LOCATION: Brancaster, Norfolk, England
ARCHITECT: Original layout by Horace Hutchinson & Holcombe Ingleby
PAR: 71 S.S.S. RATING: 71 LENGTH: 6,457 yards
DATE INSPECTED / PLAYED: Thursday 19th June 2014
This was the first of what would become forty-nine golf courses visited in total during my time in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to say I was excited about my opening round on English soil would be a considerable understatement. Such excitement and expectation were well and truly met: in terms of starting my journey with a true links golf experience, I don’t think I could have picked a better place to begin….
The Royal West Norfolk Golf Club is located in a beautiful coastal setting, with the course laid out over a thin strip of land wedged in between tidal salt marshes and the picturesque waters of Brancaster Bay, forming a sliver of golfing paradise on the east coast of England.
The layout is essentially a traditional out-and-back links, with the outward nine heading eastward to the picturesque 9th green. From here the play turns back to the west towards the clubhouse, with a number of holes hugging the foredune that runs the full length of the course.
The predominant winds here are with you on the way out, helping one to get off to a good start on the scorecard. The downside is that this obviously makes for a long slog as you play back into it on the way home, doing your best to hang-on to both your hat and your score. However, on the day of my visit this was reversed, making for some interesting (and fun) challenges shot-wise. It was the first of many ‘learning moments’ during my trip as to how one should approach playing a links course.
In fact the length of the par fours on both nines is actually a good reflection on the predominant winds received at Royal West Norfolk, with all five par fours on the front nine playing over 400 yards and averaging 422 yards. On the inward nine there is only one example of this: being the 430 yard 14th, with the six par fours playing 50 yards shorter at an average of just 372 yards. Despite the out-and-back configuration, importantly there is sufficient change in the alignment of the holes on both nines to ensure that regardless of the direction in which the wind is blowing, it will be felt from a variety of angles as you progress through the layout.
Royal West Norfolk is a testing yet incredibly fun layout to play. This can be put down to both the variety and number of quality golf holes it possesses. While the course stretches to 6,457 yards from the tips, its difficulty is largely due to the combination of narrow fairways, deep bunkers, smallish greens and its coastal location, meaning that the air is never still for too long. While the narrow fairways call for accurate driving, there are a number of holes where the short rough is best described ‘as thin and wispy’, thus making it relatively easy to find your ball. Importantly this also gives you every opportunity of recovering to make your par. The trick obviously, is to know where such areas are and where one can therefore be errant with their driving, as missing in the wrong spots will threaten your supply of balls and there is no half-way house to restock….
The bunkering at Royal West Norfolk is a unique aspect of the course, with timber sleepers employed to form the banks (or walls) of the majority of bunkers throughout the layout. This is actually the first time I’ve encountered bunkers constructed in this method, and I must say that they fit with the character of the layout and its setting exceptionally well, adding to the many charms of the course. Several bunkers throughout the course are very deep and therefore quite punishing, so its best to give them a wide berth to avoid piling up a big total. The most menacing would have to be the cross bunker on the par three 15th, which by my estimates approaches a height of some twenty to twenty-five feet. It is one of several instances where bunkers are set directly across the front of the green they are guarding, thus creating a forced carry to reach the putting surface.
While there are many fine holes to pick from, there are three stretches in particular that I find most endearing, these being 3-5, 7-9 and 11-14.
Of these ten holes, the most well-known (and photographed) would be the par five 8th and par four 9th holes, which both ask for heroic shots over the tidal marsh from the tee, and again for the approach shot into their respective green. Playing these holes when the tide is in not only adds to the their beauty, but also ratchets up the intimidation factor significantly. This is especially true on the 8th hole, where at high-tide the first portion of fairway effectively becoming an island!
Despite only measuring 494 yards from the tips, the forced carries over the marsh means that reaching the green in two is no certainty and requires a pair of well-struck shots to set up an eagle putt. Unless you play to the left side of the fairway from the tee or can shape the ball significantly from left to right with your approach, there is little buffer between the marsh and the green, meaning that the most direct route home is also the most dangerous as you have to fly the ball almost all the way to the putting surface. Of course one can obviously play out to the portion of fairway to the left of the green with their second, though with the putting surface in sight it can be hard to aim away from it.
Before leaving the green on the 8th I took a moment to breathe in the salty air and savour the tranquility of my surrounds. The wind had dropped momentarily, and looking across the calm waters of the inlet to Brancaster Staithe and Burnham Deepdale beyond, all I could hear was the distant sound of waves hitting the nearby beach and the faint squawks of seagulls. At this point I felt a million miles from anywhere and realised that my golfing journey had well and truly begun. Any golfer will agree that it’s serene moments like these in the midst of a round that make golfing such a pleasurable experience, regardless of how well you may or may not just played the last hole…. And yes, I racked up a big score going for the green in two.
At this point I felt a million miles from anywhere and realised that my golfing journey had well and truly begun.
The 9th is a particularly demanding hole that requires a good drive and a mid-iron to reach the green. With the generous fairway angled slightly left to right across to the line of play, the shortest route home is down the right-hand side. However the further right you go, the more marsh you have to carry in order to find the fairway. At 405 yards it is not the longest of par fours, however the approach is played to a raised green angled left to right across the line of play, pinched by a bank to the front (clad in timber sleepers) and thick rough to the rear. This leaves virtually no bail out and places a premium on both correct club selection and accurate stroke play. Should you fail to get a good drive away or simply not have the gusto to go for it with your second shot, then you’ll be forced to eat humble pie as you pitch short of the marsh for two and then (hopefully) over it with your third.
Two other personal favourites worth mentioning include the 129 yard par three 4th and the 430 yard par four 14th. At the short 4th a wall of timber sleepers to the bank fronting the green dictates that your tee shot must carry all the way the putting surface. Three deep pot bunkers sit precariously below this wall to gather up any tee shots that fail to clear the timber, making an uphill recovery shot to the blind putting surface from this area that much more difficult.
Tucked just below the foredune, the 14th is a slight dog-leg left to right with the tee shot played into an open fairway. Despite the lack of fairway bunkers to trouble your tee shot, there is little room for error with thick rough bordering both sides of the hole. The blind approach is then played to a narrow, slightly sunken green, hidden from view behind a small ridge. Decorating the right-hand side of this ridge is another wall constructed of timber sleepers, with two small pot bunkers set just below the wall amongst patches of long grass. Despite the visual intimidation of the above elements, should you be successful in clearing them the contouring of the ground will help to guide your ball onto the small, sunken green.
Apart from the course possessing a number of great golf holes, there are also a few rather interesting features of the layout that are worth mentioning:
- In making the short walk from the car park to the opening hole you have to cross a small strip of sand (which effectively forms part of the adjacent beach), and enter the course proper through a beautiful old wrought-iron gate. Interestingly the gate is flanked by stone pillars that are engraved with the names of members from both Royal West Norfolk Golf Club and the nearby Brancaster Village Golf Club who lost their lives serving in either World War I or II.
- The 1st and 18th holes share a double (joined) fairway, with golfers on the 1st tee having to ‘give-way’ to golfers playing their approaches and putting out on the closing hole. In fact the opening hole actually has two separate tee pads that flank either side of the 18th green, allowing for it to be set up as either straight-away hole, or as a right to left dog-leg.
- The aforementioned use of timber sleepers throughout the course: to both the walls of bunkers and shore up several near-vertical banks that front some of the raised greens.
- While blind drives in this part of the world are generally considered fairly common, the one encountered at the par four 5th is particularly unique. Rather than use single a marker post as a target for the centre of the fairway, here your aim over the ridge is guided by two small ‘goal posts’ (situated very close together), which define the approximate width you have to hit the narrow fairway beyond. The difficulty of this tee shot is further enhanced by the fact that you are hitting to a fairway angled slightly left to right across the line of play. Clearing the ridge is essential, with a pot bunker sited directly below the posts at the foot of the bank to add further insult to a poor drive.
- The strategic incorporation of the tidal marsh at the 8th and 9th holes, which must be carried both off the tee and again with the approach shot into the respective green complexes. While they do appear on some of the most famous links courses in the world, generally speaking water hazards are not so common on links layouts and quite often they don’t fit with the character of the course. A perfect example of this is the pond in the middle of the fairway on the 17th hole at Royal County Down. However, here at Royal West Norfolk the natural tidal marsh blends seamlessly into the golf holes – or should that be written the other way around? Either way it works, and it works exceptionally well.
- There are two instances of cross over holes. The first is encountered at just the 2nd hole, which shares a long ribbon of fairway with the 17th. Here tee shots on both holes are played from elevated tees sited on top of the foredune to their respective portion of the joined fairway below. The second scenario is the par three 4th and par four 5th holes, where the correct line of the tee shot on each hole is just in front of the tee complex on the other hole.
There is a distinct lack of signage to guide you around the layout, and so for first time visitors like myself navigating your way can at times be slightly confusing. This is especially so when leaving the 5th green, as you must exit the green to the right and cross the 7th fairway approximately 150 yards in front of the tee to reach the 6th tee. However I must admit that this is a small concern in the grand scheme of things. The only real advice you need in getting yourself around will likely come via the staff in the pro shop:
“Just aim for the red flags on the way out, and the yellow ones on the way home!”
A word of caution: the entry road is often flooded at high tide, cutting off access to the golf course entirely, thereby leaving golfers stranded on either side for up to several hours. It’s therefore highly recommended that you check the tide charts when booking a round at Royal West Norfolk to ensure you don’t miss your tee time. Of course should you find yourself ‘trapped’ on the island, another 18 holes is certainly a fine way to pass the time on a summer’s afternoon….
Please click on any one of the images below to load a slide show of photographs of the golf course.
NEXT COURSE REVIEW: Woodhall Spa Golf Club (Hotchkin Course)