The Belfry needs little introduction: after all, the Brabazon course has played host to more Ryder Cups than any other. So it's not surprising that when they decided to build a third course to complement the Brabazon and Derby, it would come under serious scrutiny.
Opening for play in 1997, the Dave Thomas-designed PGA National course was the first course in Europe to carry PGA branding. It's a stern, challenging course, which has been built along distinct American lines. With four newly constructed lakes and extensive mounding providing separation between the fairways, the PGA National has clearly been built as a tournament course, with spectators in mind. Despite the fact that the course has been constructed on open farmland, there are a number of interesting elevation changes.
From the "James Braid" blue tees, the course stretches out to 7,053 yards, but from the "Harry Vardon" yellows, the layout becomes a manageable 6,153 yards. The key to scoring well is very much about avoiding the hazards. Water comes into play on eight holes and the bunkering – especially around the greens – is well thought out.
The PGA National is maturing nicely and once the newly planted trees have grown up, the course will become tighter and more aesthetically pleasing.
The PGA National is the only PGA branded course in England and was built to represent more of an ‘inland links’ style appearance. It is set up to play hard and fast off the fairways, with quick undulating greens and is protected by some absolutely brutal and well-placed bunkers. You sense relatively quickly as you play away from the clubhouse and hotel that this is a very different course to the Brabazon – less established and more open to the environment – and yet the two courses complement each other well.
Similarly to the Brabazon, the front 9 on the PGA National has water featuring prominently on 3 of the first 4 holes, and whilst we played the course relatively aggressively (with not a huge amount of luck or wisdom for that matter), it is set up for you to really play strategic golf and not ‘YouTube golf’. A classic example of this is the 4th Hole – 360 yard par 4 - which has a lake that you need to fly over with your tee shot before then another lake beginning in front of the green. There is the smallest slither of fairway running alongside the second lake (easily reachable with driver off the tee as two of our fourball demonstrated; the other two of us lost our tee shots left in the scrub!) for the most accurate and confident of drivers, but clearly the play on this hole is a long iron / hybrid, followed by wedge / 9 iron in.
My only criticism of the PGA National course would be that once you get through the first 4 holes, there is very little to remember in terms of statement holes. For me there were only a couple that stood out: firstly the risk / reward par 4 14th hole that is a 90 degree dog leg right and with a good drive you can reach the green; and then finally the 18th hole which is a par 4 doing to the right, with a huge tree on the right side of the fairway pushing your tee shot left into two strategically placed bunkers. Aside from these two, the holes were challenging but a little non-descript.