Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, Brancaster, England

Royal West Norfolk
Royal West Norfolk 9th hole (photo by P. Fontaine)

About the only thing that ever changes in Brancaster is the tide. It isn’t hard to imagine yourself in some bygone era as you approach this picturesque little village with snug houses and a nearly perfectly preserved 14th-century church.

Just beyond Brancaster village, and linked to it by an old causeway, is an expanse of marshland that at high tide is regularly washed by the sea. The road continues through the marshes and heads into a low range of sand hills. A first-time visitor would anticipate that the course he has come to play—venerable Royal West Norfolk—would lie hidden among the dunes. In fact, many of the holes do occupy this terrain, but a few also wander right out into the marshes, ensuring that this is no ordinary English links.

Golf has been played at Brancaster (as most people refer to the links) since late Victorian times. The celebrated British amateur Horace Hutchinson laid out the course and, aside from two greens that were lost to the sea in the early 20th century, it has been altered very little over the years.

Few courses in the world possess Brancaster’s charm, quaintness and  eccentricity. The clubhouse is a structure that golfers seem to either love or hate. In Legendary Golf Clubs of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, John de St. Jorre described Brancaster’s 19th hole as “a brave, bizarre building that only the Victorians could concoct, exposed on all sides to the elements and sitting defiantly on a pile of rocks with the sea at its feet.”

Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find a clubhouse veranda that enjoys such a wonderful view: the north Norfolk coast in all its glory. Moreover, the atmosphere within is decidedly jovial and friendly. The phrase “mad dogs and Englishmen” might have been invented here, for many members regularly bring their canine companions, and it is not uncommon to find these pets wandering around the building in search of their owners, who have likely sneaked off to the members’ bar.

A sandy path guides players from the clubhouse, through a large wrought-iron gate and to the 1st tee. Brancaster is not long. But then, as on every seaside links, the precise distances don’t mean a great deal if the wind is blowing. It is on the 401-yard 3rd that you are introduced to Brancaster’s wooden-sleepered cross bunkers. Shoring up hazards with railway sleepers (or ties, as they are known in the U.S.) occurs at a handful of British links courses, most famously at Prestwick, but no course has as many as Brancaster, and surely none retain so many fairway bunkers.

At the par-5 8th and par-4 9th, the far end of the links, is where the course wanders into the salt marshes. The look of these holes, and to some extent their degree of difficulty, can vary depending on the state of the tide. At the 8th, the drive to an island strip of fairway leads to a second shot (if you’re feeling brave) or third over the marshes to the green. The tee shot must carry the marsh from an elevated tee at the 9th, followed by an exacting approach over yet another large, sleepered cross bunker. For an extraordinary moment, Brancaster becomes Harbour Town, Pine Valley and Prestwick all rolled into one.

The inward nine plays much closer to the sea. The course tumbles headlong into the dunes at the 11th and remains there until it emerges into more open ground at the 17th. At the 379-yard 18th, any thoughts of a closing birdie can only be entertained once you’ve successfully hurdled one last sleepered cross bunker on the approach.

So ends an exceptional, and at times exhilarating, round of golf. One cannot seriously envision a modern professional tournament being staged on this course—Brancaster is no Birkdale—but the golfer who has toured Scotland and fallen in love with the likes of North Berwick, Prestwickand Machrihanish is sure to be enchanted by Royal West Norfolk. That person will find the setting, the ambience, the challenge—indeed the entire experience—nothing short of enthralling.