Eton College has had two golf courses throughout its' history. First established was the Athens Course bordering the River Thames in 1889. It consisted predominantly of rough pasture and the remnants of gravel pits bordering the tilled and grazed parcels of South Field, west of Eton.
The Athens Course fell into decline, and The New Course bordering the Windsor-Slough railway line was constructed in an area of the college grounds known as Mesopotamia. It opened in 1973 and was enlarged in 1995 when an adjacent field was integrated into the course we know today.
Golf at Eton started in January 1889 when the Athens golf course was established.
The Athens Course was named after the cluster of holes close-by the Athens bathing-place beside the Thames in South Field, directly opposite the Windsor Racecourse grandstand.
It was a flood-prone course bordering the Thames, located between Eton and Boveney. Golf at Eton College initially attracted some controversy and polarised opinion. J R L Rankin (1871-1931) was a member of the prestigious Eton Society and the President of the Literary Society. He was a sportsman, representing the school in Field Game and the Wall Game (both forms of football). He was also quite vehement and vocal in his criticism of golf.
The traditional games at Eton were football, cricket, and rowing. These were all team sports promoting team spirit and camaraderie. Golf, on the other hand, embodied social endeavours with the talents and fortune of the individual. Rankin was not alone with his views, a torrent of anti-golf letters appeared in The Times in 1914. Mostly, in reaction to a golf essay “The Fascination of Golf” written by Bernard Darwin (1876-1961), grandson of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin, during his years at the college between 1889 and 1894. Golf was viewed as a “loafing” game, with “great silence” experienced whilst playing. It was considered a non-exercise sport at this time and did not reflect the team spirit ethos that the Eton boys were expected to experience.
Golf might never have developed at Eton at that time but for the window of opportunity that arose as a result of the lull in the games curriculum around Easter. The Athens Course was barely playable in the winter months due to its muddiness (it lay on the Thames flood plain); and it was impossible in the summer months due to the long grass. The fact that the course was also vulnerable to flooding meant it was frequently out of commission. On top of this, golf was still treated with some suspicion amongst the conservatively-inclined within the school, as well as with thorough disdain by those who equated it with loafing. Despite this, the evidence suggests that growing numbers of Eton boys played golf.
Golf at Eton declined in the early part of the 20th century, mainly due to the seasonal deterioration of the Athens course. It should be noted that significant flooding events (in 1891, 1894, 1899, 1912, 1926, 1929 and 1947) which totally consumed the Athens Golf Course for many weeks at a time, also affected significant proportions of Eton and Windsor too. Flooding also impacted the other popular school sports activities too, namely aquatics, ball-sports and riding with the Beagles.
Many better golf courses opened in the vicinity of Eton, offering superior playing conditions all year. These provided popular excursions for the college masters and boys alike.The Eton College Chronicles report that most school golf matches were actually played away at prestigious courses such as Stoke Park and The Berkshire.
A campaign by Old Etonians in the late 1960’s helped raise the funds to create a new golf course at the school. The 9-hole course designed by John Jacob “Frank” Pennink (1913-1984) was constructed and landscaped on an area previously known as "Mesopotamia" that borders the Windsor-Slough railway line. These school fields were previously used for football in the winter and cricket in the summer. The course opened in June 1973 for the benefit of Eton boys and its members, but there is also an enthusiastic external members’ community that plays there by kind permission of Eton College.
In 1995 the course was slightly remodelled by incorporating an adjacent field that features the current holes 3 & 4.
In 2018 the course was re-surveyed using the latest laser technology. At this time the committee also reevaluated the stroke indexes based on historical data. A new scorecard was created to reflect new stroke index assignments for both the red and white tees.
In 2020 the course was assessed by England Golf to determine the course and slope rating associated with the new World Handicap System (WHS) roll-out in November 2020.
In 2022 the course was re-assessed by England Golf to include measurements for the Yellow markers and Winter Mats, meaning that White/Yellow & Red qualifying cards can all now be submitted when playing from the regular tee boxes. This situation changes to Yellow and Red qualifying cards when playing from the Winter Mats. These changes were accompanied by new signage, namely tee-box marker posts replacing the original concrete block tee-box markers. 2022 also saw a reduction in the number of bunkers on the course. Today there are 26 bunkers which is quite a large number for such a tight 9-hole course.
Players today are frequently deceived by this short 9-hole course. It is a very tight, pretty and challenging course, testing the resolve of most golfers and rewarding accurate play. The fairways are mostly narrow and mainly tree lined leading to tiny greens. There are many small strategically placed bunkers and lots of mature trees ready to catch wayward shots. There is, thankfully not much water, except for the small stream (Willowbrook) that weaves it way across the par-3 holes, and a small pond beside the 6th fairway. These hazards have ensnared many an experienced player and contribute to the charm and character of this course.
Eton College Golf Course celebrated it's half century in June 2023.