Silloth on Solway Golf Club
In my eyes Silloth is a golf course that has the ability to transcend your typical ‘championship links’.
It has charm, character, intrigue and an identity all of its own but at the same time presents the truest, and quite often, stiffest of challenges to the golfer. It's an inspirational golf course with an endless collection of brilliant golf holes.
At only 6,641 yards from the tips you may question whether this rare type of links has the calibre to test the elite. I can only speak of my experiences here in which five of the eight rounds (in their annual 36-hole Scratch Open) have been non-qualifiers for handicap purposes due to the CSS rising so high and on the other three occasions it has come mightily close!
At a much higher standard this fantastically undulating, gorse-laden links proved more than a match for the leading players in the country when it hosted the English Amateur Championship in 2012. That event also saw a ‘reductions only’ in the strokeplay stage when only a handful of competitors were able to break par.
Obviously the conditions of the day (Silloth is noted for its fierce and ever-changing wind) will impact scoring but its championship credentials cannot be questioned.
And now for the reason why I personally hold it in such high regard… the fun element. In addition to being a true challenge the course has three key aspects which tick all the boxes that I look for in a truly great golf course; movement of land, unique and varied green sites plus the quality of the turf. Silloth scores top marks in all of these categories.
The lightly-bunkered fairways toss and turn like a crumpled duvet but not only that these billowing humps and bumps contain vast amounts of strategy as they wend their way through and over the large sand dunes. The seventh is perhaps the best example where the tee shot sets up a heroic drive over a mass of heather but it is the angled ridge that runs through the fairway that adds an extra dimension to the hole. Use it wisely and your ball will feed to the left and nearer to your ultimate target, but leak your drive right and you will land on the wrong side of it and face a much longer and tougher approach to a hidden and sunken green.
The fourth is another good example where the canny player will perhaps hit a longer iron from the tee and gain almost as much distance as he would have done with a driver by landing his ball on the downslope at the start and wider part of the fairway. The same can be said of the third whilst the angle and slope of the recently revised 11th can also aid or hinder the golfer.
The green locations at Silloth are virtually second to none in my playing experience. The front nine especially exudes such a wide variety of shots required to find the putting surfaces. You play to a wonderful punchbowl green at the first - a hole which simply says "Welcome to Silloth, this is what I'm all about and this is what you're going to get for the next few hours" and then another at the seventh, a brilliant raised plateau green at the third, a terrifyingly long and narrow green at the fourth, with steep drop-offs at either side, and a deftly raised green at the exceptional short ninth with bunkers and deadly fall-aways defending it on all sides; one of the best short holes in golf.
There are a few more ‘regulation’ green settings on the flatter inward half yet it still has the most audacious of them all. The location of the green at the fascinating par-five 13th is set high in the sky on the hogs-back of a dune ridge that must be played up to, across broken ground, with either the second or the third shot. The drive may be generous but the torment this hole can cause with subsequent shots is quite magnificent if one gets just slightly out of place. Speaking from experience it’s possible that the correct shot in certain circumstances, especially if one has missed the fairway from the tee, is to hit a 70 yard lay-up rather than risk finding the upper part of the hole, bordered by heather on the right and gorse down the left. Missing the green with a 20 yard chip in a crosswind is not entirely implausible either. I’ve grown to love, admire and respect this 511 yard hole the more times I’ve played it although I dread to think what my average score is on what 'should' be a birdie hole looking at the scorecard.
The turf at Silloth, like most top links courses, is tight, firm, fast-running and sandy but also importantly here it provides a huge advantage if you are on it compared to being in the abundance of heather that flanks many of the generous fairways. The emphasis on being able to shape shots into the differing green complexes makes this virtually impossible from off the fairway. I’m sometimes a fan of heather as a punishment for missing the fairway and it works well on this course. It usually allows for a ball to be found quickly and offers the chance of recovery, or at least progression, whilst at the same time tempting the golfer to try and advance it further than his ability allows. The cost of finding the purple stuff is usually half a stroke but can often be turned into much more than this by the over-ambitious player.
Due to the various changes in elevation Silloth has some full and partially blind shots. These create great amounts of anticipation. Waiting to see how close your ball is to the cup at the first or seventh, perhaps benefiting from the natural element of chance, is a fabulous feeling as is the hopeful expectation of seeing your ball in the fairway on a number of holes but particularly the third and fourth.
It could be argued that the biggest weakness of Silloth could actually be its greatest strength. One may say that there are no true all-world holes (the fourth into a headwind comes agonisingly close in my opinion and I think the seventh does meet the criteria) but regardless there are at least a dozen holes which border on greatness and are nothing short of exceptional. Not many courses can go this deep in terms of both quality and diversity. Silloth is more than the sum of its parts but individually the parts are still outstanding.
It would also be amiss of me not to mention the high number of superb driving holes. The opening tee-shot, hard against the practice putting green under the shadow of the clubhouse, is one of my favourite in golf whilst the drive at the fifth is arguably the best of the lot; an angled ridge must be carried with out-of-bounds a real and constant threat down the right. The tee-shots on the aforementioned fourth and seventh are of the highest order too with the drives at the 11th, and 18th also asking serious questions of a golfers credentials.
Meanwhile the back-nine requires harder hitting as it plays 400 yards longer, albeit to a par of 37 versus 35. The wind direction in this regard is vital too. Until recently most of my rounds had experienced a headwind on the inward half and where standing on the 11th tee, at the far end of the course, is the beginning of one of golf's toughest assignments. However, with a breeze at your back the course does play much easier over the closing holes and I therefore think the course plays better when the wind is helping on the front nine. But regardless, the fact that the links plays so well in any wind is a testament to the design.
The short holes are quite magnificent too. The short ninth, previously mentioned, is 140-yards of pure brilliance whilst the seventh asks you to work the land more in order to find the green. The 12th and 16th are not dissimilar and will both play to roughly the same yardage. The former allows more of a ground approach and often requires a right-to-left shape whilst the latter calls for precision ball-striking with what is likely to be a long club to a raised green defended by deep bunkers and gorse.
So what’s not to like? Well, I’m still undecided on the short par-four tenth. I don’t dislike the hole but I’m not sure that it’s of the same phenomenally high standard as the remainder of the course whilst the only other hole I don’t really care for is the eighth; not a bad hole by any stretch of the imagination but it doesn’t quite have the Silloth sparkle. Personally, I’d love to see a hole on the other side of the dune-ridge down the right of this hole and closer to the Solway Firth. After exiting the seventh green from behind I'm sure there would be room for a stellar par four that would culminate close to the ninth tee.
All-in-all though, and especially if you are willing to embrace the quirky elements, Silloth is close to being a flawless golfing experience with a rhythm that is unmatched. It has so much variety within its 18 holes I can’t think of many courses that interrogate the golfer with a mix of eccentricity and challenge as well as this Cumbrian masterpiece does. You could play the course for a lifetime and continue to learn new things about it each time because it is never predictable. It's one of the most underrated golf courses I know.