West Norfolk is not exactly the tourist trail. Over an hour from the coast in both a Easterly and Northerly direction, this is an area dominated by agriculture and military bases – where the main political concerns are the immigration of foreign labour and whether Trump will pull the American troops from the region.
It was with little expectation, therefore, that I made my way towards the 9-hole Feltwell Golf Club. The approach to the course seemed promising, with minor roads dividing patches of pine forest and gorse. I had designed several spectacular holes in my minds eye before reaching the actual site.
What greets you is somewhat of a surprise. It is the opposite of the introduction to Woodhall Spa, where miles of Lincolnshire fenland is suddenly replaced by an oasis of pine and bracken. Feltwell is open – very open as I was to find out shortly. There also appeared to be armed guards on the driveway entrance. These turned out to be for the neighbouring American military base but surely offer one of the more secure sites for a golf course in the country. I was later to be told the story of the young green-keeper who thought he would shoot some rabbits on the course late one evening before being surrounded by noisy American soldiers pointing their guns at his chest.
When parking your car, it is impossible not to notice the 80 foot high golf ball structures that are just a few hundred feet away. Some inspired marketing trick to guide golfers to the course across the flat landscape? No actually these house early warning military satellites. Feltwell Golf Club will be among the first to know if Russia ever decide to invade.
It is when you have left your car and turn the corner of the Pro-Shop at the end of the building that the landscape opens up and the wind hits you. With nothing to stop it for miles of flat fenland, this is a biting, wiping force that plays a challenging role in any round here. Whilst paying my green fee the Pro cheerfully regales a story of the new member who had joined from a hilltop course in the Cotswold’s and was looking forwards to a less windy challenge in flat Norfolk. He was disappointed.
The surprises continue on the course. Whilst rolling undulations are out, there are enough subtle slopes to provide an interesting strategic challenge and the continued presence of some of the concrete structures from which missiles were previously fired adds both an element of history and intimidation. There was no design guru employed here. An Alistair Mackenzie or Tom Doak creation it is not. This little gem was created by the spades of RAF workers in the 1970’s and a mighty fine job they did. In particular the angles of the greens and the bunkering offer fine architectural interest and merit.
The third hole is an exciting left to right dog-leg Par 5 at the corner of the property. Internal out-of-bounds has been created on the inside of the dog-leg and it is perhaps with this in mind that my attempted second shot into the wind across the corner of the angle is pulled over the fence and lost. Some compensation is gained at the well designed short Par 4 fifth hole. There is plenty of room on the right of the fairway here but it leaves a more difficult approach to the narrow part of the green over a bunker. My wind-assisted 3 wood tee shot takes on the longer carry towards the left side and I am rewarded with a short second and a birdie.
The short 11th demonstrates the clever use of different tee sites for the back nine. A solid 140 yard hole playing up the angle of the green as the second hole, for the back nine the tee is moved forward and right to create a 100 yard pitch over a huge bunker with the angle now making the putting surface just a few yards deep. My frustration is probably common here when an over-hit approach to avoid the front bunker only leaves me in the back one. The resultant bogey leaves one wondering why we do this for enjoyment.
The 17th hole is another good Par 5 and plays parallel to the border with the American base. I am somewhat taken aback to witness a robed figure in traditional Muslim dress running up the fence line. They appear to be carrying a large gun and wearing what appears to be a suicide vest. The members reassure me that it is just the Americans playing war-games.
A pleasant pint in the basic but comfortable clubhouse rounds off a wonderful mornings golf. For those that rely on golf’s aesthetic appeal or look at the game as a mark of social standing, this place may not be for you. But for those that appreciate the joy of creating a course from scratch and maximising the design elements available for the pure thrill of the game it is one not to be missed.