A unique traditional club. Visitors will enjoy an experience of classic links golf, the like of which is not to be found anywhere else.
Let’s be clear from the start, Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, normally referred to as ‘Brancaster’, gives a 5-star Fine Golf “joy to be alive” feeling.
Founded with Royal patronage in 1892, there has been little alteration to Mr Holcombe Ingleby’s original design. Along with Westwood Ho! it gives golfers an idea of traditional links golf on a spit of land between the dunes and the inland salt marsh.
It has kept the original sleepered greens and bunkers that were taken out of many other courses in the 1920s.
I first played it many moons ago when the heat of a July’s day came back up at you from fairways of flowery weeds.
With the advice of Jim Arthur, made reality by the head greenkeeper, Paul Seago (who has since gone on to great things at Gullane and now The Renaissance), and more recently Gavin Playford, the fairways and greens have been transformed to fine grasses to allow a heavier playing traffic. Now also retained is Gordon Irvine so they have the best advice.
Often compared with the Hunstanton championship links six miles down the coast, Brancaster favours match play and is a quick playing 2-ball course.
Whereas Hunstanton with a reliance on Poa Annua (meadow grasses) lost its fairways and greens a few years ago from which it has taken time to recover, though they are now committed to pursuing a fine grasses programme led by the excellent Gordon Irvine, with the objective of all-year round firm greens, Brancaster’s greens have steadily improved in speed and fineness.
The greens are now some 75% fine grasses and are cut normally at 4mm. Sustainable greenkeeping is pursued with little water and no fertiliser to encourage the fine grasses and keep the course as natural as possible.
Children of this private members’ Club are encouraged to join and can graduate to full membership at 18. This continues a tradition of being very much a family Club. For all others, there is presently a ten-year waiting list.
Check the tides before coming to Brancaster, as the course is cut off at high tide. Nevertheless, to play the 8th and 9th at high tide, when the saltmarsh is swamped, is a special Spring treat.
The ambience in the attractive, functional rather than luxurious, clubhouse is often described as how a warm, welcoming club should be.
There is a story told of how a group of women sitting in the high veranda in the clubhouse were shocked by the fun being had by a foursome up wind on the 18th green. They complained to the secretary who assured them something would be done. The next day a notice appeared “Women are banned from the veranda”. There is, of course, no truth in this anecdote and there is a total lack of sexism at this Club but it gives an amusing hint to a possible politically incorrect element in its character.
There are few rules at Brancaster with a membership who know how to behave. My wife’s designer jeans are quite acceptable, though when shorts are worn, long socks are preferred for men.
Dogs are welcome and water is provided on the 15th Tee, near the 4th green. The members are not too put out even if the steadiest of dogs is tempted when one of the abundant hares is put up, as I personally am able to attest.
The 1st hole is an example of the strategic nature of the golf needed to play well at Brancaster, with a drive to an enormous fairway shared with the 18th. But the approach to the green is made easier if your ball dangerously hugs the dunes to the left.
There are some truly great par 4s and four short holes of real character. A fifth short hole, the 13th, created, I believe, after the Second World War, was controversially changed into a 316 yard sharp dogleg a few years ago. It may be fun for the big hitter to go for it but to my mind it unfortunately replaced a fine long iron par 3 with an idiosyncratic, sleepered pitch from behind.
Indeed, much like Royal Dornoch, the bump and run shot at Brancaster is less in evidence than on more classic links because of its many raised and protected greens.
The 3rd and 14th holes are the best, long two-shotters, depending on the direction of the ever-present wind. The satisfaction of achieving them in seven or eight strokes will guarantee that you have a round to be remembered, as your game will truly be in order.
The 5th must also be mentioned with its long blind drive where I never quite trust the marker post!
And so to the two holes that are quintessentially Brancaster.
Played into an easterly, the 8th and 9th are extremely challenging. The saltmarsh, where samphire is found in August, has to be negotiated twice at the short par-five 8th. How much to take off at the drive will determine whether you can go over the second stretch of saltmarsh, directly for the green and your possible birdie.
There is, of course, as on all great strategic holes, an alternative route for higher handicappers, who can zigzag up the hole with shorter carries, nevertheless, still having all the fun this natural hole provides.
Your second to the sleepered green at the 9th over saltmarsh again, brings you to the far end of the course with views across to the sailing village of Brancaster Staithe, Scolt Head and the spread of the Saltings that are to die for.
Ian Symington is shown (above) having not achieved the long carry at high tide!
To quote Frank Pennink, “Altogether, this is a very satisfying course.”
Donald Steel felt that:
“There are few greater joys than a clear course, a light breeze to rustle the dunes’ wild bents and the crisp contact of club on ball from ideal, firm turf. The club has never sought prominence, very much the opposite, so the true quality of the challenge has never been put to the test by the best professionals under competitive conditions. If only for curiosity’s sake, this is a pity. Brancaster is decidedly a course that rewards shotmaking values and the powers of variation that some modern courses do not demand. As a result, many modern players think and play only one way.”
While Mark Reason asks us to “imagine something cosy bashing up against the edges of nature”.
Review by Lorne Smith 2008. Leave us a comment below
My favourite story about the members of this wonderful Club comes from John K Coleridge’s 1892-1992 The Royal West Norfolk Golf Club – A Celebration of a Way of Golf –
But if it is golfing skill allied to extreme eccentricity of performance that one looks for, surely Humphrey Ellis cannot be surpassed. . . . At the 18th in one important medal competition, Humphrey found himself left with a five-foot putt. A prolonged pause for scrutiny was followed by his picking up the ball with the terse comment ‘It’s impossible.’
I warmly recommend this book to anyone who loves Brancaster.On July 26th, 2011 Anthony Poolman Said:
I had the pleasure and the honour of playing with your Captain and former Captain during a fleeting visit last month. What a joy to be able to play those true running shots, to deal with those marvellous sleepered bunkers, to … well, nothing was other than perfect.On August 27th, 2012 Michael Waugh-Bacchus Said:
After writing a letter requesting a round in August (no visitors generally the rule between late July and early September) , i turned up at 7.30 AM to be greeted by an army of greenkeepers. Opening hole shares a fairway with 18 (much like St Andrews and North Berwick) . 3 strong par fours to open , into a headwind all easily 400 yard + insist that bogey golf a satisfactory outcome . Elevated sleepered green at the short fourth gives some respite before another challenging par fourth which requires a blind drive. Perhaps the standout hole 8 and 9 both over salt marshes , accuracy at a premium especially when the tide is in for obvious reasons. Downwind heading home (not normally the case) allows for a score to be constructed. The 11’th such a hole elevated tee box short par 5 really invites you to hit your ” Sunday Best”. After a firmly struck fairway metal an elusive eagle putt awaited, alas tap in birdie the bounty. 15’th a wonder hole , long par 3 (185 yards) with one of the infamous carniverous bunkers awaiting any lamely struck ball.
The grand feeling of solitude around the turn will stay with me for a long time. Members were very proud and welcoming (as were their dogs!) . Ladies in Pro shop helpful courteous and genuinly pleased that i had enjoyed the experience. Layout v well designed on such a thin slither of land. Small gripes would be the speed of greens (unusually slow for seaside golf),fairways not as tight as you would expect. Overall a wonderful experience, English Links golf as its finest .