches any greedy approach into the water.
It was here ten years ago that Wayne Westner waded waist deep into the lake to pitch back on to dry land from an island haven for balls and incontinent Canada geese which messily inhabit the course.
At last then, a chance to re-familiarise with the famous par-3 18th at the Arden course, which poses far more of an intimidating problem for amateurs than it does the pros, who merely fire a 4 or 5-iron into the middle of the green.
For most of us it’s a 3- or 5-wood over water and dense bush, with the tendency to bail out into sand. Walk off with a par and you can call yourself a golfer but even a four is no disgrace, here.
It’s a thrilling finish to a terrific course that every self-respecting golfer in England should try at least once in their lifetime. I finished with a meagre 25 points (with eight strokes) while one of my partners had 35 (4) – a terrific effort.
The Arden course is one I would never tire of playing if only to discover more of its secrets. The goose poo is a problem on and around the greens, especially those close to where they congregate near the lakes but it’s still good value and one of the finest parkland courses in the country. (Incidentally if anyone knows the Rule when taking relief from goose poo on the green tell us on the forum and we'll pass it on for visitors to be informed).
|Golfmagic rating: 9/10|
Visitor green fees for the Arden course are currently £70 per round in midweek (£55 for residents), £80 at weekends (£65). For special golf and leisure packages call the Marriott Forest of Arden (01676 – 522335)