On a recent Zoom call with friends back in my home country of the UK, I didn’t expect the conversation to turn to the latest news of the local golf scene. But then again, the last year should have taught us all to know the limitations of what we can foresee. And the closure of Allestree Park Golf Course has apparently been a fairly major talking point in the Derby area of late.
The news did not come as a total surprise to me, although I previously knew nothing of Derby City Council’s decision to put the municipal course up for sale. The last time I played the course was with my dad, on a gloriously sunny and unseasonably warm day in April 2019. Despite the perfect conditions, and the fact that it was Easter Saturday, the course was almost deserted. While this made for a sprightly pace of play – apart from the inevitable searching for lost balls – it did provoke questions in my mind about the sustainability of the facility. The course was showing signs of a lack of love, too. The greens were a little shaggy, with the cups not cut as crisply as might be expected. In hindsight, it’s hard not to interpret those imperfections as somewhat ominous signs of the onset of the course’s terminal decline.
It is fitting that (what I can only presume to be) my last ever round of golf at Allestree Park was with my dad, and that final 18 was in itself a trip down memory lane for us both. It must have been at least a dozen years since either of us had previously teed it up at Allestree Park, but there was a time when we would frequently play the course – at least during the summer. In my teenage years, we would take advantage of the twilight rates on the long summer evenings that only those who have been in such northerly latitudes between May and July can fully appreciate.
The term ‘twilight rate’ can be a little bit of a misnomer at times. One club in my local area applies such rates after 12:30 p.m., which provides ample time to complete 18 holes in broad daylight in Texas, even in January. But at Allestree Park in the mid-2000s, we took the term much more literally. Starting our round at, say, 6:30 p.m., we would often have only families of rabbits for company on our way around, before finishing in the gathering gloom after 10 p.m. We may have switched to Bubba Watson-style luminous balls for the last couple of holes, but we could still – just about – see well enough to get a full 18 holes’ worth of enjoyment.
This isn’t the place to get into the minutiae of the rights and wrongs of publicly-owned golf courses. However, for what it’s worth, Derby City Council have said that the course will be mothballed for the time being, rather than turned over to alternative uses immediately, in order to give potential bidders more time to formulate their offers. If the course does survive, it will be as a privately-run enterprise, in an area which has no particular shortage of private clubs, but few other municipal courses. Rumor has it that Toyota – which has a factory in the Derby area – wanted to buy the facility in the 1990s, but the council refused. I can’t help but feel that the council might be wishing that the Japanese company would come back with a bid now, but there’s no suggestion that it will.
No, my reason for writing is not to stray very far into political territory, but simply to pay tribute to a fantastic little golf course. At the risk of sounding very pretentious, I feel like quoting Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman”: “attention must be paid.” And, in fact, the course deserves to be much more famous than it is. Set in beautiful surroundings at the very southern tip of Northern England’s spine, the Pennine Hills, Allestree Park was designed by the legendary architect Harry Colt, who was also the creator of Sunningdale, Wentworth and Pine Valley. Opened in 1930, Allestree Park has impeccable pedigree, and relatively little has changed over the years, with 14 of the original 18 holes still in play, albeit with a different routing. Of the four holes that have been lost, one (the original 18th) featured an ‘island tee,’ forcing players to hit over part of a lake. Presumably, the fact that the course is located in the middle of a public park – and therefore the need to peaceably coexist with the other activities that might be going on around the lake – led to the rearrangements in the course’s design.
The course is not long, to put it mildly. It measures 5,728 yards from the tips, and is a par 68, with only one par 5 and five par 3s. But that is not to say that it is not challenging. The singular par 5 on the course, the uphill 12th, has been ranked among the 50 hardest par 5s in the UK according to data from Golfshake.com, with the average player taking almost two shots more than the scorecard would suggest.
The most outstanding feature of Allestree Park was its elevation changes. Set on the side of a hill, the course wound its way up and down, and occasionally across, some pretty steep gradients, meaning that you considered yourself fortunate if you ever had a flat lie. They say the camera makes Augusta National appear much flatter than it is in reality. While I’ve not yet made it to Augusta in person to verify this, I can’t imagine that Allestree Park would even appear vaguely flat on TV, in the unlikely event that a professional tournament were to be located there.
With golf carts very much a no-no (I think I might have seen the club professional driving one once, but that’s about it), Allestree always provided a decent leg workout. The positioning of your pushcart was crucial, in order to avoid it careening down hills were you to misjudge gravity’s effects, as I found out to my cost once or twice. On bumpy paths that twisted and turned up and down through the wooded surroundings, maintaining yourself and your cart in an upright position was enough to keep your concentration between shots.
The severity of the terrain also called for precise approach play. The last time I played the course, I missed the green on the uphill second by a few yards. In firm and fast conditions, my ball shot off the bank protecting the green and raced almost 150 yards down the adjoining third fairway.
With the lake hole long gone, there was very little water to contend with, but the thick woodland was never far away to punish errant shots, while a number of forced carries over dense underbrush were certainly intimidating for my 14-year old self. Okay, I’ll admit it – they are still intimidating to me now. Allestree Park was living proof that a course could be defended, at least from most amateur golfers, without a great deal of length or outlandish trickery, given the right piece of real estate. And Allestree Park was, and still is, a magnificent place to be on a summer’s night. Only now, you might not be there to play golf.