The chance to play The Belfry and stay in style is a recipe made in heaven for most golfers. And a weekend with all the trimmings need not break the bank, says Stephen Roe
Sipping champagne cocktails on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking 150 acres once owned by William Shakespeare, it was difficult to believe that only three hours earlier we had dropped the kids off at school and headed excitedly up the M40 to the heart of the Cotswolds.

We had decided to indulge in a short-break holiday, combining our sporting passions with a touch of luxury and plenty of cosseting, but avoiding the hassles of airports and transfers.

Taking a golfing break away from home has traditionally involved flying off to Spain or the Algarve with all the upheaval and planning that an overseas trip involves.

Yet many of the world's finest and most prestigious courses are right here in the British Isles and within a few hours' drive from home. Throughout much of the year, as I have now discovered, they are comparatively quiet and eager to welcome visitors at quite sensible prices.

For the majority of very average club golfers like me, the opportunity to tread the hallowed turf of such famous names as St Andrews, Turnberry, St Mellion or The Belfry, has remained no more than a distant dream. While many of us may aspire to play them, the aura of exclusivity surrounding the homes of the champions has been daunting to the point of intimidation.

Now much of that is changing as some of Britain's top clubs and most sought-after golf courses have linked with luxury country house hotels to encourage visitors to cross those hitherto elitist barriers and experience first-hand the fairways and greens of territory often previously viewed only on television during major international tournaments.

But were we ready for the challenge of these awesome-looking courses? We decided to err on the side of caution by first tackling a resort course at the Welcombe Hotel, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. This way, we reasoned, if our swings were still a bit rusty there would be fewer eager low-handicap budding professionals to smirk at our slices and shanks.

The Welcombe Hotel is a Jacobean-style mansion dating from 1869 which was the former home of the historian Sir George Trevelyan. Lunch was a delightfully formal affair, served overlooking the traditional rose gardens, but regrettably we had to forgo the burgeoning sweet trolley as our pre- arranged afternoon tee time approached.

While Shakespeare may not have approved of the idea of electric golf carts criss-crossing his land, for me it was a delightful way to view the countryside that so inspired him.

Unlike so many golf courses which appear to have been designed to inflict maximum pain and frustration on all who tackle them, with seemingly impossible hazards, the 18-hole par-70 course at the Welcombe Hotel provided a much- needed boost to my golfing ego with its dramatic elevated tee positions and often wide fairways. For once I actually finished a round still smiling.

Having passed through the hands of several well-established English families since Shakespeare first purchased the land in 1602, the estate is now owned by a millionaire Japanese businessman who has invested heavily in restoring the main house to its former glory.

Impressive pieces of antique furniture are liberally displayed in the public rooms with original works of art on the walls. And if you really feel a sense of occasion there is a choice of four-poster beds.

The original stable block has been converted to a health spa and beauty centre with a resident hair stylist to try to ensure there are no disgruntled golf widows left behind.

Since the aim of this trip was to play as much golf and tennis as possible in our precious four days of freedom from the family, still allowing time to indulge in plenty of good living, our carefully laid plans meant we had soon to set off driving across the Cotswolds into a flaming sun setting over the Malvern Hills.

The Puckrup Hall Hotel sits just north of Tewkesbury in a soothing 140- acre setting in the Malvern Valley and has been substantially extended from an original Regency mansion into a conference hotel and golf resort.

After playing 18 holes on this well-planned course, we were ready to fall into the steaming jacuzzi at Generations Leisure Club, which also offers a steam bath, solarium, massage treatments and a well-heated swimming- pool.

Despite earlier good intentions, we declined invitations from the lithe- looking young attendants to work out in the gym. As a slightly overweight couple from Wales commented, some of the equipment looked as if it would have been more at home in a torture chamber.

Dinner in the carvery-style Balharies Restaurant was marred only by the over-enthusiasm of groups of bright young executives participating in conference and training seminars, a speciality of this hotel.

Inclusive golfing breaks at Puckrup Hall are excellent value and many of the rooms have been freshly refurbished. But when making reservation, do specify a golf course view. We asked for a balcony thinking it would be romantic to sit out and enjoy an evening cocktail but we forgot to specify the outlook. Our balcony overlooked the trash compactor in the main service area. Have you ever noticed how people in noisy jobs always seem to start work earlier than everyone else?

We had been building up to the experience of our final destination which took us north along the M5 to the outskirts of Birmingham and The Belfry, world famous for hosting three dramatic Ryder Cup clashes. There is a sense of occasion arriving here as the staff proudly point out pictures, trophies and mementoes of the golfing giants who have stayed and played there.

There are two 18-hole courses at The Belfry with a third opening this year. We decided first to play the par-69 Derby Course which turned out to be a great anti-climax as we walked along unimaginative fairways under grey skies and crackling electricity pylons. A complete contrast to the championship Brabazon course we were to play the following morning.

But we had worked up a tremendous appetite for dinner in the hotel's French Restaurant to celebrate our anniversary. For such a large and bustling hotel complex the French Restaurant is remarkably small and intimate, with a first-class a la carte menu, impeccable service with soft lighting and, for us, a single red rose to mark the occasion.

Standing on the first tee of the Brabazon championship course we couldn't help thinking of all the famous names who had stood there before us and just how far their smooth swipes would have pitched the ball. Not that we had a hope of emulating them, but day-dreaming is all part of the holiday, isn't it? How different it all looked now compared to seeing it on the television screen.

We had certainly saved the best until last in golfing terms and the opportunity to play this much-revered course would provide us with happy memories and a good talking point for a while to come. As we collapsed exhausted back into the clubhouse we suddenly realised we were looking forward to seeing the family again.

There is no doubt that short breaks can be a terrific morale booster and they needn't break the bank. All our arrangements could be pre-paid through an inclusive tour operator that even pre-books the tee times and pre-pays the green fees to ensure there are no nasty surprises or confrontations with self-important club secretaries.

Perhaps the best accolade of all is that my wife is already pressing me to book up another trip.

FACT FILE

Crystal Holidays has all of the properties mentioned in this article in its Premier Golf programme. Terms include daily green fees with pre-booked tee times, accommodation and specified meals.

The Welcombe Hotel at Stratford-upon-Avon costs pounds 112.50 per person per day for dinner, bed and breakfast and green fees based on two people sharing a room. At Puckrup Hall rates for similar arrangements are from pounds 79; while at The Belfry Sunday-night stays are from pounds 79, but during the rest of the week there is a minimum two-night stay required at rates from pounds 95.

The Old Course Hotel at St Andrews is available from pounds 192 including green fees on the Duke's Course. Tee times on the Old Course are allotted by ballot but hotel guests are generally favoured with preferred times. Green fees are from pounds 30 a round.

At the five-star Turnberry Hotel, which overlooks the Ailsa Course, rates per person including dinner, bed and breakfast and green fees are from pounds 170. For those not wishing to drive themselves, Crystal can arrange flights from London from around pounds 90 return and weekend car hire from pounds 7O. Golf clubs can be checked in as additional items to standard baggage at no extra charge.

At St Mellion rates for accommodation and green fees only at the four- star St Mellion Hotel, lodges and cottages are from pounds 39.50 to include the Old Course, with a supplement of pounds 6.50 for a round on the Nicklaus championship course.

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