Hunstanton and Royal West Norfolk
Norfolk, England

Certain pairs of courses are often mentioned in the same breath, as if it were physically impossible to mention one without including the other: National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills; Pebble Beach and Cypress Point; Merion and Pine Valley; etc.

Much of this phenomenon has to do with the courses’ geographic proximity to each other, yet much has to do with how well each course is a foil for the other. A good example is to compare the stern and straightforward Royal Troon to its quirky neighbor Preswtick.  Could two links courses be more dissimilar?

Another interesting common feature of such pairs of courses is that, almost without exception, each evenly divides the sentiments of those in the conversation. Those who will argue strongly on the merits of Muirfield will be equally countered by those whose love for North Berwick knows no limits. From just one such comparison, it is easy to draw an accurate sketch of the man himself, based on these likes and dislikes.

To this list of pairs, the authors would add two famous courses in England’s East Anglia: Hunstanton and Royal West Norfolk. The two courses lie only some five miles apart along the coast, yet they might as well be on opposite sides of the island in terms of character.

Hunstanton is a consistent, challenging test in superior condition on which it is clear that the player who plays better will emerge victorious (i.e., well-suited for stroke play). There are not quite any ‘great’ holes, but there are also no glaring weaknesses.

On the other hand, Royal West Norfolk, better known as Brancaster, is more of a rollercoaster (assuming of course that the tide is out and that you can actually reach the course). It has four world class holes (3, 8, 9, 14) that merit inclusion in any eclectic 18 holes; it has several indifferent holes (e.g., 7, 11, 17); its sides are not balanced, with the first side being the better and more difficult one and the second side reliant on the wind to enhance its challenge; its conditioning is often average at best; water hazards play a dominant role.

In short, match play suits Brancaster better with its heroic holes and, frankly, more opportunities for birdies (of which there are few to be found at Hunstanton) while Hunstanton is the quintessential stroke play course.

Like so many links courses, Hunstanton offers the conventional out and back routing, with the outward side inland and the inward nine along the Wash, near the North Sea. However, the course offers frustratingly few views of the water, and the water is never close to affecting play. The opening five holes, as a group, are prosaic, although individually they are fine. However, any tinge of disappointment disappears upon reaching the short, uphill 6th to its elevated sloping green, for the rest of the round offers one first-rate hole after another, over the more interesting land. The player relishes every stroke coming home. Similar to Muirfield, its frank and solid nature makes for a thorough, if uninspired, examination.

Holes to Note at Hunstanton:

Eleventh hole, 400 yards; One of those rare, quality holes that needs not a bunker, water hazard, boundary or heavily contoured green to hold the player’s interest, the 11th relies on subtle angles that play against the wind to make for a difficult four. With the wind coming from the right and behind, the hole bends almost imperceptibly to the right, creating an awkward angle for the player.

Fifteenth hole, 455 yards; The authors’ favorite hole a Hunstanton, the 15th shifts to the right some 230 yards out and then runs through a valley to one of the more interesting green complexes on the course as its sides fall away gently into the basins at the bottom of the dunes. This feature of the green helps both the drainage and creates interesting shots around the green.

Sixteenth hole, 155 yards; Thanks to its dramatic bunkering and the most pitched green at Hunstanton, the 16th is the most visually striking hole on the course. The green, with its slight right-to-left angle and right-to-left slope offers the player many options in how to play the tee shot. The near-punchbowl nature of the front half is a welcome sight into the prevailing wind and provides for that old saying of ‘hard par, easy bogey.’

Seventeenth hole, 440 yards; One of the best uses of a small but dramatic natural feature with which the authors are familiar, the 17th green is perched on ledge, with a five-foot, closely-mown drop-off just inches away to the right. This area sees plenty of action as the player will typically be playing his approach with the ball below his feet. The front of this long green is open, flat and receptive, further emphasizing accuracy over distance with the second.

Holes to Note at Royal West Norfolk:

First hole, 400 yards; After the sobering walk to the tee through the gate memorializing those members who gave their lives in the war, the first is a favorite opening hole of the authors as it possesses so many of the desirable characteristics: an inspiring tee, set along the dune line with the North Sea immediately to your left, a wide fairway (actually shared with the 18th to the right) and an appealing green site nestled against the dunes. You can hit it as far to the right into the 18th fairway as you wish but the approach shot rapidly becomes harder and harder.

Third hole, 415 yards; With the abrupt angle of its dog-leg to the right and its blind approach, the 3rd is the exact kind of hole that Hunstanton lacks. The narrow green is perhaps not ‘fair’ as it is bloody difficult to find and hold downwind, but the golfer will never tire of the opportunity of trying. The prospect of playing toward just the top 18 inches of the flagstick visible against the sky directly beyond a sleepered bank never fails to inspire.

Forth hole, 125 yards; A much underrated short one-shotter and one of the best of its type anywhere, the fourth plays from the top of one dune to another, where the wide but shallow green awaits. This hole emphasizes distance over accuracy, hardly a sure bet in this most exposed location. One hole that must have struck terror in many players’ minds one-hundred years ago and still one that is most attractive today. This hold influenced Charles Blair Macdonald.

Eighth hole, 475 yards; The finest gambling three-shotter in the British Isles, the 8th is the epitome of heroic golf. The fairway from the tee is an island in the often-dry tidal marsh and is set at an angle to the tee, requiring the player to decide how much of the marsh he dares carry. After the tee shot is negotiated, the player faces an even more daunting second: do/can I carry the marsh to reach the fairway that extends some 80 yards from the green, with the marsh then continuing tight along the right to the green, or should I lay up short and leave myself a full 160 yard third?

Ninth hole, 400 yards; Essentially a shorter version of the 8th without a fairway short of the green “ it is all carry over the bulkheaded marsh. The green is one of the magic spots in golf as, standing there at the tip of a peninsula and the farthest point from the clubhouse, it is difficult to imagine being farther from civilization.

The view from the ninth green.

Fourteenth hole, 425 yards; A majestic hole with its sunken green. Interestingly, it is not quite a punchbowl as strong shots have nothing to save them from bounding well beyond the green. Also, this hole, in both its character and position, is crucial for providing the backbone of the homeward nine.

Don’t think, though, that Brancaster is merely a museum piece from which little can be learned; just the opposite. There is as much architectural merit here as at any other English links. In addition to the use of the marsh as a direct, diagonal and lateral obstacle, the bunker placement is quite thoughtful. The large, intimidating bunkers well short of the 15th and 18th greens, for example, do look great, but they are also wisely positioned far enough short of each green to allow enough room for the downwind shot to bounce onto the green.

So, then, who would prefer Hunstanton to Royal West Norfolk? Often times it is the better player, many of who have little tolerance for indifferent holes, blind shots, and marginal conditioning.

Who prefers Brancaster? Those of us who don’t keep a score card in our back pocket and who place emphasis on getting away from it all. We can just hope that the course continues to hold off the threat of erosion. If the club and course lose that battle, the entire golf world should forever hang its head in shame for letting it lose one of the game’s treasures.

The End