Royal West Norfolk Golf Club Feature Review
Review by Kevin Heggie, September 2019
A regular feature in numerous ‘Top 100’ rankings and Highly Recommended on Golfshake, Royal West Norfolk has a unique place in Britain's golfing landscape, as you can find yourself marooned due to high tides. So, after checking our charts, we set off on a bright and breezy morning to experience Royal West Norfolk (or Brancaster, as it’s also commonly known) in all its glory.
Founded in 1892, the course (created by the multi-talented Holcombe Ingleby, who when not designing the links was also a local major and MP), remains close to its original design and is a typical out and back links affair. Whilst the front 9 plays 400 yards longer than the back on the card, due to the prevailing wind direction it certainly plays much longer, and with the exception of couple of shared fairways nearest the clubhouse, each hole has a sense of isolation from the rest which really adds to the overall experience.
After a friendly welcome in the well-stocked pro shop, we grabbed a handful of complementary tees and a back-to-basics scorecard (white yardage only, which we decided, potentially unwisely, to play from) before heading off to the practice facilities, which consists of a chipping area (and a chance to practice your escape from typical Brancaster bunker), a grass range, and a smooth and well maintained putting green by the 1st tee.
Front 9 Highlights
From the off, Brancaster asks some stern questions and requires some lusty blows. Three consecutive par 4, each measuring over 400 yards, gives you a sense of what to come, with fairways and greens well protected by typical links style bunkers, humps and run off areas hugging the inland side of the course. After a little respite via a beautifully designed short par 3, you then come to a great run of holes all the way out to the turn.
The 5th requires a long accurate drive between two stakes, followed by a mid to long iron into a crowned green. Whilst the tee shot is blind, once you cross the brow of the hill you’re met with a stunning vista, with the green nestled amongst dunes in the distance, with hidden run off areas if you go too long. The 6th then switches back towards the clubhouse, and gives you your first taste of what the back 9 will play like, with the 185 yardage playing over 200, and asking questions which we failed to answer in terms of coping with the change in wind direction, as well why we were playing the off the tips verses yellows!
Following the relatively straightforward par 5 7th, you encounter the marshlands which frame the 8th and 9th holes and really makes the course standout from the crowd. The 8th, another par 5, involves two well-judged carries over the marshland areas. When the tide is out, miscues aren’t quite so penal, assuming you find your ball amongst the scrub, but with the tide high the scoring average will undoubtedly rise. The final hole on the front section takes you out to the furthest part of the course, and again requires two carries over the marshland, where upon reaching the green you find a great panoramic view from Brancaster harbour back towards the clubhouse.
Back 9 Highlights
Having got used to the wind direction on the front, it’s all change on the back 9, which generally runs alongside the main dunes which separate the course from the beach. Whilst this didn’t faze my playing partner, who clubbed-up and hit a great iron followed by a well-judged birdie putt on the par 3 10th, I saw my tee shot pushed out of bounds by the wind. My struggles continued on the short but well bunkered par 5 11th (with another shot drifting out of bounds on its approach to the green), but after I salvaged a confidence boosting birdie on the short 13th, as we headed into the final, testing run of holes.
The 14th, at 430 yards, is a beast of a hole - a tough drive into the wind with out of bounds running along the right-hand side means par (and even bogey) is an extremely respectable outcome.
Walking to the 15th you’re then faced with one of the biggest bunkers you’re likely to come across, which appears to sit just in front of the green. The key is to ignore it and focus on the yardage, as it’s actually set back 30 yards from the green complex, but if you do go into it, the likelihood of a sand save is tiny.
After navigating the relatively straightforward 16th, the 17th and 18th provide the final examinations of your game. Whilst both par 4s are under 400 yards on the card, by now we were playing into a strong 2-3 club headwind which added to the challenge and lengthened the approach shots considerably. However, you should definitely take a moment to appreciate the surroundings before the close of the round, especially from the 17th tee box which is cut into the dunes providing a great elevated view towards the clubhouse.
The 18th has a generous shared fairway with the 1st, but is notable for the bunkering around the green, which you really don’t want to go in. Sadly, for me, Brancaster and the wind had almost broken me by this point resulting in a horror show of a finish (including a visit to said bunkers), but ignoring my score, I walked off happy to have experienced the challenges the course presented.
Assessing Brancaster purely on the course, it really is top tier. The greens run fast and smooth, fairways are well maintained, and the bunkering is a real feature, especially those which use railway sleepers to add to the fear factor for most golfers. Pace of play is also very good, but this is largely because it’s a two-ball course, with foursomes the predominant game played by the members (often with their dogs), and in terms of value for money, green fees are on par with a course of this standing.
However, there’s also some quirks to be aware of. The clubhouse is certainly interesting. Behind daunting black doors which wouldn’t look out of place in a haunted house, once over the threshold it really feels like a step back in time, with rooms lined with oak panels and interior features which most likely haven’t changed since opening. The changing room facilities, whilst clean, could do with some updating, and the smoke room where we grabbed a post-round sandwich had the feel of a library, with hushed conversations the norm from the few people present. For me, this isn’t the type of clubhouse experience which overly appeals, but I’m sure there’s plenty of other visitors who will love the traditional feel encountered through those double doors, and ultimately as a visitor I’m just happy those doors were open for us to play.
In summary, I was really impressed with Brancaster, and would love to play it again with the tide up, and winds down! I would however caution golfers with a higher handicap, unless they chose to play foursomes (where par matters less). As a mid-handicapper I struggled at times with my swing due to the wind, but my playing partner off 11 managed his game far better and played to handicap, which was a hugely impressive feat.
Overall Rating - 9
Course (Conditions) - 9
Course (Hole Variety/Layout) - 9
Course (Green Condition) - 9
Course (Challenge/Difficulty) - 9
Club facilities & 19th/Clubhouse - 6
Practice Facilities - 8
Friendliness/Hospitality - 8
Pace of Play - 9
Value for Money - 8
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|Royal West Norfolk Golf Club
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