In this blog, I will complete the series to identify the ultimate 18 holes in the history of RCGC with a discussion on whether the current layout is superior to the original 1895 Tom Morris design.
Over the past six weeks, I have identified the very best composite layout from the past 130 years. Here is the summary:
418 yds Par 4 (2017)
254 yds Par 3 (1905)
370 yds Par 4 (1905)
180 yds Par 3 (1895)
300 yds Par 4 (1905)
454 yds Par 4 (2019)
378 yds Par 4 (1923)
398 yds Par 4 (1962)
160 yds Par 3 (2019)
537 yds Par 5 (2016)
490 yds Par 5 (1905)
390 yds Par 4 (1905)
182 yds Par 3 (1982)
395 yds Par 4 (2018)
394 yds Par 4 (1979)
410 yds Par 4 (1895)
119 yds Par 3 (2019)
385 yds Par 4 (2018)
The holes that made the cut were from all periods of the course’s development, but primarily from either the early days of the original design, or from the current version of the course. We can use the information gathered in our search to evaluate whether the 2019 course is the best ever version. Let’s look at the factors.
The ‘Lost’ Holes
Seven of the ultimate 18 holes have now been lost – either to the sea or to a course re-design. These being the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 12th and 16th holes.
Of these holes, there are arguably 2 or 3 that would improve the current design.
The original 11th hole was a Par 5 that ran along the cliff parallel to the current 6th hole, with the green tucked into ‘Target Hill’ nearby the current 9th tee. For a full description, read here. The 2019 layout arguably does not include an ‘iconic’ Par 5 and this cliff-side three-shot beauty would certainly have fitted that role.
The Tom Morris designed old 16th hole was another stunner played across undulating land towards the lighthouse. Read the full description here. This hole was taken out of play in 1979 after some recent landfalls reduced the fairway. Now 40 years later, the land remains untouched by further loss to the sea. Was the Club too reactive to take this hole out of play? Difficult to say, but its skeleton remains to remind golfers of what they are missing.
The original 4th hole was a Par 3 played across the valley from the edge of the cliffs to near the current 16th tee. With only 3 short holes on the 2019 layout, another strong one shotter would add to the experience – but the removal of this hole allowed room for the current 14th and 15th holes to be designed and so perhaps alternative arrangements for an extra Par 3 would be better.
It is interesting to compare the routing maps of the 1895 course with the 2019 layout.
There are a number of factors that stand out:
- A number of the ‘North-South’ direction holes of the original Tom Morris design have been lost, despite the fact that extra land to the South is used in the 2019 design. Only the short 9th hole remains in this direction. The variance in direction is important to add to the challenge of the ever-present wind.
- Morris incorporated a greater number of holes on the more ‘links’ like undulating land on the Western side of the property around the lighthouse. With RCGC still owning the land where the original 1st and 18th holes were played (top left of the 1895 map to the seaward side of the lighthouse) there is potential to reintroduce golf here and possibly add that fourth short hole.
- The original layout made a greater use of angles at the flatter, Eastern end of the course, utilising the contours rather better than the military routing of this part of the course in the current layout. Of course, this was possible because there was extra land available that has now been lost to the sea. The modern solution to this problem is to ‘break-up’ the land between fairways with undulations. This work has started and will take around 3 years to complete.
There is little doubt that through the work of Course Manager Mark Heveran and his team, the conditioning of the course in the last 5 years is by far the best in its long history. Here are some examples:
The photos show the development of the 9th hole (left) and the 18th hole (right) with the bottom images helping to highlight the extensive bunker and putting surface work that has been achieved. Similar images could be produced for almost every other hole.
This improvement is still a work in progress – with rough management and pathways in particular still requiring extensive improvement – but the process is underway.
The course in 1895 or indeed 1985 would have had a very different appearance to the 2019 version. Extensive vegetation growth (and planting) has removed some of the vistas from the golfer and made the course less playable. Here are some examples:
Here is the 8th hole fifty or so years apart (far right on bottom photo). Natural grasses and vegetation have been swamped by trees and thick undergrowth.
A similar pattern has been allowed here on the iconic 14th and 15th holes, the view to the lighthouse slowly being removed by tree growth.
Happily, a programme of vegetation removal is now being discussed in order to bring back the views and course architecture that Old Tom first envisioned 130 years ago.
So in answer to my original question – is the 2019 version of RCGC the best ever? No it is probably not. Issues with routing, Par 3’s/Par 5’s and vegetation growth mean that some of the magic and genius of the original Old Tom Morris design have been lost.
The good news is that if the current momentum of course development continues, then if I ask the same question in 10 years time, I will find a different answer. The development of cliff-side holes on existing land, vegetation clearance, return to natural pathways and breaking up of land at the Eastern end of the course combined with the creation of new teeing areas to combat the modern ball and continued outstanding conditioning will bring key elements of Old Toms vision back into play and make the 2030 version of Royal Cromer the best ever.