Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club possibly has the finest nine-hole golf course in the world. It was certainly an incredible achievement to fit nine holes onto such a tiny piece of sandy ground and it's the only nine-hole course ever to have been voted onto a Britain & Ireland Top 100 list.
This is a classical golf course, often referred to as Mildenhall and it’s the home of golf for undergraduates at Cambridge University. The turf has all the qualities of a seaside links, free draining and springy. Bernard Darwin loved Worlington and in his book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles, he wrote: “Worlington is not unlike Frilford in appearance, being extremely solitary, flat and sandy, and dotted here and there with fir trees. There are only nine holes, but of these several are really excellent, and none can fairly be said to be dull.” We agree, it is an engaging little course, but make sure you bring your best putting game – the greens are the highlight.
Tom Dunn, who laid out the course in the early 1890s, reputedly said: “God meant this land to be a golf course”. Some thirty years later, Harry Colt lengthened it and little has since changed. Jo Floyd holds the course record. In September 1949, he went round nine holes in an incredible 28 stokes. He holed his second shot at the opening par five for an albatross two; this obviously lifted his spirits for the rest of the round.
Three and four-ball play is not allowed at Worlington, foursomes and twosomes are the order of the day. Whatever you do, do not let this traditional approach put you off playing this historic nine-hole course; it offers the ideal golf day, especially if you can safely negotiate the infamous short 5th hole.
“One may reach the green with a pitch from the tee,” wrote Darwin, “but what a difficult pitch it is. The green is something in the shape of a hog’s back; immediately on the left of it is a stagnant pool of water, and on the right is a stream, complicated by overhanging willows. To reach the green is one distinct feat; to hole out in two putts, when one has got there, is another.” The stagnant pool has long since gone, there is a grassy hollow there instead, but it’s still one of the toughest bunker-less par threes in the land.
Something has changed here in the five years since I last played (review below 2/10/12) and I cannot put my finger on it. Back in 2012 I played well and it was a lovely day wandering around the course with my dog but I really didn’t enjoy the course and could not believe the ultra-glowing opinions that I had read in numerous publications. As Ed mentions in his words below from 2/6/17, the opinions good and bad are as wide as probably any course around.
My recent visit was mainly to see if my original 2-ball ranking was too harsh and I have to say, yes it was – I certainly am not about to bang the drum for a world or GB&I position because in my opinion any 9 hole course, however good or improved cannot reach these heights.
Condition and presentation was great and I did take the time to really look at every hole properly (played each 3 times) and to look at the land and run-offs and hopefully to see why it RW&N has some supporters at the very top-end of the ranking game. There is a little bit of me that understands the strong words, although most are still too glowing.
The greens and surrounds are good, very good in places, like the run-off at the back of the par-3 2nd, the severe run-off to the left of the 5th, another par-3 and the par-4 6th hole. The 6th is a 460 yard par-4 with a massive green (all holes have big greens) that is uphill from front to back…
I can now say that there is nothing to dislike about the course, yes there are some bunkers that are a little misplaced; the one forty yards in front of the first tee springs to mind (?) but overall I am converted. This happened once before to me when on first play, I was not that impressed with the Championship course at Carnoustie; half a dozen rounds later and I love it.
In summary, yes I have a new opinion of the course, I had great fun, I can now see what all the fuss is about (to a degree) and I also respect why some may love it. I now concede that the Sacred Nine is a good course, not a great one but a solid good course – my direct comparison back in 2012 was between this and Surrey’s best nine hole course at Reigate Heath – my choice has not changed, Reigate Heath must be ranked higher, especially as there are different tees to use when playing the nine holes twice.
In terms of course opinion maybe first impressions are not always the lasting ones.
Royal Worlington & Newmarket at Mildenhall is a golf course that I have wanted to visit for a long time.
Much has been written about this charismatic club over the years since it’s foundation in 1893. It has received high acclaim from many respected sources but likewise has had its detractors too.
Having heard it described as little more than a field with nine flags in it to being dubbed as the greatest nine-hole course in the World, it’s clearly a course that divides opinion. I really just wanted to go there with a neutral mind-set and arrive at my own conclusion.
Some have said it’s not an easy course to gain access to, however, I had no problems in this regard. I simply called the Secretary on the morning I intended to play and was advised that I would be warmly welcomed at my anticipated arrival time of fifteen hundred hours. I was even told that I would pay the twilight green-fee despite this not coming into effect until an hour later.
My cheery reception duly arrived and I was also greeted with the issue of an insurance certificate; ‘Just in case you kill anyone’ I was told by the lovely lady at the other side of the hatch in the olde-worlde clubhouse and to whom I handed my green-fee.
It soon became apparent that this protection was because of the public road that runs the length of the first hole and that also cuts right across the front of the ninth green. However, as I would only find out a few holes later, it could also be for those who are driven to murder after chipping back and forth across the fifth green for the umpteenth time.
This timeless course receives architectural praise for the routing in such a compact area (to achieve this you drive over the green of the previous hole on a number of occasions) but, perhaps selfishly, I’m not too interested in that. I’m more concerned with how the course plays and in this regard Royal Worlington ticks all the boxes.
The sandy, links-like soil produces great turf from which to play but it is the green complexes that elevate this to being one of the UK’s best courses, never mind all this ‘best nine-hole’ business.
Believe me, this is the real thing. Or at least anyone who doesn’t like Royal Worlington & Newmarket has a different definition of ‘golf’ than I do.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
I genuinely don’t understand why Worlington polarises opinion as it does. For me this is the real deal and still relevant in the 21st century. We play here annually as part of our Suffolk trip and we play 36 and embrace the full RW&N experience. I love it and despite having played it dozens of times, the greens still confound me. It’s the variety of green complexes that are the stars of the show here and for that reason alone it belongs in a class of its own. Once maybe RW&N was overrated now it’s definitely underrated.
Had the pleasure of playing this traditional inland Links Course for the first time, and whilst it 'looks understated', it's this simplicity that actually makes it a pleasurable golfing experience. The green structures constantly keep you on your toes and offer an array of challenging breaking putts, and puts a premium on ball placement throughout your round. The highlight of the course is the par 3 5th hole. Whilst not a long par 3, you have to be accurate as the green slopes viciously either side leaving a desperately difficult chip shot - a true test!
A wonderful walk back in time to a more traditional time of when golf was originally played. I really enjoy both aspects of the new 'super' courses and facilities but the opportunity to play a course like Royal Worlington & Newmarket is a must for an avid golfer.
The 9-holer at Mildenhall is a personal favourite of architect Tom Doak (whose rare “Confidential Guide” book was sitting in the bookcase across from the serving hatch in the clubhouse) but, for me, the course offered no more than a fairly routine game of parkland golf – except, that is, for the greens.
The putting surfaces were absolutely fantastic; as good as any you could expect to find anywhere. I know greenkeeper Bob Gee – with 49 years of service – is no longer at the club but his legacy lives on with the new man in command, Jonathan Kitchin, and he, assisted by Master Greenkeeper consultant Gordon Irvine, prepares greens that are an absolute joy to putt on.
The upturned saucer on the 2nd and the 3-tiered example on the 5th were particular stunners but great greens (or even, dare I say it, the design talents of Harry Colt) don’t guarantee a great course, and RW&N can only be classed as rather average in that regard.
Then again, I get the feeling the course is actually secondary to what really matters here; it’s more about the cosy little clubhouse and the friendship and fraternity of the members that use it. Nothing wrong with that, of course and I’m sure the people who front up here regularly don’t give a damn whether they’re playing a highly regarded course or not - even if a recent framed golf magazine certificate with the course ranked 99 in GB&I sits conspicuously on display in the changing room!
Mildenhall didn’t exactly get my pulse racing the same way that other 9-holers like Traigh in Scotland or Cruit Island in Ireland have done in the past but maybe the more sedate setting of this English "gem" (compared to the wild, rugged beauty surrounding its Celtic cousins) played a part in dulling my level of appreciation?