Royal North Devon Golf Club has been called the St Andrews of the South. It is the cradle of golf in England, being the oldest club in the country, founded in 1864. When you tour the clubhouse you get a glimpse of its illustrious history. Everywhere you turn there are countless pieces of golf history, from old hickory clubs to ancient golf balls, from numerous trophies to a never-ending row of wooden signs listing past club champions. The latter is truly a list of golf greats, with names like James Braid, Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor. Just sit down at the old wooden table, order a pint, and feel the winds of time.
Photo: Bo SjostenIn the evening some of the owners of the animals grazing the course come down to check on them.
Originally laid out by Old Tom Morris, the course is largely unchanged since 1908 when Herbert Fowler made a few revisions. It is laid out on common land, meaning that the land belongs to the town, and anyone who resides there has certain rights, like the right to let animals graze on the course. This may sound strange, but it actually works quite well. You play golf, the sheep and horses maintain the grass. It’s a symbiosis. The animals largely ignore you as they are quite used to golfers. Just respect them as they respect you, and enjoy their company and contribution. And don’t worry if your ball ends up in a hoof mark, as a local rule allows for a free drop.
The land is very natural. In fact, if you look at a satellite image of the course, at first it is hard to even spot the course. You have to zoom in to find a green or a bunker to figure out where the golf course is located. The land is very lightly undulated, meaning that the wind is a big factor.
Photo: Bo SjostenGolfers and animals exist in symbiosis.
The course starts with three fairly flat holes, and end the same way. Sounds easy, but there are some streams to complicate you shot decision-making. Starting on the fourth you are in links golf heaven with a number of excellent holes running along the coastline. After the turn you have your first encounter with the rushes, bushlike flowering plants that eats golf balls by the dozen. The rushes are a major feature on the remaining holes. I have no further comment other than “stay out of the rushes”.
The rushes disappear when you reach the final holes, but instead you see something else rarely found on modern courses. On the 17th, a par five, the green is guarded by both a stream and the road that leads from the clubhouse to the sea. Trying for the green in two will most often end in disaster, either a lost ball or a crushed windshield.
Photo: Bo SjostenThe approach to the 17th is well guarded by a burn, a road, and sometimes sheep.
If you survive the 17th without being hit by a lawsuit, the 18th is a fairly straightforward hole taking you back to the clubhouse. At least so it seems, until you realize the green is guarded by another stream, tellingly named “The Pill”.
If you have any interest in golf history, Royal North Devon is a must-play. Even if you don’t you will have a wonderful traditional links golf experience.
As we finished our round at Saunton I turned to the member that had so graciously accompanied us and said, “If I could only play in one place for the rest of my life this would be it”. At the time I had no idea that the great Harry Vardon once had said something suspiciously similar: “I would like to retire to Saunton and do nothing but play golf for pleasure”. The courses must really bring forward that thought.
Photo: Bo SjostenThe opening hole on the West course is really the only one played in the dunes on that course.
Saunton really is a great place for golf. But it hasn’t always been that way, as the road to the creation of the two great Saunton courses has been rocky.
It all started in 1897, and the first course was gradually extended until it had 18 holes by 1908. But then WWI intervened, and the course didn’t reopen until 1919. Some good years followed, with great players like James Braid and Henry Cotton competing at Saunton. Then WWII started, and the course turned into a battle training ground, primarily for American tank crews training for D-Day. Tanks on golf courses are generally a bad idea, and it took until 1952 to get it all back in order.
In 1974 the re-designed West course opened, and now Saunton had two championship quality links courses. Not many other clubs (if any) can make that claim.
Photo: Bo Sjosten
So with two great courses, which one should you play?
Both courses are situated amongst beautiful, unspoiled sand dunes, the Braunton Burrows, by Bideford Bay. The dunes themselves are considered so ecologically significant, with over 500 species of flora and fauna, that the whole area has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. This is of course great from a conservationist standpoint, but it puts some constraints on the golf club. Recently that has meant removing unwanted invasive scrub from the course, a significant burden for the club, but a benefit to golfers straying from the straight and narrow. Sometimes what’s good for the environment can be good for golfers, too.
The Old Course (East) is the course that usually garners the better ratings. Herbert Fowler skillfully routed the course through the dunes in a way that sometimes makes you feel you are alone on the course. The East is also the longer of the courses, some 300 yards longer than its sibling to the west, so your approach shots will be consistently longer. Since most of the holes are par fours (13 in all), this might be frustrating unless you are a long hitter. Notable holes are the 530 yard 2nd, and the 207 yard par three 17th.
The New Course (West) is not routed as much amongst the dunes as the East, but instead on more traditionally undulated links grounds. It is also a bit more varied than the East, with more doglegs, and some burns to complicate your strategy. It has a better mix of holes, with three par fives and five par threes, including two of the last three holes. The finishing par three is a real beauty.
Photo: Bo SjostenThe finishing par three on the West course.
It is shorter than the East by a few hundred yards, so your approach shots won’t be quite as long. This is a good thing, since the greens are hard and fast, some of the best greens I have ever seen. Even though the East usually rates higher, the West can really hold its own, and if the East Course didn’t exist the West would probably rate significantly higher.
So which course should you play? You’ve probably figured out the answer by now. You should play both courses. But if you are forced to choose, play the West if you want to have more fun, play the East if you are a capable, long hitting golfer out for a serious challenge.
Photo: Bo SjostenThe very tough 18th hole on the East course finishes just below the clubhouse restaurant.
After your round you can have lunch or dinner in the clubhouse restaurant overlooking the very challenging 18th hole of the East course.
After spending five days playing five great links courses in the very southwestern corner of England (the other two courses were Trevose and St Enodoc, covered in the last issue), it’s hard for me to imagine a better place to go for great links golf in great surroundings. No matter how many times you play these courses, no two rounds will be alike. I particularly enjoyed how the courses just blended into nature and the local community, like at Royal North Devon where the locals just wandered out on the course in the evening to tend to their animals.
It felt like golf was very tightly integrated into ordinary life for people living here, unlike some other places where golf courses have been constructed as an add-on in order to attract tourists. Here, it felt like golf had always been here, and always will be - a very good feeling that I wish were more common at golf travel destinations.
The nearest major airport is Bristol. If you fly in to Heathrow or Gatwick, you can drive down in about 3.5 to 4 hours, depending on traffic.
The courses in this article together with Trevose and St Enodoc cooperate as Atlantic Links. More information at atlantic-links.co.uk.