Recognised for being the oldest links course in England, Westward Ho! is one of those marmite experiences that either falls well short of expectations for a club with royal pedigree, or for others, provides a unique, traditional encounter like no other.
Grazing sheep, sea views and fast and true fescue greens, combined with a historic clubhouse that offers a window to golf’s past is a given. Whilst the course, in its current layout since 1908, has the feeling of being untouched.
The flat appearance of the course is immediately apparent on arrival, but rather than being deterred by this, the open expanse of links turf and swathes of sea rushes was one that stirred my golfing soul. The first two holes represent a challenge as burns zig zag across the fairways on both holes. The 1st a par five and the 2nd a par four, both play a similar distance more representative of par 4.5 holes. The public access road to the beach comes into play on the 2nd as you negotiate these deep sea rushes and unless you have the brawn to make the green in two despite the prevailing wind, will leave you with a pitch that plays to a lovely upturned green. Immediately, within two holes, despite the flat land, I found myself thinking and plotting as to how I need to strategise my way through the holes if I’m going to make a score. A flat, featureless field this is not.
That being said, the stretch where dunes do come into play from 4 through 8 is as good as I’ve played anywhere. 3 gives a glimpse of what’s to come, whilst, 4, Cape, RND’s most famous hole with its enormous sleepered bunker shouldn’t come into play for most decent strikers of a ball as a generous fairway lays beyond it. 5 is a glorious raised par three and the uneven fairway on 6 is unparalleled. 7 and 8 then have you playing out to the beachside where sand and fairways merge, 7 playing as a par four over the reeds and 8 a par three playing to the furthest point away from the clubhouse to a green framed by a sea wall.
Outside of this most amazing stretch of golf, 9 represents one of the more interesting flatter holes where again you’re required to plot your way down the fairway before the bumpy lumps return on your route through 10 and 11. Admittedly, the second half of 12 and all of 13 is indeed field-like and I was worried that the course was going to spiral downhill quickly at this point, but the 13th green, perched up in a plateau above this starkly flat gradient makes up for a disappointing patch of land. For many a golfer will likely be left bemused as they see their ball roll off the other side of the putting surface on what seems like the most bland hole tee to green, yet they still manage to walk away with bogey.
The flatter stretches of the course that come after this, whilst not at the level of the front nine are still well designed and are carved through the sea rushes with strategy still in play, and all the while being enhanced with interesting green complexes that come with drop-offs and in places, some excellently wicked slopes. Those sea rushes are a real feature across the course, and whilst some may find them a little unsightly, make for some interesting and blind tee shots. The round closes at 17 and 18, firstly with a five shot hole oddly playing over the live road - a little frustrating where we had to wait for several minutes to play our approach shots for the traffic to pass, whilst 18 makes a mockery of its stroke index 18 at 414-yards into the wind with a large ditch in front of the green.
On finishing my round, I had to think “seriously, what’s not to like?” It may not have the dunes that many associate with and seek out when playing links golf, but this course is a haven and a museum to golf’s historic past. Accept that you’re going to face a pretty sparse terrain when playing here and instead enjoy the intricate test and rugged beauty that the course offers.
Date: July 19, 2020