Cleeve Hill

Words by: Alex Ames
Photography by:Jack Ducey

It’s the busiest tee shot I’ve ever hit. There isn't another golfer in sight, but we must hit over a car park, a herd of sheep and a group of hikers tying up their boots. Thankfully, the tee shot is blind and extremely open. We pull our drivers, aim loosely at a post in the distance and fire a volley over the crowd onto Cleeve Hill Golf Course.

The sheep, car park, and hikers at the first are no coincidence. Cleeve Hill is laid out in an “area of outstanding natural beauty” in the Cotswolds - that’s not an opinion - it’s an official title. If you’d like to golf on it, and I suggest you should, prepare to share it with the rest of the land's inhabitants and visitors. They’re here to climb peaks and drink in wonderful views, just like us.

As myself, James Wilson (aka shortside), Benji, Nick and Timothy Sudmann (aka The Cheeky Golf Club) begin our ascent we are transported to another time and place. Cleeve is largely untouched by modern architects and closely resembles ancient Scottish links. In fact, Old Tom Morris himself laid out the expansive routing and Alister Mackenzie had a go at a later date. For golf architecture buffs it doesn’t get much better.

It’s not hard to see what attracted Old Tom to the site. The limestone land drains the course naturally and a persistent wind prompts golfers to scan the horizon for ocean. None is forthcoming. We are far inland, but Old Tom would have felt at home in this links-like setting.

The views start getting out of hand at the 4th tee box which overlooks an ancient quarry. This is where the golden limestone that lends Cheltenham its unique beauty was excavated in the 12th century. That’s right, nearly 900 years ago.

For better or worse, not much changes at Cleeve. The golf club don’t own the land - they lease it from a local trust. If they want to add so much as a yardage post the club must embark on a six month regulatory process. “Golf on The Hill” only changes with the appetite of grazing sheep.

We continue on our sensational trajectory to the highest point in the Cotswolds before plunging into the bowels of the valleys below. The fairways are open and there’s very little rough but Cleeve is a 2nd shot golf course. Errant drives leave us chipping downhill to small, precariously placed, shelf-like greens. Tough, even for James.

Just when we think we are out of dopamine we reach the par 5 13th. A drive uphill takes us past the iconic tree that gives Cleeve Hill its logo and our second shot sends us blindly over the spine of the course. Waiting on the other side is one of the best approach shots I’ve ever had the privilege to play. The flag is framed by a spectacular view of Cheltenham and it is well defended by deep ditches and mounds rising like walls on all sides. They are tributes to the iron age fort the green is built on.

Two holes later, on the first of Cleeve Hill’s back to back par 3’s, shortside makes a hole in one. All six of us celebrate as if we’ve holed out ourselves. Jack Ducey, our videographer for the day, musters all of his professional might to hold the camera steady and not join the pile up. The cliff side walk back to the clubhouse is a serene trip.

It’s hard to imagine, a few years ago Cleeve Hill nearly closed. The Trust deemed the necessary clubhouse renovations “too expensive” but Cheltenham rallied, bringing together a petition to save a golf course that’s been played on since 1891.

The clubhouse they saved isn’t really a clubhouse, not in the sense that we’re used to. Sure, there’s someone pouring pints and there are sausage rolls on offer, but half the clientele are here with their kids getting coffee before a walk. Outside, a vintage yellow land rover is parked on the side of the putting green. You wouldn’t know you were signing into a round of golf except for the small desk at the back, where you pick up your scorecard and purchase your green fee for the price of a round of pints.

Cleeve Hill is a stark reminder that most of golf’s fences and barriers are erected by choice. Here, you can play in a T-shirt and a five ball, drive in almost any direction, and have a friendly chat with the staff afterwards. Most of them had a direct hand in saving this golf course. Now they talk passionately about its future.