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  • Alistair Tait

Humbled at Hunstanton

Links golf finds you out more than the inland game, especially if your ball striking isn’t strong enough. Hunstanton found me out yesterday. Although it was a delight to play this great golf course, it was a humbling experience.

If you haven’t played this Norfolk gem then I suggest you put it on your bucket list. Don’t just take my recommendation, though. Architect Tom Doak had this to say about this links on The Wash when he produced The Confidential Guide:

“Probably the best test of golf in East Anglia, with good length, fast greens, and the capricious winds off The Wash providing a fine natural challenge. One of the few really good courses I know without a standout hole. Also one of the friendliest clubs I’ve ever visited: I walked in unannounced, and within 10 minutes I was a temporary honorary member.”

I disagree with Doak on standout holes, while I hope you get friendlier winds than I got yesterday. Maybe then you’ll have feeling in your hands, your eyes won’t water, and you won’t have to resort to trying to dunt fairway woods under the wind just to keep the ball in play.

Hunstanton is a traditional out and back links that began life in 1891 when a group met in the Golden Lion Hotel and decided it was time to try to rival nearby courses like Yarmouth, Cromer and Sheringham. George Fernie was given marram grass, fine links terrain, rushes and rabbit holes to lay out the first course. By 1892 he’d built a 9-hole layout. However, nearby Brancaster had opened with 18 holes the year before and looked like an unbeatable competitor.

That dynamic changed in the late 1890s when Peterborough native Mr J. Thompson invested the princely sum of £25 to extend Hunstanton to 18 holes. Thompson’s investment put Hunstanton on the map, turning it into a “proper” golf course. Five-time Open champion James Braid made alterations in 1910. Hunstanton held its first of many great amateur championships in 1914 when Cecil Leith won the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship.

The club added another legendary winner when Joyce Wethered won the 1922 English Ladies’ Amateur. It has staged numerous championships ever since. Solheim Cup player Bronte Law won the 2015 English Women’s Amateur Championship here, while Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth triumphed in last year’s PGA Professional Championship.

Forsyth would have won playing the course to its maximum length of 6,909 yards off the blue tees. Myself, Jason and Steve settled for the whites at 6,763 yards yesterday, par 72; it was a test too far for me. Not for my playing companions. At two and six handicaps respectively, they had the proper ball compression to bore the ball through the wind. My slappy shots had no chance.

Hunstanton opens gently enough with a short 342-yard, par-4. Well it looked like a gentle start until my tee shot sailed out of bounds right. (I blame the two-hour car drive.) The ensuing 534-yard, par-5 didn’t strike much fear into us either since it was also playing downwind.

Beware the gentle start, though, for this is one layout that saves its best for last, especially if the wind is from the north as it was yesterday.

I particularly enjoyed the 335-yard, par-4 sixth hole (pictured below). It’s further proof that par 4s don’t have to be 450 yards to be challenging. We played it into a strong headwind, and hitting the narrow green wasn't easy. I failed. I’m not sure if missing it on the right was an easier proposition than missing left. Either way, you have a tricky uphill pitch to this sliver of green with the prospect of facing a similar shot from the other side if you play a poor pitch. I managed to keep the ball on the putting surface and was happy to two putt for bogey.

The 167-yard, par-3 eighth is a wee gem of a hole, too, since it has to be played over a depression to a well-guarded green.

The challenge yesterday came on the last six holes, which for me provided one of the sternest finishes I’ve played in a long time. I wasn’t up to that challenge, not into the strong headwind off The Wash. It wasn’t a warm wind either; unsurprisingly since it was November 3rd. In fact, it was bloody freezing. All I could think about was the number of warm sweaters I had sitting in my closet at home and the woolly hats and mitts sitting in the boot of my car. Memo to self: check the weather forecast more closely before embarking on another links round. If ever there was a time to check that part of my weather app that reads “Feels like,” it was yesterday.

You probably won’t find a hole like the 219-yard, par-3 14th anywhere else in the world. This is a blind par 3 with arguably the most unique way to signal to the group behind that the green is clear. No bell on this hole, just a huge pole sticking up behind the green. It not only serves as a marker post, you also waggle this pole vigorously to let the group behind know it’s safe to play. Mind you, the wind was so strong yesterday I’m amazed it wasn’t waggling vigorously of its own accord as we putted out.

The next three holes are my Amen corner at Hunstanton. A 471-yard, par 5, 189-yard, par 3 and 447-yard, par 4 in quick succession. The 15th is the stroke index 18 on the card. I beg to differ when it plays into the wind. Only one of my trio finished the hole yesterday, and it wasn’t me.

The 16th is a delightful downhill par 3 to a well bunkered green. As for 17th, my host Steve warned me it’s one of toughest par 4s in links golf, especially into the wind as it was yesterday. It’s on a par with the 16th at lovely Littlestone. As with its southern sister, it’s actually a tough par 4 because for mere mortals it plays like a par 5. My six there felt like a bogey, not a double.

It was a relief to get back to the cosy clubhouse for tea and cake to warm the hands and every other part of my body. It was also time to reflect on something I already know: I’m not nearly as good as I think I am. Not. Even. Close. Especially in a strong sea breeze. Finishing my first round on this Norfolk beauty reminded me of the words to Flower of Scotland: my humbling at Hunstanton sent me homewards to think again.

#JustSaying: “By the shores of the Northern Sea lies a spacious territory of turf and bunker, with the joy and desire of all those who handle the club. Without profanity, one may call it the ‘Holy Land of Golf.’” John Geddie

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