Appeared in September/October 2007 LINKS
Just inside the large front windows of Hunstanton Golf Club’s imposing clubhouse stands a telescope. Peer through it and you’ll know what it would feel like to be Gulliver, sighting along the knobby spine of a reclining giant. For stretching away into the distance is a long line of tumbling dunes, tufted with wind-twisted grasses.
This gnarly ridge, formed from sand heaved up by the North Sea, gives Hunstanton’s links its punch. The outgoing holes lie mostly to the right of the ridge, on a flat plain between it and the River Hun, while the incoming holes fall to its left, near the sea, which never threatens the golf but on several occasions has swallowed parts of the course.
Often described as the only championship links on Great Britain’s east coast from Royal St. George’s all the way up to Muirfield, Hunstanton has hosted many prestigious tournaments in its 116-year history. Although “only” 6,911 yards, it is deceptively tough, thanks to devilish bunkering by James Braid, greens that for years were considered to be the fastest in England, and a trio of difficult closing holes.
For longtime members like Charles Coker, Hunstanton’s difficulty is a point of pride. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, the top pros will rip it apart,’” says Coker. “But nobody ever does. Nobody comes and makes a monkey of it.” Actually, one player did make a monkey of it—at least of the par-3 16th. More about that—one of the most unlikely, mind-blowing feats in all of golf history—later.
Hunstanton stands on the eastern corner of “the Wash,” the wide bay created where the county of Norfolk hunches a shoulder up into the North Sea. It is only 120 miles north of London but feels more remote, in time as well as geography. Hunstanton is old enough for both the Romans and the Vikings to have marched there and is mentioned in the Domesday Book, the 11th-century census commissioned by William the Conqueror. Since then, much of the land hereabouts has belonged to the Le Strange family, who came over with William and married into a prominent Saxon family.
In the mid-19th century Henry Styleman Le Strange looked at the wide, sandy beaches and took it into his head to turn this corner of Norfolk into a resort. Trained as an architect, he laid out his town around a square then campaigned for a railroad from the mainline station at King’s Lynn, 12 miles away. The railway was completed in 1862, the year Le Strange died.
The task of completing the town fell to his son, Hamon, who decided that a proper Victorian seaside resort must have golf. In 1891 George Fernie of Troon was hired to lay out nine holes. One early visitor described them as “queer,” grousing that one hole required “a driver and 13 niblicks.” By 1896 the course evolved from nine to 18 holes, largely through the work of the members. Braid first played Hunstanton in 1901, the year he won the first of his five British Opens. Six years later he returned to toughen up the course. According to Bernard Darwin, Braid “left a cunning trail of bunkers behind him! He recommended 60 new bunkers, but the committee being not wholly without bowels of compassion made a modest beginning with 40.”
The first of these is a gaping pit gouged into the face of a dune 150 yards from the 1st tee. It makes for a knee-knocker of an opening shot, although the rest of the outward nine tests golfers without bludgeoning them. Its two best holes come in quick succession. The 6th is only 339 yards, but it is difficult to stop the approach on the upturned-saucer green, especially downwind. The 168-yard 7th demands a shot from an elevated tee across a sandy valley to a plateau green fronted by a very deep, very penal bunker.
At the far end of the course, the sea has come rushing in on several occasions, most notably in 1978, when the 10th fairway became a lake. But Hunstanton has never lost entire holes to flooding, the way its neighbor Royal West Norfolk has. A beach-access path cuts across the 8th and 9th fairways. Once upon a time, a white-gloved attendant was posted here to warn beachgoers of incoming missiles. Despite his best efforts, a ball once found its way into a baby carriage, an event noted in the club history with wonderful English understatement: “The baby was untouched though the mother was shaken.”
Despite tweaks over the decades, the Hunstanton layout remains at heart much the way Braid left it. The course’s strength is without doubt its closing holes. The 191-yard 16th requires a tee shot out of the dunes to a green closely guarded by six bunkers.
In 1974, playing in the Eastern Counties Men’s Foursomes, Bob Taylor aced the 16th on three successive days. In the practice round, he used a 1-iron; on the first day of competition, he hit 6-iron. As Taylor went to the tee on the third day, a friend bet him a million golf balls to one that he couldn’t do it again. Incredibly, he did, again with a 6-iron, although he let his debtor off the hook, agreeing to a yearly dinner in lieu of payment. A man who has just made three holes-in-one can afford to be generous.
At 464 yards, the 17th is the longest par 4. During World War II, when the village was closed to all visitors, mines were planted along the fairway. Despite warning signs and protective ropes, two people and several dogs were killed while trespassing. The 18th is nearly as long, and a very large bunker juts out on the left side of the fairway. By the tee, a low row of wooden beach huts of red, yellow and blue brighten what can seem a grimly tough finishing hole.
Among those who have succumbed to Hunstanton’s charms was golf’s wittiest writer, P.G. Wodehouse, who spent several summers at Hunstanton Hall and wrote at least one novel, Money for Nothing, while seated in a punt out on the moat.
The course also has had its share of royal visitors coming over from nearby Sandringham, the royal family’s country retreat. The Duke of York is the club’s current patron. No one is quite sure why the honorific “Royal” does not precede the club’s name, but no one seems particularly troubled. “We’re not that kind of club,” explains Hunstanton secretary Bob Carrick. “We’ve got everything from peers to plumbers.”