Royal Worlington and Newmarket Golf Club in Suffolk is famous for its ‘Sacred Nine’ which many regard as the best nine-hole course in the world. But a recently re-discovered article in Golf from 1893 reveals not only an earlier nine-hole course than previously known about but also a longer round of eighteen holes, designed by Tom Dunn, which was under construction at the time.
The earliest course plan currently retained by the club (pictured on page 33, bottom right) was produced around 1895. To date it has been widely accepted that this plan shows the original course as it was laid out in 1893. Apart from some lengthening, the only significant changes made to it subsequently were by Harry Colt in 1920. He turned the rather disappointing bogey three ninth hole into a more challenging two-shotter by extending the tee back at an angle and creating the wonderful green across the road in front of the clubhouse. And that, in essence, is how the course has remained to this day.
However, the article which has recently come to light fundamentally alters our understanding of the development of Worlington from the outset. It was published in Golf on 3 November 1893, only six months after the club had been founded. It ran to two full pages and over three thousand words; the author was a regular Golf correspondent initialled HMB (research revealed that he was H M Bell, a keen golfer who lived in East Anglia).
We discover that the owner of the land, Mr William Gardner of Exning, was ‘an old and enthusiastic golfer, who learned the game many years ago on the other side of the border’. Prior to 1893, Gardner had laid out ‘one or two holes for his own and his friends’ amusement and practice’. He decided that his land could be further developed and he sent for ‘the well-known expert, Tom Dunn, of Tooting Bec, who has laid out greens in many parts of the world’. Dunn had certainly done so. He was renowned for his formulaic approach in the use of cross-hazards and staking out inland courses in a matter of hours. Towards the end of his life (he died in 1902, aged 52) he claimed to have laid out 137 golf courses, most during the boom era in the 1890s.
Crucially HMB stated that Tom Dunn’s report, which he had clearly read, was not just for nine holes but for the full round of eighteen. As of November 1893, nine holes were in play but it is also evident that the other nine were under construction at the time.
The HMB article does not include a course plan but it does provide a prose description of each of the nine holes of the ‘Short Course’. In addition, the yardages of each hole and their names at the time (which had not previously been known) were given. It is apparent from these descriptions that this Short Course was laid out on the same land as shown in the c1895 plan, but importantly the layout was different in several respects. It would now seem reasonable to conclude that HMB’s descriptions are of the original nine holes at Worlington while the plan shows a later development of the course.
The image (right) provides an interpretation of the layout of these original holes against a backdrop of the course today. The holes followed the same general flow as now. The first three holes are entirely recognisable to today’s golfer. However, the fourth hole in 1893 only measured 240 yards going from a tee close to the third green to a green located about halfway along today’s fourth fairway. This is then followed by another short hole, the fifth (252 yards), which takes us to today’s fourth green. This hole was named Railway as the Great Eastern branch railway line to Mildenhall (which closed in 1965) would have been visible behind this green.
The sixth hole (called Plantation) is like today’s sixth hole but played from a tee near the Railway hole green. This means that the famous par three fifth hole at Worlington today did not exist in the original nine-hole layout! But that is not to say that it did not exist at all. HMB wrote: “At this point there is a charming sporting short hole in the long course, about 120 yards. The hole is placed on a slope running up to the spinny, and there is rough ground all the way between the tee and the green; but a golfer’s reward is waiting for the man who reaches the latter in one, without over-running it.”
So, there we have it, today’s fifth hole was in fact part of the eighteen-hole Long Course but not, in 1893, part of the nine-hole Short Course.
The seventh and eighth holes are recognisably on the same terrain as today’s holes, although the eighth was then shorter. The ninth is the same hole as shown on the c1895 plan; it was a semi-blind one-shot hole due to the green being set in a hollow in front of the first tee.
We now turn to HMB’s references to ‘The Long Course’. There has been speculation about the location of the other holes in the past. But, now we can say with some certainty where they resided: “Two parks and a narrow field adjoining the railway have been staked out in preparation for the Long Course, and the greens have already been mown, but most of the work of conversion has still to be done. These will include similar and some fresh hazards in the way of trees, hedges and a brook called the Sheepwash. It is probable that the course will be lengthened to fourteen holes in two or three weeks, and to the golden number of eighteen early next year.”
This land lies to the north of today’s third and fourth holes up to the boundary created by the railway line. The edge of the treeline in the upper part of the aerial photograph slanting upwards from left to right is where the railway line once was. The land referred to by HMB now consists of dense woodland and some open scrubland. A brook still cuts through the fields, although the name Sheepwash seems to have been lost in time.
Unlike the Short Course, unfortunately HMB did not provide descriptions of the Long Course holes. But he did provide some very valuable information – he gave the yardages and the names of each of the eighteen holes. We can glean quite a lot of information from this. The first thing to observe is that the overall length of the Long Course was about 4,300 yards compared with 2,500 yards for the Short Course, so only adding 1,800 yards to the length making it a relatively short 18-hole course, even for those times.
Secondly, it was not simply the case that the Short Course made up the front nine or back nine of the Long Course – three of the Short Course holes are on the front nine and six are on the back nine. The holes are also intermingled. The 1st (Long Hole) and 2nd (Bulsags) are the same starting holes for both courses. Then, there is a group of three new holes (Pond, Arena and Humpty). We then return to Duck from the Short Course before commencing with another group of four new holes (Severals-out, Station, Sheepwash and Severals-in). Finally, we have two individual new holes (Short Hole and Rabbit) slotted within the six remaining Short Course holes. Overall, this suggests that the two groups of new holes (seven greens) were laid out on the pasture land while the two new individual holes (Short Hole and Rabbit) were on the same land as the Short Course was laid out on.
Thirdly, it can be observed that while four of the Short Course holes in the Long Course layout have identical yardages (Long Hole, Bulsags, Viper and Home) and are therefore probably the same holes, the other five have different yardages, suggesting that there were different tees and perhaps different lines along which those holes were played. Duck and Bank have very different lengths on the two courses.
So, what might this layout have looked like? It is, of course, difficult to determine this with any precision given the limited information available. However, given that we have the yardages of the holes (some of the names are also helpful) and that we would expect tees and the preceding greens to be relatively close together, I have sketched out a layout (pictured) which would be consistent with what we have.
I have assumed that the first loop of four holes on the new pasture land would be close to the eastern boundary of the estate. To fit in these holes, given their yardages, today’s third hole would not have existed in the 18-hole layout. To fit in the second grouping of five holes, again given their yardages, I have had to create a figure of eight rather than a loop with the Station hole in the north-east part of the estate (i.e. nearest to Mildenhall station) and the Sheepwash hole near the brook of that name also in the north-east corner of the pasture land. The other point of note is that whereas the 8th hole (Bank) in the Short Course measured 387 yards, Rabbit plus Bank in the Long Course added up to 433 yards. This means that to fit these two holes into the same area of land where there was one hole before, there needs to be a walk-back of around 40 yards from the sixteenth green to the seventeenth tee.
Overall, the eighteen-hole course suffered by comparison with the original nine-hole course. It was relatively short, as already noted. The Long Course also lacked variation. While the Short Course had three one-shot holes (the 2nd, 7th and 9th), the Long Course contained eight short holes, four of which were of very similar length, around 150 yards. Furthermore, while the Short Course contained two holes at around 250 yards in length, the Long Course contained seven holes of that length. Based on the layout that I have tried to fit together for the 18-hole course, there might also have been holes that crossed over each other and possibly some gaps between tees and preceding greens, making it a less ascetically pleasing layout (and a slower round). The Long Course did not include the challenging third hole from the Short Course and the eighth from the Short Course was weakened by being shortened.
If there was one positive feature of the 18-hole course, which was missing from the original 9-hole layout, it was the existence of the Short Hole that would become today’s fifth. Tom Dunn can be acknowledged as its creator.
The merging of the original Short Course fourth and fifth holes creating one hole (today’s 4th) and the inclusion of the Short Hole into the 9-hole course (today’s 5th) could not have occurred until around 1895 (as shown on the plan), two years after the original Short Course was brought into play. It is likely that this happened at around the time that the decision was finally made to abandon the idea of completing the 18-hole course. The relatively poor quality of the Long Course almost certainly contributed to this.
With the idea of the Long Course abandoned, the Short Course was gradually modified in length until ultimately in 1920 Harry Colt’s changes, particularly to the home hole, were implemented and we are left with the ‘Sacred Nine’ that we play to this day.
Dr Michael Morrison has recently published The Worst Golf Course Ever: Coldham Common, a history of the Cambridge University Golf Club, 1869-1919. Copies can be obtained from the author for £15 (plus postage and packing). E-mail: Mike_Charlotte@dial.pipex.com
This article first appeared in issue 47 of Golf Course Architecture