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Not quite St Andrews, but Norfolk's coast is still a must for links devotees

By Tony Dear,
Contributor

HunstantonNORFOLK, England - Coming at the start of a decade in which the number of courses in the UK rose from 290 to 1,357, 1891 was, not surprisingly, a pretty eventful year for golf.

Among the highlights were the introduction of steel-shafts and the game's first ever metal-headed driver. The Open Championship's first place prize money finally broke the £10barrier (Hugh Kirkaldy landing the cash with two 83s at St Andrews) while 50 miles south of the OldCourse, Old Tom Morris was laying out Muirfield, the new home of the Honorable Company of EdinburghGolfers.

Something was clearly stirring down in Norfolk too. 1882 had seen the formation of the GreatYarmouth and Caister Golf club and 1888 the Royal Cromer Golf Club, but in 1891 the number ofcourses on the county's remote and desolate coastline doubled with the formation of the Sheringhamand Hunstanton Golf Clubs both of which were destined to become classics.

They, along with Royal West Norfolk which joined them a few months later, didn't quite manage toturn this peaceful corner of England into a golfing Mecca to rival the east coast of Scotland, but they certainly putit on the map at least and have helped this quiet, and predominantly rural county, gain areputation for something other than boat building and lavender farming.

It's well known that good courses have a habit of mingling and this trio, all within 30 miles ofeach other, is a good example of that. Together they form an itinerary almost as memorable as anytour of Scotland or Ireland and no fan of seaside golf should consider his schooling complete untilhe has sampled them all.

Must Plays

HunstantonHunstanton, originally a nine-hole course designed by George Fernie of Troon,was extended to 18 holes in 1896 and has undergone several more changes since then in an effort tomaintain its status as a genuine championship venue.

James Braid, commissioned in 1907 to toughen it up, suggested the addition of 60 bunkers. Thecommittee thought the Scot a little over-zealous, however, and reduced his total by a third. JamesSherlock, another great player of that era, then made further alterations in 1923 creating what is,essentially, the course's present day configuration.

The 17th and 18th, two of the best links holes you'll ever play, were moved nearer the sea in1951, the same year the greens at the 6th, 7th and 8th holes were raised. Several fairway bunkerswere then added in 1971 and in 2001 a number of tees were moved back, extending the course to 6,911yards.

With significant bunker remodelling by Jonathan Tucker of the Sports Turf Research Institute in2002, Hunstanton continues to offer a stern challenge that attracts some of the amateur game's mostprestigious events.

In May 2003, the English Amateur Strokeplay Championship (the Brabazon Trophy) was held here for the fifth time and 2004 saw the British Boy's Championship return after a gap of 15 years.

Fortunately for Britain's future stars, that event was held in August when Hunstanton is usually at it calmest and most accommodating. Either side of summer it is invariably at the mercy of frigid northerly winds that can turn the course into something of a beast. In the winter months especially, playing to your handicap or matching the par of 72 is usually a dim and distant prospect.

The round starts with a 345-yard par 4 that can be driven with a bone-dry fairway and a helpingwind. Despite being just a drive and a pitch for most, high-handicap members dread the hole as ahuge, steep-faced bunker lies in wait for the duffed tee-shot, 70 yards ahead.

If the sight of so much sand isn't enough to traumatise the nervous driver, the crowd of membersthat may well be assembled on the clubhouse balcony just a few yards behind him, will probablyfinish the job.

The back nine, considered the tougher of the two, possesses a number of excellent holes of whichthe 14th is probably the best known. A blind short hole of 222 yards, if it were built today thearchitect would never work again but of course, quirky holes like this can be overlooked oneccentric, old links courses.

James Dodds, the club's head professional, believes it's a much easier hole in the winter whenthe risk of running through the green is reduced.

'I find it very difficult to hold the green in summer,' he says. 'The ball tends to bounce veryhard and ends up through the green leaving a very tough chip back. In winter all you need is a wellstruck mid-iron that carries the dune and runs down onto the putting surface.'

Running the 14th close for celebrity status is the 16th where Bob Taylor, playing forLeicestershire in the 1974 Eastern Counties Foursomes, holed in one not once, not twice but threetimes.on successive days. A bench besides the tee of this wonderful hole records Taylor'sunbelievable hat-trick.

The members are friendly as a rule, even if the course isn't, and the lounge overlooking the 1sttee and 18th green provides a comfortable spot in which to tot up your score which, givenHunstanton's degree of difficulty, you'll probably want to forget.

Royal West NorfolkRoyal West Norfolk, commonly known as Brancaster, a 15-minute drive east alongthe A149, can't claim Hunstanton's championship pedigree, but then the club has never soughtit.

Designed by Horace Hutchison and Holcombe Ingleby - who later became the member of Parliamentfor King's Lynn - the course enjoys a delightfully remote setting between the sea and Mow Creek, asaltmarsh that floods at high tide cutting off the clubhouse and making almost an island of thecourse.

Dave Ayres, a senior editor at Today's Golfer Magazine, rates Brancaster as his favourite courseadding 18 holes here isn't just another round of golf, but rather a spiritual experience. 'Heavenfor me is playing there on a warm, still, summer's evening and then downing a couple of beers andeating locally-caught fish in the clubhouse.'

One of the course's many endearing qualities is its cavernous, sleepered bunkers. Though notquite as terrifying as some of St Andrews' menacing pits, a visit to one will usually result in abogey or worse. The clubhouse, still almost exactly the same building it was 100 years ago, isspartan and functional rather than opulent but exudes the same charm and character of thecourse.

Royal West Norfolk is as old-fashioned a golf club as you will find, but one visit will convinceyou, it is as it should be.

The debate over which of Hunstanton or Brancaster is the better has raged for decades and nodoubt will continue until the ever encroaching North Sea spills over the dunes and washes themaway. What is certain is that Hunstanton makes more demands of the golfer while Brancaster is themore attractive.

Sheringham, half an hour further east and equally deep-rooted, will always beassociated with Joyce Wethered who won the English Ladies Championship here in 1920, beating CecilLeitch in the final. Wethered ended the match on the 17th green by laying a long putt dead just asa steam train whistled by. When asked how she had kept her concentration, she famously replied'what train?'

Set on high cliffs, Sheringham has more of a downland feel to it than Hunstanton or Brancaster.The five holes teetering on the cliff edge - the 3rd to the 7th - are probably the mostspectacular, but when the gorse is in full bloom during the summer all 18 are a picture. Noted forits long par 4s, Sheringham has a very stiff par of 70, a number that soon gets forgotten whenthose cold winds come sweeping through.

Solid Seconds

King's Lynn, 15 miles south-west of Hunstanton, is an attractive PeterAlliss/Dave Thomas design with fairways bordered by silver birch and fir.

Royal Cromer, the venue, in 1905, for the first matches between the amateurwomen of the USA and Britain, offers a mix of parkland, downland and clifftop holes. Not asfetching as nearby Sheringham, it still offers a great day out.

Great Yarmouth and Caister is a short - 6,330 yards from the back tees - butthoroughly enjoyable links that runs inside, around, through, under and beside the Yarmouth racecourse.

Norfolk's oldest club, Caister started out in 1882 with just three members and is one of theclubs who claim to have first used the word 'bogey' in a golfing context.

Aldeburgh is definitely worth the long drive south into Suffolk. After openingin 1884 this heathland beauty was updated in 1907 by Open champions JH Taylor and Willie ParkJr.

An aged Bernard Darwin is said to have played his last-ever shots here. 'Now I can retire fromthis unspeakable game,' he announced after stiffing a 4-iron at the 9th hole.

Royal Worlington and Newmarket, the home course of the Cambridge Universitygolf team, requires another lengthy drive from the Norfolk coast and possesses only nine holes.

Herbert Warren Wind, the great American golf writer, called it the best nine-holer in the world,however, and Darwin referred to it as the 'Sacred Nine', so who cares how long it takes to getthere?

Thetford, is another fine example of heathland golf. Clumps of broom and gorseabound but, as at King's Lynn, the fairways are lined with sturdy pine, oak and birch trees. A CHMayo design reworked by James Braid, Mackenzie Ross and more recently Donald Steel, Thetford openedin 1912 and now stretches to 6,859 yards.

Off course

Norfolk remains relatively untarnished by urban expansion and still affords the visitor thechance to get away from it all. The generally flattish topography lends itself to pleasant ratherthan spectacular scenery and is favoured by boaters, bird watchers and nature lovers rather thanrock climbers and other thrill seekers.

The coast is home to a handful of seaside resort towns, some gloriously tacky, others morewell-to-do, but venture inland a little and you'll find countless picture-postcard villages whereold stone churches, snoozy pubs, village greens and small but ridiculously friendly post officescome as standard.

The Broads offer great boating and cycling, and Breckland, an area of ancient heathland, ispacked with rare bird and plant species. The county is also home to several castles, manor housesand great halls such as Holkham Hall, Houghton Hall, Oxburgh Hall, Framlingham Castle and theQueen's country residence at Sandringham.

The cathedral town of Norwich, the region's largest, is also well worth a visit and Cambridge isless than two hours away.

Dining

You won't have a problem finding a good plate of seafood in Norfolk. Cod, monkfish, mussels,seatrout and seabass are among the area's favourite dishes and, in the Hunstanton/Brancaster area,are best savoured at the Hoste Arms, the Lifeboat Inn and the White Horse.

All the hotels mentioned below also have distinguished restaurants and most village pubs willoffer a decent selection of fish, meat and game.

In Sheringham, try Crofters on the High Street, and for the area's best fish and chips visitDave's Fish Restaurant on Co-operative Street.

Accommodation

Norfolk is well geared up for tourism these days and offers the full range of lodging categoriesfrom inexpensive B&Bs to fine country house hotels.

You'll find what you need accommodation-wise in all the major coastal towns - King's Lynn,Hunstanton, Sheringham, Yarmouth, Lowestoft - but if it's something a bit special you're after tryBroom Hall, Congham Hall, Gissing Hall, Dunston Hall, Morston Hall or any of the county's otherconverted manor house hotels.

Visit heavenlyhotels.co.uk/norfolk.htm for details.

The Barnham Broom Hotel and Golf Club, with two highly regarded courses of its own, is an idealbase for golfers.

 
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