Why this English gem is the greatest 9-hole course in the world
Kevin Diss Photography / www.kevindiss.com
Is Royal Worlington & Newmarket the best 9-hole golf course in the world? GOLF Magazine’s esteemed raters sure seem to think so. And while some might disagree with that assessment, this much is beyond dispute: only one 9-hole course has been dubbed the “The Sacred Nine,” and it’s found in Mildenhall, England, roughly two hours north of London.
In my view, The Sacred Nine has a lot in common with the Old Course at St. Andrews. Neither course will blow away first-time guests with spectacular visuals or dramatic golf shots. Instead, Royal Worlington & Newmarket, like the Old Course, takes advantage of the natural landforms on the property to perfection. Everything at Mildenhall has a purpose, and often, more than one. Bunkers double-up and have an impact on multiple holes: a plateau is shared by two holes at the 3rd and 7th; a road crossing runs just in front of the 9th green. The course maximizes its acreage better than just about any other, and squeezes every last drop out of the natural features on its countryside terrain.
It’s those natural landforms that give the course its one-of-a-kind golf holes, with traits that have vexed golfers for more than 100 years. Take the famous par-3 5th hole: its green is perched on a plateau with severe drop offs on both sides, making it one of the most daunting short holes in the game. Or look at the 3rd, where the angle into the green is paramount but taking the right tack is perilous, as playing closer to the preferred right side brings scrub and woodland into play. Greens are wonderfully contoured and the strategic questions posed on each hole are enough to stimulate the golfer, round after round.
The subtleties of Royal Worlington are such that you’re apt to walk off after your first round thinking there is no way this is the best 9-holer in the world. But on repeat plays, as with a great song or poem, the course starts to reveal more of itself and begins to take on new and profound meaning that runs deeper than initially meets the eye.
Tim Gallant is an ex-pat based in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he plays out of North Berwick Golf Club. An architectural enthusiast, Tim has played courses all over the world — from 9-hole farm courses in Australia to the hallowed grounds at Royal Worlington & Newmarket. A contributor to various golf magazines and websites, Tim has been on GOLF’s rankings panel since 2019.