This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
We are frequently told the barriers to golf’s growth: it is too hard, takes too long and is too expensive. Some clubs have retrofitted their courses in an attempt to overcome these challenges, adding new forward tees, reconfiguring their routing so shorter loops can be played, and introducing pay-as-you-play schemes to keep costs down.
But Royal Norwich in England has grasped a bigger opportunity. Rather than trying to adapt its existing facility to the modern golfer, it has started from scratch – thanks to a move from the city centre site it has occupied for 125 years.
Their relocation has been on the cards since the 1980s, when the club was first approached by a homebuilder interested in their prime real estate. Its James Braid layout was already becoming compromised by surrounding development, so they were open to the idea. That deal – and a number of subsequent others – never quite made it over the line, but planted a seed with the club that would ultimately bear fruit. In 2013 paperwork was signed with Persimmon Homes and the move could begin.
The club had already evaluated a number of new locations, and settled on a site on a country estate in the village of Weston Longville, about ten miles out of town. As early as 2006 they had engaged European Golf Design to evaluate the possibilities, and together they began to form a vision for the model club of the future: welcoming, family-friendly, accessible, inclusive, appealing to beginners and experts alike – and capable of being enjoyed in shorter timeframes and at a reasonable cost.
The clubhouse – a former stables block – will play an important role in this – eschewing “photos of dead people and lists of names adorning the walls” for welcoming and modern dining options, spaces for fitness classes and a relaxed dress code. But crucially, EGD’s Ross McMurray has also designed the golf facilities with these principles to the fore.
His design revolves around what general manager Phil Grice describes as a ‘central hub’. Directly beside the clubhouse is an outside seating area that overlooks a large putting green. To the right is a short game area, beyond which are the tees for a large driving range. Ahead are the tees for the first hole; and to the left the tenth, as well as the closing greens of each nine. A pathway leads to a six-hole academy course.
It is a hive of activity, where members can interact and spend as long as they like enjoying all aspects of the game, deep in the Norfolk countryside, among both woodland – with mature oaks, beech, lime and chestnut trees – and more open, parkland areas.
“The site is the star,” says McMurray. “It’s not often you get to work with a site of this quality, so we didn’t want to create a course that yells ‘here’s me’ and imposes itself on the landscape. We designed a course that golfers would want to come back and play the next day and would be fun for everyone, whatever their standard.”
On the main course, the design allows for movement in both directions – width and length. “We have created generous fairways and holes that are easy enough for the better player to bogey, but a challenge to birdie,” says McMurray. Those fairways are lined with light fescue which, with appropriate maintenance, should be thin enough to make it easy to find and play errant tee shots.
And Grice describes the course as “the longest in Norfolk, and also the shortest.” Bronze tees play from just over 5,000 yards, but the Gold stretch over 7,200, with three more options in between.
Read more: Gavin Kelly explains how Profile Products helped Royal Norwich to establish a rootzone.
The estate did have a golf course before, but all features – tees, greens, bunkers – have been completely redesigned and rebuilt. Some of the previous hole corridors have been used, essential given the tree preservation orders in place on the site. Estates manager Peter Todd and his team were permitted to remove some non-native species, such as the Norwegian spruce, as well as trees that were declared unsafe, or were dead or dying. Todd explains that careful consideration was given to identify green locations with ample sunlight and air movement, with light patterns and even the location of falling leaves factored into the design of the golf course features. McMurray also identified a clearing for a new par-three second hole, which he says proved to be the key that made the final routing of the course work.
The course now extends into land north of the previous layout, where holes six, seven, thirteen and fourteen have been laid out. This area is flatter and more open than the rest of the course, so relies on the quality of the new hole designs for its interest and character.
The latter two are particularly memorable back-to-back short par fours. A central bunker in the landing area of the thirteenth compels golfers to make a decision from the tee, which could be anything from a mid-iron short of the hazard to a drive that challenges the hole’s dogleg. An enormous green extends at least fifty yards from front to back. But the toughest pin placement might be right at the front, in a spot guarded by a single bunker. A lofted approach landing short of a ridge in the green will be needed to avoid three-putt territory.
On the fourteenth a perched green about 300 yards away, depending on your tee choice, might tempt long hitters. For everyone else, the primary challenge will be to avoid a string of bunkers that fronts an angled fairway. That will leave a short iron approach to a treacherous target that is protected by bunkers and a steep drop-off to the left side.
Elsewhere, the par-five third hole is a highlight. Good tee shots are rewarded with a generous kick forward that will be needed to consider going for the green in two. The hole sweeps to the left and rises and narrows towards the green, with two large bunkers on the right pinching the entrance further.
McMurray delivers width from the tee on most holes, but there are still a couple of occasions where golfers may reach for an iron. The par-four tenth, for example, places a premium on accuracy from the tee. It’s a long hole so laid-up tee shots will leave another long shot, but it has one of the course’s most accessible greens, open right across the front and tilted from back-to-front. The fifteenth and sixteenth also require exacting tee shots, meaning golfers will need to hold their nerve as they approach the end of the round. The seventeenth is a short par three, but the only hole on the course where water is in play – a lake will need to be carried from all but the most forward tee box. When the pin is on the left of the wide green, the carry is at its longest and the target its narrowest; taking direct aim will bring the risk of a spoiled scorecard.
Throughout the course the quality of construction – by MJ Abbott – is outstanding: bunkering is used sparingly but is bold, and the green complexes are particularly striking. Most are open to a running approach and short grass run-offs have been employed extensively in the surrounds to leave an array of recovery options – it will often be possible to use a putter, but a more demanding shot may be required to get close to the pin. For this design approach to work, the course will have to play reasonably firm and the club and design team have gone to great lengths to provide the best possible playing surfaces. Soil amendments from Profile Products have been used to promote turf health (see page 54), while moisture sensors and a new Rain Bird irrigation system give the greenkeeping team the ability to precisely control the application of water on the course.
In the UK, this may be one of the most significant golf projects of recent years, and we should be grateful that someone has taken on the challenge of reinventing the club experience. Early signs are promising. Even before the new course opened in October, Grice said that membership numbers had risen from 400 to over 1,000.
A welcoming environment that is focused on enjoyment seems like an obvious way forward for golf, and Royal Norwich could be the poster child for this movement. For others tempted to follow, it might be worth jumping before you are pushed.