If there is a need for another seaside Open Championship venue, then surely the East course at Saunton Golf Club is a worthy candidate. Saunton, of course, has never held The Open, but it has hosted other important events. Sergio Garcia won the Boys Amateur Championship here in 1997, beating Richard Jones 6 and 5.
Saunton is located on the beautiful unspoilt North Devon coast. On the edge of Bideford Bay and the estuary of the River Taw, lie the Braunton Burrows. Unesco has designated the sand dunes at Braunton Burrows of international importance and it is the first site in the UK to become a biosphere reserve. The area is unique because there are more than 500 species of flora; many including the water Germander, are extremely rare. This area will now rank alongside Mount Vesuvius and the Danube Delta.
The East course, laid out in 1897, runs through a small part of this amazing expanse of sand dunes. Herbert Fowler added a bit of redesign magic in 1919 taking full advantage of the natural terrain, routing the holes with skill. This is the man who was responsible for the masterpiece at Walton Heath and Saunton was perhaps his finest seaside creation.
Bernard Darwin fell in love with the ancient links situated just across the Taw estuary at Westward Ho! He frequently made the “reverent pilgrimage” to Royal North Devon. Darwin had probably never played the East course at the time of writing: “Saunton looks at first glance like a fine golf course.” Harry Vardon loved it, saying: “I would like to retire to Saunton and do nothing but play golf for pleasure.”
In 2017, the club commissioned an Historic Research Study on the East course. The report highlighted a devastating impact to Herbert Fowler's original design, caused by military activity during the Second World War. This resulted in an early 1950s C.K. Cotton restoration.
Today's East course is clearly very different to the layout enjoyed so much by Harry Vardon, but it's undeniably a tough course. With eight par fours measuring more than 400 yards long and only two par fives, low scoring is very difficult, even more so now that the 2nd hole (once a short par five) has been lengthened to almost 530 yards. There are two excellent short par threes, which demand accuracy, and there’s the tough 207-yard 17th hole, which often needs a solid crack with a wood.
Some commentators believe that the East course would benefit from another par three and another par five to break up the relative monotony of umpteen par fours, seven of which arrive back to back from the 6th.
However, surely nobody will deny that Saunton has 36 of the finest seaside links holes in England? The East course is considered to be Saunton's best, but the West is very good too, which combined make this an outstanding venue for a golf day.
This was my 2nd visit to Saunton East and one that I was very much looking forward to. My 1st visit was a couple of years ago and we literally drove in, played 18, jumped in the car and drove out and so I was happy to be spending the whole day there this time, playing the East in the morning and the West in the afternoon - with some lunch in between!
On my last visit we played from the yellow tees, but this time we opted for the whites (the starter informed us that as a member for over 20yrs he's only played from the yellow tees 3 times) and i'm glad we did. The course is set up for play from the back tees and some of the tee shots appear easier than they did when we played from the yellows.
The course was in great condition and as expected the ball was rolling nicely on the fairways. Our only criticism was the lack of consistency on the greens regarding speed. Some were lightning quick (as you'd expect) and some were ridiculously slow, which meant 3 putts were a common occurrence. My lob wedge approach to the 10th actually stopped on the slope on the front of the green, rather than roll down towards the hole!
That said, there are many enjoyable holes (the stretch between 8 & 12 were personal favourites), and if someone can tell me how to play the 117yd 5th and keep the ball on the green I'd be eternally grateful.
The 18th is a dogleg played to a green situated in front of the clubhouse, which when you've finished your round gives you chance to sit on the patio with a beer and critique the golfers following you.
A must play if you're a fan of links golf!
The East course at Saunton is generally regarded as the flag course of the club, as it is undoubtedly the most suitable for competitive golf.
It is, without a doubt, a tough and long course, in which a long and accurate drive is essential in order to avoid the bunkers and hazards and tackle the greens from a reasonable distance.
In my case, and although I managed well my way through the course, I must confess that the test proved arduous, to which a windy day contributed, as well as the t length of the course from the white stakes.
The course begins in an intense way, with a good number of par 4s of appreciable difficulty, and only a good par 5 where to score, apart from a charming short par 3, much more complicated in fact than its yardage could indicate.
This abundance of par 4s does not mean that the round is monotonous, since many of them are different from each other: among them, I especially liked the 8th, with its blind drive and a second shot to a green nestled between dunes, or the 10th, a short par 4 with a beautiful plateau green.
Finally, the last holes offer a greater variety, highlighting the last two, the 17th, a brutish par 3, and the 18th, a dogleg par 4 with the final prospect of the clubhouse, where you can enjoy a well-earned rest.
In my opinion, if there is one aspect to highlight of the course are the greens, all of them varied and interestingly contoured, and it is there where this course is superior to its younger brother the West.
And, although this course is not among my favorite links courses (in general, I prefer those that run close to the sea, like Brora, North Berwick or Dornoch), it does not mean that it is not a quality links and a real test of skill for any golfer .
Just back from a few days playing both Saunton courses. We played the West first and, to be honest were a little disappointed...say 6/10, but certainly not worth driving 300 miles for. We then played the East twice and it is outstanding...for me, 8.5/10 and maybe even 9/10. Just don't let anybody tell you there is little to choose between the two...there is no comparison so, if you can't get on the East, I shouldn't bother. Just a word of advice...sharpen your bunker skills before you take these courses on...they are PROPER hazards, not like the Mickey Mouse bunkers on American courses!
SAUNTON (East) Played the East twice and enjoyed the test. Lines off the tees are important as one can run out of fairway in the distance. In fairness the barber’s poles (black and white) give a true indication of the lines to take to avoid the myriad of dry dykes that are ubiquitous. 10th hole is short and allows a good wedge to a very elevated green where putting then can be a challenge. The 11th is short and tricky not a driver.
13 par fours and two par fives is a bit off balance-- Seve reckoned the ideal course would have 6 threes, 6 fives and 6 fours... 6/10; May 2019, pd
If there is another 36 holes of true links golf better than the Saunton courses, please tell me. Truly memorable.
Saunton East has long been on my list of links courses to play and finally this October I made the 2.5 hr journey there. Oh boy I should have come sooner!
When you round the corner of the clubhouse and the grandeur of the course and dunes systems presents itself you are left in awe and you know you are in for a special day.
The course is very fair off the tee and the green complexes are superb. The greens on the day I visited were in excellent condition. The 13 par 4's provide plenty of variety. Each has its own character and you never get the feeling of playing a repetitive hole. The par 3's are as good a set as you will find on any links course.
In my opinion Saunton is a links you cannot miss. I surely will be back soon and plan to also play the West Course too.
The closer one gets to the hole, the better the golf is at Saunton. The green complexes are the strength of the course, with plenty of contours to challenge one’s putting (though the new green at the 11th is quite dull and looks rather out of place). The majority of the greens allow a running or aerial approach, providing for thinking as to how to play the shot. But 8 of them will only accept an aerial shot—a defect in my view. Too many tee shots are defective in that regard as well, with no line of charm, meaning a drive to most any section of the fairway will do. And with 13 par 4s, things can get a bit monotonous. Soon after my round, I replayed it in my head and found I could not remember all the holes........hardly the stuff of a top 20 course in England.
Dear Steve, I feel that you undersell Saunton for any potential visitors. Scuttling a shot up to the green on a par three may indeed be de rigour for those of the purest links bent...yet criticism of the postage stamp is rare for that particular peculiarity. Also I think 8 rather oversells the aerial route point. I agree trying to run it up to the 15th green is difficult. And is difficult to hold the green if you’re a long way out in two, but these are challenges not detriments in my mind. As for the any line off the tee I can only quote holes 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9 on the front nine as having a major impact. Also not being able to remember the holes does rather mitigate about commenting on the tee shot unimportance. It’s a great course. Top 20 in England? Well that’s always a personal opinion but I feel you’ve missed out on something and you should give it another go.
Fantastic golf course. A bit tougher, longer, rugged, dunesy, maintained and better than the West course. The greens are framed by dunes, decent length is required off the tees and the greens were superb. What a great golf complex – to have 36 holes of this quality is something I dream about.
This goes straight to 6 ball territory with the West at 5 balls. Warren from Aust
I played both the East and West Course 30 years ago and it started my love for links golf. I have played the best courses in the British Isles over the last 30 years St Andrews, Turnberry, Portmarnock, Royal County Down and Portrush to name a few Saunton stands up with the best a magnificent experience course conditioning, staff and catering make for the ultimate links experience it is a tough decision on the best 36 holes in the British Isles I would go for Ballyliffin but Saunton is a very close second and if it had sea views it would undoubtedly be number one. I am now a country member of the club and it is a total privilege to have the opportunity to play two of the most stunning links on the planet.
The East course is very much a different proposition to the West. Although the terrain is relatively flat, especially the fairways, several of the holes run through the notorious burrows giving each one its own distinct character. It's a longer course than the West and you will often hear words such as; mighty, grand, strong and titanic to describe it. It is indeed a powerhouse of a course and, as many have put forward in the past, it would be a venue with attributes worthy of hosting an Open Championship.
That said, I would say the West is possibly the more memorable course. There are a lot of very strong par fours on the East and to say they are all much of a muchness is unfair but at the end of the day it is usually the holes on the West that are the easier to recollect.
I was hugely impressed with the East although it perhaps didn't quite live up to the (awe inspiring) billing in terms of what I had read and heard beforehand on the first play but it has grown on me over time. Perhaps I was expecting too much first time around.
So which is the best course? I would probably agree with the majority and say that the East is a 'better' course, certainly from a championship perspective. But it would be a close call and the West is certainly more fun and calls for more creativity.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.