IT'S full steam ahead at Norton Golf Club after a period of sweeping changes. The Tees Valley course, situated behind what was Harpers Garden Centre, has a new entrance, a new club building and a new lay-out.
The course, which used to be approached through the garden centre car park from Junction Road in Norton, is now only accessible from nearby Blakeston Lane.
The garden centre along with the golf course's former entrance and car park has all been sold for development and the diggers are already on site.
It gives the impression from Junction Road that the golf course itself no longer exists - but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the pay and play venue is going from strength to strength under the guidance of Mark Harper - part of the family who ran the golf course from Junction Road - together with the committed and loyal staff who have carried on working for the family business.
For a start, the new course lay-out is a real success and the par 70 (73 off the red tees) offers a nice mix of holes and is quite a test with lots of features to keep you thinking.
For instance, there are no less than ten different lakes and ponds dotted around while there are plenty of established, as well as more recently planted, trees and a good degree of sand too.
The greens are often two-tiered with lots of defensive mounds while the putting surfaces are smooth and true.
It all adds up to a pretty demanding track that is well managed by the five greenstaff.
But Mark doesn't intend to rest on his laurels but rather build on what has become a very popular alternative spot for club players as well as a beacon for those who are not club members and prefer the more relaxed and uncomplicated form of golf.
Mark and all the staff are planning plenty of improvements to add to the existing well-maintained course and are always looking for ways to maintain high standards.
They have already been busy dredging some of the water features and clearing vast banks of reeds while they are also considering a café and possible additional features at the club building.
Mark said: "We're certainly looking into a café. The golfers say they would like one but we need to be sure it's going to be used before we commit. It would be nice if there was somewhere for the golfers to0 go before and after a round though.
"There were some rumours flying about that we had shut as the garden centre was clearly being developed. But that's far from the case. We're trying to improve the course and the playing experience and we think the lay-out offers a challenge to every level of golfer."
Things now kick off at what used to be the 12th - and it's a gentle start too at this fairly straightforward 105-yard par 3. There's every opportunity to ease your swing into the round at the shortest hole on the course by some distance. There is out of bounds on the right and trees and water on the left and some sand up around the green, so you still need to take care.
The second is a rather more challenging par 4 of 469 yards. The hole doglegs gently right and with out of bounds right, it's best to track down the left-middle of what is a fairly wide fairway, which boasts the furrows - an echo from agricultural days gone by that increase the surface area of field - that are a feature of so many North East courses. There's a large bunker to the left of the two-tiered sloping green.
The third is a 151-yard par 3 that sits on top of a fairly steep hill, the ground dropping away to the right. With trees on the left, you'll need to find an accurate strike to a fairly small target.
The fourth certainly gives you a chance of a birdie. At only 226 yards it is very reachable from the tee but there's a lot of water as well as some thick, tall trees in the way. Alternatively, you can play this as a dog-leg right but you still need a long drive to get over the water and find the fairway. If you take this option, you'll be left with a small chip on to the putting surface.
The fifth is a par 3 of 165 yards with plenty of trees around and a bunker front fright of the green.
The sixth is Norton's first par 5 and at 513 yards it's a tough test. The former 17th gets underway with a tee box set among trees and while the fairway is nice and wide, inviting you to let rip with the driver, there are trees everywhere as well as several humps and hollows and out of bounds tight in on the right.
The 424-yard par 4 seventh is very similar in character though, as the former lay-out's finishing hole, packed with even more features - lots and lots of trees, more hollows and humps, and out of bounds all the way down the right - while there's a particularly dense little thicket blocking off the approach to the green if you are too far left.
Eight is a very interesting par 4 of 411 yards. The hole doglegs left pretty much 90 degrees, the corner guarded by a large lake that meanders all the way down to the green, with out of bounds all the way down the other side. With a nasty bunker waiting for an inaccurate tee shot and then sand around the green, which is also guarded by trees and sits in a little hollow, this one's a real tester.
The final hole of the front nine is another par 3, this time of 124 yards. It's another tricky customer too as there's out of bounds all the way on the right and water between the tee box and the green. To the left is some nasty, undulating boggy ground with odd trees that is certainly best avoided. The only option is a good straight hit to the putting surface.
The inward nine gets underway with a banana-shaped 405-yard par 4. The fairway is fairly wide though uphill and furrowed like the second, which runs alongside it. The green is well protected by trees.
The 11th is a 312-yard par 4 that sweeps up and then down to the green with yet more trees all around while the 12th - a 420-yard par 4 - is rated as the hardest hole on the course. The snakelike fairway is well protected by tress that close in around the right and rear of the green while there's a huge bunker on the left.
There's another big dogleg left at the 306-yard par 4 13th so you'll need to ensure you don't run out of fairway if you opt for the driver. Otherwise, this hole does offer a decent birdie opportunity.
From here on in, the closing holes are quite a test. They begin with a 518-yard par 5 that's nice and straight but the fairway is pretty tight.
The tee box at the 160-yard par 3 15th sits well above the green, which is well-guarded by yet more trees. Be careful not to over-club this one.
The par 4 16th is another good birdie chance as it's just 271 yards but the whole thing is on the side of a hill, the fairway sloping severely right, and there's a well-placed tree in the way while the green is protected by lots of sand and the ground falls away steeply behind.
Seventeen is another par 5, this time of 475 yards. Again, it's straight but the fairway is probably the tightest on the course and the green is fairly small, so you'll have to produce two or three well-struck straight hits to enjoy any success here.
Things conclude with a 350-yard par 4. The tee box is back in the trees and there's a small pond on the right. The fairway widens out though before a confusing series of slopes and hollows in front of a green that is surrounded by trees with sand for good measure on the left.
All in all, a very awkward track to negotiate. Most holes are quite tight and require a good degree of care. This is a course you will need to plot your way around, making good use of your wedges as well as the longer irons, while the number of par 4s over 400 yards means the driver will be in use a fair bit too.
Full marks also for the excellent scorecard, which comes complete with a very good, detailed stroke-saver.
Name: Norton Golf Course.
Address: Blakeston Lane, Norton, Stockton-on-Tees.
Booking: No bookings are required; tee off times are on a first come, first served basis.
Directions: From A19 north or south, take the Norton/Billingham exit and head towards Norton and Stockton. At first roundabout, turn right into Junction Road and follow road for approximately 1 mile. Pass the former entrance to Harpers Garden Centre on the right and just after the pedestrian crossing turn right into Blakeston Lane. Go over the railway crossing and the entrance to the golf course is on the right after another half a mile or so.