Founded in 1892, Royal West Norfolk Golf Club is a classic, nothing much has changed here for 100 years. Squeezed beautifully between Brancaster Bay and the salt marshes, Royal West Norfolk truly is a peaceful golf links, except when the wind blows and boy, is the wind bracing here!
Check the tide times before you plan your trip to Royal West Norfolk Golf Club. The course plays on a narrow strip of links-land which gets cut off at high tide, turning it into an island. If you are lucky enough to play the course during high tide, you are in for a real treat; the downside is that you will need plenty of golf balls.
Prior to your game, grab a quick drink in the oak-panelled Smoke Room inside the Victorian clubhouse and check the wind speed on the gauge next to the bar. If you want to eat after your round, make sure you order before you play, otherwise you will only be offered a choice of delicious cakes.
“In the days of the gutty it was most emphatically a driver’s course,” wrote Bernard Darwin in his book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles, “since nobody could get over the ground without exceptional hitting. Even now, when the pampering Haskell has noticeably reduced its terrors, it is still a driver’s course, in the sense that it is one on which one derives the maximum of sensual pleasure from opening one’s shoulders for a wooden club shot.”
Out on the course, you feel delightfully isolated; often all you can hear are the seductive sounds of the wind, the seagulls, the clinking of stays and the flapping of boat sails. Essentially, the course is a traditional out and back links; huge sleeper-faced bunkers, fast greens and that beautiful links turf. A magical place to play golf. However, three-ball play is only allowed at the discretion of the Secretary and four-ball play is forbidden.
“Few things are more terrifying than the first hole at Brancaster on a cold, raw, windy morning,” wrote Darwin, “when our wrists are stiff and our beautiful steely-shafted driver feels like a poker. There is a bunker – really a very big, deep bunker – right in front of our noses.”
Beware the weather at Brancaster though; it can take you by surprise. We played here in late spring and ignored the black clouds to the west. After all, we were on the 15th and the sun was shining. By the time we reached the 17th it was raining and by the 18th, we faced a full-blown tempest. When, soaked to the skin, we arrived to knowing smiles in the clubhouse, the wind gauge was fluctuating between 50 and 55mph.
Royal West Norfolk, or Brancaster as it’s known to the locals is a completely unique experience and something I’d recommend as a “must play” for all keen links golfers. Before turning up, you’ll need to check their website for the high tide timings to make sure you don’t get stranded on the course (I could think of worse places to get stranded) and everyone should pay a visit to the clubhouse which is steeped in history and features bucket loads of old school charm. As you cross the beach between clubhouse and course to enter via the beautiful Memorial iron gate, you’re already aware that this isn’t going to be any typical day’s golf.
The quirks on the course start immediately with a fairway at the 1st that shares its short grass with the 18th. This is instantly followed by the 2nd where the fairway crosses diagonally across the 17th so keep your wits about you for these opening holes. Plateau greens are numerous across the layout with some greens, most notably the 3rd and 4th being shielded by a wall of wooden sleepers protecting the approach with a nasty line of three pot bunkers waiting to collect anything that connects with timber. “Goalpost” style marker posts mark the preferred line of the blind tee shot on the 5th, another quirk that I’ve not seen before on a golf course and something that seemed novel until you read the pro’s comments on the course planner which states that your drive should be to the right of the marker posts due to the slope in the fairway. Royal West Norfolk doesn’t do things simply.
Lovely but challenging holes continue, and the course then takes on a change in appearance as you’re asked to negotiate marshland later in the front nine. Distance accuracy is paramount as you cross that marshland twice as it intersects the hole between tee and fairway and then again between fairway and green on the par five 8th. The clearances aren’t insignificant either, so I did wonder how the more senior members approach this hole?
To continue on this golf course architecture merry-go-round, the green on 12 is semi-blind as you hit into a wonderful punchbowl green. Then comes a set of bushes that you have to negotiate when playing into the 13th whilst those brilliantly eccentric timber faced bunkers are a constant threat, some of them huge, particularly the behemoth in front of the short 15th. Just when you’re thinking that the only thing missing is views of the beach and the sea, you’re then presented with a scenic beach backdrop against the tee shot on the 17th.
Royal West Norfolk has pretty much everything that you’ve seen replicated in latter day links designs. I loved the quirks and the relaxed nature of the club whereby taking your dog on a lead for a stroll around the course is very much welcomed. It’s a great course that deserves to be known as one of the best links layouts in England and well worth the drive to northern Norfolk. Combine it with Hunstanton and you won’t regret it.
On our annual GBI trip in June, we played RWN twice. Not having laid eyes on it in more than 30 years, it certainly deserves its “quirky” reputation! Unfortunately, both days were very windy, and underscored the out and back, with and into the wind layout, which made it difficult to enjoy.
The walk from the historic clubhouse to the first tee is unbelievably across the beach entrance before you enter the course between a large memorial gate that honours the clubs fallen heroes from the world wars; it sets a tone that you will be in for a unique and memorable round.
After a simple but alluring start the 3rd raises the bar and is one of the best holes you will not only play at Brancaster but on any links course anywhere. It’s a risk-reward driving hole where you must start your ball out over the marsh, known as Mow Creek, in order to set up the shortest and best line into a superb raised green complex. Danger lurks on both sides, especially the left, of the reversed two-tiered green that is hidden some 30 yards beyond a wall of wooden sleepers; only the top of the flagstick is visible.
All the short holes have merit but it’s perhaps the fourth that catches the eye the most with its putting surface once again fronted by wooden sleepers and three deep bunkers short of that. It’s only 120 yards or so but can strike fear into even the most accomplished player. Whilst we’re talking about the one-shotters the false-fronted sixth is also tricky and unusual for the walk you must make across the 7th fairway to reach the tee. Another good looking green, with glaring bunkers, greets the golfer at the 149 yard tenth as you now head for home hard against the shore.
Wooden sleeper faced bunkers are a feature throughout. Thankfully they haven’t been removed, like at many other courses, as they not only add to the visual appeal of the course but dictate the strategy on many holes. At no time do they ever looked forced or out of place, they fit in very naturally with their surrounds, and whilst at times they limit a running approach this means you must display a variety of iron shots.
This is a course that has absolutely nothing to prove, is infinitely playable, and brings a wide smile to your face. It allows you to wallow in the satisfaction of playing an eccentrically old fashioned golf course, albeit with modern equipment, on a wonderful and historic piece of golfing land; there's an unbridled enjoyment to golfing here.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Interestingly or sadly, depending upon your point of view, I know that I have played 409 golf courses over my golfing career to date. These include all 14 Open venues and the vast majority of links courses in Great Britain and Ireland - reckon I have around 20 to 30 left to play. So, I am often asked which is my favourite course. I have a definite answer - "if I had two days left and tomorrow was my last day to play golf, I would choose Brancaster". I would happily hole out on the 9th, look around at the view, and call it a day. To leave home for a round at Brancaster (125 miles in my case) is a journey of massive anticipation. It is unique and cannot be adequately described in words. Just make sure you play there once on your life.
I have played 433 courses in 25 countries on five continents and Brancaster is in my top 10!!
Maybe I am being subjective ... or just maybe it is the most underrated course in the world.
If you are a lover of traditional golf clubs and links golf at its best, please visit this one! nothing will disappoint although beware they still operate "two ball" only times so check in advance. Also the tide will isolate you on this strip of land for around 4-6 hours when the tide comes in so check the tide tables too! If you are in the clubhouse the staff will announce you when you have only 30 minutes left before the tide isolates you!. Quirky but so much fun on pure links ground in total isolation and great (tricky) greens!
This is a fantastic course and one which I had a lot of fun on. I played 54 holes over the course of 2 days with some members in some interesting conditions. This is a true links course where we really bared the brunt of some fierce winds on the first day, with the wind up 1-9 were great to play (downwind - bar the par 3 going back in) but when we turned for home, playing into the wind was a real challenge for myself, but forced to play low shots under the wind, which was great fun. The raised greens and undulating fairways were a treat and on Day 2 when the wind wasn't as fierce, it played great while still being a real test. The clubhouse is really like going back 100 years, but I would go back for the golf alone, my favourite hole was the long par 4 played across 2 fairways and over 2 lots of marshland, a highlight out of at least 10 standout holes. The only downside of this links course is that you don't have a good view of the coast/beach for quite a lot of the holes, but that is just a personal preference. I travelled from Bucks to play this course and it was well worth the journey.
Played here for the first time on a very hot September day. Walking across the beach to the first tee through the iron gates gave the feeling of excitement of what was to come. The course was excellent. Views across Brancaster Straithe and the beach were beautiful. The sleeper faced bunkers were scary. Any shot thinned meant ducking for cover. The clubhouse was cosy and the food excellent. The staff were very friendly to us as were the members. All in all a wonderful days golf.
Just to set the scene I played Royal West Norfolk (Brancaster) in the final throws of the UK summer after the hottest day for 50 years or so and the temperature was about 25 degrees on the coast and nudging 30 inland. There was always wind off the sea, slightly behind on the back 9 and from the right (the sea). A couple of times this probably approached 2 club strength. I play off 12 and shot +10.
Having been to the beach a few times with my dog I had always wanted to play Brancaster to see what all the fuss was about. How special can a flat(ish) piece of land be in Norfolk? Well, very special is the answer. The whole aura of the place is magical, from the clubhouse which clearly hasn't changed in 100 years to the huge iron gates which both welcome and intimidate you onto the course. There are many quirky features here but my favourite one is having to push your trolley full with the latest advances in golf technology over a 20 yard strip of deep sand which forms the entrance to the beach. You get a few curious looks from the holiday makers before you enter through the gate, shut out the modern world behind you and step onto the land that time forgot.
There is a small practice putting green and a net to have a quick warm up. This is all that the place needs to be honest, golf seems to be played here for enjoyment and the scoring a bit of an after thought. A row of lycra clad athletes pounding balls down a range just wouldn't look right here. If you take a few shots to get into the round then who cares just have a look around you and soak it all in.
The 1st and 18th share a fairway so we were waved through by a couple of members on the 18th green – no pressure. The first hole is a gentle dog leg left to a slightly raised green and I was happy to get up and down for a 5. A fairly tough opening hole. Onto number 2, another fairway which is shared. At 449 yards on the card this is a serious golf hole and you need 2 good hits to get near the green (driver, 3 iron). Chip, 2 putts, and another 5. The third hole is where you venture out into the heart of the course and is a great par 4. The green is hidden behind a mound although you can see the top of the pin poking out from the left. Being a newbie I didn't know about
the 15ft deep bunker on the left edge of the green so ended up in here. The sand in all the bunkers is excellent so providing you have a decent bunker technique, although daunting, these can all be navigated fairly well. As has been mentioned nearly all of the bunkers have wooden faces which is beautiful on the eye and gets your heart racing a bit when your ball is bounding anywhere near one.
I won't bore you with a blow by blow account of my round any more but I would say holes 8 and 9 and 14 and 15 are worth the entrance fee alone. Hole 9 is the best par 4 I have ever played with a second shot approaching 170 yards (all carry to a wide narrow green jacked up on wooden sleepers). Oh and that is into the wind. There are a great mixture of holes here, and I can remember the details of nearly every one, a sure sign of a wonderful course. The members are all really friendly and welcoming, as are all the staff (there are no more than a handful) and the whole experience is second to none. I can't compare it to a vast array of links courses but it is head and shoulders above Sheringham along the coast which is in its own right a great course. There is just something about this place you can't quite put your finger on. Cost isn't something I usually factor in when playing the really nice courses but at £85 I'd say this is good value, especially when the food and drink post round is so cheap.
P.S This place must be absolutely brutal in the winter but I would love to give it a go!
Royal West Norfolk is a testing yet incredibly fun layout to play. This can be put down to both the variety and number of quality golf holes it possesses. While the course stretches to 6,457 yards from the tips, its difficulty is largely due to the combination of narrow fairways, deep bunkers, smallish greens and its coastal location, meaning that the air is never still for too long.
The bunkering at Royal West Norfolk is a unique aspect of the course, with timber sleepers employed to form the banks (or walls) of the majority of bunkers throughout the layout. This is actually the first time I've encountered bunkers constructed in this method, and I must say that they fit with the character of the layout and its setting exceptionally well, adding to the many charms of the course. Several bunkers throughout the course are very deep and therefore quite punishing, so it’s best to give them a wide berth to avoid piling up a big total. The most menacing would have to be the cross bunker on the par three 15th, which by my estimates approaches a height of some twenty to twenty-five feet. It is one of several instances where bunkers are set directly across the front of the green they are guarding, thus creating a forced carry to reach the putting surface.
While there are many fine holes to pick from, there are three stretches in particular that I find most endearing, these being 3-5, 7-9 and 11-14.
Of these ten holes, the most well-known (and photographed) would be the par five 8th and par four 9th holes, which both ask for heroic shots over the tidal marsh from the tee, and again for the approach shot into their respective green. Playing these holes when the tide is in not only adds to the their beauty, but also ratchets up the intimidation factor significantly. This is especially true on the 8th hole, where at high-tide the first portion of fairway effectively becoming an island!
Two other personal favourites include the 129 yard par three 4th and the 430 yard par four 14th. At the short 4th a wall of timber sleepers to the bank fronting the green dictates that your tee shot must carry all the way the putting surface. Three deep pot bunkers sit precariously below this wall to gather up any tee shots that fail to clear the timber, making an uphill recovery shot to the blind putting surface from this area that much more difficult.
Tucked just below the foredune, the 14th is a slight dog-leg left to right with the tee shot played into an open fairway. Despite the lack of fairway bunkers to trouble your tee shot, there is little room for error with thick rough bordering both sides of the hole. The blind approach is then played to a narrow, slightly sunken green, hidden from view behind a small ridge. Decorating the right-hand side of this ridge is another wall constructed of timber sleepers, with two small pot bunkers set just below the wall amongst patches of long grass. Despite the visual intimidation of the above elements, should you be successful in clearing them the contouring of the ground will help to guide your ball onto the small, sunken green.
There is a distinct lack of signage to guide you around the layout, and so for first time visitors like myself navigating your way can be, at times, slightly confusing. This is especially so when leaving the 5th green, as you must exit the green to the right and cross the 7th fairway approximately 150 yards in front of the tee to reach the 6th tee. However I must admit that this is a small concern in the grand scheme of things. The only real advice you need in getting yourself around will likely come via the staff in the pro shop: "Just aim for the red flags on the way out, and the yellow ones on the way home!"
A word of caution: the entry road is often flooded at high tide, cutting off access to the golf course entirely, thereby leaving golfers stranded on either side for up to several hours. It’s therefore highly recommended that you check the tide charts when booking a round at Royal West Norfolk to ensure you don’t miss your tee time. Of course should you find yourself ‘trapped’ on the island, another 18 holes is certainly a fine way to pass the time on a summer’s afternoon….
This review is an edited extract from my Blog titled: An Architect Abroad, which documents an extended golf course research/study tour that I undertook over a four month period from mid June of 2014. The full review can be found at: http://wp.me/p6l5Ih-V along with photographs taken of the course. Please also note that my rating of the course has been done specifically against the other courses that I visited on that trip, many of which rank highly in the top 100 listed on this website for the United Kingdom.