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Eton College Golf Club, “Athens” Course, South Field. (1889 - 1900s)

Originally a nine-hole course it was extended to eighteen in the mid 1890s before reverting to nine prior to its demise in the early 1900s.

We would like to thank Michael Morrison for allowing us to use extracts from his brilliant article on the "Athens" course which was written for the British Golf Collectors Society magazine, “Through the Green.” 

The Eton course was called Athens because “many of the holes cluster round that famous Athens bathing place on the Thames.” 

Bernard Darwin wrote the following - “It is indeed rather curious that the courses over which we grow most sentimental are not infrequently some of the worst in existence.” He had two courses in mind. He had already referred to Coldham Common in Cambridge as “the worst course I have ever seen, and many others would probably award it a like distinction.” Much less is known of the other course to which Darwin was referring - the “Athens” course at Eton College. 

The Athens golf course at Eton is no longer and, but for Darwin, its existence would probably have faded from memory long ago. In several of his anthologies and autobiographies he reminisced about his happy days playing golf at Eton.

It’s interesting that despite his ability and enthusiasm it appears he did not get involved in golf when he arrived at Eton in 1889 when it was a nine-hole course.

In The World that Fred Made (1955) he says “it was golf during my last two years that made the Easter half so pleasant for me.” This must have been in 1893 and 1894. Darwin recalled that the course “was rich in the full pomp of eighteen-holes... when I played there.” 

The golf club at Eaton was formed in January 1889. An article appeared in “Golf” on the 21st February initialled by “J R T Tarver” which included the following – The club consisted of about 30 members the first year, 50 the second, and in this, its third year, the numbers promise to be considerably larger. Golf is really only played in the Easter half, as then it cannot interfere with other games, as there is plenty of time to play fives, run with the beagles, and golf as well. A little play, however, goes on during the Christmas term. In summer, owing to the long grass, is quite impossible.

Two masters seem to have been at the forefront of getting golf underway at Eton; F B C (Frank) Tarver, a French Master and R A H Mitchell. “Mike” Mitchell, as he was widely known, was a housemaster but more importantly coached cricket at Eton for over 30 years.

The first article to appear about golf in the weekly school newspaper, The Eton College Chronicle was on the 17th May 1889 under the heading “Golf at Eaton.”

This is the first time that such a heading, as the above, has appeared in our columns, and a few years ago it would have caused some astonishment, but the game of golf has become so popular and wide-spread in England, as well as Scotland, that many of our school fellows have not only seen it played, but have played it themselves; and last half one or two of them who had tested the charm of golf in other places, applied for, and obtained, to play over ground which, for some years past has been very kindly placed at the disposal of some of the Eton Masters by Mr White, of Dorney. The game soon attracted so many amateurs that they decided upon having a competition at the end of the half, and Mr Tarver having offered a gold challenge medal for the best scratch score, and Mr Mitchell some prizes of golf balls for the second-best scratch and best handicap score, ten couples entered. The competition took place on Wednesday April 3rd over the “Athens” Links (if such an apology for a golf course may be dignified by the name “Links”) and on comparing the scores it was found that James Colquhoun Oliphant Blair had won the (Mr Tarver’s) medal with a fine score of 86 which, we venture to prognosticate, will not be easily beaten.   

Following is the entry from the Golfing Annual Vol. V - 1891-92:-

“Eton College Golf Club, Instituted January 1889; Annual Subscription, Two Shillings and Sixpence; Number of members 60; President, J R T Tarver; Committee – M S Farmer, J Ranken; Secretary – R H Mitchell, Eton College, Windsor; Green-keeper, J Holloway.

Club Prizes; Gold Medal (scratch); Silver Cup (by holes) and Club Prizes. Prize winners in 1891 – Gold Medal, T Ranken, 93; Silver Cup, J Heneage; Handicap, H E Hambro and J Ranken. Lowest Scratch Score in a club competition 83, in 1890, by J R T Tarver, who also holds the green record at 81.

The course, which runs for some way parallel to the river, consists of nine-holes, but these not so long as could be wished. The first hole is an iron shot over a neck of ploughed field into the corner of a large disused gravel pit, long since covered with grass. Once over the plough the hole should be an easy four. The second hole is from one end of the gravel pit to the other. This hole can be reached in a drive and a short iron, and should be done in four. The third hole begins with a drive over plough – an easy carry, but with a road and hedge running parallel to the drive on the left. A cleek or an iron will now reach the hole which lies to the hedge, defended by a road and ditch. This hole should be an easy five. For the next hole (four) you come back over the road to tee and drive towards “Athens.” This hole can be reached in a drive, but there are plenty of places to catch the drive, or approach if the drive is not a long one. The green lies at the bottom of a sloping bank, with a ditch in front and to the right, and last, but not least, a little black hut, which stands like a santry (sic) just above the green, and which, in the summer months, towels are kept for the bathers at “Athens.” This is a four hole. The Fifth is perhaps the most difficult hole of all. To the left runs the river, a ball in here is lost for good. Almost parallel with the river runs a deep, narrow ditch, so one must drive to the right. It is possible to reach the hole, provided that the lie is good, in two. But it is best to be content with a moderate second, and then reach the hole with a short iron. The approach is hard – a narrow green with a slight slope to the river, a hill in front of the green, the river to the left, and the corner of a ploughed field to the right. This hole should be done in five, but six is by no means bad. This is the turn. The next hole, the first “home” is short and uninteresting. It can be reached with a cleek. There is nothing to prevent a three here, four is average. Now comes the long seventh . A small ditch has to be carried by the drive. A Road awaits a pulled ball, a ditch a sliced one. The drive safe, the hole lies open. It requires, however, two more full shots to reach it, or say, with good lies which, unfortunately, not as common as they might be, a full shot and an iron. A hedge bounds the further side of the green, the river runs parallel to the right. Five is average for this, but six is not bad scoring. The drive for the eighth hole is a pretty shot. It has to carry a road, the corner of a hedge, and to be straight, for a ploughed field lies to the right, a short approach will now reach the hole, which lies in a hole beyond the corner of two ploughs. This is a four hole. Lastly, Hole Nine. This is the length of another old gravel pit. It is a drive and an iron. The drive has to be straight, as there are ploughs to the right and to the left. The approach is a hard one. Just under the green, which is on a higher level than the gravel pit itself, is a bank. About seven yards still further this way a sort of promontory sticks out from one side of the gravel pit. Between these two banks is thick grass and occasional water. Moreover, on the first bank is the stump of a dead tree, which has a habit of getting just between the hole and one’s ball. Say five for this hole. This ends the nine-holes which are played over twice.

Play only goes on during January, February and March and occasionally in the Christmas term. In summer, owing to the long grass, it is quite impracticable.”  

The Ordnance Survey Map below shows the South Field, location of the Athens course. The Athens bathing place is marked on the River Thames, just above and to the right of Windsor Race Course at the bottom of the map.

 

Eton College Golf Club, "Athens" Course. Ordnance Survey Map from 1900 showing the South Field. 

© Crown Copyright {1900}

 

The final article on the Athens course appeared in the Eton College Chronicle on January 28th 1904.

The South Field is pinpointed on the Google Map below.