It’s an atmospheric old fashioned links, laid out on a thin parcel of land, close to the North Sea where the 18 holes are wedged between the sandy beach on one side and acres of marshland on the other. Its location means that at very high tides the course becomes cut off from the mainland.
The walk from the historic clubhouse to the first tee is unbelievably across the beach entrance before you enter the course between a large memorial gate that honours the clubs fallen heroes from the world wars; it sets a tone that you will be in for a unique and memorable round.
After a simple but alluring start the 3rd raises the bar and is one of the best holes you will not only play at Brancaster but on any links course anywhere. It’s a risk-reward driving hole where you must start your ball out over the marsh, known as Mow Creek, in order to set up the shortest and best line into a superb raised green complex. Danger lurks on both sides, especially the left, of the reversed two-tiered green that is hidden some 30 yards beyond a wall of wooden sleepers; only the top of the flagstick is visible.
All the short holes have merit but it’s perhaps the fourth that catches the eye the most with its putting surface once again fronted by wooden sleepers and three deep bunkers short of that. It’s only 120 yards or so but can strike fear into even the most accomplished player. Whilst we’re talking about the one-shotters the false-fronted sixth is also tricky and unusual for the walk you must make across the 7th fairway to reach the tee. Another good looking green, with glaring bunkers, greets the golfer at the 149 yard tenth as you now head for home hard against the shore.
The longest and hardest of the par threes is the 15th ; the cavernous bunker short of the green is only a modest carry but the drop-offs on each side and the increased length make this a stiff challenge, particularly into a head or cross breeze. The enormous wooden face of the bunker also creates a distortion of distance making the green look much closer than it is. This is a feature used several times at Brancaster, perhaps most successfully at the 3rd and 18th holes.
A fine blind drive at the fifth to higher ground is rewarded with a lovely approach to a green set in a long valley on an exposed part of the course. This is a hole that may go under many visitors radar but I thought it was a real highlight of the course. Simple, elegant and extremely natural in its appearance.
The back-to-back par fives at the seventh and eighth are both under 500 yards, reachable in two and both fine holes but it is that latter that grabs most of the headlines for its brilliant route to the green that must cross the saltmarsh twice; both drive and approach. However, the brilliance of this hole is the angle of the fairway that runs diagonally away from you so a longer carry over the wetland is rewarded with a shorter shot to the green.
Meanwhile, the 9th has similar characteristics to the previous hole but is a par four this time to another green raised and fronted by wooden sleepers. It concludes a very satisfying front nine of exceedingly high quality as you reach the remotest part of the course.
The inward half doesn’t quite have as much charm and variety as the front nine although the green complex at the 12th, located up on a ridge but set in a bowl, is excellent and the 14th is a work of art; not much danger from the tee but it will likely be a long iron to a sunken green hidden behind a dune that must be carried with your second shot, otherwise all kinds of trouble awaits.
The 16th is also a belter that requires a deft pitch, or long bump and run, to a high green that is guarded well by a deep bunker slightly to the left and cut into the hillside. Indeed the bunkers throughout the round at Brancaster are deadly and must be avoided at all costs as each one will likely cost you a full shot.
Holes 17 and 18 bring you home with a couple of modest par fours. There’s more to the former than initially meets the eye with a string of bunkers to avoid from the elevated and angled drive whilst you can really open your shoulders at the last, where the fairway is shared by that of the first, in order to get as close to the green as possible.
Wooden sleeper faced bunkers are a feature throughout. Thankfully they haven’t been removed, like at many other courses, as they not only add to the visual appeal of the course but dictate the strategy on many holes. At no time do they ever looked forced or out of place, they fit in very naturally with their surrounds, and whilst at times they limit a running approach this means you must display a variety of iron shots.
Brancaster isn’t a championship test of golf nor does it pretend, or even desire, to be one. At 6,457 yards and with generous fairways it’s very playable but not without its challenges, especially as you near the greens, many of which are brilliantly sited. For a social round of golf this is an idyllic place to play golf, especially at the far end of the course as you approach the harbour.
The course does not provide a tough driving assignment, nor is big hitting required for the most part but that’s not what playing at Brancaster is all about. This is a course that has absolutely nothing to prove, is infinitely playable, and brings a wide smile to your face. It allows you to wallow in the satisfaction of playing an eccentrically old fashioned golf course, albeit with modern equipment, on a wonderful and historic piece of golfing land; there's an unbridled enjoyment to golfing here.
Following a 4:00am alarm call we’d already driven for more than six hours and covered over 350 road miles before boarding a ferry at Oban sailing to Lochboisdale.
The Halifax Golf Club, often better known as Ogden, is a course that divides opinion.