Sold on The Sacred 9 (ROYAL WORLINGTON & NEWMARKET GC)
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Bury St Edmunds
The Sacred Nine (to borrow most liberally from Bernard Darwin) is tucked away in the depths of delightful Suffolk on a swath of sand which flows through the area like a “golf-stream”. This same earthly good fortune makes the area ideal for equestrian pursuits; both racing and breeding. Established by the Jockey Club, Newmarket stages the 1000 and 2000 Guineas, two of the most prestigious meetings in the national horseracing calendar. Predictably, the town exudes the wealth usually associated with the Sport of Kings.
Founded in 1893, and obtaining royal patronage in 1895, Royal Worlington & Newmarket GC is probably the most famous 9 hole course in the world, but the stigma of being a “9 holer” lingers with golfers just the same. Be that as it may, Mildenhall (aka Sacred 9, aka Worlington) provides exceptional golf which should more than satisfy even the most discerning advocate of big golf. There is a surplus of opportunities for flat bellies to turn their shoulders and yet the higher marker has the luxury of space to knock it round in a more genteel manner.
Tom Dunn, the most castigated of early architects, is the original designer of record. The routing is remarkably unchanged from its Victorian roots; however, significant alterations were performed. Since Worlington became the permanent home of the Cambridge golfers in 1901 and Colt was the first Captain of the Cambridge University GC in 1889, it seems strange that he didn’t see the course until he prepared a report for the club in 1920. The club acted on several of the plethora of recommended changes, but many were ignored. Interestingly, the greens which Colt devised (#s 3, 4, 8 & 9) are quite moderate compared to a few of the fierce pre-existing greens. In the main, Colt’s changes increased the yardage significantly and utilized hazards which add adventure to the game.
HOLES TO NOTE
The terribly long bowler hat second is reminiscent of Pinehurst’s upturned greens, though Worlington’s is an extreme example of the type. Many of the tee shots are slightly obscured. In this instance, dead ground shy of the green is concealed. The true nature of the hole is revealed once cresting the brow of a slight rise. As a post script, the third tee teaches the golfer that one cannot be long on the 2nd. Luckily, since the course is a 9 holer, the golfer is afforded the opportunity to play the hole again with a clearer sense of purpose.
The third is a stunning short par 4 which gradually unfolds. Like the 5th green, the fairway is humpbacked.
The 4th punches a hole through a V of trees which leads to a forested passage. The trio of holes squeezed between the trees are the very marrow of Worlington. The three-shot 4th marches up the promenade and the long par four 6th journeys straight back. Never has tree lined fairway ever served to frame two holes quite the way they do for the shared fairway 4th and 6th. There is seemingly an abundance of space to chase long drives on both holes, but like The Old Course at St Andrews, cryptic bunkers await on the prudent golfer’s line. Bridging the four furlongs is the first-rate 5th. The 5th, the 5th, the 5th! Worlington’s own Scarlett O’Hara. Like the protagonist in Gone With The Wind, admire or despise her, she is a born survivor. The hole plays at a slight angle to a green perched above a grassy basin known as Mog’s Bog to the left. The ground seeps away to water (and OOB) on the right. Long since drained, at one time Mog’s Bog was a watery quagmire. Bunkerless or not, the 5th is hole which will not soon lapse from memory. One can hit balls from the tee for many hours and still not be sure of the best play…for all choices require a valiant effort.
As one would expect on a shortish old course, there has to be one par 4 which is short enough to bait golfers into a foolish play. Colt pushed the 9th green to the other side of the road. With water bubbling down the right, going for an unseen green some 300+ yards in the distance can politely be called a venture. Of course, one must also cross the road and while it is treated as an immovable obstruction, there is nothing to stop the ball if a car nudges it along.
While we have come to the end of the round, for many the game will continue with at least another loop over The Sacred 9. Even if swinging away has not yet ceased for the day, a legion of golfers will repair to the house. Originally a farmhouse, club members have been sequestered in its comely headquarters since the club was established. Indeed, little seems to have changed. The front door leads into the locker room. I say locker room, but there are only a handful of lockers. Upon entering the lounge we are greeted by flagstone floors and a warming fireplace, much like an ancient pub might do. The remainder of the house is as it ever should be, winning. It is easy to gain a sense of contentment while wandering through the rooms perusing the surfeit of history hanging from the walls. Seeing the names of Colt, Darwin, Low, Longhurst & Lucas adorning the boards is a rare treat. The less prominent artefacts are just as memorable.
Remarkable as it may sound, but among these nine are three holes which would enrich any course in the Kingdom; #s 2, 5 & 6. The parallel 6th and 8th (yes, parallel!) are a brilliant duo of holes which remind players that golf is a formidable game. The par 3s are a rowdy bunch which is rarely matched. I leave the concluding passage in the hands of the matchless Patric Dickinson:
“..the rewards of this unique course are intellectual and not sensual; here the golfer learns, if he is ever to learn, wisdom and philosophy. Aurea mediocritas, nothing to excess, the golden mean: the rewards of keeping straight for every single shot. Fittingly, it is here that generations of Cambridge undergraduates have first tested their powers against the Ideal of Golf: here that so many have found out superficiality and falseness of those adolescent golf courses on which they have been accounted skilful. There is no escape at Mildenhall. The course is ruthless and unforgiving. Yet at first glance, it looks innocent, flat, wide: and you go twice round. What could be easier?”
*Sketch of the 3rd hole borrowed from one of the best golf books known to me; Patric Dickinson’s Round of Golf Courses.
Royal Worlington is a bit isolated near Cambridge. Beyond the normal 45 minute range, but only an hour or so away is a pair of fantastic links.
Royal West Norfolk GC