I quite like hills.
This is despite the fact that I spent most week-ends in my childhood being dragged up mounds around Somerset with strange names such as ‘Brent Knoll’ or ‘Brean Down ‘in my parents pursuit of ‘fresh air’ and ‘exercise’. To a kid it just seemed a pointless task of walking one way and then another to end at the place that you started just more knackered.
Nevertheless I emerged unscathed and as I have got older have learnt to appreciate the views that the hills provide. My point is that driving along the A17 through endless vistas of flat Lincolnshire fenland does not inspire one to imagine that a golfing oasis is just around the corner. This, of course is proven wrong in a number of cases, most notably Woodhall Spa. On this occasion, however, I am on my way to the quite remarkable Sutton Bridge Golf Club.
Your arrival to the village of Sutton Bridge is unmistakable in the form of Crosskeys bridge, an outstanding feat of engineering built in 1897 to cross the River Nene. This swing bridge is a single file type affair for vehicles and I for one always breath a sigh of relief upon reaching the other side.
It seems to be a rule of all sat navs that they direct you to the very far end of any golf course rather than to the clubhouse, but fortunately some old school directions from a local do the trick and I am soon enjoying a coffee and breakfast bap in the homely clubhouse. It is a fact of life these days that 9-Hole courses operate on reduced overheads but it seems unique that the Professional sells you balls and gloves in the pro-shop and then goes through to cook breakfast and serve coffee. Perhaps they are twins.
And so to the golf course. The history of the place must sit in its own unique category in the British Golf Museum. Back in 1881, the Sutton Bridge Port completed the construction of the dock basin some 10 acres in diameter. No one could have foreseen the engineering disaster that followed its opening. Three ships had sailed into the basin and fortunately all managed to escape before the dock walls began to collapse and two large pumping engines sank into the silt.
I have always said the fenland folks are a strange lot, but it must have taken a very warped imagination to create a golf course in the basin which had laid abandoned for thirty years. But so it was that, in 1914, 9 unique holes were crafted between, around and over the original 15 foot high walls of the dock. Supplemented by trees through the years it offers a short and slightly mental challenge to modern golfers.
Each of the holes has its own character but the essence of the layout is established early. From the 1st tee it is not immediately clear where your tee shot should be hit. With trees to your left, to your right, and indeed in the middle of your view doubt seeps through the mind and not for the only time in the round the best policy is not to dwell too much on strategy but rather just aim and fire. In the slightly unlikely event that your approach is not blocked out, you are rewarded with a short pitch to an elevated green and the chance of an early birdie. I start with a bogey.
The dock walls come into play for the first time at the 3rd hole, running parallel to the line of the par 4 design but some yards to your left from the tee. The left side of the wall is the upper level and the fairway. The right side is the lower level and the next fairway. The ambitious player can go for the long carry towards the green but the sensible player goes further left for the shorter carry. If your tee shot does drift right to the lower level, you are faced with a wedge shot up a steep wall where any thin shot will require evasive action as the ball rockets back off the wall at double the velocity it left the clubface. My poor start to the round continues, when, despite a good drive, I 3-putt the Biarritz style green.
The full face of the wall is encountered at the Par 5 fifth hole where it sits there right in your way 30 yards short of the green. My miserable play reaches its climax on this hole during the back nine. The problems here often originate from a missed fairway and my pulled drive finds the tree line from where I can only advance my next shot around 100 yards. This leaves a 200 yard approach across and up the dock wall. My hit has neither the strike or trajectory to make it but it is not until I walk up to see the result that the full consequences hit me.
My ball is stuck in a root half way up the vertical face. I cannot reach it from the bottom and so climb the steps to the top for an attempt. With my Sand Wedge, I am lying on my stomach on the ground, reaching over the top of the wall with arms and club outstretched towards the Titleist Number 2. When they have stopped laughing my playing partners wisely advise me of the danger of over – reaching (possible death) and, like the original dock, my ball is abandoned along with my score.
I do wonder what an American visitor would make of this place. This is not a US style track with big greens, water hazards and bunkers. But for me, this is the very definition of English quirkiness, where somebody was equally mad and passionate enough to craft a golf course in the most unusual of places. Bring your sense of humour, play match-play and you will have an insane amount of fun.
Sutton Bridge Golf Club is brilliantly crazy.