In Brancaster, England, a tidal marsh interrupts the road between parish church and beach. There you will find Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, best known simply by the name of the nearby village. The course was laid out originally by Horace Hutchinson and Holcombe Ingleby in 1892. When you visit Brancaster today, you should let the tides dictate the timing of your round. You will need to be deferential as well to the staunch tradition of two-ball golf. Foursomes is the members’ game of choice, and a four-legged friend their likely companion.
The compact out-and-back routing of Brancaster, broken up by the occasional reversal, is perfectly suited to the speedy golf preferred at this most English of establishments. The 1st and 18th holes cross, and the 2nd and 17th cross again, sharing a narrow tract between the foredune and the marsh. Moving eastward, the sand spit broadens to accommodate a fortified “Short” into the dunes. To get from the 5th green to the 6th tee, you must walk across the 7th fairway. From there, the front nine concludes with thrilling holes along and through the intruding spurs of tidal marsh.
Royal West Norfolk Golf Club in Brancaster, England: a unique but environmentally precarious setting (Google Earth)
The all-world 8th leaps over an initial inlet to an angling and narrowing strip of high ground before hopping again over a second reed-populated low. On this sub-500 yard par 5, a heroic second shot must begin with a brave first. If you bail safely left off the tee, you will face a long carry to get home in two. Playing with the prevailing wind, you will need real restraint to bunt your second down the length of the fairway instead of launching one toward the green. If, however, you bite off a larger portion of the salt marsh to the right, you will have a good chance. All of these shots will be complicated by unpredictable bounces on the dry east-coast turf.
There is just enough room at the end of the finger of land that the 8th fairway occupies for the next tee. Like the 8th, the 9th has no bunkers and, with two more marsh crossings for the player to negotiate, requires none. Nature supplies more than enough interest here. You will need a strong, straight drive in order to make the carry over the final tidal bay comfortably with your second shot. If you fail to clear the green’s fronting railway sleepers, you may be able to manufacture a recovery from the gnarly patches of sand and grass—but only if you’ve timed the moon’s gravitational pull correctly.
Whatever the water level, and however you have played this par 4, its beauty is undeniable. As you take the path around the corner of the marsh, you will see the parked boats on Mow Creek and, beyond them, the back gardens of Brancaster village. The green, cut from the dunes leeward, is a simple affair; that’s all it needs to be. The sensible play will always hedge long.
As a reminder of any recent failings, you will start the journey west by walking the same narrow path, this time toward the tee of the squeezed-in par-3 10th. Overall, the outward nine makes the most of this precariously located linkscape. The homeward path tries its best, though it relies more strongly on fear-inducing sleeper-faced bunkers and sea views across the Wash.
Brancaster is classic links golf: a reminder of how the game was and how golf clubs once were. Just don’t be put off by the notion of not playing your own ball. With rising sea levels a serious threat, you might not get another chance!