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.
A different style of course, Royal North Devon is rough-hewn and is not in the least bit polished. Therein lies its charm. Playing at Royal North Devon is the antithesis of sitting in a golf cart for a five hour round waiting for the group ahead of you to line up their fourth putt. This is golf at its simplest and purest. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the common land, the course is a bit rough around the edges. There are also no yardage markers, but only simple grey rocks to mark off 150 yards. The greenskeeper here clearly doesn't have Augusta envy like many courses in the U.S. This is a course where you play the ball where it lies, commune with nature and go back to the game's roots. If golf is a metaphor for life, then Royal North Devon is its best example: it's not all neat and tidy; rub of the green as it's called. Royal North Devon also features a lot of blind tee shots. There are aiming poles on quite a few holes, especially on the back nine, which plays away from the water and features an abundance of marshland grass. These grasses are called 'Great Sea Rushes' and you want to steer clear of them since they eat golf balls. The thirteenth hole is a 442-yard par five named "Lundy." It is a unique hole in several regards. First, it is short for a par five. Second, it is really a sheep pasture masquerading as a fairway, and third, the green is diabolical. How do you make a very short par five a difficult hole? Put in an inverted saucer green, make it circular and only 25 feet in diameter. I am embarrassed to say that I four putted the darn thing after being 10 feet off the green in two. This is golf from the old school, and although it probably won’t appeal to everyone, it is a special place to enjoy the game and its history.
An open-air museum in the Southwest of England! I’ll admit to playing golf for far too long without a visit to the Southwest of England which could well be one of the most underrated and overlooked golf havens in the world.
My first trip started in style, even after my flight over from Amsterdam was cancelled in the morning. Luckily, I was able to find another and with the Golf Gods on my side managed to make it for an afternoon tee time still. Stepping out of the car at the parking lot it already hits you. That feeling of having just driven across the time bridge back into the late 1800’s. You won’t find any fancy frills and over exuberant luxury here but rather an extremely downplayed and simple facility, most certainly adequate and full of charm. Enter the club house and the center point, the social point as is the case in many old school club setups is the bar which looks every bit the typical pub. Brilliant, something you will almost only find in the UK.
The course has hardly been altered from its original routing which works its way out towards and along the sea before turning around and coming back to the club house. A true links that plays out through some very flat land I the beginning which seems more tidal marsh rather than links land. The course makes really interesting use of this flatter area before really heating up and heading into and making brilliant use of the coastal dunes and some of the most wonderful and unexpected land movements. The 4th holes plays across one of the most iconic and massive bunkers you may ever see. The 6thmay well be my favorite hole on the course. Teeing off from the highest point on top of a dune it affords the best views and plays out to one of the most natural and crazily undulated fairways you will ever see.
Once back into the flatter sections of the course it twists and turns its way in various direction before heading home. These lowland holes are characterized by some kind of marsh grass that is very tall and acts to create a feeling of blindness on quite a few holes and framing on several others. These tall grasses need to be avoided at all costs but there is plenty of width to work with.
It’s unfortunate that flooding and severe erosion are causing some big alterations to the course and namely to a few of the holes and green complexes I liked the most. I’ll need to pay another visit after to see what impact this work has had. In the meantime, I can’t urge you enough if there is still time to get to Westward Ho! before these changes are done if it’s not already too late.
Having played a single round of golf at Westward Ho !, I can not understand how some of the previous reviewers may dislike the course. Well, to be honest, I can understand it, since the course and its presentation may not be the taste of all kinds of golfers.
However, it is a real pity that Royal North Devon is not appreciated for what it is: a true monument of what the game of golf was at its dawns, and possibly a reference of what it should be in the future.
So, in front of manicured fairways, pristine buggy paths and overwatered greens, Westward Ho! It offers sheep and horses freely traversing the course, animal depositions, native vegetation, old-fashioned obstacles and, as a major challenge, the action of nature. And, beside all that, the feeling of having penetrated in the true spirit of the game of golf, which is already evident in the clubhouse itself and its museum.
Therefore, although we must accept that golf can be presented in many different ways and forms and that any taste is respectable, I can only recognize my respect for a club that, despite the passage of time, has decided to maintain the spirit of the game, becoming a flagstick of tradition and sustainability.
Regarding the course itself, although the level of the holes is uneven, in my opinion, the stretch from hole 4 to 9 has nothing to envy the best of links. I also found that the holes in which the "sea rushes" come into play are great fun, and although some of the holes back to the clubhouse can be somewhat bland, they all add something to the challenge of the course. In fact, even holes 1, 2, 17 and 18 did not displease me, since the strong wind made them a tough test (in fact, the wind brought into play some features like the Cape Bunker, which was not so easy to overcome on the day).
Some of my mates showed their disappointment for some of the last holes, but for me, the course must be evaluated as a whole for what it represents and, in that sense, Royal North Devon is an obligation for any authentic golf lover.
M.M. Azagra, Barcelona, Spain.
Royal North Devon-I was very much looking forward to playing Westward Ho....I had heard much about it. Much like many times when you build up the expectation the result comes up short. RND is a fine course. It steps out to its linksland area with two holes which are routine. It has a few great holes and then enters its marsh waste area which defines the playing areas with marshland water plants. For the newbie to this feature a raised teebox or two would be nice. You then come home with a few strong holes which have water hazards dramatically in play. It is an odd collection of holes which add up to the oldest course in England. A very welcoming club which deserves a visit if you are in the area.
I will make myself unpopular here but, history apart, this is one course I would not want to play again. Does not surprise me that its has fallen out of the BI Top 100. No comparison to the two Saunton courses which are both excellent.
Eastwood Woe at Westward Ho!
RND is a course that requires multiple plays to appreciate more than any other I’ve played. After my first 2-3 rounds I still wasn’t even quite sure there was a golf course out there. I feel differently now.
Admittedly we don’t all have time for repeat plays and all look forward to the next course, but then be aware you could be missing out on something.
History aside, RND is an atypical yet classic course
I must admit to BB that I did have a 'mare'.... and yes, perhaps playing courses more than once can make you like them better but... something about RND that just did not click with me! Apologies to all who love it!
England’s oldest course is a museum piece. Little has changed in over a century and the entire experience is history lesson. The golf almost keeps pace, though I found too many uninspiring greens (1, 5, 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16) and too many par 5s with no challenge on the second shot to make it a 6 ball course. Still a very good golf course and an experience not to be missed.
Steve gives a fair appraisal in his review. I do feel the greens on 5, 13, & 16 are quite interesting, but they do lack significant contouring, which a number of golfers may prefer
How can you not love this course? It is a relic. It has not sold out to modernisation. To criticize this course is just bizarre. It is as it was hundreds of years ago. It’s not full of raised tees, the holes haven’t been reshaped, I’m unsure how original the bunkering is but the bunkers are incredibly well placed on every hole. People, dogs, cars all add to the quirkiness. Tee boxes placed seemingly haphazardly but never a long walk to them.
I love the first tee shot – horses and sheep everywhere. Sure some of the holes are on flat land but so what? I would hate to think changes would be made to try and make it more interesting because it is a fantastic course exactly as is.
You aren’t going to ooh and aah about the conditioning or the architecture but you don’t play RND if you are after that. Note though neither of these are weak or poor just not at the level of Saunton/Enodoc/Trevose etc.
The holes from 4 to about 14 are played in and around decent dunes and other vegetation that requires accurate shots. The greens were decent and as mentioned the bunkers well placed and tough. The 5th up the hill is a magnificent par 3. Plenty of great holes throughout the course. This is a unique golf course. Warren from Aust
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.