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Royal West Norfolk: Brancaster’s Unique Coastal Links

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Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, commonly known as Brancaster, runs along the windswept North Norfolk coastline. Founded in 1892, this revered links occupies a narrow spit of coastal land just inland from the sandy Brancaster Bay beach. Its challenging layout, unique characteristics, and memorable seaside location have earned it a place among the UK’s top-ranked courses.

From the undulating dunes and sleeper-faced bunkers to the ever-present threat of encroaching tides, Royal West Norfolk offers a charming test of seaside golf. The course holds a special place in the hearts of purists who appreciate its largely unchanged original design and memorably quirky holes.

Royal West Norfolk is currently ranked in the Golf World Top 100 in 3 categories: #17 in England, #29 in Links Courses in Great Britain & Ireland, and #61 for “Courses You Can Play.” It is also ranked #63 in the Golf Monthly Top 100 Courses in Great Britain & Ireland.

In this post, we’ll explore the history, design, and allure of this classic links, explore its remote North Norfolk location, and walk through the course to learn what makes it so memorable. We’ll conclude with further reading suggestions and some videos to bring the course to life. As always, the adjacent images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Origins and History

Royal West Norfolk is located in the village of Brancaster on the northwest Norfolk coast, about 7 miles east of Hunstanton and 22 miles north of King’s Lynn. The club received its “Royal” title from the outset when the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, agreed to become its patron. It has a long history of royal patronage, as four members of the royal family have served as club captains over the years, including the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Windsor, and two Dukes of Kent.

The original course design is attributed to Holcombe Ingleby, former mayor of King’s Lynn, with some assistance from renowned amateur Horace Hutchinson. Very few alterations have been made to the original design over the years. It remains a classic out-and-back links course, with some holes crossing over others near the clubhouse.

Brancaster is also a two-ball club. To keep rounds moving at a good pace, many clubs have established a two-ball rule – meaning only two balls are in play in any “match” at one time. It’s either a singles match where each player plays their own ball, or four players in a foursomes, or alternate shot format. This format is specific to the UK and helps to keep rounds under three hours. In the US, we typically see foursomes in team competitions like the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Solheim Cup, and Walker Cup. The Europeans typically have an advantage in Foursomes, and this may present a window into why they are more adept.

The course occupies a narrow spit of coastal land between Brancaster Bay and inland salt marshes. This unique landscape means play can vary significantly depending on the tides. At high tide, parts of the course become inaccessible islands, while the par-5 8th and par-4 9th feature shots over the marsh, playing very differently than at low tide. The course is known for its old-fashioned bunkering, with many original sleeper-faced cross bunkers still in play.

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Location

Royal West Norfolk is situated along the beautiful North Norfolk coast between the villages of Brancaster and Titchwell. It occupies a narrow strip of land between Brancaster Bay to the north and the tidal salt marshes to the south. The course lies within a unique coastal landscape that is protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The coastal location provides a picturesque setting but also poses environmental challenges. Efforts have been made over the years to mitigate coastal erosion and flood risk. The fragility of the marshland has also led to changes in routing for some holes.

To the north of the course is a wide sandy beach and dunes, backed by the Brancaster Estate’s coastal common grazed by sheep. This scenic landscape features creeks, mudflats, and reedbeds that provide an important habitat for diverse birdlife. The beach stretches for miles in either direction, offering stunning vistas across the waves to Scolt Head Island nature reserve offshore.

brancaster royal west Norfolk gate

Did You Know?

The Royal West Norfolk Golf Club still has more original wooden sleeper-faced bunkers in play than any other course in the UK. These cross bunkers with railway tie faces are a unique and historical feature, dating back to the original 1892 design by Horace Hutchinson and Holcombe Ingleby. The railway sleepers provide a charming, old-fashioned look while posing a strategic challenge.

The sleepers used are reclaimed from old piers and railways. They stand about 15 feet high and fan across the steep grass faces of the bunkers in an evenly spaced pattern, with grass growing between each board. This allows the bunkers to blend into the natural sandy links landscape. They also greet you at the entrance walkway to the golf course, which is cut through the dunes using old oak railway sleepers and serves as an integral part of the quirky, seaside links charm.

Maintenance of these historic bunkers can be challenging. The steep-angled wooden faces are subject to erosion and rot over time. Care must be taken to stabilize the railway sleepers, such as digging drainage gulleys behind the planks or bolstering the faces with steel beams or wooden supports. Occasional replacement of deteriorated sleepers is also required. When properly maintained, these bunkers stand the test of time as nostalgic features that connect today’s players with the earliest days of the course.

royal west Norfolk  entrance

The Course

The course plays to a par of 71 at 6,478 yards. Its coastal location makes it prone to windy conditions, especially on the inward nine, where the prevailing wind is against you. Its unique and fragile tidal location between Brancaster Bay and inland salt marshes results in some holes being stranded at high tide (their website links to tide times and flood warnings). The sandy terrain, sleeper bunkers, and quirky routing connecting the links and marshland make for a unique seaside golf experience. The course rewards good tee shots, with a premium on length, as the greens are better approached with a short iron.

The outward nine is the longer side, playing at 3,426 yards. The 3rd is a classic risk-reward par-4, with a decision to be made off the tee. You can choose to play safe, away from the marshland on the right; however, the more you do, the more difficult the angle of approach to the green becomes – an approach where you must carry a raised sleeper bunker to a green that leaves little room for error.

The most unique and memorable hole at Royal West Norfolk is undoubtedly the short, bunker-less, par-5 8th, made up of three “tongues” or small islands, separated by marshland. The tides and time of day determine the width of the fairway, so a great shot in the morning might have a different fate later in the afternoon. It requires a diagonal tee shot over the coastal marshland to reach an island fairway, followed by more marsh carries to reach the third “tongue” and the green.

brancaster course

In “Anatomy of a Golf Course,” Tom Doak singled out this “heroic” hole, with its two forced carries over marshland, as magnificent but possibly too severe for the average player. The saving grace of the hole is that the forced carries are not over water but marshland where the ball can be played. In “The Golf Courses of the British Isles,” Bernard Darwin compares the conservative way to play the 8th to a man crossing a stream leaping from one stepping stone to the next. He notes that the bolder and more satisfying approach, the “dashing” way, is to attempt two big shots to reach the third tongue and risk the marsh, bad lies, and big numbers.

In contrast, the inward nine plays shorter at 3,052 yards. The routing crosses back over itself, returning along the inland side of the course adjacent to the salt marshes. The par-4 12th heads back out towards the sea, requiring a forced carry over one last marshy inlet, while the 14th is another distinctive par-4 with a green hidden in a hollow and an approach that needs to carry a waste area. The closing holes then play along a spine of dunes past deep revetted pot bunkers. The 17th is a strong par-4 with an elevated green in the dunes, while the home hole is a shorter par-4, playing to the clubhouse and a green guarded by a final sleeper-faced bunker.

Visit Royal West Norfolk online at https://www.rwngc.org.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

royal west Norfolk

Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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Anatomy of a Golf Course
by Tom Doak

Summary: The book explains the thought process and strategies used by golf course architects in designing courses, including factors like hole length, placement of hazards, and routing. It aims to help golfers understand why certain design choices are made so they can better approach playing the course. Written by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak, it appeals to both knowledgeable golfers and beginners interested in course design and architecture. The book also includes an appendix with examples of noteworthy golf courses that are worth studying.


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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Brancaster Course Flyover
17th Tee View
Sleeper-ed Bunker at 15th

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