This course was my introduction to Links Golf 30 years ago and has lived long in the memory ever since. Having recently moved to Kent I have had the chance to go back and play Littlestone again and the experience has been every bit as good as the memory!
The course and clubhouse has not changed a bit in the intervening time and that is part of the charm of the course and the club. It is a throwback to more traditional times, and the welcome and good manners of the members and the etiquette on the golf course are hugely important to the experience. The secretary was very anxious that my playing partner and I understood that pace of play was extremely important to the members and he wasn't joking as we easily played round in just under 3 hours - having let through a very courteous couple who caught us up and left us standing as they breezed past at something of a fast trot!
The wind was strong, the conditions wintery and this was a day for golf as it was originally meant to be played - brisk and energetic, focused on the match rather than the score! From a gentle start on a short par 4 through to a brutal finish up 16 and 17 the course constantly throws great golfing challenges at you. The approach to the 2nd hole, threaded between two huge dunes 40 yards short of the green. The tee shot to the par3 6th, with subtle but severe trouble all around the green. The cross bunkers and ditches on the par 5s that force you to reappraise your shot. There are greens tucked away out of sight (like the 10th) and others where you can see it all, but if you try to pitch on the green all but the best of shots will run through and into trouble (like the 12th). Brutes of par 4s like the 4th and 16th mixed with shorter holes that test your approach skills and catch you out while you think you are taking a breather.
All around the course there are challenging driving holes with a couple of blind drives that test your nerve as you hit into the unknown in a cross breeze(the 3rd comes to mind), and a few holes that punish poor strategy off the tee - like the 11th diagonally across the canal, or 15th laid across the prevailing wind - that tease you into trying to cut off too much and punish you if you get it wrong. Generally the fairways are wide and the rough is fair, though, and if you want to use that new £300 driver there is nothing to stop you. For me the highlight of the course is its par 3s which are all laid out in different directions to really test your skills against all points of the wind. The wind plays a huge part in protecting the golf course, and the abiding memory from my first visit to Littlestone all those years ago was that in the morning the 17th played as a 9 iron to the back of the green, but when the wind turned around in the afternoon the same hole played as a 3 wood .... followed by a half wedge! I imagine that without a wind the par 3s play quite easily ... but I am not sure that there are too many days at Littlestone when the breeze doesn't blow!
Sadly the sea is not in view from the course as it is hidden behind an imposing sea wall, and at times in the middle of the round where the holes switch direction frequently the desolate landscape can become a bit disorientating. On at least one tee the only way that we knew which direction to play was the order of the tee markers. But the course is not without charm with the red brick water tower along 18 being a particular feature, and the 16th green set beside a huge dune providing a memorable and typically linksy image. The condition of this course at the end of the wettest winter on record blew me away. The greens were as true and fast as many courses manage only in summer, and the springy, firm turf was a joy to play from and meant that the course retained the bouncy, shot-making character you expect from a seaside Links despite the appalling recent weather. The greens had some lovely subtle breaks as well as some heavy slopes and tiers, and they must be quite fearsome when running fast in the summer (when I imagine the rough is also much tougher).
Once back in the clubhouse the members and staff were very welcoming and the bar food was adequate if uninspiring. I have heard that the lunches are good, but can't personally vouch for that. Although very traditional in look and feel - with more than a touch of the old school tie about the decor and the penchant for foursomes golf, long socks and plus fours - the actual experience in the bar and on the course was very down to earth and eclectic, and I enjoyed the company of all that I met. One downside, which curiously fits with the old school charm of the club, is that the pro-shop and practise ground is situated some way from the clubhouse at the adjoining pay and play course (Littlestone Warren) that I believe is also owned by the club. Another quirk is the out and back layout of the course that makes it difficult to play just 9 holes. This might be more of a problem except for the fact that it is quite feasible to finish 18 holes in the time it would take to play 9 at some other places!
Overall this was a wonderful course in fabulous condition and a great experience. However it is not for everybody, and if you don't like being rushed it may even be best avoided. I for one, though, will be back as often as possible!
Date: March 13, 2013