Suffolk Coastal Golf

Golfer's Guide to Suffolk by Fergus Bisset (Courtesy of Golf Monthly)

I remember my grandmother telling stories of growing up in Southwold on the Suffolk coast. One, in particular about being strafed by a Messerschmitt during the Second World War comes to mind. She was walking home from school when the fighter opened fire. She’d been told to dive into the nearest ditch in such circumstances, but she didn’t want to get her dress muddy so ran the few hundred yards home, somehow avoiding the bullets. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t, until recently, visited her old stomping grounds. It was one of those places I’d heard so much about, and seen so many pictures of; I imagined I must have been there.

I’d also picked up from various sources that an abundance of excellent golf courses are to be found between Ipswich and Southwold. This spring I decided it was time to explore. I packed my clubs and headed south for the land of Adnams ale and Constable’s Hay Wain, of rich farmland and beautiful coastline.

Aldeburgh Golf Club was the course I’d heard most about prior to my visit to Suffolk. It was ranked 77th in Golf Monthly’s most recent top 100 list and all friends and colleagues who had played gave it high praise. I’m glad to say the course more than lived up to my expectations.

It’s a historic layout, one that originally dates from the 1880s. Willie Park Jnr, J.H. Taylor and Harry Colt made alterations in the early part of the 20th century and, more recently, Kens Brown and Moodie have been responsible for some subtle changes to keep the test of golf current.

This is a unique course. The clubhouse is less than a mile from the coast, the fairways and greens are firm and gorse lines a number of holes, but I think it’s correct to class it as a heathland, rather than a links layout. I spoke with a member who described the terrain as “maritime heath” and that seemed apt. The sleepered bunkers and sprawling greens with subtle run-offs deliver a sense of timelessness, reminiscent of Royal North Devon, but the heather and mature trees, conjure thoughts of the classic Surrey and Hampshire heathland tracks. It’s a captivating blend.

The par of 68 at Aldeburgh is an extremely stern one – as evidenced by a standard scratch of 73 from the blue tees and the fact the card also shows a “bogey” score of 72. Long and testing par 4s are at the core of the challenge. In fact, no less than 12 measure over 400 yards from the back pegs. The finish is particularly strong with the 16th and 18th holes standing out. Into the wind, both require two fine blows to reach in regulation.

I was fortunate enough to play 36 holes here and that afforded the chance to spend some time in the characterful Edwardian clubhouse. It’s just as a golf club should be with leather armchairs, cheerful members, excellent local beer (Adnams) and a Tiger’s head on the wall!

Aldeburgh's nine-hole River Course is also well worth a knock. With stunning views over the marshes bounding the Alde, the layout is always presented beautifully. The River offers a sound examination of placement and short-game.

I stayed in the comfortable and distinctive Wentworth Hotel on the seafront in Aldeburgh, a pretty town famous for its arts festival and former residents George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten. So, the following day it was just a short drive up the coast to the Thorpeness Hotel and Golf Club, where I found another memorable heathland course.

Designed by the ubiquitous James Braid, the layout dates from 1922 and has always been regarded as one of Suffolk’s premier tracks. It winds through pines, silver birch, heather and gorse and travels over springy, firm and well-draining turf – a perfect golfing combination.

Again I was reminded of the heathland tracks of the Home Counties on my way round. There’s a great blend of holes, some demanding long blows, others a more strategic approach.

I always like to see driveable par 4s on a course and Thorpeness throws one it near the end at the 17th. For those chasing a score it’s a chance to pick one up, or, of course, to blow it completely by going down in a blaze of glory. I did one of the former and there’s no need to elaborate.

The 18th is one of the great finishing holes. Not just because it’s a demanding, well bunkered, par 4 of over 400 yards, but also because of the unusual backdrop. Strolling down the hole, you’re faced with an impressive white windmill and Thorpeness’s iconic “House in the Clouds:” A former water tower, now holiday accommodation.

When I played, the greens were still on the mend from a long winter, but the maintenance team at Thorpeness are clearly a highly motivated bunch and the course has a reputation for being presented in impressive condition.

With a hotel on-site, this is a busy and bustling golfing destination, ideal for a “play, stay” break. The clubhouse bar at Thorpeness is somewhere I could happily ensconce myself for a considerable period of time. On my next trip perhaps though, as this time I was heading south to Felixstowe.

The club at Felixstowe Ferry was founded in 1880 and the Martello Course here dates from the same year, making it the fifth oldest course in England. It was the only true links I played on this trip and the course is a classic and historic British seaside track. The wind plays a decisive role in most rounds and members say the course is different every time as a result.

The layout delivers an eclectic mix of holes, all maintained in excellent condition. The greens are worthy of a special mention, they’re kept fast and true and were superb to putt on.

There are three par 5s on the front nine including two consecutively at the 7th and 8th. Played in opposite directions, I would imagine that in strong winds they present two very different challenges.

In 1996 the club opened a nine-hole course: The Kingsfleet and, four years later, they celebrated 120 years of golf at Felixstowe. The nine-holer is a great alternative to the Martello course. It’s no pitch and putt and many visitors enjoy playing 27 holes at Felixstowe Ferry with a spot of lunch in the comfortable clubhouse between games.

Woodbridge Golf Club dates from 1893 when Scottish professional Davie Grant laid out a course over an attractive parcel of sandy heathland to the east of the town of Woodbridge. James Braid made some changes in the late 1920s, since when the layout has remained relatively unaltered.

Woodbridge is a fine heathland course with well-placed bunkers, heather and gorse waiting to catch an errant stroke. The soil is well-draining (as with all these Suffolk tracks) so play is possible throughout the year. The greens are firm and true and I’d imagine they could get rather pacey through the summer months.

In 1987 the great hurricane that ripped through southern Britain brought down a huge number of trees in the area. But it wasn’t all bad news. The winds cleared a section of forestry land near the golf course that Woodbridge GC duly purchased. It was used to construct a new nine-hole course. The Forest is now an excellent alternative to its elder brother and a fine test in its own right, stretching to almost 3,200 yards.

Although Ipswich Golf Club was founded in 1895, it wasn’t until 1926 that they moved to their current site at Purdis Heath and a new course designed by five-time Open Champion James Braid. In 1928, an incredible four-ball exhibition match marked the official opening of the course. It featured – Braid, J.H Taylor, Abe Mitchell and a promising 21-year-old golfer called Henry Cotton.

Ipswich is another classic heathland course. Laid out in the shape of a horseshoe, the outward nine is on the inside and the run for home travels around the outside.

Once again, heather, birch and pine line the holes and the ground is fast-running and well-draining. The greens were good and firm when I played, yet receptive to a well-struck shot. Coming from the rough, however, it was necessary to allow for the ball chasing up: as it should be in my opinion.

The course opens gently with a straightforward par 4 of 325 yards, but the test quickly intensifies with a series of challenging holes, none more so than the par-4 4th. It’s a dog-leg to the left demanding an accurate tee-shot to the corner, then a daunting second over a ridge that falls away some 30 feet to a sunken green.

Owing to the firm fairways, it’s accuracy from the tees rather than length that’s key to a good score at Purdis Heath. The wind can also play a significant part in a round as the clever routing of the layout means the breeze tends to come at you from a slightly different angle on each hole.

There’s a good finish with the 16th a short par 4, the 17th a strong par 5 and the last an excellent, 412 yard par 4 with the clubhouse to the right of the green. When I was putting, a group sat on the benches on the lawn enjoying the sun. I could feel the empathy (or perhaps it was schadenfreude) as I missed from three feet.

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