Stoke Park - The scene for the 1964 classic Bond spy thriller, Goldfinger.
The minicab driver didn't know a thing about golf. "It's a game for the wealthy," he opined and as we drove through the glorious Stoke Park estate I realised I wasn't in a good position to argue. "It must also be boring!" he continued. "There's no sweat!" "It's a game of skill and steady nerves," I suggested. "Maybe you should try it sometime." "When I'm a free man," he replied. "I can't afford it now. I gotta wife!" No argument with that I suppose! I tipped him a Scottish fiver, which he looked at quizzically as I stepped out into the altogether more glamorous world of Stoke Park.
My room wasn't ready so I changed in the club locker room and went to the pro shop. A stout gentleman in baggy plus fours was walking towards the putting green. "You must be Mr Whyte?" he said in a thick German accent. "Yes! Whyte, David Whyte! Mr Goldfinger I presume?" He motioned towards a burly Korean fellow bedecked in a black bowler! "Let me introduce you to our caddy Odd Job." Ok! That last bit was entire fantasy. But, as I stood there on the practice putting green waiting to tee off, a DB5 Aston Martin did actually come up the drive and purr past the iconic frontage of Stoke Park, the scene for the 1964 classic Bond spy thriller, Goldfinger. It has been 50 years since Sean Connery uttered the inimitable words. "You must have played the wrong ball somewhere on the 18th fairway. We are playing strict rules, so I'm afraid you lose the hole - and the match," that ended one of the most iconic golf scenes of cinematic history.
As a highly impressionable, pre-pubescent Bond fan at the time (Sean Connery was definitely the best) I was having difficulty keeping tabs on reality standing there on the very spot where the scene took place. I set off down the 1st of this Harry Colt, 1908 designed course admiring its wide fairway and cursing the devious bunker that had swallowed up my first drive. This, I was soon to discover is a recurring theme here at Stoke Park- generous fairways but strategically placed - and highly-effective bunkering. I hoped not to end up with a 007 on the very first hole. As it happened, the bunkers are not so penal and with the stealth of a top MI6 operative, I managed to escape and salvage Par.
By the challenging Par 3, 3rd I'd caught up with two Stoke Park members, Neil, a Canadian who had not long returned to his home turf after several years living in this area and was already missing the camaraderie of his old Stoke compatriots and Simon, an ex-newspaper man. At the 7th they pointed to a plaque declaring that this hole had been the inspiration for the 16th at Augusta National. Dr Alister MacKenzie was a contemporary of Colt's and had taken inspiration from this daunting short hole. Like Augusta, the 7th green is angled on the line of flight as well as being built into a sloping bank that 'magnetizes' the ball back to a waiting brook and lake. It may have inspired MacKenzie but I'd say the 7th at Stoke Park is the tougher proposition. To be honest all 18 holes I played at Stoke Park (there are 27 in all) are chockfull of interest. Most call for long drives to get into position and then figure out how to tackle the array of difficulties that surrounded most greens. And always those irritatingly well-positioned fairway bunkers, the course's main defence. By the last hole, there was neither animosity nor bars of gold to be exchanged, just the bond of playing in good company on a particularly inspiring golf course.
I ordered drinks for my new friends overlooking the 17th, another scene of the Goldfinger match and then bid them farewell to go and seek out the comforts of the hotel.
Luxurious Stoke Park Hotel, Spa and Country Club has been the backdrop and scene-setter for several classic movies for very good reason; partly because Pinewood Studios is just down the road but mainly because it's such an elegant facility. It's one of only five golf resorts in the UK that sports the coveted s-AA-Red-Star emblem. Claridge's, The Dorchester, The Ritz are in the same stable along with Gleneagles! So it's far from being just a pretty facade.
In spite of its Edwardian style, there are plenty of modern facilities. The complimentary Tennis and Health Pavilion offers a state of-the-art gym and fitness studios along with indoor and outdoor tennis courts (six grass courts built to Wimbledon specification). There's a wonderful Spa to relax in and lots of ambling walks that allow you to explore the estate. The exquisite gardens were designed by none other than 'Capability' Brown and Humphry Repton.
Food at Stoke Park is equally inspiring. There are three dining options: the 3 AA Rosette-awarded Humphry's restaurant serving modern British cuisine with a twist, the more relaxed Orangery and the Italian brasserie, San Marco. It's all very cosy/elegant, relaxed/refined- whatever you want to make of it! It's also rather convenient: only 35 minutes from London and 7 miles from London Heathrow. Sean Connery's famous line 'Shaken, not stirred' was also first uttered in the movie, Goldfinger and in numerous Bond films thereafter.
Stoke Park didn't have me shaken but it certainly did stir up a longing to go there again.