Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club possibly has the finest nine-hole golf course in the world. It was certainly an incredible achievement to fit nine holes onto such a tiny piece of sandy ground and it's the only nine-hole course ever to have been voted onto a Britain & Ireland Top 100 list.
This is a classical golf course, often referred to as Mildenhall and it’s the home of golf for undergraduates at Cambridge University. The turf has all the qualities of a seaside links, free draining and springy. Bernard Darwin loved Worlington and in his book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles, he wrote: “Worlington is not unlike Frilford in appearance, being extremely solitary, flat and sandy, and dotted here and there with fir trees. There are only nine holes, but of these several are really excellent, and none can fairly be said to be dull.” We agree, it is an engaging little course, but make sure you bring your best putting game – the greens are the highlight.
Tom Dunn, who laid out the course in the early 1890s, reputedly said: “God meant this land to be a golf course”. Some thirty years later, Harry Colt lengthened it and little has since changed. Jo Floyd holds the course record. In September 1949, he went round nine holes in an incredible 28 stokes. He holed his second shot at the opening par five for an albatross two; this obviously lifted his spirits for the rest of the round.
Three and four-ball play is not allowed at Worlington, foursomes and twosomes are the order of the day. Whatever you do, do not let this traditional approach put you off playing this historic nine-hole course; it offers the ideal golf day, especially if you can safely negotiate the infamous short 5th hole.
“One may reach the green with a pitch from the tee,” wrote Darwin, “but what a difficult pitch it is. The green is something in the shape of a hog’s back; immediately on the left of it is a stagnant pool of water, and on the right is a stream, complicated by overhanging willows. To reach the green is one distinct feat; to hole out in two putts, when one has got there, is another.” The stagnant pool has long since gone, there is a grassy hollow there instead, but it’s still one of the toughest bunker-less par threes in the land.
Had the pleasure of playing this traditional inland Links Course for the first time, and whilst it 'looks understated', it's this simplicity that actually makes it a pleasurable golfing experience. The green structures constantly keep you on your toes and offer an array of challenging breaking putts, and puts a premium on ball placement throughout your round. The highlight of the course is the par 3 5th hole. Whilst not a long par 3, you have to be accurate as the green slopes viciously either side leaving a desperately difficult chip shot - a true test!
A wonderful walk back in time to a more traditional time of when golf was originally played. I really enjoy both aspects of the new 'super' courses and facilities but the opportunity to play a course like Royal Worlington & Newmarket is a must for an avid golfer.
The 9-holer at Mildenhall is a personal favourite of architect Tom Doak (whose rare “Confidential Guide” book was sitting in the bookcase across from the serving hatch in the clubhouse) but, for me, the course offered no more than a fairly routine game of parkland golf – except, that is, for the greens.
The putting surfaces were absolutely fantastic; as good as any you could expect to find anywhere. I know greenkeeper Bob Gee – with 49 years of service – is no longer at the club but his legacy lives on with the new man in command, Jonathan Kitchin, and he, assisted by Master Greenkeeper consultant Gordon Irvine, prepares greens that are an absolute joy to putt on.
The upturned saucer on the 2nd and the 3-tiered example on the 5th were particular stunners but great greens (or even, dare I say it, the design talents of Harry Colt) don’t guarantee a great course, and RW&N can only be classed as rather average in that regard.
Then again, I get the feeling the course is actually secondary to what really matters here; it’s more about the cosy little clubhouse and the friendship and fraternity of the members that use it. Nothing wrong with that, of course and I’m sure the people who front up here regularly don’t give a damn whether they’re playing a highly regarded course or not - even if a recent framed golf magazine certificate with the course ranked 99 in GB&I sits conspicuously on display in the changing room!
Mildenhall didn’t exactly get my pulse racing the same way that other 9-holers like Traigh in Scotland or Cruit Island in Ireland have done in the past but maybe the more sedate setting of this English "gem" (compared to the wild, rugged beauty surrounding its Celtic cousins) played a part in dulling my level of appreciation?