Royal Worlington & Newmarket not only presents a magnificient design on a tiny patch of land, but is also the spiritual home of 9-hole golf. Indeed, Royal Worlington has the ‘sacred nine’. Those were the words of Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers. As a Cambridge man his was hardly an impartial opinion. Nor was this the only golf course he declared undying love for. Yet when he talks about Royal Worlington and Newmarket, just a few miles from the Suffolk border, it pays to listen.
Originally believed to be the work of Tom Dunn in the late 19th-century, it was extensively remodelled in the 1920s by Harry Colt.
At first glance a flat, even unprepossessing, parcel of land, Worlington’s charm is not immediately apparent to all. But most gradually come to realise that, a little like Augusta, seemingly open expanses lead to devilish green complexes. This is a course all about angles and subtlety.
Take the famous short 5th – with a green that looks innocent enough from the tee. This is how Darwin described it:
“Mr Everyman made quite a good shot – that is admitted. He was unlucky when the ball kicked down into the left-hand valley but that was no reason why he should get so cross and bang the next across the green into the right-hand valley. He took five. Mr Tiger was rather strong and nearly in the fir trees. He could not get his downhill putt dead – four. Mr Rabbit half-topped his drive straight and short. He ran up in two and got a three. ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’, said Mr Rabbit. A good hole if you know how to play it.
Yet the 5th is but one sacred hole among nine. In fact, there are so many more things we can say about Royal Worlington, but we’ll let renowned course designer Tom Doak say them instead. Here is Doak from our interview with him last month:
Tom Doak: I know that. I am always shocked that considering how much Bernard Darwin loved it and some of the Oxford and Cambridge people love it, and half the golf writers in the UK come out of there, I’m surprised that it’s not more highly regarded here. I suppose part of that is that it’s just 9 holes and a lot of people don’t treat 9-holers that seriously but that’s probably held it back. I would think it would be in the Top 100 courses in the world if they would consider a 9-hole course for that.
For me it’s two things: one, it’s just got a great set of greens. That’s the most interesting part of architecture to me. There’s not a lot of courses in Britain, especially the inland courses, that have greens with that kind of contouring that has a lot to do with play and how well you can score. So that’s a main part of the appeal to me.
The other part is there are so many compelling holes and yet it looks so unassuming. There is a road going through it and a golfer could drive right through the golf course and not think twice about it being a great golf course. It doesn’t look the part until you go out and stand in the middle of fairways and look at the approach shot you’ve got to hit and take into the account that the green is about as hard as this table.
You have to be aware that the contours are feeding off the greens and into trouble and you can’t just pop it into the middle of the green and count on it to stop.
Merion, in the States, I would put in the same category. It’s on such a small piece of land and it’s so well fit to the ground that I would defy any architect to make a suggestion to improve it. Here you could always move a green 50 yards back or to the side or whatever but there, there’s really no scope to do that. It just amazes me that it all fits as well as it does.