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8 miles W of Barnstaple
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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.
Saunton East is a classic links in every sense - when sitting outside the clubhouse before your round on a sunny day…I can’t imagine many others courses look more inviting! Saunton is on fantastic, undulating land and for me this more than makes up for the lack of sea views.
I think many associate links golf with views of the sea, but for me, the quality of the links land is what sets a good links course apart from a great one. Although you won’t see the sea during your round on the East at Saunton, I can assure you some of the UK’s best surfing waves are only a few hundred metres away. As for the links land on show here, it is up there with the best I have played on, and there is no better place to survey it’s gently rolling nature than from than the perfectly placed and raised 1st tee.
I was lucky to play the course in ideal summer conditions with a 10mph breeze, with the rough waving satisfyingly as far as the eye could see. A word on the rough, due to the protected nature of the land, much of the rough stuff is seriously gnarly. That being said, it is usually at its worst in areas that you weren’t intended to be playing golf from. Normal links rules apply; hit it to where you can see it and go and hit it again.
A quick note on the property as a whole; as you will know, Saunton boasts 36 championship holes and although the East is the headline offering, there is real quality right across both courses. I’ll review the West separately but safe to say, I was very impressed with it also and I would implore you to take in both courses if you come to visit.
Back to that 1st tee on the East however, and it really is one of the most picturesque opening tee shots I can recall. A beautifully shaped left to right fairway awaits and a faded ball for a right handed golfer is probably the shot of choice, peeling off the pair of pot bunkers at the far side of the fairway. I always think a strong starting hole lays a real marker for the quality that is to follow and this hole fits into that category.
I loved the strategy required on the par 5 2nd, with both the drive and the second needing to navigate away from the two pinch points in the fairway that seem perfectly placed. The green sites at 4 and 5 set the tone for the treacherous nature of some the greens, both raised and highly sloping. There are, I’m sure, many tales of woe that can be told about adventures on those two greens.
The run of back to back par 4’s 6 thru 12, I was expecting to like less than I did. There was enough variety in shot types required and yardages to make the run engaging and the routing from one to another flows well. I had noted comments that hole 11 in particular had been felt to be one of the weaker holes on the course. Recent improvements to the hole have increased its defences and a combination of new bunkers off the tee, shaved rounded shoulder to encourage errant balls in to the right hand ditch and protective mounding at the front left of the green have strengthened the hole considerably.
On to the last 6 holes, which are in a single word, special. 14 was my favourite hole on the course, a straight up par 4 where the fairway thins to almost nothing for the last 140 yards of the hole. It is an intimidating spectacle and one that heaps pressure on finding the short stuff, long and true, with your drive. The short holes, 13 and 17 are both brilliant tests although, very different in yardage. Finally, 16 is a wonderful sweeping right to left hole where the hollows and undulations torment the mind on both shots.
We played in relative calm for a links and I can imagine this could be a really tough course in breezier conditions. But don’t be put off by the potential difficulty this course could present. This is a classic links test that shows character at every turn. The four tee boxes offer a wide ranging yardage allowing you to select appropriately for the playing conditions. All in all, this is a truly charming links and one that now resides in the highest echelons of my personal list.
From the clubhouse, and from the 1st tee, it looks like you are in for a for a real treat, but it honestly was a bit of a let down.
First, the positives. The greens are among the best I have putted on in this country, and there a couple of cracking short par 3’s and we got to play it on a beautiful sunny day in a 4 club breeze.
My problem is that after the round I was genuinely struggling to piece together my round as most of the holes are very forgettable. It may have been a different case if we were allowed to play the Championship tees, but every par 4 felt like it was 380 yards off the white tees!
1 is a great opening hole, and a wonderful tee shot, the best on the course probably. 2 is a nice risk reward short par 5, ignoring the short par 3 5th (I think) the next 10 holes are a blur to me. A few decent green complexes aside, it was very monotonous.
Royal North Devon is a FAR more varied and interesting golf course in my opinion, and for playing off the members tees this sadly was not was not worth the £110.
But the greens were suuuuuperb! So there is that...
Saunton East was the first Top 100 GB&I course I had played. We managed to get a tee time on a blustery afternoon in July with the constant threat of downpour looming – a more links experience I could not wish for.
The course itself is brilliant fun. The first hole elevated tee box provides a great view out over the dunes and the fun to come. Most of the holes play in-between the dunes with menacing pot bunkers in play throughout.
As I sit back and reflect more than five months since our round, the first four holes all play fairly similarly from memory before you change direction on the very short fifth.
Six and seven are flatter holes before you play back into the dunes on 8, with a brilliant blind tee shot and a green with a very narrow entrance. This part of the course was my favourite, with holes nine and ten particularly standing out, especially the elevated green on ten.
Eleven was the weakest hole on the course for me, playing alongside a ditch and twelve is again a flat, long par 4. It picks up again on the short par three thirteenth which is a brilliant green and fourteen to sixteen are excellent, testing par fours.
The rain and wind had started when we stepped onto seventeen making the 190 yard par 3 feel twice that length. The closing hole is a great dog-leg back up the hill to the lovely clubhouse.
A fantastic round and the greens were in excellent condition when we played it. For the green fee, a truly special experience for outstanding value.
Saunton is set on an amazing piece of land. It doesn’t feel quite as sandy as some other links, but the dunes, rumpled fairways and scenery make up for it. As a layout, Saunton East then lives up to its reputation.
This is a proper championship test, and although I was unsure about playing the white tees, I’m very glad I got to see more of what makes Saunton such an exam. You might get one or two relative breathers when playing downwind, but these still require thinking and correct placement from the tee. Raised tee boxes provide views but bring the wind even more so into play.
Once around the greens you’re given no respite. I’ve played a decent amount of links and both Saunton courses have the most sloped greens I’ve seen, with some tough pin positions that mean even short putts have to be played outside the hole. On the par 5 15th and its perched green, I even putted from the back fringe back down the false front and 20 yards down the fairway. Clumsy yes, but I’m not the first or last to do that.
There are many tough approaches with dunes, false fronts and bunkers protecting greens, but it’s still fair and scoreable for better players. Saunton is mentioned as a potential Open venue, it’s certainly hard enough but for me it lacked just that little bit extra grandeur that the real top tier links have. It’s not far away though and is well worth the trip to Devon, especially with another solid course on site.
I visited Saunton in August 2015 with my brother as part of a little ‘West Country’ trip that included Burnham and Berrow. So 4 years have passed and I still remember beating my brother on the last hole with a par on a below the clubhouse with my parents watching – so proud.
My actual course memories are limited, however I remember some truly beautiful holes with great views from elevated tees. The first is an elevated, severely unprotected tee and we played into a harsh wind – tough for sure and my splayed tee shot confirmed this.
Both courses (the other the ‘West’) on this site are brilliant and compliment each other well. I would love to return and play both in one day with lunch in the clubhouse, whilst critiquing golfers coming up 18 below you.
I remember the lovely driving range at Saunton. Hidden amongst the dunes, trying to hit the range targets with 4ft apex stingers was fun indeed. Another memory I have is a conversation with a member at Saunton about the membership price for juniors or youth members. The fee was so minimal it was criminal. For 36 holes, all you would need to do is play 5 times a year and you’re covered. And I certainly recommend playing here more than 5 times a year.
And I’ll repeat … I beat my brother!
Saunton East was the final course on my 3 week trip to play the Atlantic Links (or the links of the south west). Although I had heard countless stories by fellow golfers of the immaculate greens, brutality of the rough and all-round sheer quality of this golf course, my expectations were reasonably low. This was partially due to the hype around Trevose that, in the end, disappointed me so I went in with an open mind. I also had one question in my head that stuck with me throughout the whole round. Could Saunton East hold the open Championship. Although the final answer is no (and I’ll address this later in the review) it is fair to say that saunton east is easily one of the hardest and best golf courses I’ve ever played. In fact, I’ll even go as far as saying this in underrated. It is fantastic. From start to finish, your golf game will be stretched and torn and beaten up to the point where u wonder how a patch of land can offend you so much. Let’s start with condition. It’s quite an easy point because the answer is short. Immaculate. Greens are quick throughout the year and the fairways were the best I’d played throughout the trip (and that includes st Enedoc and Burnham). Now onto the design. Almost every hole is built within the dunes. These dunes aren’t ridiculously high like at St Enedoc, but big enough to not only frame the hole but create a hazard if you go into them. The fairways are reasonably flat, however, they are still rumpled and will kick your ball into every fairway bunker on the course!! When I say flat, I’m comparing them to the fairways are St Enedoc and west Cornwall which quite literally feel like mountains when walking over them. I’d compare them more to Royal St George’s. The bunkers are what makes this place extra special tho. Perfectly placed. U know this when you find your ball in them quite often! The fairway bunkers range from small pot bunkers to a few blow out bunkers. Either way, you aren’t going to get out of them with ease. 90% of the time it’s a take your medicine and chip out. The free side bunkers are all classic links style pot bunkers with huge faces and riveted walls. You know a bunkers is deep when most of them have a few steps to get you into them! The bunkers fit beautifully into the dunes as well, they aren’t just stuck there and look out of place. Each one is burrowed into either the mounding around the green or the dunes surrounding the fairway; it’s as if the bunkers were there long before the golf course. And then onto the rough. In fact, I wouldn’t call it rough. It’s more lost ball territory because 90% of the time you aren’t finding it. The rough isn’t exactly grass but more a combination of heather, fescue and thick bushes that gobble up your ball, never to be seen again. Besides the landscape in which they are built, the holes themselves are very strong. From the whites, which are the recommended tees for visitors to play off, most of the holes are very long punish you for not being straight off the tee. There are only 3 par 3’s at Saunton (east) but each one could easily be a signature hole at your local club. Each one is a carry over thick ‘rough’ and boasts an incredibly undulating green and heavily punishing bunkers. My favourite of these par 3’s however is the shortest hole on the course. The 117 yard 5th hole is the postage stamp of saunton. The green looks reasonably large off the tee, but the actual landing area is about the size of a table. A huge false front will kick any ball into the front bunker and anything long is, well, lost! If you really want to test yourself, go to the very back tee. The hole then stretches to 165 yards and is the hardest shot you will likely play all year. Many people say that Saunton is great until the flat holes. I can agree with this. Any other course like royal Liverpool for example would get away with this because of their landscape; however, the thrills at saunton are nestled within the Braunton Burrows and you are eager to continue playing within them whilst playing these holes. But don’t take these holes lightly. Bunkers are littered everywhere to make up for the lack off dunes and the gently sloping greens are nearly impossible to read without a well trained eye. And onto the closing stretch. The 16th is a dog leg left par 4 is shaded by towering dunes on the left of the fairway. The fairway is incredibly undulating compared to the rest of the course and The tee shot must be threaded through sand dunes and perfectly onto the fairway to have a good look at the green. The green is an up-turned saucer and anything long is lost ball territory. A 5 here will feel like a 3. The 17th is a stunning par 3 measuring around 200 depending on the tee position. It’s downhill but straight into the prevailing wind. From the tee, have a look around at the landscape and what you have just conquered (or tried to at least!) bunkers are everywhere on this hole And short is not an option if you want an easy up and down. This hole can be a total score wrecker. And finally, the 18th. And what a closing hole it is. The 18th at saunton perfectly sums up the hole course in one hole. There are towering dunes all around you, three deep fairway bunkers, a rumpled fairway and the most intimidating final tee shot you’ll find in England. The clubhouse is located right behind the 18th and the patio looks out and over the green. The patio is normally packed with loud members and visitors who are all watching you as you hit you final iron shot into (or around) the green. There are bunkers everywhere so make sure you finish with style, hit the green, make the put and go and get yourself a well deserved drink on the patio. Overall, I can’t really praise saunton higher for quality of course. Yes the views would’ve been nice but the quality of course layout completely makes up for this. I would place saunton east higher than Burnham and would definitely go as far as saying it’s a much harder course than St Enedoc, although st Enedoc is probably a better golfing experience. If it had the views, saunton would be my favourite course in the south west, nether-less it comfortably takes second place behind St Enedoc.
So now onto why saunton couldn’t hold the open. Is the course hard enough? 100%. In fact I’d say it’s level of difficulty is on par with Royal Birkdale and possibly even Royal St. George’s. It’s very similar to Birkdale, in fact, I’d probably say I prefer saunton because of its attitude and more relaxed feel of the club. Can it accommodate the players? Yes, the hotel could comfortably accommodate the players and possibly even some spectators. Is the course long enough? At this moment in time, the answer is no. From the members tees the course is no differnt to Birkdale in length, but what Birkdale has is the extra tee way back in the distance that can be used for the Open Championship. Saunton just doesn’t have the space to build a tee an extra 30+ yards back on some of its holes which is, in some ways, a shame because the course is definitely hard enough for a major championship but in many ways a good thing because it wouldn’t turn the club into a upper class, stick up club such as Royal St George’s. If you live within 3 hours of saunton it’s a must play. The price is very reasonable at £70-£100 depending on what day you go on compared to many courses that are £150+. If you don’t live close, the hotel is apparently very good with amazing sea views and the west course at Saunton is apparently also extremely good, but a bit shorter in length. Can’t wait to come back soon to play the west course to see if the starters claim of it being “equally as good” is true.
I wish I lived within driving distance of Saunton! The members here are some seriously lucky people. I often read in reviews about the debate of the best 36 hole golf complex in England and whilst my soft spot for Sunningdale will be hard to shift, Saunton must run it pretty close.
Saunton isn’t the easiest place in the country to get to, but if you haven’t ticked it off your list, it’s a must for any golf fanatic.
From the moment you leave your car and make your way to the clubhouse entrance, you pass the 18th green of the East and look out over the undulating fescue covered dunes, it has you salivating for the round to come.
The East starts with an elevated tee box that offers views of the task that lies ahead. It’s a fantastic opening hole played over a decent carry onto a pristine green fairway. The course then meanders through the dunes, throwing you in all different directions. I’ve seen some critics say that the East has too many Par 4s (13 in total, including a stretch of 7), but they are all so much fun, testing and different, that it really doesn’t matter. There are doglegs rights and lefts, short and long, uphill and downhill approaches, blind drives and holes that are laid out in front of you. What more could you want?
Of the rest, the Par 3s are a real test! How you find the dance floor on the Par 3 122y 5th is anyone’s guess. Certainly our fourball wouldn’t be able to offer any suggestions here.
And the 208y Par 3 17th, when playing into the wind, is a strong wood for even the biggest hitters.
The course is immaculate throughout. The care and effort they put into not just the fairways, but the run off areas, paths, land around the creeks is just incredible and rarely seen at other courses. The greens ran true and were beautifully contoured throughout.
I can’t say enough good things about this wonderful course and if there’s a better 36 hole links venue in England, I’m all ears. I can’t wait to come back.
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The members at Saunton are truly blessed having a club with two high class links courses. It’s well worth the effort to reach Saunton, not the easiest of locations to access but it won’t disappoint. I was able to play in early March just before lockdown on a typically blustery and showery day you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in North Devon, genuine links golf weather. Although early in the season the condition was excellent; the greens wonderfully true with excellent roll, a joy to putt on and thankfully the rough was pretty thin.
The course starts with an superb par 4 from an elevated tee which gives a great view of the courses, it then winds its way through the dunes with a great mix of dog legs and straighter holes which all ask strategic questions of how to play your approach and how bold should I be on the dog legs. Stand out holes for me were the 1st, 9th, the short 10th which tempts you to either launch one at the green or be sensible and the closing stretch from 15 in. To my mind there are probably too many par 4’s in row, a short par 3 in the middle would provide some variety and respite but given the quality of them it’s not major issue, just would add a little fun. It felt like there weren’t many bunkers (unless I just had a good day!) but if you find one it’s a proper punishment which you have punch out with a short iron in most cases.
Overall a great course, in my own personal ranking it doesn’t reach the heights of North Berwick (lacking that courses variety and quirks) but is still a very good course which should be on the bucketlist of anyone who likes links golf.
I spent my childhood summers by the sea, but the local golf course had moved inland before I was born, so my first real taste of links golf was at Saunton. It was a real epiphany and I have not looked back since. I have been back to Saunton several times since, though, so this review is not based on that distant memory of revelation.
The essence of my recommendation is this: There are better links courses in England, but if you start from the London-Bristol corridor and are looking to play as much quality links golf as you can during a week-end golfing break, the numbers ahead of Saunton shrink very fast. In fact, I would argue that Saunton’s two courses plus the unique Royal North Devon course at Westward Ho! across the bay would be very close to England’s best week-end links golf package!
If you have a more extensive tour in mind, I also happen to think that the Atlantic Links collection (Saunton, RND, Burnham&Berrow, St Enodoc, Trevose and Perranporth) is a very worthwhile alternative to more established "links tours" in Scotland and Ireland, so do put this place on your wish list if you have not yet been.