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Royal Worlington and Newmarket

Yardage
6246
Par
70
SSS
70
Built
1893
Architect(s)
Tom Dunn, Harry Colt
Nature:
Historic, finest 9-hole course in the world, now restored to fine grasses. Famous hogs-back short 5th.
Location/Address:
Near Mildenhall, Suffolk. (postcode: IP28 8SD)
http://www.royalworlington.co.uk
Secretary
Scott Ballentine
Telephone
44 (0)1638 717787
Professional
Richard Beadles
Green Keeper
Jonathan Kitchen
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome by arrangement with the Sec.
Dog Policy:
Welcomed
Open Meetings:
none
Fees in 1960s
25p
Fees today
£55

Review

When one first surveys the ground at Worlington (a Royal club from as early as 1895), one has little feeling that this is the finest nine-hole course in the world, though the proud line of Scots pines standing tall like sentinels, running down the middle of the sixth and eighth holes, do provide some hint of distinction.

Photo of Queen Victoria in clubhouse

Photo of Queen Victoria in clubhouse

Essentially this is golf laid over a flat field but also luckily standing upon an outcrop of sandy, draining terrain and, although strictly a geologically inaccurate description, it is often called an inland links.

There is so much golf to be had here that it scarcely seems possible that it amounts to a mere nine holes.

 

There is some controversy over who was the designer: Willie Park Jnr, Tom Hood or Tom Dunn although of these Dunn, the professional at Tooting Bec and creator of so many early courses, seems to be the man. Harry Colt, England’s most prolific golf architect, also left a substantial legacy with new greens at the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 9th in the 1920s and not much has changed since.

I was invited recently to play a foursomes ‘British Golfer Collectors Society’ match against the Club. I stepped on to the course with some trepidation as six years previously when I had last played here the fairways and greens, dominated by annual meadow grass (Poa annua), were soft and thatchy.

A short chat with course manager Jonathan Kitchen enlightened me that he had previously had little relevant course experience in the development of fine grasses.

It was a revelation to him that, rather than as with the previous agronomist who had  recommended, two days a year, tinkering with the Poa weed grass, when consultant Gordon Irvine was brought in by the Secretary Scott Ballentine, he organised a full, long-term programme of grass species change, covering every aspect of the course and equipment, for Jonathan and his small team to implement, via austere, commonsense natural greenkeeping, within agreed priorities and as per budgetary needs.

The Club’s brilliant appointment of this young, passionate, enthusiastic course manager, who whole-heartedly welcomed Gordon Irvine’s advice over the last five years, has gloriously returned Worlington to the ‘Running-Golf ’ course for which it historically was known, particularly offering some of the best inland winter greens anywhere.

Certain greens have been widened to take in the whole complex of the movement in the ground and with the aprons and run-offs also firm and fine-grassed, the bump-and-run percentage shot can now be confidently played relying on a consistency of bounce.

After an opening par five that does not claim as many birdies as perhaps it might when played later on as the 10th, the quality of every hole here is exemplary. A course on which a match can be lost from dormy seven-up suggests an examination befitting a Cambridge University entrance paper and, of course, this is where C.U.G.C. have made their home.

Frank Pennink, himself a dark blue man, considered that the light blues had an inestimable advantage in being able to practice on these keen greens and tight lies that taught them to discard the lofted club in favour of their putter, or a straight-faced club, for work around the green.

CUGC captains

CUGC captains

The Cambridge Captains’ board hangs in the traditional clubhouse with Harry Colt himself appearing in the year 1889, as the first Captain.

The second hole (224 yards) has a true, upturned saucer green requiring a delicate bump and run for most players to extract their par of three.

The rumpled and pinched third fairway, over an old fashioned cross bunker, requires an accurate drive to give you a fair chance with your second shot at staying on the green. Failing this, one is hard-pressed or forced to be very creative to achieve a par four on this 360 yard teaser.

The 4th green

The 4th green

The fourth has been gradually extended over the years and the present tee dates from the 1970s. It may not be a great hole and there used originally to be a pond short of the incline protecting the green but, as this hole is all about catching the bounce correctly on the summit, the pond whether there or not, should not come into it – unlike the little stream beside and behind the green.

It was at this hole that my partner played the shot of our round, laying the ball dead with a bump-and-run from beside the bunker by the green, pitching our ball half way up the slope to run over the crest and down to the pin. It was amazing in judgement and skill and made possible by the quality of the fine grassed surfaces.

90% of modern players would have used a wedge, likely sculling, dunking or over-hitting the shot to the firm green. The pity on the one hand is that the tour pros, playing on ‘Target-Golf ‘ courses 95% of the time, use wedges for all their chip shots and amateurs copy them even when playing on tight-turfed ‘Running-Golf ‘ courses. The wonderful thing on the other hand is that this type of bump-and-run percentage shot can be played by all golfers, rather than having to emulate the magician-like qualities of a Michelson with his wedges.

Donald Steel (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel)had the short fifth as his 5th in his Sunday Telegraph Dream golf course and described it as a vaulting horse.

The fifth is so idiosyncratic in the middle of the round that it fastens everything else in place.

 

In the 1930s Churchmans published a set of golfing cigarette cards, each having a light-hearted commentary by Bernard Darwin on a particular hole. His commentary on the fifth at Worlington is as good a description of this iconic hole as any I have read:

The famous 5th green

The famous 5th green

“Mr Everyman made quite a good shot – that is admitted. He was unlucky when the ball kicked down into the left-hand valley but that was no reason why he should get so cross and bang the next across the green into the right-hand valley. He took five. Mr Tiger was rather strong and nearly in the fir trees. He could not get his downhill putt dead – four. Mr Rabbit half topped his drive straight and short. He ran up in two and got a three. ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’, said Mr Rabbit. A good hole if you know how to play it.”

My partner and I, both playing with pre-1935 hickory clubs, were pleased to give each other a putt on the fifth hole, where the pin was back-left, even if from the front to the back it is a terrifying one and so easy to get the wrong side of ridges and putt off the green altogether! It was nevertheless the play of our opponents, though thoughtful and almost well-conceived, which revealed what a devil that green is.

Their chip from the left hollow ran to the flat semi-rough on the back-right near the tree line. A 60-degree wedge (our opponents were playing with modern clubs) flopped exquisitely on to the green did not take the bite that a soft green would have given and the ball travelled steadily past the pin and back down into the left-hand hollow. A second well-judged chip left their ball just on the green back-right, after which the player stayed down in the hollow, for sure enough, he was required to make a third chip slightly closer to the hole, after his partner had very carefully rolled the ball again that then gathered pace after it had passed the hole.

My story is in no way to embarrass our opponents since, as I have said, they almost played the hole well with every stroke. However, the above does help show a golfing picture of the fun to be had, not only from the design of this course ‘in a field’ but also from the greens which, after almost one inch of rain in the previous week and cut at winter levels of 5.5mm, were not fast but incredibly true and firm. The greens are nowadays grassed with some 70% fescue with also some browntop bent and the Poa reduced to a minimum.

This agronomy has raised the golfing challenge to new heights and exemplified why fine grasses provide the most enjoyment.

 

Then come two strong par fours of over 450 yards in opposite directions, with the third short hole, with an exposed and always fast green, giving some relief, squeezed between.

Clubhouse and 9th green

Dexter in front of Clubhouse and 9th green

The ninth hole (317 yards) again typifies Worlington’s unique charm and sense of fun. A stream running across and alongside the fairway has claimed many balls topped or sliced although 1986 saw a hole in one achieved via a tree. Another less fortunate golfer saw his ball be carried away on a hay truck that appeared on the road in front of the green, later dropping it off 300 yards down the first hole!

The photo shows my gundog Dexter surveying the green where his namesake, a Cambridge blue at cricket and golf – still winning long driving competitions in the South of France in the week of his 75th birthday! – drove this green with a three-iron on occasion.

Even on the ninth green, somewhat shaded and low-lying near a stream, the grass is predominantly fine and I was able to make two distinguished putts from opposite directions, with both of these moving some three feet sideways as the ball slowed to the hole and to my delight the second putt dropping from fifteen foot to finish on the highest note.

Fine grass builds putting confidence!

Once one has got one’s mind away from the idea of having to have ‘close shaved for speed’ greens and had some experience of stroking putts across these decidedly speckled-looking greens (at least they would seem so to any player used to lush parkland Poa greens) one realises they run smoothly and consistently even in the winter.

As a result, one’s confidence grows, which is really what putting is all about.

 

Boxer Cannon, a stalwart of the club, almost unbeatable round here and the inventor of the ‘Pink Jug’, a local champagne cocktail often imbibed by those looking for a good time at Worlington, was once watching from behind the 9th. The unfortunate player having to putt down the slope and seeing the ball roll on and on, might well have heeded Cannon’s remark: “stroke it with the toe of the putter”.

There are too many interesting characters associated with Worlington to mention them all but the eccentric John Morrison, a treble Cambridge blue at cricket, football and golf – and winner of 31 out of 32 Halford-Hewitt matches when partnering Henry Longhurst in the 1930s, can be mentioned with relevance to the present.

It was John who was primarily responsible for the design of the Burma Road course at Wentworth while a partner in Harry Colt’s golf architect business in the 1920s. Of late, some have suggested that classic golf courses should be protected from rampant change by treating them like listed houses but, whether one agrees or not and and one wonders whether the new Chinese owners will agree, the ‘through the air’ philosophy behind the 2010 Wentworth West Course design has little in keeping with Morrison’s original fast running, strategic, heathland format.

Having achieved the remarkable turn-round in grass species and greens performance Jonathan’s small team have now started to upgrade the tees and clear out the roughs using ‘Rescue’ to kill the broad-leafed Ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog. With scarifying and autumn baling-off, the tall wispy fescues give an attractive definition in the summer, particularly to the first and eight holes, while still making one’s ball easy to find even among the cowslips and wild orchids.

The greens and surroundings are continuously aerated; verti-drained at the end of summer; slit throughout autumn/winter and solid tined and Sarrel rolled weekly through the spring/summer. Topdressed with 80/100 tons of 80/20 sand/’Banks Fendress’, (rather than pure inert sand) with some SSD, lawnsand, maxicrop and chilated iron used at different times. The use of water management product ‘Revolution’ and hand watering helps keep the water moisture content now down to around 13% (which of course helps keep out the weed grasses that love over-dampness).  Very little pesticide needs to be used and leather jackets, those lovers of damp, are not presently a problem. The summer greens are hand-mowed at 4.5mm or higher in dry conditions if they get too fast.

Behind the 2nd green

Behind the 2nd green

Worlington has a depth of character and toughness that can get inside the brain.

How one deals with its challenge can alarm any golfer used to ‘Target-Golf ‘ but those who wish to be examined in every aspect of golf will love this club, (which is predominantly two ball play), that looks oh so innocent but can be ruthless and unforgiving.

On one occasion a passer-by enquired about the state of relations between some foursomes partners who were in a match six-down on the 13th ; he was met with the epigrammatic reply: “Strained; bearable; repairable.”

The Club has also invested in its clubhouse and opened up the reception areas with oak and stone floors using beautiful quality reclaimed materials.

The steak and kidney pie was delicious but the bread-and-butter pudding was to die for. Plenty of sultanas among the eggy under-dish with a crunchy, chewy layer of triangular bread sweetened with sugar and cinnamon on top. The best since my mother’s of many moons ago!

Royal Worlington & Newmarket must certainly be historically the finest nine hole course in the world and now with Gordon Irvine’s help it has been restored to fine ‘Running-Golf ‘ after a period of unfortunate, verging on the boring, ‘Target-Golf ‘.

It really is worth a visit and will not cost you that much, while giving you a high star-rating ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling. It is a special place in so many ways and a great hickories course too!

The centenary (1993) history book of Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club is called The Sacred Nine”, as befits the description of the finest nine-hole club in the world. John Gillum’s book (recently reprinted in hardback) draws on the writings of Cambridge University golf blues Bernard Darwin, Henry Longhurst, Pat Dickinson, Laddie Lucas, Leonard Crawley and Donald Steel. It contains so many anecdotes from so many characters of amateur golf that there seems more history per hole than at any other club in England. It is the most enjoyable read of any centenary book I have yet come across (and that includes those wonderful books covering Hoylake, Swinley Forest and Walton Heath) and if the visiting golfer can get hold of a copy before playing, their enjoyment will be even more enhanced.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2010 and updated in 2016.

Reader Comments

On July 19th, 2010 Michael Estorick Said:

Worlington is as nice a place to play as anywhere ( as distinct from its obvious quality as a course). I love the feeling that you can just keep going round and round, though this might be some peoples idea of hell!.
Finnigan, the American writer, slates it, thinks its grossly overrated and just doesn’t get it, but he probably thinks Pine Valley a great CLUB (as distinct from course).
He also thinks Pennard, the ‘links in the sky’, one of the 20 best courses in the world. He’s probably never tried to organise a match there ( the locals don’t turn up!). How often do we rate a course where we play badly (and vice versa)?

On July 19th, 2010 John Hannah Said:

I’ve played this wonderful course on several occasions, most enjoyably in the match against the Cambridge Stymies, and most memorably the 54 holes played with Bob Garrett on my 54th birthday.
Perhaps we’ll meet again on my 72nd – although as it falls in October, daylight rather than stamina might be against us.

On January 2nd, 2013 Michael Waugh-Bacchus Said:

Played “the sacred nine” on New Years Eve. You wouldn’t stumble across it but once there we received a warm welcome.
After changing in a very oldy worldly clubhouse the secretary graciously insisted on walking us to the first tee to give us an idea on the course layout and local rules.
Memories of the course were the incredible greens (cut that morning) regardless of the fact that most of East Anglia had been under water for a fortnight. Being sand based the course was dare I say it immaculate for late December.
Overall it had the feel of playing one of the three w’s in Surrey. Stand-out holes the par 3 fifth, sharp banking both left and right of green so be sure to hit straight, regardless of length. Strong par 4 sixth, in excess of 450 yards, followed by same length hole on the eighth played in opposite direction.
Two criticisms, par 5 first lacks definition (felt a tad like Rye). The ninth, short dog leg par 4 played over a stream had a parkland feel to it, which of course is out of character.
Overall a smashing way to end the golfing year. Staff are rightly proud of their hidden gem and are more than happy to share the experience with visitors. A green fee of £15 for 9 holes had an oldy world feel to it as well! A must play course.