Founded in 1888 and immediately attaining Royal status thanks to the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII), Cromer Golf Club on England’s North Norfolk Coast quickly established itself as one of the finest courses in the country.
The spectacular clifftop location with wide open views attracted many of the elite players of the day to visit and sample the golf on offer. The influence and gracious hosting of landowner Lord Suffield meant the membership included many of the periods high society and politicians.
In 1905, RCGC played host to the British Ladies Amateur Championship, which was preceded by the very first international match between the ladies of Great Britain and the United States of America, later to become the Curtis Cup. As a course and a Club, Royal Cromer was most definitely on the map.
But the standing of the course near the top of the national rankings was not to last.
Falling membership in various periods meant that investment was lacking. Land was lost to the sea with the course re-routed away from the coast. During WWII the Eastern end of the course was taken for agriculture and not returned until the 1960’s. Hundreds of pine trees were planted in an attempt to separate holes.
The course had lost it’s identity.
It was neither a links course nor a parkland or heath. The routing was overly strenuous and the combination of vegetation growth and the modern power game had robbed the layout of its original design principles.
But the chance discovery of the original course architect Old Tom Morris’s report from 1891 among ancient committee minutes combined with a visionary Course Manager has set a restoration process in place that could return Royal Cromer to its original status as one of the best courses in the country.
Let us consider the principles established by the famous architect from St Andrews that form the heart of the restoration process:
According to the 1891 report, ‘the distance between furze at the landing areas should be at least 80 yards’.
Such generous driving zones allow the golfer to get their ball in play and provide options for club selection from the tee. But crucially a tee shot finishing on the ‘wrong’ side of the fairway will lead to a more difficult approach shot.
The clearing of vegetation is a crucial aspect in restoring the width, views and strategy of the course as well as aiding conditioning. Many trees and bracken have encroached upon the playing areas over the years and this has been accentuated by the planting of non-native trees by the Club.
A process of clearance is now underway.
Prior to Old Tom Morris, course architects had located bunkers purely to catch a poor shot. Morris introduced the concept of placing traps to influence the strategy of players, creating a whole new element to course design.
A crucial strand of the restoration of the course at Cromer will involve the re-introduction of strategy through the use of bunkers. This will include refurbishment, creation and removal of sand traps.
For example, the introduction of four fearsome traps to the left of the 18th green gives the golfer the choice from the tee to play down the left side of the fairway, which is the easier option, and leave a difficult second shot over the sand, or take on the right side of the fairway which contains a deep chasm for an under-hit drive and a bracken strewn bank, but which leaves an easier approach to the green.
The newest bunker on the course has been placed at around 250 yards on the left side from the 6th tee.
This hazard forces the long hitting golfer to choose between a lay-up, which leaves a blind approach from 200 yards plus, or take on the right side of the fairway and dice with the North Sea.
The 1891 report contains suggested amendments to the existing 9 holes plus designs for a further 9 holes (finished in 1895). Even at this early stage of the course, some of the key amendments suggested by Morris were new teeing areas to create more length and future proof the course.
In 2019, an important element of ensuring that existing bunkers maintain their strategic element will be the creation of new tees to create a ‘Black’ course. Last winter, a Black tee was created on the 4th hole whilst Spring 2020 will see the newly created area for the Black 8th tee in play. More will follow over the next 5-10 years.
The ‘Ground’ Game
In the early days of golf, players were very much required to use their imagination to run the ball along the ground towards the hole. This was an essential element of Old Tom’s designs, including Royal County Down and the New Course at St Andrews.
Over the years, with the introduction of lob wedges and balls that fly a hundred feet in the air, the trend for ‘target-golf’ became the norm.
In recent years, this trend has reversed as course architects try to restore some creativity to a golfers skillset. There are a couple of ingredients at Cromer that have helped to re-introduce the running shot to the members arsenal.
Most importantly, the ground game requires firm turf. In conjunction with the agronomists at the STRI, massive improvements have been made to turf quality and firmness in the last decade to allow the option of a running approach.
Secondly, closely mown run-offs have become a feature around the greens.
In 2017, the short Par 4 eighth green was redeveloped with severe run-offs, particularly on the right side. The closely mown grass allows the putter to be used. This is a challenging shot for all levels of player but importantly allows the high handicapper some chance of success.
Similar run-off areas already exist on many of the holes and other surrounds such as the back of the 9th and around the 10th putting surface will have their contours smoothed out to allow the ground game to flourish.
So the restoration process is well underway and will help to restore the design principles of the original architect Tom Morris of St Andrews and with it the true identity of the course.