As you arrive at Skylark Golf & Country Club near Southampton, you can be forgiven for intially thinking you must have taken a wrong turning somewhere, as you wend your way through an exclusive residential development where the cachet of an individual property seems to be measured in the number of garages attached to it. Four seems to be a desirable number. But then you catch sight of the modern clubhouse, which enjoys views across the course (these are particularly good from the balcony seating area adjoining the bar and restaurant), and you know you have after all come to the right place.
There is a well groomed look and feel about the place right from the moment the starter welcomes you on to the first tee, and during the round we were aware – sometimes a little too aware, it has to be said – of a veritable army of greenkeepers making sure that no blade of grass or grain of sand was left unpampered. This first hole sets the tone in some ways for the rest of the round: it’s the first of many doglegs, short at 257 yards off the yellows, with the key criterion in choosing your club off the tee being what club you want to hit into the green. I opted for lob wedge, which meant a 5 hybrid off the tee, and that combination turned out to be correct, affording me a regulation par to open with. And so it proved on many of the holes that followed: what you played off the tee was dictated by what club you preferred for your second shot. Nothing wrong with that, and Skylark ensures you have to think your way around the course rather than fall into a driver off the tee rut, but it does mean that the bombers of this world are likely to find it all rather frustrating.
The sense that you are in a built up area, albeit a very upmarket one, stays with you for the initial five holes, as you are conscious of the houses, and their ranks of garages, alongside the fairways, even if they are partially screened by youngish trees. The par 3 fifth hole makes you particularly conscious of this, as your tee shot is played over the road to a green immediately adjacent to the clubhouse. Not much room for a wayward shot there then.
And then things change. Big time. From the 6th tee onwards the course transforms itself into a countryside idyll, all mature trees and big skies, with only the odd electricity pylon intruding to remind you that you are in fact very close to Whiteley, Hedge End and other various urban outliers of Southampton. It’s a joy, it has to be said. That sixth hole is an exhilarating swoop down from the elevated tee and up again to a hilltop green, a rollercoaster opening to the best two thirds of this highly enjoyable course.
The seventh is one of several par 3s that all seem to be around the same distance and within reach of an 8 iron. Rather less club for those frustrated bombers, I guess, who in fact will quite enjoy what follows, as the 8th is a straightforward and straight 343 yards from tee to green. The 9th reverts to the by now familiar dogleg procedure, with the added piquancy of a naughty little ditch to catch you out if you haven’t thought through your distance off the tee, plus a patch of wasteland to the right which my Chrome Soft found with unerring accuracy. And, as tradition dictates, you catch a quick glimpse of the clubhouse before setting off on the back nine.
A couple of typical Skylark doglegs, one right-handed and one left-handed, and then you stand on the tee of the 12th, one of the moments you will recall most clearly when looking back later on your day out. The hole is 348 yards if playing off the yellows, it’s a dogleg (of course) turning left to reach the green, but here’s the catch. The ground falls away steeply in front of the tee, so you are pretty much at the height of the canopy of the trees to the left hand side, leaving you with the choice of flying your tee shot over them to cut the corner (At last! exclaim our frustrated bombers) or playing safe – or safeish – to the corner all those metres below. We opted for the latter strategy (I took a 3 hybrid, as I recall) and watching the ball hang in the air for what seems an eternity before finding the fairway far below is indeed a moment to savour. Skylark’s star moment, I think.
After all that excitement, the flat straight 13th is a moment to catch one’s breath. We were playing on a society day and this was our longest drive hole: my 3 wood resisted the temptations of adjoining woodland for all of 240 yards, which proved enough to take the trophy home for 12 months. Of the remaining holes, the challenging 16th is the standout, with a long tee shot required to allow you to see round the corner and up the steep hill on top of which the green is situated, but two more 8 iron par 3s are pretty little things, with water waiting to catch you out if you get careless. The round closes with the second of Skylark’s two par 5s, played to an elevated green right next to the clubhouse, with some cunning little mounds and bunkers to complicate things as you try to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of all those already assembled on the balcony mentioned earlier.
It’s a fine day out, is Skylark. It’s picturesque and well kept, with a range of challenges, mostly of the club selection variety, and would certainly merit a return visit, if only to see if playing it with some prior knowledge helps solve some of its little puzzles. Given that, I reckon it’s a course to go low on. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I failed to do so first time around. Whatever your score, you will undoubtedly enjoy a round at Skylark.
A full set of photos of the course may be seen here.