Hunstanton or Brancaster? That is the question that has vexed thousands of golfers over the past century when visiting the North Norfolk coast and while many have strong opinions in one direction or the other, the correct answer is surely ‘both’. A couple of days on this blessed stretch of coastline is guaranteed to raise the spirits. And while the obvious time to arrange such a trip would be the summer, do bear in mind that Hunstanton in particular is a sensationally good option in the winter too.
Throughout the year, the greens remain both firm and smooth. With speed of play a particular issue of pride in these parts, you will be most likely be back in the cosy clubhouse within three hours.
Hunstanton is also more accessible than you might imagine, especially for those approaching from the north. By an act of geographical curiosity, this small town on the Wash is the only resort on Britain’s east coast to be west-facing.
The course is located a mile or so outside the town centre and follows the time-honoured links tradition of a front nine that broadly travels away from the clubhouse and an inward half that brings you back again. On one side is the River Hun and the other the Wash. A spine of duneland runs the entire length.
Generally, the prevailing wind will favour you on the outward half but the locals say that in a freezing easterly scoring well here is even more of a challenge. Yet the layout is subtle enough to confound anyone expecting to score well in one direction and struggle relentlessly in the other.
There are changes of direction throughout and after playing the first three holes in roughly the same direction, after that you never play more than two consecutive holes before turning round.
This is one of the greatest pleasures of Hunstanton. The mixture of holes is delightful, and it seems that every long and demanding hole is quickly followed by something more playful.
Good hitting is essential to prosper on holes like the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and especially 11th but clear thinking and touch are more important at the 6th and 13th.
Hunstanton is not long by modern standards, but it hardly needs to be considering the difficulty of the course and ubiquity of the sea breeze.
Originally laid out by George Fernie and opened in 1891, James Braid extended and revised the original layout, notably adding some typically subtle bunkering, while James Sherlock created the current 9th, 10th and 11th holes in the 1920s. Martin Hawtree led a project to renovate the bunkering in recent years and the club will act on his advice to begin further course improvement works, with the par-5 8th a particular focus, in the coming years.
Hunstanton is not especially long by modern standards but then it hardly needs to be considering the difficulty of the course and ubiquity of the sea breeze.
Indeed, when the Brabazon was played here in 2003 some of the world’s finest amateurs struggled to come close to matching par.
Clearly, the direction of the wind is crucial to deciding how the links must be tackled but presuming the prevailing westerly is in effect, a fast start is not out of the question.
For the better player, oblivious to the potential embarrassment of an opening drive struck from a 1st tee yards away from the bay windows of the clubhouse, the approach will be little more than a pitch and the par-5 2nd often plays shorter than would appear likely to judge by the scorecard.
Even the 3rd and 5th, both well in excess of 400 yards, can be safely navigated without need for heroics and the large flat green at the 4th, played back towards the clubhouse, is a generous enough target.
The need for strategy is paramount at the 6th. Better players can choose to play short of, between or beyond the fairway bunkers with their drive. But it is only when you survey an approach to a plateau green with steep run-offs in all directions that you will know whether your tee shot was a good one or not.
Depending on the wind, finding and holding this green – even with a short iron – can be incredibly difficult and the penalties for missing it severe. It is a fine hole.
Then comes the famous 7th, played across a gully and over an enormous, gaping bunker to the green beyond. It is hard to know whether you would rather be playing downwind (how do you fly the bunker and hold the green?) or into the breeze (suddenly the bunker becomes twice the size).
Two par fives end the front nine, and since they play in opposite directions, it is often the case that a five on the one is more worthy than a four at the other. The 8th is quirky while the 9th is classy.
After the awkward 10th, doglegging left into the farthest corner of the links, comes the turn for home. Stand on the 11th tee and not only can you survey a par four of genuine championship stature, you will also be able to see the clubhouse in the distance. The run for home starts here.
The 12th, with its blind drive across the dunes, is less taxing before another par four, in the opposite direction, traverses the same set of dunes to a green sunken and hidden by the ripples of the land.
This is a terrific hole but the next is not as universally loved. It involves an oscillating marker post, a completely blind long iron or wood and the hope of a favourable downhill bounce to take you on to the large green.
Holes like this do split golfing opinion but on the basis that a solid shot will invariably find the 14th green while a poor one will assuredly not, it is hard to be entirely critical.
The last four holes offer a little bit of everything – a five, a three and two fours.
The short 16th is a vintage par 3, and also the scene of a quite remarkable feat back in the 1970s.
The most testing is the 17th, surely one of the toughest par fours in the British Isles. It does not need the protection of a single bunker. Measuring over 464 yards and into the prevailing wind, the real difficulty lies in the green. It is tucked against the spine of dunes and is little more than a ledge – especially when viewed from 200 yards or more away.
Go left and you will find thick rough while anything fading away will run off and down, leaving a chip few will relish. The final hole is fractionally shorter but again anything off line will leave the hardest of up and downs. They combine to create a fitting finish, and are worthy of deciding any match.