Locals and visitors alike argue over which is the best course on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England. Is it Hunstanton or The Royal West Norfolk (Brancaster as the locals refer to it)?
Take the footballing analogy: Liverpool and Everton; Manchester United and Manchester City; Barcelona and Madrid; Arsenal and Chelsea – are they friends, rivals or sworn enemies?
In the case of these two golf clubs, perhaps a better analogy would be coalition partners, situated just six miles apart and renowned as two of the premier links courses in the country; whichever one you choose for a golfing experience, you won’t be disappointed.
Royal West Norfolk was founded in 1892 and is unusual in that its ‘Royal’ status was conferred at the outset, when the Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII – accepted an invitation to become the club’s patron. One of the finest links courses in the area it has another unique feature in that the clubhouse is not accessible at high tide as the North Sea sweeps in around the nearby marshland and cuts it off from the mainland.
Hunstanton Golf Club is slightly older, having been established in March 1891. It is a championship links and is one of only two links courses on the East Coast of the UK between Royal St George’s in Kent and Muirfield in Scotland. The most notable feat, never to be repeated, occurred in the Eastern Counties Foursomes in 1974 when Bob Taylor, a Leicestershire County player, holed in one on three successive days at the same hole – the 188 yard, 16th. In 2005 he played the hole again and put his tee shot six feet from the hole!
Both courses are just metres from the North Sea, which in summer can be benign and sometimes, even blue. But come the winter, when seasonal storms batter the east coast of the UK, this force of nature can cause untold damage.
And that’s exactly what happened last winter (December 2013), when low pressure sat over the North Sea causing gale force northerly winds which coincided with that month’s spring tide. The result was a tidal surge, greater than that of infamous 1953 flood which struck the east coast of England, killing over 300 people.
Fortunately, coastal defences have been improved over time and no lives were lost, but it wasn’t enough to stop a disastrous flood devastating part of the clubhouse and the machinery storage facility at The Royal West Norfolk.
Gavin Playford is the head greenkeeper at the club. He joined straight from school back in 1986 and 28 years later is responsible for a team of five full time greenkeepers including a greenkeeper/mechanic. He runs a mixed fleet of turf maintenance machinery preferring to purchase the equipment that does the job for him on his course. He explains what happened on that fateful day.
“The tidal flooding on December 5 last winter left £1 million damage in its wake including extensive damage at the clubhouse; the kitchen, Men’s changing room and Pro Shop were all seriously affected, but the real damage was done at our maintenance facility; we literally lost our entire fleet, worth in excess of £600,000.
“Initially, we didn’t know which way to turn, but as the news broke, the response from the industry in the area was fantastic. Everyone rallied around for us and the three major manufacturers, through their local dealers, were very supportive. With their support of loan equipment we were up and running very quickly after such a catastrophic event.
“The insurance company were also very professional and when I told them we had over five feet of water in the maintenance shed, they sent a surveyor out quickly and approved a list of replacement machinery at the double.
“We already had the hybrid Jacobsen Eclipse 322 in our planned capital expenditure schedule following a three-day demo we had about 18 months ago, but with the approval of the insurers we were able to get it as part of the replacement package.
“I really like the machine’s ability to change the frequency of cut. We have found that the 2.4 setting (416 cuts per metre) is right for us. In my opinion, the finish is as good as double cutting but in a single pass. It’s very easy to work on; the swing out centre unit is a very good feature and the maintenance information on the display screen leaves you in no doubt about what servicing needs to be done, and when. Yes, a really well thought through piece of design.”
Hunstanton Golf Club have been a loyal customer of local Ransomes Jacobsen dealer Bartram Mowers for decades. Back in May this year they requested a demonstration of the Jacobsen Eclipse 322 and they were so impressed with its performance that they brought forward the purchase by a year!
Peter Read has been at the club 28 years and became head greenkeeper three years ago. He heads a team of just six, so there’s always a job to do around the course. In his own words, this is what happened.
“I called Bartram Mowers back in early May and asked for a demonstration of the Eclipse. They got it to me quickly and left it with us for a week, which was fortunate as it was in the run up to a major member and guest competition, which we host every year to raise funds for the local Royal National Lifeboat Institution – RNLI*
“We were so impressed by its performance that, with the backing of the Greens Committee, we brought funding forward and purchased it a year ahead of our planned replacement programme. We took delivery in the first week of July 2014.
“In that week leading up to the RNLI fundraising event, the machine literally sold itself to us! We had the unit with 15-blade cutting cylinders and it made such a difference to the quality of the greens in just the five days that we used it.
“Our normal stimp speed is between 9 feet and 9.5 feet, but mowing at the same height of 4.25 mm, with an FOC setting of 2.4, we were getting a consistent 10.5 feet. Even when we gave the greens a light roll it made no appreciable difference. We’ve always used Jacobsen Greens King IV ride on mowers, since they were introduced some 30 years ago, so it has taken something really special for us to change.”
Golf course consultant Gordon Irvine was contacted by the club some four years ago because the intensive mowing to produce fast greens was causing significant issues to their major asset. A combination of his experience of links courses, a change in cultural practices and the efforts of the greenkeeping team have resulted in their recovery, which has been further enhanced by the Eclipse 322.
“Many years ago, from the early 1980s through to 2000, we regularly mowed at 2 mm,” Peter Read added. “We began raising the height of cut around 10 years ago and now, with the Eclipse at 4.25 mm, we’re more than double the height, but still reasonably quick. Consistency of cut across all 18 greens, significant fuel reductions and a swing out centre unit for easy maintenance are all great features.”
*RNLI – A UK charity of volunteers who provide lifesaving services around the coast of the UK.
This post originally appeared on Performance Matters.