Story & Photos by: Larry Mayran

It was mid-October and after a previous week’s worth of mind-numbing business seminars while quartered in a large urban hotel in the northwest region of England, I was  at last free to proceed on a new path that offered a welcome change of environment.

Lush English countryside is picture perfect backdrop for the Grove Golf Club course.

My itinerary was planned around a golf and travel experience that would take me to the southeastern part of the UK. The destination--a 300-year-old royal retreat morphed into a stunning resort and championship links in Hertfordshire, located about 30 miles north of London.

Armed with a British Rail England FlexiPass, I followed a scenic route that took less than an hour from Britain’s capital city. Pleasingly absent with travel by rail were the long airport security lines and luggage restrictions. Present were the pastoral countryside images that streamed by my  picture window revealing small farms with herds of black-faced sheep that grazed on lush grasses, canals that channeled into the terrain disappearing into the woods, and a few dairy cows shaded by lone pasture trees.

“Watford Junction, Hertfordshire,” announced the conductor, jolting me from my scenic reverie. Hertfordshire (locals pronounce it “Hartfordshire”) is home to The Grove. This former domain of the Earls of Clarendon has a history full of political intrigues and lavish social escapades, especially during the 18th century as Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and the elite of British society escaped the confines of London for lavish “weekending” parties at the country estate.

The Grove  a 300 year old royal retreat was a favorite of Queen Victoria.

The 1753 home of the 1st Earl of Clarendon underwent a multi-million dollar restoration program between 1996 and 2003 when it was converted to a hotel with 26 individually designed guest rooms. In the adjoining wing are an additional 221 rooms and suites. Also added were the Sequoia, a world-class spa; the Stables and Glasshouse, two casual but handsomely designed restaurants; Colette’s, a fine dining establishment; and of course, the 18-hole championship golf course.

My room in the restored mansion was spacious, decorated in colorful hues of yellow, beige and earth tones. The modern amenities showcased in the luxurious bathrooms, showers, The White Company toiletries, and large plasma screen TVs were everything one would expect from a premier resort destination.

Despite its traditional aristocratic heritage, elegant interiors, and imposing look, I found not a trace of English frumpiness that tends to come with fashionable manor homes festooned with museum-quality antiques and fixtures. Everything about The Grove was inviting, comfortable, and kind of fun. General Manager Jane Goodyear refers to their environment as a unique mix of friendly attentiveness, both welcoming and hip, which she translated into “groovy grand.” 

A stone bridge crosses a wandering canal at the Grove Inn’s 300 acre property.

Even with the modern trappings the ancient manor still leached vestiges of another era. The small elevator that took me from the lobby to my 3rd-floor room opened to a dark angled corridor eerily draped in black velvet curtains on one side while dimly lit modern art works lined the other wall. The drapes muffled all sound except for my breathing, now coming in short pants. I felt like I was backstage at the Phantom of the Opera - could the masked phantom still be lurking behind the black drapes or was my imagination playing early 20th-century theatrics?

Fortunately, on my way to luncheon at the resort’s “Glasshouse” I took a calming stroll through the estate’s formal gardens where brawny-leafed branches of ancient oak and beech trees sheltered lovely ponds displaying contemporary sculptures.

The Sequoia, a world class spa at The Grove Inn.

The Glasshouse is a two-tiered international culinary theater where guests can watch as chefs prepare British, Asian, and Mediterranean dishes, which are then served buffet-style. My self-imposed buffet regimen, which generally restricts me to small portions of selected items, was effectively skewered by the lavish display of succulent looking-main courses, cheeses, salads, and desserts. ($57)

An eagerly anticipated round of golf seemed a suitable antidote for my Glasshouse gluttony and the course was just a short walk from the restaurant. The 6,700 yard par 72 layout was the site of the 2006 American Express Championship won by Tiger Woods. It was designed by an American, Kyle Phillips, who also designed the famed Kingsbarnes links in St. Andrews, Scotland. I was fortunate to meet the head professional who was about to play a practice round and I managed to finagle my way to play along.

Head down Larry’s short pitch to flag looks good.

The Grove Golf Club is unusual in that it has no members. The course is open to anyone who enjoys the game. ($80-$120 per round).  Bordered by impressive stands of woodlands, the well-bunkered, immaculately groomed layout extends through meadows, natural wetlands, lakes, and canals.

“As we were about to tee off on number #1, a 340 yard, par 4 dog leg left, my thoughts drifted back to a previous round I had played at The Tribute, a Scottish links design course in Frisco, just north of Dallas. Here was another opportunity to employ some of the special strategy and bump and run play used on English and Scottish links.

After a decent drive I skulled my iron shot to the green, bunkered the next shot, and would up with a double bogie. The pro crushed the drive, hit the green easily and two putted for par.

On #3, a short but tricky 262 yard, par 4, I again drove well – some 230 yards, but my iron was short of the green. I hit my wedge stiff to within 2 feet and made par.

Number #4 was a doozie. The par 3 green is only 167 yards away but the front of the green is protected by a stream that cuts across near the fringe. My ball hit the bank, held on for dear life, then collapsed into the drink. Another double!

The next five holes, I found my rhythm and played them in just two over. In particular, #9, a 549, par 5 about which the pro advised, “Let yourself off your tether and give it a ride,” and I did with my drive of the day, a 245 yard shot, dead center of the fairway. A three wood brought me to within 80 yards of the green followed by a short wedge - too short. My bump and run stopped six feet from the pin and I rolled it in for a par. 

The pro, of course, was taking no prisoners, driving well, working the ball around the desired landing areas, hitting stiff irons, and putting bravely.

Grove Golf Club head professional Anna Darnell with Larry Mayran  after enjoyable round of golf.

In between a couple of pars on the back nine,  I slogged my way into bogie and double bogie territory, including smacking a huge chestnut tree loaded with nuts (called conkers) which littered the ground. Other trees along the fairway were beginning to show their annual fall transformation, foliage preening with lovely autumn shades of rusts, yellows, and reds, which added to the visual experience.

Partnering with the head professional was fun and memorable, especially when an  errant shot had me communing with several swans over territorial rights to my golf ball.  Still I ended up with a pretty decent round while the pro played brilliantly with a near par golf scorecard.

It is not often that a head professional plants a kiss on my cheek at the end of a round, but when the head pro is tall, athletic, with blonde hair and blue eyes and her name is Anna Darnell, a kiss is a splendid reward.

Back to Golfing and Traveling in Great Britian.