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.
I had been looking to play Royal Worlington for a few years, having played most of the courses in East Anglia. As I was driving down the long straight road to the clubhouse, almost having my wing mirrors ripped off by a white van coming the other way, travelling in excess of 70 mph I wondered if the field to the right was a practice ground.
Initial impressions were very good, the professional was a wonderful host and all of the members we spoke to were very friendly and welcoming. The clubhouse is lovely with excellent facilities.
So to the course. It is clear that it polarises opinion. I am no novice to golf courses, having played a fair few of the top 100 in the UK. Not that it matters, I am a single figure handicapper. I must say I didn’t really ‘get’ Worlington at all. The huge green complexes, certainly the biggest greens in the area were very good and true. I personally (and it would appear this is a very individual appraisal) found the course to be rather uninspiring and rather oddly plotted.
The first hole is a medium length straight par 5 and had no real distinguishing features, looking not unlike the practice ground I thought it was on my way in.
The second hole is a very tough par three with a green that is huge but only a tiny proportion in play with a huge slope off to the left. This is one of the holes that I thought the design to be rather odd. You would have thought a par three over 200 yards would have a relatively simple green, saving the crazy slope off to the left for a shorter hole, but no.
The third is an average par four with trees on the right but a huge fairway to hit into. Par 5 fourth hole I thought to be the best of the lot, gettable in two but with a really interesting green, sloping front to back with a ditch at the back to take an overclubbed shot.
The next par three was nice enough but comparisons with great par threes of the world to me, was very surprising. The green itself is nicely constructed, but the lack of visual excitement was palpable in comparison with, say, Sawgrass or Pebble Beach.
I didn’t quite understand how the next, a very long par four seemed more out of reach in two than the previous par 5, albeit we had a southerly wind which may not have been prevailing. There followed a nondescript par three, par four and finally a fairly simple par four to finish, driving over a diagonal ditch then a wedge to a very nice green complex by the clubhouse.
Overall I got the impression of a course that seemed links like in nature, with little feature. But unlike links there was no wind / breathtaking view or intricately plotted ground feeding subtly into tactical bunkers.
I would say again, the day was made enjoyable by the very friendly club and members. A top 100 course though? Not really in my view.
Apologies, the delightful host was the secretary, not the professional, I am unable to correct my review.
The front 9 on this unassuming property near Mildenhall was enjoyable. It contained plenty of variety - half par holes, violent changes of direction, etc, but the most striking characteristic were the greens. Probably fair to say that they don’t make them like this anymore. At least they’re interesting. And I’m not sure any two were alike. I even managed 8 shots on the 5th hole.
Even more striking as the greens was the halfway house. I’ve never seen such an impressive array of facilities - you could have a sit down meal, a shower, and even buy some additional supplies in a little Pro shop there! It made the Turnberry Lighthouse feel like a bus stop.
Suitably refreshed, we made our way over to the 10th tee. At this moment two things happened. Firstly a fellow golfer came driving across the tee box as I was taking my stance, and continued moving towards us in an intimidating fashion as I, unerringly, launched one off the tee. Slightly bemused by this, but relieved at not being run over, all soon became clear. He suggested we’d pushed in: starting our round on the 10th, when his group of members had already played the front 9, meant they had right of way. I (politely?) stated that we’d also already played the diverse front 9, with his group consistently behind us all the way. I guess he was so engrossed in his own game that he failed to notice us up ahead. And some crazy fools say Golf has an image problem.
The second thing that happened on the 10th tee, was that I got this overwhelming sense of Deja Vu. After all that variety of the front 9, I now felt that the back 9 all felt a bit familiar. There was the same satisfying frozen ocean waves in the green on the 10th as at the 1st, and a comparable pushed up dome at the 11th as at the 2nd. The 12th also turned on a sixpence and fired back over the previous green. The 13th had the same rollercoaster ride from swale to fall away green. The 14th even had a treacherous green that fell away on both sides like an eroded pyramid. I scored a 3 this time, perhaps a little more cautious for my earlier experience. The penultimate hole on the back 9 was also a half par hole where we did well to reach the green in 3 shots. The closing hole even had a similarly pleasant view of (this time) the clubhouse and the nice risk/reward drive where you could attempt to get within 60 yards of the green if you fancied taking the Max Verstappen line again. When holding out on the 18th, part of me even wondered if we played the front 9 again by accident, but my playing partner assured me this wasn’t the case.
Royal Worlington & Newmarket was an interesting and challenging golfing - admittedly not a real verb - experience, and even though it didn’t contain the total variety I’d usually expect in an 18 hole course, I look forward to playing it again. It might not have the wow factor of some eye candy courses, but it has more than enough to hold your attention and test your game in ways other courses might not.
A historic nine-hole course set outside Cambridge, the course is inextricably linked to the university because their golf team plays there. H.S. Colt served as the first Captain of the Cambridge Golf team. Not everyone will appreciate Royal Worlington because the terrain is relatively flat and uninteresting, however, the course is a clinic in deception. Holes that should be relatively easy reach out and bite the golfer with difficult green complexes. In particular, precision is required to hit and hold the green surfaces. False fronts and swales protecting the putting surfaces ensure that the golfer will be hitting delicate wedge shots or putting from off the green all day. It is worth making the trek to Royal Worlington just to see the world famous and demanding fifth hole, one of only 154 yards with no bunkers. Many of the great writers (all Cambridge men) in the game have commented on the 5th hole. Herbert Warren Wind described the green as “exceedingly lean and falls away abruptly on both sides – on the right, to a stream, and, on the left, to a basin of thatch rough, twenty feet below the green, called Mug’s hole.” Henry Longhurst described it as “A diabolically narrow green sloping sharply away on both sides and the green itself like the dome of glass in a fairy tale.” Patric Dickinson describes the green as “pitching on a policemen’s helmet.” I can personally attest to the difficulty of the green having putted off of it! Bernard Darwin was accurate when he nicknamed the course the Sacred Nine. For those that appreciate golf history, the course is worth a visit. It is also fun to play the club’s preferred format of alternate shot. The Secretary and staff are very welcoming to visitors.
Royal Worlington and Newmarket is an extremely unique golf course and I was extremely curious into why a nine hole course had managed to sneak its way onto the top 100 golf courses in England. As a result of this I had to play the course and so it was a pit stop on my way back from Woodhall Spa. I wasn't expecting a lot to be honest and other people had told me that they weren't fans of the course but I can't understand why. From the first hole I knew that it was going to be a good course and I was correct. It excited me for 9 holes more than a few of the courses on the top 100 list did for 18 holes. If this was an 18 hole course and the back 9 was as strong as the front then it would be at least a 5 ball rating. However as there are only 9 great holes it is limited to a 4 ball rating.
The greens are fantastic and extremely undulating so will test out your short game to the full. The fairways and tees are clearly very well maintained and you may well be playing some very interesting shots out some of the hidden bunkers on the 4th/6th hole. The rough is grown out at Royal Worlington which I was a big fan of as it added great character to the course and made it a lot more interesting. If I lived close to this course I would totally be a member here as it would really be a lot of fun and it feels like a golfing playground. You can get really creative with your shots and I could spend ages practicing round some of the greens in the evening when its quiet. A true gem in England and it definitely lives up to its name of being one of the greatest nine hole courses in the world.
For years it has amazed me how this 9-hole course has generated an unmatched mix of reviews.
The opening par 5 is no picnic now that devilishly placed bunkers down the left-hand side have essentially eliminated the option of blasting it almost anywhere without punishment. The bunkers now offer clear separation between the 1st and 8th holes which has handsomely increased the strategy on both of these holes.
The par 3 2nd hole at just north of 220 yards is a brute, and the crowned green only augments the encounter. It is the first exposure to the incredibly crafted greens that put RW&N in a league of its own. The low amount of play is one of the justifications that makes hitting tee shots over the previous green work without slowing down play. It could be described as any combination of quirky, unusual, fun, unnerving and rather strange. If it slows down play, then I’m not a fan.
Hitting tee shots over the previous green happens more than once when you arrive on the par 3 5th tee, which is somewhat courageous of the architect. Like the 1st, more bunkers were added down the left-hand side of the very difficult 6th hole to separate the 5th and 6th holes and really tightened up the landing areas. Trees immediately on the left side of the 6th tee will eliminate a left to right tee shot, further keeping play away from the 5th fairway. The course is demanding because of brilliant design without feeling manufactured.
After a wide open mundane and somewhat dull par 3 7th hole, the closing two holes are superb. The drive down the 8th fairway will only tolerate a perfectly straight drive due to the additional fairway bunkers. It is a mighty hole where par is a brilliant score. The rolling topography plays a part of every hole, emphasised by gentle rises and falls that introduce several semi-blind shots. The closing hole is a glorious sweeping spectacle moving left to right and is all about placing the drive in the right spot crossing the diagonal hazard.
I loved the greens, and hope that people appreciate them for their wonderful shaping.
This course gets most of its play in the winter time because of the turf, the climate and the location of the members throughout the year. With extensive upgrades to the locker rooms and facilities, the clubhouse will be a modern design that celebrates more than a century’s worth of history that echoes around the sacred walls.
The course will grow on you over time.
I’m clearly in the minority but still happy to be able to add the third 6ball review here.
The course is full of delightful holes, but let’s start with the 5th. I can’t think of a better short par 3 (and that would include 6 at NGLA, 9 at Myopia, 17 at Sawgrass, 12 at ANGC, 11 at Castle Stuart, 14 at Doonbeg, 17 at LA North or Troon’s Postage Stamp). The green is difficult to describe but Tom Doak’s “vaulting horse” comes closest. And unlike the aforementioned holes, there are opportunities for a redemptive par with a variety of clubs if the green is missed. The preceding hole has another superlative—one of the most interesting fallaway greens I’ve ever seen. And the succeeding hole, a par 5, has a perfectly placed bunker to challenge the second shot, an area where many designers fall asleep. The home hole features a cape-like drive that forces the player to decide how much of the creek to cut off before playing a pitch to a fine bowl of a green. I won’t bore you with commentary on the rest of the holes, but there’s not a weak one among them.
The fairways were not well-conditioned when I played in September 2018. But they weren’t any worse than the other rounds I played at a number of England’s finest courses on the same trip..
I’ve played over a hundred courses on this island, I can’t think of more than two dozen I’d rather play than here.
Steve - you had me at "I can't think of a better"...
...so I've decided to check it out for myself next month.
I took a quick look into my Crystal ball and it predicts my rating will be somewhere between 2 and 6 balls
I cant remember reading as “mixed” reviews of a course before, so wasnt sure what to expect when given the opportunity to play here. Having now done so, I can understand why some find it difficult to pin down a firm opinion and rating, but I am at a loss as to some of the reviews it has got, because it is surely undeniably a very good golf course.
The first thing to be said about Worlington, and the thing I will remember it by, are the greens. Ive been lucky enough to play a handful of top courses, including North Berwick, Porthcawl, Royal West Norfolk and the Old at Sunningdale (albeit in Winter) and the mid march greens at Worlington are definitely the truest and quickest ive played on. Putts held their speed for an extra few yards than im used to, and over the 36 holes I played I noticed only one deviation in line the whole day. The bowl like complexes on the par 3 second and fifth are like nothing ive played on before, just sublime.
The holes themselves are generally excellent - well thought out, well kept and strategically engaging through each time I played them.
The fifth is the star - a top notch par 3 playing onto the best of the course’s greens - and the sandy, almost links style turf is an absolute joy to play off.
It is a difficult course to rate. While sublime to play, things like the odd stray bunker, 1 or 2 holes not quite on the level of the rest (meaning 3 or 4 over 18), and a certain lack of aura in the setting (not least the proximity of the A11, the road running beside the first two holes and the recently fertilized farm next door) all push me away from wanting to give it a top score.
I think much depends on how much of a purist you are when it comes to 9 hole courses - to put it this way, if a club in Surrey sand belt had 18 holes that played as well as the 9 at Worlington, with the green complexes, layout and conditioning it has, it is difficult to see it outside the top 30, even top 20, in the country and the course would be a comfortable 5 balls, knocking on the door of 6.
For me the 9 hole status is enough to take that edge off, but given some of the courses ive given 4 balls to I feel duty bound to give Worlington that one better.
On our annual trip to GBI, I took my group to RW&N, a course I played last when living in London in the 80’s. It took some convincing but it was worth the effort! A great layout, a very warm welcome, and fabulous to see how they fit 9 holes into such a small space. Don’t miss it.
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.