Founded in 1890, Whitley Bay Golf Club operated a 9-hole layout on a two-mile strip of land at Whitley Links but the course was only ever used in the winter months because locals and visiting holidaymakers took full advantage of its situation along the Northumberland coastline for relaxation during the rest of the year.
In 1899, the club rented a field near St Mary’s island and operated a summer course there but this venture was short-lived because the club was on the move again seven years later to a 67-acre site further inland near Briardene, where George Rochester, the Alnmouth professional, set out another 9-hole course for club members.
Ted Ray extended this course to a full 18-hole layout and an exhibition match was arranged between him and Harry Vardon to mark the opening of the new layout in July 1913. James Braid visited in May of 1931 to audit the course, but there’s no record of what work, if any, was carried out following this appraisal.
Opencast mining took place on the course between 1949 and 1955, when it’s estimated around one and a half million tons of coal was excavated from the site. A publication to mark the club’s centennial year mentions “close co-operation with Carters Tested Seeds Ltd” during “the programme of reinstatement” but there’s no mention of an architect being involved in the design of the new course.
In more recent times, the European Tour’s one-off Callers of Newcastle tournament was held at the club in 1977, with John Fourie of South Africa winning a four-way playoff at the second extra hole against Peter Butler, Angel Gallardo and Tommy Horton. It’s said that during the event, a young Seve Ballesteros drove the par four 7th green before the previous group had cleared the hole.
The layout has undergone a number of changes since then, including a renovation of all the bunkers. More recently, holes 6 to 10 have been completely redesigned by Jonathan Gaunt, re-opening for play in May 2017. Starting and finishing with a par five hole, this gently undulating course presents a challenging test for golfers, offering views from various parts of the property out to sea beyond St Mary’s Lighthouse.
A key component of the modern day course is the Briar Dene, a wide, irregular ravine which comes into play at several holes on the card. The 582-yard par five 12th, rated stroke index 1, is regarded as the signature hole, doglegging left along the side of the dene, before the fairway then narrows upon reaching a bunkerless, two-tiered green. It’s a brave golfer indeed who tries to tame this beast in fewer than five shots.
Architect Jonathan Gaunt kindly provided the following quote regarding recent course upgrades:
Holes #6 to #9 were added to the course in the 1980s on a piece of land that has ever since been known as ‘the field’ by members. It was much flatter and less interesting than the rest of the golf course. Significant improvements have been made to the course since 2015, with Course Manager, Simon Olver, overseeing the design and construction with me.
Our work firstly involved creating a new and more exciting vision for the 6th, 7th and 8th holes, which included three new greens and ten new bunkers and was approved by the membership without objection and we began the project in late 2015.
The 6th hole is now a challenging par five, played as a slight left-to-right dogleg, with a 'speed slot' at 250 yards in the fairway to give interest to the drive. A wetland area was excavated to the right and it gives the hole much more interest and an enhanced environmental value.
It also provided a significant volume of subsoil fill material to create features elsewhere. There are now three bunkers protecting the green, which is much larger and raised, with a true run-off at the back.
On the 7th hole, mounding and bunkering was re-modelled to create a right-to-left dogleg, with a sharp rise up to the green, which now looks a little like the 1st on the King’s course at Gleneagles.
The 8th fairway was totally reshaped to emphasize the left-to-right dogleg with a large fairway bunker at its apex. There was a very bland ditch in front of the green, which has been turned into a ha-ha with fairway cut right over one side.
It’s quite a short hole – a good tee shot to the corner of the dogleg leaves an approach of 100-110 yards. But the green sits sideways and is quite shallow, so even though the hole is not long, it still has plenty of challenge.