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Aldeburgh

Yardage
6600
Par
68
SSS
73
Built
1884
Architect(s)
Willie Fernie, Willie Park Jnr, JH Taylor, Colt/Alison, Donald Steel, Ken Moodie
Nature:
130 year old, top pedigree, heathland Club, with gorse and perhaps the finest inland greens in the country.
Location/Address:
One mile inland from Aldeburgh on Suffolk coast.
http://www.aldeburghgolfclub.co.uk/home.htm
Secretary
Bill Beckett
Telephone
01728 452890
Professional
Keith Preston
Green Keeper
Mark Broughton MG
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aldeburgh golf club, running golf, dexter
aldeburgh golf club, running golf, dexter
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Access Policy:
visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
well-behaved dogs welcomed
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£80 - 2015

Review

Aldeburgh is one of those clubs that gives the recreational golfer everything they crave and having perhaps the finest, truest inland greens in the country is a chief criterion. Add to this that here is a two-ball course, where dogs abound, views are beautiful, where women are equals, bags are often carried, tight fescue fairways (apart from one fairway!) provide  ‘running-golf’ and overall it offers a high “joy to be alive” FineGolf feeling. Aldeburgh, along with Brancaster, Hunstanton and Worlington, is made from a similar mould, these providing the four finest Golf Clubs in East Anglia.

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clubhouse from 2nd fairway

Now that this club has recently published its 130-year history, exceptionally well documented across 264 pages by Stephen Barnard (available from the Secretary), with amusing Club and member anecdotes set against the key elements of history, my job of summary becomes that bit easier.

Located a mile inshore and set on sandy heathland, with its gorse the most famous and obvious hazard, the Club opened in 1884, just before the 1890s golf boom. It had 42 different holes up to 1922 and the only aspect of the original Willie Fernie (Open Champion in 1883 and who was greenkeeper/professional down the road at Felixstowe before moving to Troon) layout that remains is the practice green next to the iconic clubhouse that has twice suffered a fire, but still continues to provide a traditional and ‘holiday’ feel.

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Victorian members with fine moustaches and hats

All the first members were related or connected to either the Scotsman Skelton Anderson or to the three Garrett family co-founders and some 90% of members in the 1890s were London based. Aldeburgh was a fashionable holiday resort linked by the railway and its committee meetings were held locally (unlike Royal St George’s or Royal West Norfolk’s that were held in London, or indeed Felixstowe which in the early 1880s was the most fashionable seaside course within distance of London).

Golf and shooting were often linked in those days and the Aldeburgh ground doubled for both sports. In the 20th century golf became more of an urban game and developed its own clothing fashion, increasingly influenced by professional golfers, particularly Americans, who from the 1920s were snappily dressed. Nevertheless plus-twos continue to be seen at Aldeburgh today.

Willie Park Jnr, Open Champion of 1887 and designer of Sunningdale Old, Notts (Holinwell), Temple, Huntercombe and many other fine courses, was invited to revise the layout of the course in 1907, by when he had become more of a businessman than a professional. He gave it not only two loops of nine holes but the cleverness of his lay-out is essentially what we have today apart from the finish that used to be around the Watering Forest. One can still see his distinctive subtle green complexes at holes one, three, eight and nine in contrast to the pre-existing, less interesting sixth (though Ken Moodie created the swales and tighter bunkering in 2009) and seventh greens.

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The fourth green

His wonderful sleepered, short par three, fourth hole is still identical to his initial design apart from a new raised tee and the bunker no longer extending right round the right hand-side.

JH Taylor, regarded as the senior English professional and five times Open Champion, with Peter Lees (greenkeeper at Royal Mid-Surrey, where Taylor was also the attendant professional), were invited in 1910 to re-bunker the course.

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JH Taylor bunker

They created what are one of the glories of Aldeburgh, a number of distinctive creations, instantly recognisable with their large humps and ripples, particularly the cross-bunkering at the tenth, eleventh (in the 1980s Donald Steel – a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel – made some amendments) and sixteenth. There are also others located shy of the greens at five, seven, ten, thirteen, sixteen and eighteen which all continue to this day, as does the most controversial driving bunker at the seventh that bites into the middle of the fairway. To make you feel better if you have just failed to escape Taylor’s trap, this is also the best point on the course to enjoy a panoramic view over the Alde estuary.

Taylor liked his bunkers to be tough, “not shallow like spittoons”. He said “obstacles on a golf course should be the ‘Borstal system’ of a golfer’s life, teaching him that the way of the transgressor is hard, but not crushing his spirit”.

Willie Park Jnr had not been allowed to strengthen the weak finish to the course around the Watering Forest due largely to Capt Vernon-Wentworth, who owned the land and clubhouse at that time before selling them to the members in 1923.

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Red deer on first fairway

By 1922, with the number of cars growing on the Saxmundham Road,  it was agreed to invite Harry Colt’s partner Hugh Alison (best known for his work in Japan where particularly deep and difficult bunkers are called ‘Alisons’) to make changes to the lay-out at holes five, fourteen, fifteen, seventeen and eighteen.  He scrapped the last three holes, creating two new fine par threes using the old fourteenth green to create the new par three fifteenth (203 yards), approached from a different direction and the strongly bunkered par three seventeenth (173 yards). It is thought that the design of the actual green complexes was Colt’s.

The raised green of the fourteenth is certainly one of the features of the course though the hole is spoiled by the one lush fairway on the course which is pure annual meadow grass (Poa annua), the soil being ruined for golf by over-fertilising when used as a chicken farm!

Often people describe Aldeburgh as a links-like course and in giving us  ‘running-golf’ on sandy soil there are similarities, but the design of the fairways, though of tight fescue grasses, is predominantly flat, without the numerous dips and bumps of many duneland links and as a result provides easier, more predictable flat stances.

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Mark Broughton MG

Mark Broughton MG, the course manager since 1998 who has done a wonderful job, with advice from Alistair Beggs (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) in strengthening the fine grasses agronomy, must be pleased with the general lack of trees across the course that always hinder the drying out of greens. Since he arrived the gorse has also been cut back on many holes.

The policy, as described to me by recent Chairman of Green, Hugh Wolley, has been to extend the course to 6600 yards, keeping a par five off the card, (par 68, SSS 73) while giving more confidence to the scratch golfer to use their driver. With the ever present wind the avenues of gorse still, to my mind, keep threatening, as Bernard Darwin, that doyen of golf writers, continually emphasised in the 1930’s in a classic piece for the club’s handbook.

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Victor Longstaffe cartoon

The Club history has whole chapters on the convivial Victor Longstaffe, who started the Moles Golfing Society and the self-effacing Joy Winn. Joy, a international golfer between the wars, was not keen on the stands of firs planted behind the third and fifth greens in 1968, “obscuring a fine view”, she thought, as well as scattering pine needles on the greens. But they are still there!

The first two holes are never easy but are still fair and then comes a brute on rising ground, where Ken Moodie has recently re-bunkered with a swale sweeping away any weak approach on the right. Most would willingly take a ‘pencil and card’ five here and again at the 478 yard 16th (whom some call the grandest hole on the course and Darwin below uses in his cigarette card series), apart perhaps from John Lloyd who, in the 1984 Centenary Medal, “But for a butterfly, arresting on his ball, left one short putt short, would have had a net 59”.

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Bernard Darwin sixteenth hole comment

Dai Rees, the Welsh professional, described Aldeburgh as having many “four-and-a-halves”, though the power of the modern ball has reduced a number of them and before anybody says length is all down to greater modern fitness, remember that Harry Weetman drove the 360 yard fourteenth green over the top of the trees (planted to screen-out the new houses on the periphery of the course) using a wooden-headed club.

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Peter Pears & Benjamin Britten

The town of Aldeburgh is best known for its musical festival which was started after the Second World War by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who lived in the ‘Red House’ alongside the fourteenth fairway.

The golfing challenge that is Aldeburgh is highlighted by the fact that Max Faulkner, Open Champion when last played at Royal Portrush 1951, won the Teachers Senior Professional championship here in 1968 with an eleven over par score of 283.

At this point I might mention in contrast Jamie Philpott’s 67 completed off the back blue tees in the 2012 Artisan Club Championship, to remind readers that artisan golf, whose impetus was created in the inter-war years, today only survives at Aldeburgh and Brancaster across the whole of Suffolk and Norfolk.

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A course sign

At a time when many clubs need more members happy to play at off-peak times and the ‘pace of play’ hinders the young from playing, Aldeburgh as a two-ball course where in foursomes non-drivers can walk forward on fourteen holes and less than three hour rounds with a fine lunch in between, is regular fare. It is not surprising that so many golfing societies love Aldeburgh and the silver tankards from which to sip their beer.

The Easter Foursomes Championship continues to be the premier event in the Club’s calendar.

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The Singletons and dogs. Recent Easter foursomes winners

Stephen Barnard notes: “Firstly, most of the visiting clubs and societies understand and appreciate foursomes golf: secondly most visiting societies are exclusively male. It is well known that men need an excuse of a game to bond and, being prosaic, a club or society match gives them the excuse to drink and eat more than usual.”

If the law was needed to stop Aldeburgh members from drinking and driving or smoking in the clubhouse, there was no need for the recent ‘equality’ law as the Club’s rules adopted in 1891 referred to “him” and “her” throughout and men and women have always paid equal subscriptions.

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The third green

Like Woking, Aldeburgh suffered no disruption from the suffragettes, while Sheringham, Walton Heath, Felixstowe and Rye and many others fared worse.

The course in the 2010s has never been in better condition and is now closer to its original heathland nature. I played just after the front nine holes had been slit on the last day of November but the greens of 60% fescue, 25% browntop bent ran truly, without my ball leaving the ground except once on the seventh green. Not wishing to remind David Cameron of his embarrassment with Her Majesty but the best description of the back nine greens was that they ‘purred’. More importantly, even in winter they and the aprons are of such consistent firmness that one can ‘bump and run’ with complete predictability.

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Jim Arthur

However, things were not always like this as this quote in the agronomist Jim Arthur’s 1987 report suggests! “Rarely have I found a course with more or varied problems, yet you have failed to contact me once in over two years: failed to take my advice; failed to realise even that you have major problems and failed to face up to all too obvious deficiencies in the running of the course. It would be sad enough if Aldeburgh was some local small town course, but those in charge must realise, as I am sure that they do, that they are entrusted with the management of a famous and superb example of a first class heathland course, sailing on a perilous course to predictable disaster….Everything hinges on one fact – you have tried to keep subscriptions impossibly low and used the revenue from the River course for this purpose, instead of investing it in course management.”

What a thing it is to possess the knowledge and confidence of the greatest agronomist golf has ever known, to be able to tell the truth to your clients. It was the forthright advice the Secretary and Officers needed and the course has been recovered.

How many other fine clubs could learn from that advice? Sadly, I can think of another classic heathland course with just as stretchy and testing a finish as Aldeburgh, where complacency has ruled for sometime and the course is slipping back to be  lush wooded parkland.

This review did not need to describe each hole in detail to let the reader appreciate the quality of the all round Aldeburgh experience, although the course may not have the exciting movement in the ground of nearby Woodbridge or Purdis Heath. The four quite outstanding short holes are all roughly in the same wind direction. Apart from the twelfth (the oldest complete hole on the course created in 1893 by probably John Thomson, the pro at Felixstowe) and the thirteenth, the other twelve par fours are all between 402 and 478 yards and with few even half-blind shots, the holes might be considered on paper as samey but actually playing the course soon banishes that thought, to be replaced by a high “joy-to-be-alive” feeling.

This is not surprising with Aldeburgh having such a coterie of fine golf architects, in particular Willie Park Jnr, JH Taylor and Harry Colt/Alison with their distinctive designs and played across the finest of turf.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2015

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