YOU don’t need to know one end of a wedge from the other to fall in love with Ilkley Golf Club, nestled on the banks of the river Wharfe, basking in the lee of the eponymous Moor and the famous Cow and Calf crags.
This is a golf course for poets and painters, romantics and romancers. On an English summer afternoon, halfway down the opening stretch of seven holes that link arms with the burbling waterway on your left, I challenge you not to want to paddle with the kiddies, take your beloved’s hand and walk beneath the dappled branches, or swap golf clubs for fishing rod, and muse away a gentle afternoon.
The spectacular view of the 4th at Ilkley
Having resisted those temptations – because the golf course has far too much allure for you to be whispered away – and sitting on the terrace of the handsome clubhouse, it’s easy to get lost in the spectacle of what we Yorkshire folk think of as ‘God’s own county’. It doesn’t get any better.
Candy floss clouds drift across Rombalds Moor, up above the bustling little town where intrepid locals fashioned their first 9-hole track in 1890 amongst the walls and crags on landscape better suited to sheep than golfers, then as now. When those early devotees moved down into the valley, they created one of the most visually beautiful sporting landscapes you could wish to see, nestled between the river and the rising hillside to the north of the town.
Geographic constraints mean Ilkley is not a long course at just under 6300 yards from the competition tees. It is quirky even, with three short holes and the only two par fives simultaneous amongst those opening seven holes that hug the Wharfe. Don’t let that fool you however.
This is golf at its cleverest and quietly challenging. The third oldest club in the county, Ilkley has a storied past, from the very early days when Tom Vardon was club professional and his brother Harry won his first prize of £5, before going on to lift the Open Championship a record six times.
Harry returned to play the great James Braid to mark the opening of the new clubhouse in 1907, much as the club’s two honorary life members and past Ryder Cup captains Mark James and Colin Montgomerie celebrated the Millennium with a commemorative match.
Monty, who grew up playing his golf at Ilkley, was at the peak of his powers and set the professional course record of 64 that day – a rather modest -5 to the par of 69.
Many a world class golfer has graced the perfectly manicured fairways of a club with distinct influences from the great Dr Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt, and which has benefited more recently from input from renowned architect Jonathan Gaunt.
Nurturing that proud history while moving the club forward in the 21st century is the challenge currently being faced by the club’s first full time secretary/manager Mark Taylor. Mark came to Ilkley two years ago via his PGA training as an assistant at Moor Allerton before moving more towards the commercial side of golf management at Knaresborough.
A members' club with the luxury of full subscription and waiting list to boot, golfing tradition and catering for the membership is at the core of the Ilkley ethos. “We don’t have online booking, this is still a club where members can turn up and play,” said Mark. “A lot of our focus is on ensuring the course is at its very best, with continual investment in it.”
At the moment, alterations to the par 5 6th hole are a work in progress. From tee box to green, Ilkley is a model of sculptured attention to detail. The infrastructure is excellent, the facilities faultless on a course which is easy walking and almost totally flat until you have to climb the steps to the stunning, elevated 16th tee.
It’s tempting to sit down and have a picnic before launching your drive out into space. As Mark James himself says in narrating the flyover video on the club’s website: “You don’t have to be an elite golfer to enjoy this course. Whatever your handicap it will always be a joy to play.”
The combination of mature trees and the Wharfe provide sufficient protection that there’s no need for punishing rough. There’s absolutely no need for five hour rounds here. Off the course too, the club is busy. There has been a major refurbishment of the handsome clubhouse with a light, modern feel, and new terrace doors which make the best of the stunning aspect.
Ilkley has a dining room which can comfortably accommodate 80 people, and an old fashioned 19th bar. Professional Andrew Driver has been in situ since 2015 having served an 11 year apprenticeship under former Ilkley pro John Hammond, and he now has a state of the art teaching studio at his disposal too. In addition, Ilkley has a huge practice area alongside the course. “As important as tradition is, we’re also very aware of driving the business forward,” said Mark.
The club has recently introduced new buggies and apart from his own duties in the increasingly complicated business of running a golf club, what with legislation and health and safety, he has a keen eye on vital income streams. “We pride ourselves on being a proper members’ club, but we also want to attract visiting golfers and societies.”
You can understand the temptation of members to keep word of this magnificent golf course very much to themselves. But as Mark Taylor might offer, with his business hat on, it would be both rude – and unproductive – not to share this gem with a far wider audience. It really is a ‘must play’ course.
Ilkley Golf Club
1 – 375 yds par 4
A slight dogleg left to right, your approach can be blocked out by trees, to a big flat oval green with a bunker on the right. A nice opener.
2 – 152 yds par 3
Over the river but it shouldn’t come into play. Picturesque, huge saucer-shaped green. The river and trees are in play to a hook, with two grassy depressions to the right side.
3 – 198 yds par 3
A tough ‘long’ short hole especially if the prevailing wind is coming down the valley. It’s tempting to bale out right but the green is a minx, kidney shaped and the front left quarter drops away. The greenkeeper could be very mischievous with his pins. Not easy to two putt from anywhere.
4 – 491 yds par 5
A stunning vista, from the island across the broad expanse of the Wharfe. Your target should be the fair- way bunkers near the elbow, but if you find them your second will be blocked out. Another big, undulating green with bunkers front left and right.
5 – 185 yds par 3
A longish par 3 with the river left and trees tight in to the right, with bunkers on both sides and another handsomely sized putting area.
6 – 476 yds par 5
This gentle dogleg right is being reworked with trees taken out between the river and current fairway, the idea being to exaggerate the shape. Fairway bunkers await your drive, with a central, diagonal trap lurking for your second before you arrive at a reasonably flat green with sand on both sides.
7 – 410 yds par 4
It feels like you’re turning inland but you’re just following the winding Wharf. Index 1 is a straight, gently rising par 4, which narrows the closer you get to a green that’s slightly elevated and tucked prettily away. The traps are front left and back right, protecting a green which has a distinct back right to front left slope.
8 – 341 yds par 4
Beware this tricky shorter par 4. You run out of fairway at about 200 yards on a sharp, downhill dogleg to a green that also runs away from front left to back right, with three traps and a grassy run off behind.
9 – 385 yds par 4
Everything’s in front of you, playing up an avenue of trees. Avoid the fairway trap and you’re playing into a green with steep faced bunkers to both sides and a back to front sloping green sitting in a semi circle of pine trees.
10 – 301 yds par 4
A short par 4, driving over a ridge which hides the green. Find the short grass and this should be a birdie opportunity. The main protection is the sloping green from the back right.
11 – 422 yds par 4
A longer, well bunkered par 4 (over 440 yards from the whites) to a huge circular putting surface.
12 – 388 yds par 4
A slight dogleg right, with trees to the right and a fairway bunker waiting for anything baled out left. Again, beautifully kept bunkers, two left and one right, protecting a typically generous putting surface. However the front left quarter of the green has an intriguing undulation best avoided.
13 – 134 yds par 3
Playing from a slightly elevated tee to a narrower green than most, which slopes from the middle to both front and back.
14 – 420 yds par 4
A tough, sweeping dogleg left to right, which rises in front of you. There’s trouble all the way up the right before you play into a sumptuous, slightly elevated green, nestled into a shelf on the hillside. The green itself has a dogleg in it, sloping back right to a front left run off. A terrific hole.
15 – 131 yds par 3
You can almost picture the great doctor in his flat cap, sucking on his pipe and advising exactly how this par 3 should sit at 45 degrees, cut into the hillside. There are bunkers front and back left, steep run offs front and right, and a green it would be easy to put off when running fast. A gem.
16 – 401yds par 4
The only climb on the course. The 360 degree view from this elevated tee is breathtaking with the famous Cow and Calf rocks in the distance. More immediately you have a small stream to cross at about 200 yards, before the trouble – out of bounds both sides – narrows in towards the target, another gently undulating green with bunkers front and centre left.
17 – 403 yds par 4
Out of bounds both sides again for anything sprayed too wildly, plus a couple of fairway bunkers on this slight dogleg. The big saucer-shaped green is tucked away and the trap about 15 yards short also has distinct mounding which will challenge your chipping if you get caught up. The road is tight to the right hand side.
18 – 408 yds par 4
Fittingly your final drive is back across the magnificent river Wharfe in front of the clubhouse, on a gentle dogleg right to left, with fairway bunkers lurking on the corner for anyone trying to bite too much off. The settings of the greens at Ilkley are simply gorgeous and the last hole doesn’t disappoint. Tricky bunkering on the front and left side, then the bigger captain’s charity bunker on the right of this kidney shaped green. A fabulous finish to a fabulous golf course.