Royal North Devon Golf Club, or should we say Westward Ho! This nostalgic and monumental links course fits firmly into the “must-play” category. In 1864, Westward Ho! opened for golf and it remains the oldest course in England still playing along its original fairways. It is also the oldest links course outside Scotland and home to the second oldest ladies’ golf club in the world, founded in 1868. The first ladies’ golf club was founded at St Andrews, one year earlier.
“To go to Westward Ho! is not to make a mere visit of pleasure as to an ordinary course;” wrote Darwin in his book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles. “It is, as is the case of a few other great links, a reverent pilgrimage. Was it not here that Mr Horace Hutchinson and J.H. Taylor, besides a host of other fine players, learned the game?” Originally, the course was laid out by Old Tom Morris and revised in 1908 by Herbert Fowler. Nothing much has changed since then, except the sheep have fattened.
When you look out of the clubhouse across the course, you might struggle to define the holes. They simply blend into the surroundings. There are no trees or hedges, except if you count the brambles alongside some of the fairways. There are, however, plenty of reeds and rushes waiting to catch the wayward shot.
This is common land golf “au natural”, with a combination of tranquil, flat and folded fairways. Possibly, the only sound you will hear is that of the wind and if you are lucky, the sound of galloping hooves. Here at Royal North Devon, the sheep and horses have life membership. Don’t forget the local rule – if your ball ends up in a hoof mark, you may drop without penalty.
Make sure you buy a yardage book if you don’t know the layout; otherwise you might find yourself teeing off in the wrong direction on a few holes. “Finally,” wrote Darwin, “no account of Westward Ho! would be complete without a reference to tea at the club-house. There is a particular form of roll cut in half and liberally plastered with Devonshire cream and jam. Epithets fail me, and I can only declare that the tea is worthy of the golf.” Not only is tea good but also the panoramic view from the clubhouse is magnificent. Check out the golfing memorabilia in the museum area and, above all, enjoy the spirit that is Royal North Devon.
A man has been charged with drink driving after Land Rover found crashed in a Royal North Devon bunker… click here for more
England's oldest golf course is disappearing into the sea click here for more.
When you stand on the first tee at Royal North Devon overlooking the flat expanse of the Northam Burrows, you could be forgiven for wondering where the golf course is. It takes a couple of rounds for the holes to come into focus, and then perhaps a few more before the strategy reveals itself. Westward Ho! brings to mind the first time I listened to the incomparable Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”: What on earth is this noise?, I thought.
RND is occasionally so wide off the tee that an agoraphobe may be tempted to rush off back to the Clubhouse. This of course gives you options and forgiveness in equal measure. Everyone can usually get a ball in play but get out of position and you can’t really get at the greens. Enjoyable for all levels? Check.
The holes route in various directions across the Burrows, exploring the wind from different angles. If you were taking your dog out for a walk, following the golf course might be the path you’d take. As this is common land, you do share your sport with cattle and the occasional horse. Last time I played we had to chase sheep off the 5th green as they curiously inspecting the cup. I even hit one here once, which stopped my shot running into trouble. There’s lot of great golf between holes 4-16 (with perhaps just the short Par 5 at 13 being a little disappointing). There’s variety on almost every hole.
RND is fairly unique and that’s always a good thing when there are so many copy & paste courses around. Where else might you have to amputate part of your thumb due to an unfortunate encounter with a Great Sea Rush? That’s risk & reward. By some common definitions it is limited. Conditioning it not great and I’d update many of the bunkers. But I don’t think you’d ever want to change it too much because it would lose something. It’s about the best course it can be and it is what it is: a brilliant relic that remains relevant. Sure, it’s a charming “experience” (antiquity, animals, wind, quirk, clubhouse full of hickory sticks, etc), but it’s also a very good golf course that continues to challenge and entertain 154 years later.
You probably need to judge Westward Ho! for what it is and not what it isn’t, and bear it mind that it’s no instant one hit wonder. It may take repeat plays before it fully comes together in harmony, but is all the more rewarding for that. And that’s RND in a rather large coconut shell: More Miles Davis - and less of The Wurzels - than I initially could have hoped for.
“Bohemian” is how my playing partner described Royal North Devon when we teed it up here a week ago. “Interesting description” I replied and it sums up RND rather well in that the course is unconventional, idiosyncratic and eccentric.
I’m not a member here and I’ve played RND many times, but I’ve never teed it up at 07.30 on a glorious autumnal morning with the course completely empty. It was sheer joy.
My partner and I played Burnham & Berrow (both courses), Saunton (West), Bude and North Cornwall, Bovey Castle and RND in the space of four days. To my surprise his favourite was RND.
Despite the inauspicious start and finish my partner stated that he could remember every hole. Although the horses were absent last week the sheep certainly were not and it’s hard to forget the spiky rushes and the moonscape and bunker that appears before you at the Cape.
RND will never compete with St Enodoc or Saunton when it comes to conditioning, but RND competes with both and wins when it comes to that certain something.
Westward Ho! is England’s golfing Stonehenge and long may it remain that way.
In terms of the golf course it is one that can hold its own when compared to some of the best in the country. It is regularly ranked in the main 'top 100' lists and has some holes that wouldn't look out of place on many of the Open Championship venues. The layout traverses common land so walkers, sheep and other animals are commonplace on the course where golf and mother nature very much live as one. It is raw links golf in its purest form.
The opening hole, a par five of moderate length, is often reachable in two but the lateral water hazard that runs down the right of the hole before cutting across the front of the green has to be given the utmost respect.
The second and third are strong holes, which get better with each playing of them, before a thrilling drive over the 'Cape' bunker at the fourth, a delightful short par four with a rolling fairway.
The stretch of holes from the fifth through to the 11th are an absolute treat offering plenty of variety, an array of risk and reward shots and some fabulous green complexes. In my opinion holes six and seven are the pick of the bunch but the 10th pushes them close and the tee-shot on the 11th is a joy, albeit a nerve-racking drive to a fairway that appears much narrower on the tee than once you are stood on the fairway.
The closing stretch shouldn't be underestimated either and whilst the 13th doesn't quite know whether it is a long par four, or a short five, the up-turned saucer of a green will test your short game to the max. The 15th hole, featuring the 'bear pit', is also a highlight coming home as is the green complex on the 16th. Water must be navigated on the final two holes before you can relax and enjoy the fascinating clubhouse.
Anyone who appreciates the history of golf will find the clubhouse a joy to behold.
There's very much a relaxed atmosphere to the place and the 'museum' with hundreds of golfing artefacts from bye-gone days complements the feel perfectly.
One could spend hours studying the balls, clubs and historic honours boards within.
Royal North Devon is ground zero for links golf in England and a course that should be experienced several times to fully appreciate its many virtues.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Hail Westard Ho!
An exemplary course and experience. Jake Starr
I played here in March 2017. i can empathise a little with the previous reviewer in that a couple of holes on the back nine are rather undefined and 'field' like. the vast majority of holes though are excellent and the greens terrific. This is a true links and many of the holes would sit well alongside the really top links in the country. I am quite stingy with my ratings, i'd like to give this 4.5 stars but having given St Enodoc 5, this is not in the same league, so four it is.
I was told that this is a 'marmite' course. It's one you either love or hate. I fall into the latter category. Played there on a beautiful day with a decent breeze up. I was really looking forward to it and soaking up the history attached to the club.
Lets start with the positives and there are a couple, The greens are fantastic. True with some devilish breaks about. They are a pleasure to putt on. The par 3's are lovely and all 4 are a treat to play. I loved the 5th. Thought it was the best hole on the course. The members and staff were very welcoming and made us feel at home. The little museum is a nice touch and connects you with the history of England oldest links.
Now for the negatives. The course is mostly uninspiring and lacks definition. I got the feeling that we were playing through a flat farmers field and he just decided to up his income by throwing in a golf course. I didn't enjoy the course at all. Unfortunately the fairways and tee boxes were in appalling condition. The road running through the course is a menace and those using it pay no heed to the game going on around them. I know they have right of way but stopping just in front of the 3rd tee box to check you have you wetsuit is a bit much. In high summer when the beaches are packed I can see golfers waiting for a long time before they can play across it. The ramblers are able to roam wild with their dogs and they exercise the right to the best of their ability. We were made to wait on a few occasions while they strolled through the course without a care in the world. There are also lots of sheep and horses about. The horses run about and their hoof prints are everywhere with the exception of the greens.
So overall it is fair to say that I was extremely disappointed and underwhelmed with Westward Ho!
Wow, the beauty of subjectivity with 2 opposing views and scores within 2 reviews. It is a forum where no-one is right and no-one is wrong ! I can appreciate your sentiments and it can be frustrating a frustrating course in terms of non golfers wandering around, but to me, what you describe are the idiosyncrasies, uniqueness and charm of RND ! It is a shame you found the state of the tee boxes and fairways poor so can empathise in that sense. Fortunately the vast majority of reviewers like marmite !
Felt like a Pilgrimage. Just a very special experience from some beautiful old school golf holes (3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 16 & 18 are fabulous) to the livestock on the course to the memorabilia in the clubhouse. Please make the Pilgrimage.
Authentic, old, raw, challenging. These are some of the impressions of playing Westward Ho! on a windy afternoon. On the fifteenth tee I did wonder what liability might ensue if my tee shot struck one of the honorary life member horses. Fortunately the answer wasn’t required. RND is steeped in history, the panelling in the locker room tells the visitor as much before they start. If I had to twin it with another course perhaps Royal West Norfolk; a true barren links, situated on land you feel is owed to the sea.
Having played RND quite a few times in the last 10 years (most recently in April 2016) I find this quite a difficult course to rate. Some people love it, some people hate it, and I find myself somewhere in the middle. Full of tradition it's like going back in time. It's not manicured but greens are normally fine. Some of the holes are a tad bland, but the stretch from 3 to 8 is excelIant and on a sunny day the estuary views are fantastic. The tee shot on 6 is one of my favourites, whilst I find playing 13 as a par 5 very odd. Other reviewers compare with Pennard, but I would rate the variety of holes at Pennard much higher, and I would always play either of the courses at Saunton ahead of it. One thing I do think is that golf would be much poorer without courses like RND
As the crow flies I live a mere 2 miles away from Westward Ho! I haven’t played Royal North Devon since 2011. Please don’t ask me why. On Sunday morning I returned to England’s oldest links to meet Yuji (one of our Japanese contributors) who was travelling with his friend Matt (a member at Ballyneal) and Nobhiro (a Japan Tour Pro). They were in the middle of an epic European golfing adventure that included Sunningdale, Rye, Royal St George’s, Morfontaine, Haagasche, Royal Porthcawl and St Enodoc. Fourteen rounds in nine days in four different countries – just a quick glance at their itinerary made me go weak at the knees.
It was busy at RND last Sunday. The car park was full and we teed off behind a men’s competition in completely calm and warm conditions. As you may know, the first three holes and the two closing holes lie on flat ground that’s intersected by burns. The last time I clapped eyes on these flat holes was in January 2014 after much of the North Devon coastline had flooded. My rather poor photo shows the 18th green (behind the practice green’s bunker) completely surrounded by water. Thankfully the 18th green was not surrounded by water on Sunday, only sheep.
Put me down as a fan of Westward Ho! How could you not love the only town in Britain that shouts with an exclamation mark after its name? The course conditions were excellent considering horses gallop across these sacred greens. The crew do an amazing job on common ground that is shared with dog walkers, hundreds of sheep and dozens of horses. In fact the greens on Sunday were as quick and true as any golfer could desire (even Nobhiro was impressed). As many have already said, the first three flat holes are rather ordinary (but few can card a good score on them). However from the 4th (Cape, Table, Alp, Life Boat, Bar and Dell) you’re in links wonderland where I once again felt vitalised. You start to encounter the rushes before you reach the 10th (Rush) and then you’re in the thick of the most unusual spiky grassy hazards in golf.
Negotiate the rushes with your card intact and you’re heading for a score, which can be made at Royal North Devon. But cast your eyes back on a few holes and you’ll see some tough back tees which stretch this old girl out beyond 7,000 yards for the West of England Championship.
The Northam Burrows (now a Biosphere Reserve) lie in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it’s also a Site of Special Scientific Interest that just so happens to have the oldest golf course in England routed through it. There is nothing artificial about Westward Ho! Those that don’t like golfing heirlooms, preferring pristine courses, might prefer to golf somewhere else. In my opinion, RND is an architectural microcosm because it has a little bit of everything that is good and inartificial about old fashioned golf course design (for example greensites in hollows, on plateaux and on level ground. It is not the best course I’ve played, but few have more charm and fewer still were seemingly established by Providence. Throw aside prejudices, open the mind and prepare for an experience never to be forgotten. Perhaps one day soon I’ll submit the membership application. Keith Baxter