Golf clubs come to be defined by many things – some by their location, others by their history. At Bishop Auckland, the course – set out over the High Plains, an area of parkland surrounding the Bishop of Durham’s Palace – defines much of the club with its intriguing flow and abundance of par fives and threes in the first 12 holes of the round.
While the playing order is quite the quirk, don’t be fooled into thinking this a quirky course with lots of birdie opportunities and little challenge. Each of the long holes presents a unique test, while the ancient trees, stream running through the front nine, penal sand bunkers, and many grass bunkers test every player, as shown over the years in the number of male and female county players the club has produced and the quality of the winners of the annual Bishop Auckland Bowl men’s scratch event.
A handshake opener which disguises the length to come, the 285-yard opening par four is played uphill beside the clubhouse. A long-iron into the widest part of the fairway leaves a pitch over the two bunkers, which disguise a long green which slopes from back-to-front, and hide a third bunker on the right side.
The first of three par fives in a row, the downhill second requires accuracy – first to avoid the fairway bunker left, then to find the narrow fairway between the trees and short of the stream 50 yards from the green. A third precise shot must find the correct section of an elevated green which is beautifully framed by trees.
The uphill 538-yard third hole invites a big drive, particularly from those who can skirt past the trees on the right and open up even more fairway. From here, you must plot a course short of the two approach bunkers on the left – around 150 yards short of the green – to leave an uphill shot to a well-defended green with mounding and three deep bunkers.
Played back down the hill, the 530-yard fourth is played through the gap between the two trees which flank the fairway and once again crosses the stream. The green, which features six grass bunkers on its flanks, sits at the top of a steep slope – meaning club selection is key as anything which comes up short risks running back down to the water.
While it measures more than 200 yards, the target at the long par three fifth is very generous with lots of room left and short. At the 376-yard par four sixth, the line from the tee is key to ensure you don’t run into the trees left. A short- or mid-iron must then be carried over the stream, and the steep slope which leads down to the water, to find a green surrounded by mounding.
The seventh is a much-photographed and deserving signature hole.
With its five par fives and five par threes, many of them spectacularly sited, choosing a signature hole at Bishop Auckland isn’t easy – though the downhill par three seventh would be hard to beat anywhere. This 162-yard short hole is set low in the valley, surrounded by ancient trees and flora, with a pair of spectacle bunkers cut well short in the rise up to the green. A bank on the right will aid players, while the one left leads down to an impossible pitch. The green, carved into the hill, is large and invites players to attack the flag – just beware missing the putting surface as there are no easy up-and-downs here.
Another long par three played over a ravine, the eighth requires a long-iron to find the green, which is narrowed by six bunkers – three left and three right – each presenting a tough test of short game skill, particularly when the green is fast and firm.
The shortest of the par fives at just 493 yards, the ninth plays long with players required to lay back or curve the ball a great deal from left-to-right to find the fairway beyond the trees before climbing up the hill. An approach bunker on the left leads on to the heavily contoured green complex with its recently remodelled bunker on the right disguising a vast green.
Emerging from the trees for your first extended view of the Plains, club selection can be tricky at the downhill par three 10th – and it is key given the severity of the slopes around the green and the depth of the bunkers – particularly the two which squeeze the entrance to the heavily contoured, back-to-front sloping putting surface.
The final par five, the 11th (main image right) presents the best birdie chance of them all with a wide fairway leading all the way to the green. You get a great view from the tee and should you avoid the bunkers, a helpful bounce down the hill can lead to a relatively short second shot and the chance to find the green in two.
The longest and most difficult of the par threes – and the last one – follows. At 220 yards, the 12th is a real brute and while the green is designed for long-iron and fairway wood shots, the six grass bunkers which flank this enormous green catch out many players.
While six par fours in a row to end the round may not sound as interesting as the previous holes, their mix of lengths and challenges mean the fun continues. The longest of the set, the 442-yard 13th, is a real test. The fairway is wide, though a large tree left and single bunker right can catch players out. The green, once again featuring six grass bunkers, is a big target.
The most inviting driving hole on the course, 14 can be opened up by a long drive which avoids the fairway bunker left. An accurate approach beyond the cross bunker on the right is required with a steep drop off and overhanging trees on the left side of this tiny, left-to-right sloping green.
The blind, uphill 15th requires a much more accurate drive to find the fairway and leave a mid- or long-iron approach up the hill to a green with a steep false front and three front bunkers, which combine to make judging the second shot to one of the largest greens on the course very tough.
At under 400 yards, both 16 and 17 invite long drives. The downhill 16th is the easier of the two, though its deep front bunkers make accessing front flags tough on this large, heavily contoured green. At the uphill 17th, judging the second shot is the key to avoid the bunker on the left and make it beyond the short-mown catchment are on the front right corner.
Having opened with a short uphill par four, you end with another. Once again, a long-iron is all that’s required to leave a pitch up the hill beyond two front bunkers – reshaped and depended as part of the 2022/3 work programme. Big hitters may take on the two-tiered green, but the entrance is narrow and finding a bunker can spell disaster late in the day.
A course which never fails to bring a smile to your face, particularly on its brilliant front nine, Bishop is one of the best.