The Walsall Golf Club was formed on the 25th April 1907, with the solemn resolution ‘that a golf club be and is hereby formed’ passed at a meeting of six well known local men in early middle age. There were two solicitors, one doctor, two businessmen and a clergyman. They elected officers and a committee, and sent out a circular to ‘certain approved names’ inviting applications for membership. One of the solicitors, inevitably, drafted the Rules.
As a result of steps taken after an earlier preliminary meeting, they had secured the use of the land they needed for the course by agreeing to take leases on two adjacent pieces of farmland, each for fourteen years. Together, they made up a piece of land stretching uninterrupted (there was no Broadway) from Highgate Road to Bell Lane: the land at the top end, about 30 acres, was Highgate Farm; that at the bottom was Gorway Farm, about 76 acres and part of Lord Bradford’s Walsall estate. Each piece was also subject to farming leases in favour of other tenants, so the land was well supplied with sheep.
By the end of May, there were 149 members—all men, but the founders had it in mind to form a Ladies’ Club as a revenue source. They did so in January 1908, with a starting membership of 28.
In August 1907, after help from the professional at Sutton, there were six holes ‘ready for play’, starting on the Highgate farm land. On the 5th, Bank Holiday Monday, the course was opened with the first balls being driven by the Captain and the Honorary Secretary. The number of holes was increased to fourteen in May 1908, and fifteen in 1909. The members were content to play 18 hole rounds either as 14+4 or 15+3 in the monthly medals and bogeys, as well as in the competitions at the spring and autumn meetings and in the majors which had been established in October 1908. But some were more ambitious, and between 1911 and 1914, there were put forward three separate proposals for extending the course to 18 holes. Two of these were still under scrutiny when war was declared on 4th August 1914.
World War I
Many members and staff enlisted, and activity in the Club declined. After the declaration of war, there was never a time when there were more than three men on the course, and in 1917 there was only one. In 1916 the number of holes was reduced to 9. Many of those who had enlisted did not return, and amongst the fallen was the winner of the Club championship in 1910. Most of those who died were young, and serving as junior officers in the South Staffords, though the professional, John Higgins, who had enlisted in 1916, served with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He lost his life in Italy on October 28th 1918, fourteen days before the Armistice.
Dr Mackenzie-First Visit
The Club just about survived, helped by income from the farming leases which it had acquired before the conflict began, and particularly by virtue of the continued existence and efforts of the Ladies’ Club. Nevertheless, in November 1918, it was on its last legs. Its salvation lay not only in the decision to resume the quest for a course of 18 holes, but also in the choice of designer.
Dr. Alister Mackenzie attended and made his inspection before delivering his report (with plan) on 13th January 1920, He proposed a course of about 6,000 yards in two loops of 8 and 10 with ‘short forward walks between holes’. He was engaged both for design and supervision of the work at a cost £2,000, funded by a members’ loan scheme. His course was completed in the late spring of 1921 and opened in early May. The layout is shown in contemporary OS maps, but since what existed before his arrival is not known, it is not possible to say with certainty what proportion was attributable solely to Mackenzie. Reasoned conjecture from a number of sources would suggest that at least 9 holes were entirely new, and that the rest were altered in some significant way.
The combination of the new course and a renovated club house led to an increase in membership, and the Club prospered. But in February 1923, came news of a threat to the existence of the Club in the form of a Corporation scheme to construct a Ring Road. It was to pass through the Gorway farm land, and bisect the course.
There followed six years of complex, rolling negotiations based on the inevitable fact that the Club was to lose both the land used for the highway, and the land above the Ring Road, consisting of the Highgate farm and about 20 acres of Gorway land. The negotiated result required the Corporation to compensate the Club by acquiring the freehold of 106 acres, made up of the remaining 55 or so acres of Gorway farm on the south-eastern side, supplemented by a further 51 acres of adjoining land: which land would then be leased to the Club at a concessionary (non-commercial) rent. This was incorporated in ‘Heads of Agreement’, announced in October 1928, together with many other provisions, including undertakings by the Corporation to construct a golf course on the land at its expense, and pay a fee of 200 guineas for a golf architect of the Club’s choice.
Dr. Mackenzie—Second Visit
The Club had engaged Alister Mackenzie before the Agreement was announced, and was lucky to get him. His reputation was much enhanced since 1921 and he was a busy man. He came to Walsall on 5th January 1928, having recently completed Royal Melbourne, Royal Sydney, and Royal Adelaide (all 1926) and Lahinch (1927). Within a matter of days, he had inspected the land and drawn a plan. His design consisted of two circular loops of nine holes, the front nine moving clockwise, and the back (and longer) nine, anti-clockwise. This time, unlike on the occasion of his first visit, he had a blank canvass, Now, on the land available to him there were only five holes from the 1920-21 course, and those, perhaps with the exception of one hole and a separate putting surface, would be dispensed with as incompatible with his concept. It is worthy of note that this design, as that in 1920-21, causes a constantly changing direction of wind and sun in relation to the player as he or she moves round the course.
Work began under the Borough Surveyor in February 1928, by which time Mackenzie was in California reviewing progress at his design at Cypress Point and undertaking an exploratory inspection at Pasatiempo. He made several other trips to the United States, and between times when in England visited Walsall, before the completion of the course in early 1930. It was opened (three days before the commencement of the lease) with a match between the Captain’s team and the Second Team Captain’s team on 22nd March 1930, at which time Mackenzie was working in Uruguay and Argentina. After his return to England, he came to Walsall on the 3rd June, and delivered his final report and recommendations.
To put this brief account into an historical perspective. During the first two weeks of July 1931, Alister Mackenzie was at Augusta with Robert Tyre Jones. He was there to stake out the holes for Augusta National, having been chosen as the designer of the project by Jones himself, who had recently played Cypress Point and Pasatiempo and been impressed.
The leases, the course and the players
Between 1930 and 1983, the land was held under a series of leases, all at a concessionary rent, while the Course remained substantially as it had been laid out. There was a wholesale review of the bunkering immediately after the 2nd World War, and tree planting was begun in a modest way in September 1952, but expanded in the 1960s and 70s. Two existential threats were overcome at this time: the first in 1968 when a government-supported plan to drive a relief road through the course from Bell Lane to Broadway was abandoned after an in-house assessment of the Club’s likely financial claim was communicated to the Corporation. The second and more serious threat was that posed by part of the Structure Plan put forward between 1974 and 1976 by Walsall Metropolitan Borough (as it had become). This contained a proposal to build 600 ‘quality houses’ on the land. The lengthy public enquiry into the scheme recommended the deletion of this aspect of the plan.
The course was played and enjoyed by many professional golfers over the years, household names from home and abroad, including some who were winners of the Open, as were Max Faulkner, Bobby Locke and Roberto De Vincenzo; another who was to be an Open winner, such as A.W.B Lyle; and some, like Jack Newton, who came close. It was also home to some fine amateur golfers, none more so than T.W.B. Homer, who as a Walsall member, twice, in 1972 (Royal St. Georges) and 1974 (Muirfield), won the Amateur Championship, the oldest and, some would say, the most sought-after amateur competition in the world.
From about 1978, the traditional concessionary nature of the rent began to fall out of favour with the Council, and the best professional opinion advised that any renewal of the lease would involve an increase in the rent (at that time £1,000) by a factor of at least 30. Following counsel’s advice, the Club pressed to buy the freehold. After four years, its efforts were rewarded: the Club acquired the freehold under a transfer of the 1st August 1983.