Back to the Future

Golf course architecture and design often reflect the trends of the time. When Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in the 1990’s, and almost single-handedly created a boom in participation, there was a glut of new facilities built to meet the growing demand.

These courses by and large reflected a reaction to the athletic crash, bang, wallop nature of this amazing young bucks game – long holes, huge fast greens, thick rough and plenty of earth movement to create mounds and hazards. Huge clubhouses were constructed to wring every pound from this new-found clientele.

Many of these Clubs had a soulless feel to them and were respected but not loved by the average golfing public.

In recent years, and reflecting the credit crunch and the greater environmental impact awareness, there has been a welcome return to the more quirky, natural and pure golf course design principles.

Taking inspiration from classic layouts such as The Old Course and Pinehurst No.2, modern designs such as Castle Stuart, Sand Hills, Bandon Dunes and Sweetens Cove have re-introduced the concept of FUN to golfers through the design principles of angles, width with consequences, options and natural contours.

In this blog, we will analyse three of the lesser known holes from the front 9 at Royal Cromer to examine how century old design incorporates the features now making a comeback.

1st Hole – 418 yards Par 4.

Although not a feature of the original 1888 layout, it was James Braid that designed the current opening hole at RCGC, which came into play in 1924.

1st fairway from 1st tee
The opening tee shot at Royal Cromer

The first thing that strikes you when stood on the 1st tee is the sheer scale of the fairway – only on the Old Course and perhaps Brancaster in my experience do you get a more generous opening target. This allows play to flow away smoothly and the Driver to make an early appearance (fun!). The big miss however will have dire consequences with gorse, trees and rough to punish you.

The options open up for your approach shot. An area of wetland, named the Osiers after the willow of the name that grow there, creates a hazard down the right side of the hole if you are to take on the green. The safer shot is down the left hand side where the natural contours will feed the ball towards the green.

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1st green – fairway from right of photo

Whilst the fairway is generous and the inclination is to hug the left side away from the Out-of-bounds, this creates a sloping lie with the ball below your feet. A drive kept down the right will generate a flatter lie and allow you to play up the full length of the green but makes missing left or right more likely given the greens angle to the fairway.

A wonderfully crafted opening hole offering a straightforward bogey but tough par.

3rd Hole – 311 yards Par 4

The third hole is the newest addition to the course at RCGC, built to replace the old 17th which was lost to the sea and introduced for play in 1978.

Fortunately, whilst it inhabits slightly wetter, more parkland like land than the rest of the course, traditional design principles were kept consistent to the existing layout.

The hole dog-legs attractively around a copse of pine trees at around 200 yards. This opens up the options for the long-hitter to attempt to Drive the green. The consequences for a miss however are dire – with trees, gorse, bracken and deep bunkers awaiting a 250-300 yard tee shot even marginally misdirected.

Three fairway bunkers and a huge bracken strewn bank help (with the trees) to provide an attractive frame to the tee-shot. The longer club that you hit, the narrower the target area becomes, but the reward is a much easier approach shot. Any shot from greater than 100 yards and from right or left rough creates a very demanding angle to the green.

3rd green (7)
Royal Cromer – approach to 3rd green

The fantastic green complex offers a huge amount of fun for the golfer. Sloping sharply from back left to front right, any putt from the back or across the green is treacherous – super fast and with significant break.

The four bunkers around the green are extremely deep and challenging. Indeed there is no point around the green where you would happily back yourself to make an up and down. An excellent short Par 4 that abounds with options, where angles are super important and where the challenges add up to a huge amount of fun for all levels of golfer.

8th Hole – 312 yards Par 4

Another short Par 4 that provides a welcome contrast to the stretch of 400 yard+ holes from the 4th to the 7th. The current 8th hole has been a part of the layout at RCGC since the original 18 was opened in 1895 with the design help of Old Tom Morris.

The first thing that hits you when you make the short climb from the 7th green is the stunning vista. The hole falls and rises in front of you with an epic backdrop of the North Sea.

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Royal Cromer – 8th Hole

The choice for the longer hitter is clear – a 200 yard lay-up to the bottom of the incline or an ambitious attempt for the green. Impenetrable rough awaits the quick hook whilst a trio of deep bunkers protect the right side of the fairway. With the natural contours leaking everything to the right, the tee shot landing area has to be the left side of the fairway to guarantee that you will not finish in the sand.

The bail-out tee shot will leak to the right of the bunkers towards the seventh fairway. This angle leaves the golfer facing the vicious drop-off to the right of the green. The uphill nature also means that any approach from the rough will struggle to hold the table-top green and risks running  through.

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Royal Cromer – 8th hole from the green

The pitch from the fairway is a surprisingly intimidating shot but great fun. From this view, the green has an infinity feel as you can only see the top half of the flag and your mind is drawn to the steep drop-off to the front and the right.

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Royal Cromer – 8th Hole

In 2017 work was done to create more space to the left side of the green, allowing golfers to take this route around the green towards the 9th tee. Routing is a vastly under-rated aspect of course design and the flow that this change created has helped to reduce congestion around the 9th tee and offers a tantalising early glimpse of the beautiful downhill Par 3 9th hole. This ‘journey’ all adds to the experience and fun!

A New Golden Age of course design?

In this cash-strapped age, the number of new courses currently being constructed is low but thankfully the tough economic conditions are helping to ensure quality over quantity.

It is worth reading more about Sweetens Cove and the planned project at The Bucks Club. Incorporated here are all the principles designed to create fun for the golfer.

The final piece of the jigsaw to re-establish classic courses and their original challenges as well as protect and generate great architecture for future courses would be a roll-back of the golf ball. But perhaps that is an argument for another blog.

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