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Norfolk's Golf Coast

Golfer's Guide to Norfolk's Golf Coast by Jeremy Ellwood (Courtesy of Golf Monthly)

rcgc LOGO norfolk golf coastI probably bang on about this quite a lot when reviewing UK courses, but for me, it’s often a case of “seen the pics, now must go and play there”. And so it was with North Norfolk. I’d first seen siren-like photos of Sheringham and Hunstanton years ago, but just hadn’t quite been able to engineer a golfing visit to the area, other than the annual end-of-season Golf Monthly finale at Brancaster. So when all the logistics finally fell into place last October, anticipation levels were high. I’ve been on family holidays here, and love this part of the world for its step-back-in-time feel - and I don’t mean that patronisingly. Time really has stood relatively still compared to the frantic pace, and alleged progress, of my south England base. That’s an immensely alluring quality that should be milked to the full in these modern times, when more people, to a degree, are perhaps questioning just what was so wrong with the way we were. And so, philosophical musings over, to Royal Cromer.                                               

I’d envisaged a glorious clifftop setting at Cromer, and it is, once you’ve worked your way through the parkland openers where trouble awaits a slice. You get some serious hang time off the 4th tee as the hole plunges dramatically down; at 454 yards you don’t want to balloon your drive into the wind here. From the 6th the course loops back and stays closer to the cliffs, with the 7th offering a dramatic drive and green setting. Many hole names do exactly what they say on the tin (‘Cliff Hanger’, ‘Over the Hill’, ‘Lighthouse’) but I never quite fathomed why the 9th – a cracking downhill par 3 ring-fenced by greenside bunkers – was christened ‘Wembley’. Try to lose the honour on the 11th if possible as the sharp climb to the 12th will leave you puffing and ill-prepared to play first! Coming home the turf takes on a springier feel and there are some stirring holes – the 14th curving round to the lighthouse, the 15th with its daunting tee-shot, and the 16th – ‘Hog’s Back’ - which provide a wonderful vantage point.

The cliffs at Sheringham provide a wonderfully liberating setting for golf, with sea views from every hole according to playing companion, and 2012 captain, Keith Holt. I thoroughly enjoyed my round and felt especially fortunate to play the five cliff-hugging holes (from the 3rd to the 7th) downwind. This smoothed the way to a satisfying par on the 4th, a spectacular 456-yarder with potentially distracting views. After the clifftop stretch there’s a wonderful variety among the ‘inner’ holes before a closing quartet which flank the restored North Norfolk Steam Railway. The 10th and 11th stood out for me, the latter a gorgeous par 3 at the foot of a small hill. It dawned on me as I putted out on 14 that my final three-quarters of a mile of golf (four holes) would be straight back into the wind - payback time for earlier! But the all-encompassing views from the 16th tee across several holes, the ocean, the gorse and the arborial backdrop to the 17th made the almost inevitable dropped shots somehow easier to bear. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I guess.

Time didn’t allow a visit to Brancaster’s links this trip, but having played it several times in the past it simply can’t be left out of any North Norfolk write-up. There’s a wonderfully old school feel to both clubhouse and course, which is a million miles from the manicured perfection of a lush parkland layout, and, for me, all the better for it. It is a rugged, raw links, and a wonderful place to play. The approach road to the club can be cut off at high tide, which also brings a whole new dimension to the drives and approach shots on the 8th and 9th at the far end of the course. One quick word of advice:  Brancaster is a two-ball course, so it’s singles or foursomes only.

Like Brancaster, Hunstanton has a rugged feel from the outset, a little like Prince’s in Kent with limited sea views, fields on one side and a central bisecting dune ridge from where you first glimpse the sea on the 5th. For me, the 17th was a dead-ringer for the 6th on Prince’s Shore nine with its shelf green. There’s an impressive sleepered bunker on the 1st – hopefully irrelevant given its proximity to the tee – and another on the 7th, a memorable, valleyed par 3 with a self-contained feel. That hole follows a 336-yard par 4, whose elevated table-top green can confound its apparent ease on the scorecard. The 9th and 10th are standout holes visually, while coming home, the par 3s at 14 and 16 are both long and tough, the former blind off the back tee with a traffic light system and/or oscillating pole contraption behind the green to signal the all clear. Sandwiched between them is a par 5 that’s eminently reachable downwind, and there must be many a day when decent golfers score 4, 4, 4 on this trio.

The name of the game at Kings Lynn, which I played en route back south, is undoubtedly accuracy. This is because a) it’s pretty tight full-stop, and b) almost every hole until the 9th (the 1st and par-3 5th excluded) doglegs one way or the other. I was told the 3rd, a strong par 4 playing up and round to the right, used to be the 1st, which must have made for a daunting start. I couldn’t find a fairway until the 8th, unless you count spraying one so far right on the 6th it bisected the 7th fairway ahead of schedule. I also found it tricky reading the wind as it swirled through the trees. But although you do need to be straight, more often than not when you stray offline, you’ll be chipping out rather than losing a ball. The back nine starts with an excellent par 5, par 4, par 3 salvo, and from here on there’s a little more room to manoeuvre. It was an enjoyable test despite the over-riding need for accuracy, but I’d hazard that Kings Lynn’s low-handicappers possess very good ‘fairways hit’ stats.

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