THE North East has a good number of true links courses as well as several seaside venues but very few can match the setting and views of Hartlepool Golf Club.
The course, initially laid out at the turn of the last century and improved by James Braid, is not a true links as it sits on top of sand dunes just north of Hartlepool.
But there is a tremendous links feel to many of the holes – though the course is built largely on soil rather than sand – while the views, mostly up the coast past Blackhall Rocks to Sunderland and beyond, are inspiring. And being a seaside course, the wind can have a big impact.
Of course, this is the place where Graeme Storm learned his golf, and the European Tour professional still holds the course record of 62.
Storm ranks as the greatest player in the club’s illustrious history after winning the British Amateur Championship in 1999 and then sinking the winning putt for Great Britain’s Walker Cup team against the USA. He is now pursuing a lucrative professional career.
There have been other notable players over the last century too – the club celebrated its centenary four years ago – including Eaglescliffe club pro Graham Bell while Ruth Lindley (the ladies’ course record holder with a 71, Nett 67) and Christine Williamson continue to achieve honours in the women’s veteran ranks.
In many respects, Hartlepool is something of a hidden gem but it welcomes visitors with open arms and cannot be recommended highly enough.
Braid’s original design and the later additions certainly make the most of the many natural features; the seaward side is partially protected by hillocks and dunes covered with marram grass though there are gaps here and there that allow the tremendous views.
Indeed, with the railway line – on a raised embankment – on the other side of the course, the general feel and atmosphere is reminiscent of some of the great courses of south west Scotland.
But don’t let the ambience distract you from your golf, for this is a tricky test.
Over the years the course, which began life as a nine, has undergone many changes. The first clubhouse, or pavilion, was sited beyond the far end of the current course near the Brus railway arch. In 1920, this was replaced with a brick building, built by the Army for the defence forces guarding the Warren during the 1914-18 war.
In 1921 a limited company was formed, enabling the purchase of the course and 180 acres of adjoining farmland. Willie Park Jnr, twice winner of the Open, was brought in to design a full 18 holes.
A few years later in 1929 the club turned to Braid to redesign some of the holes, including the magnificent 10th hole (more of that later).
A new clubhouse was built in 1961 and it contains all the features you’d expect, including a good bar and restaurant with food available all day, nice lockers with showers and club pro Graham Laidlaw’s shop.
The opening of the new clubhouse also initiated another set of changes to the course: the old 5th hole became the 1st and the current 2nd and 3rd holes were constructed on farmland. Later, the 17th hole was rebuilt on new ground parallel to the old 17th by course architect Donald Steel. This was necessary to alleviate congestion on the 15th and 16th holes and it came into play in 1983.
With the improvement of both golf equipment and golfers’ general fitness, Hartlepool are continually looking at ways to develop the course so that it remains a challenge to all standard of golfers - and they are doing a pretty good job and making the most of the numerous opportunities they have with a very large, feature-packed chunk of coastal land, much of which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest with countless rare plants like orchids, toadflax, cranesbill and harebells and even thyme to be seen.
That’s why Hartlepool is such a great place to play golf.
This is not a long track at 5,977 yards off the yellow tees (6,298 off white and 5,562 off red), but it’s still pretty demanding.
Things get under way with a fairly gentle 246-yard par 4 (off yellow). There are three new pot bunkers up the right while there are out of bounds all the way down the left as well as a stream. Lining up can be a problem while if you lay-up the landing area is fairly tight and the green presents a small target if you decide to have a go.
The 2nd is a 516-yard par five that dog-legs left. There are bunkers and bushes at driving distance and you must reach the narrowing corner of the dog-leg if you want to get to the green in two.
There’s another sharp dog-leg, this time to the right, on the par 4, 419-yard 3rd. There’s a bunker on the left plus more sand and gorse on the right while there are bunkers up around the green waiting to swallow your ball if you are slightly off line with your second.
The par 4, 4th was changed completely two years ago, being lengthened by 28 yards to 385. A new green was added away to the left of the original and a stream directed down the left and across the front of the new putting surface. The longer hitters can take on the corner but it’s a risk and reward shot. With no less than five bunkers in play, this one justifies its ranking of third hardest hole on the course.
The 5th is the first of Hartlepool’s intriguing par 3s, which are all little gems in their own right. At 149 yards it’s not long but a wide, deep gully cuts in from the left between tee and green, while if the wind is coming off the sea, you’ll need a far bigger club than you might think.
The par 4, 6th is another beauty and at just 308 yards on the card, it might look a fairly sedate test. However, for a start, the tee box is up above the crashing waves on the beach below and is totally exposed, while your drive is blind over a sand dune. There’s a lot of room to land the ball in but the fairway falls away into a depression on the right while anything left is likely to be in the rough stuff on the side of another dune. The fairway then sweeps up hill to a green that is well protected by sand on both sides.
The par 3 7th is probably Hartlepool’s signature hole. At just 90 yards and with an SI of 18, it looks like a formality – but it’s anything but. The tee box is raised up on the side of a dune and you have to hit across a deep gully to a green that is much wider than it is deep, making the landing area very narrow. Anything slightly short will be in the gully and go long and you’ll be on the steep, thickly grassed dune that the green is cut in to. A terrific little hole, that is likely to wreck a card in one fell swoop – and often does.
The par 4 412-yard 8th (a scary 454 off the championship tee) has just replaced the 14th as the course’s toughest ranked hole. The tee is elevated with lots of rough between it and the fairway while there are grass hollows on the left and a nasty deep hollow on the right. You can’t see the green and so lining up is also difficult. If you are too conservative you’re likely to need a massive second shot to reach the green while the over-ambitious will find it even harder from an obscured and rough lie. The ideal line requires a carry of 190 yards – and with plenty of sand around the green, finding the putting surface even from Position A is no formality.
The front nine concludes with a 367-yard par 4. This one is fairly straight though there are two sets of bunkers up the right and others both sides of a narrow green. There are old rigs and furrows on the fairway that hark back to the land’s agricultural past.
The 10th is pretty much as Braid designed it 80 years ago. At 343 yards this par 4 isn’t overly long but the green is blind from the tee. The fairway is fairly tight all the way down with some new bunkers on the right and the 1st fairway fairly close at hand, but you need to be on the right to be able to get to the green. There’s plenty of rough as well as gorse down the left while the line in to the green, which sits in a hidden hollow beneath a gap in the dunes, is impossible. It’s also fairly easy to run through this one – another super hole.
The 11th is another cracking par 3 and at 208 yards it’s not for the faint-hearted. You have to hit across another deep gully to a green that is high above you on the side of another dune but there’s plenty of room to land in if you miss the green. The ladies’ tee is 30ft or so above the men’s on top of another dune and affords a spectacular 178-yard test. A lovely bridge links the tee boxes with the green and this feature is soon to be widened so the course can introduce buggies.
The 12th is another par 3, this time of 175 yards. The tee box is situated on top of another sand dune at the highest point on the course and though the views are fantastic, you are totally exposed to the wind, whether it’s coming off the land or the sea, making the tee shot all the trickier to gauge. If the wind is in your face, you might need a driver; if it’s behind then you might need a short iron that will run down the bank to the green. But with a nasty gully to the right of the green do be careful the wind doesn’t sweep your ball away if you select the airmail route.
Now things get really tough!
The par 4, 13th is only 301 yards but with a ravine in front of the green and a bunker on the right it’s really a question of laying-up and then finding a nice wedge in.
The 14th has a real links feel and there can’t be many holes in the country that have earned an SI 1 without a single sand trap. Of course, this 419-yarder has just been reclassified as the second hardest hole behind the 8th but it’s a close-run thing. The tee shot is across a wide band of rough to a fairway that sweeps uphill to a plateau that offers a good view of the green but you’ll need a drive approaching 250 yards to be in the best position for your second. The hole is also likely to be wind-affected one way or another on all but the calmest of days.
The par 4, 15th has a new men’s tee that has added 25 yards to its 374-yard length, bringing the three pot bunkers on the left into play while two new bunkers on the right along with some new gorse have also helped tighten up the landing area.
The 16th is another long par 4 at 419 yards. Recent improvements here have seen the removal of a large mound on the right and the planting of an extensive area of gorse in its place. There are two grass bunkers on the left while the green is protected by sand to both sides.
Of late a new championship tee has been built on the 17th to add an extra 31 yards while there a couple of new bunkers have been introduced on the left. At 469 yards this isn’t a long par 5 but the dog-leg right does add to its difficulty, as does the out of bounds all down the left and the three clumps of gorse on the right, which eat into the corner of the dogleg. The green is both long and narrow and protected by good bunkers.
The final hole is a 377-yard par 4 and fairly straight, but the fairway is not wide and it falls away to the right where there is rough and the out of bounds on the left.
So far we haven’t discussed the quality of the greens at Hartlepool but they are all top-class with the subtle borrows that are a feature of links-style courses while some are also tiered.
Hartlepool is a great seaside course and comes highly recommended.
Address: Hartlepool Golf Club, Hart Warren, Hartlepool, TS24 9QF.
Contact: Telephone: Pro shop: 01429 267473;
Secretary: 01429 274398;
Fax: 01429 274129;
Green Fees: Weekdays £35, Weekends £40
Visiting Parties: Welcomed. Contact club professional Graham Laidlaw on 01429 267473 to arrange or email email@example.com
Directions: The course is situated to the north of Hartlepool and can be reached easily from the A19 without entering the town centre. Leave the A19 from the north or south at the A179 exit and follow signs towards Hartlepool. Continue forwards into Hart Road (still A179) and at roundabout with Easington Road (A1086), go straight on into West View Road (A1049) and take first exit left into King Oswy Drive. Follow road and take fifth exit on the right into Speeding Drive. Continue forward under the railway bridge and course is at the end of the road.