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 has never held an 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 a Historic Research Study on the East course which highlighted extraordinary impact to Herbert Fowler's original design due to military activity during the Second World War.
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.
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.
Simply excellent. A great test of golf on a superb links layout. Not a bad hole in my view. Pretty tough for a 10 handicap off the whites. Driving accuracy and placement at a premium. I've played for 40 years on many courses and this is my favourite to date. Simple as that. And the folks in the pro shop were very welcoming. Thanks for a memorable day.
With 13 par 4s and not much variety, this flat piece of land is a lackluster experience in my humble opinion. The land for the adjacent West course is routed through exciting high sand dunes and in comparison, the East course just doesn’t offer the same amount of exhilaration. I’ll admit that I was genuinely shocked with where the East course is ranked in England as I was expecting a hell of a lot more. For a course with championship history, there’s only one hole on the entire course that measures over 500 yards from the back-tees. There just isn’t enough variety as a result of 13 par 4s and not much change in elevation. The closing stretch is well designed and the par 3s are certainly a delight to play. I can only hope the plans to improve this course pan out as discussed.
Saunton is a great golfing destination that we very happily played last week in beautiful sunshine with our Editor in Chief. If you are interested in my overall thoughts, rather than copy and paste I would ask you have a look at the opening to my contemporaneous review of the West which we played in the morning.
The East starts superbly with a tough, elevated double dog leg par 4, then reachable par 5 with lateral water hazard at the critical distance framing the fairway. The middle section flows nicely with very good but not stand out holes in the manner of other courses such as Burnham & Berrow, Aberdovey or Royal St Davids before some excellent links holes to complete the round.
The greens were quick and true with strategic bunkering and interesting green sites, and once you turn for home the succession of tough par 4’s makes protecting your score a tough task.
To echo some other reviews, lengthening a couple of holes to make some genuine par 5’s would add some variety and respite to the course, but really it’s great already so make the trip and enjoy a (in my experience) unique 36 hole day of golf.
Not many better 36 holes than Saunton. Top, top golf course full of brilliant golf, starting with the 1st. Others include 2, 4, 5, 6, 14 & 15.
Many thanks for your kind review
Hunkered behind the dunes, not far from the eternal and perpetual Atlantic lies one of the most under rated and under visited links courses of our Islands. This is a sleeping behemoth bypassed by the ticker tape badge collectors but adored by the cognoscenti. Long may it be so. £250 for Kingsbarns? £200 for Old Head of Kinsale? You sir, have been taken for a mug. Head west on the Atlantic links trail and be seduced by the whisper of the relentless Atlantic. Burnham and Berrow, St Enodoc and Saunton are three of the most fabulous courses you could visit on your next trip. As for Saunton, It is that incredible wine you picked up for just a tenner, the shirt you bought for £20 that you have had for years, those shoes you always choose that someone gave you. Saunton has two amazing Links courses asking you to feed your ball through the air and through the dunes to greens that are firm and undulating with hazards of all kinds ready to swallow the errant, drifting shot. And on top of that the beaches are epic, there are some lovely restaurants in Braunton and Illfrecombe and you might see me during the open week in August, Is there better club for welcoming visitors of this staure? I very much doubt it. Check their website for next year. Family holiday AND golf? hard to beat. JCB LAY
Many thanks for your review. Bookings for August week open in early January 2017. Regards, Russell
Saunton East is demanding championship course. With only 2 par 5's and 3 par 3's the strength of the course are the excellent variety of par 4's. The course flows naturally through the surrounding land, fairly flat but defined by dunes and ridges that defined most of the holes. The green complexes are skillfully designed, allowing for some very difficult pin placements, most of which they used the day we played.
The opening hole is as challenging as any in links golf, vying with the first at Muirfield and Birkdale as a difficult opening hole. The hole is 470 yards from the white tee, and the drive must negotiate a dune on the right and bunkers to the left. You are left with a long second to a green that will accept a well played shot. The 4th is the #1 stroke index hole, and deservedly so. Once again the drive must be thread through a dune on the right and a series of bunkers on the left. The bold play challenges the bunkers but if successful leaves a more open approach to the green. The green has severe slopes and the front left pin we encountered demand the ultimate in precision. This is a great hole among many great holes on this course. I also like the 10th. It's a short, 330 yard par 3, and the drive is actually fairly benign. The approach, however, covers two cross bunkers and a steep slope in the front. The green drops off in the back as well. This is a wonderful design for a hole of it's length. 16 is a beautiful dogleg left that dares you to cut the corner, but beware of the dunes and rough that will devour your ball should you stray too far left. A birdie here was one of the highlights of my trip.
I enjoyed a great day of golf with Keith. We were able to discuss the strategic and aesthetic merits of many of the holes and compare them to other great links holes we had played. Keith was a gracious host during our stay in Devon and I truly hope we can meet up and play again. The East course is certainly on par with many of the current Open venues. The course really only has one true par 5, the second, since 15 would almost certainly be a par 4 at a modern Open venue. There are several holes that would benefit from additional fairway bunkers to tighten up the driving lines. However, I would take this course as it is and enjoy as a supreme example of testing, enjoyable links golf hosted by a warm and welcoming club. Click the link to read my Atlantic Coast Golf Links story. Richard Smith, Knoxville, Tennessee
It was a lovely day for golf, with an unusual northwesterly breeze. After tackling the underrated West course in the morning, followed by lunch on the wonderful terrace that affords panoramic views over the Braunton Burrows, we headed for the East’s elevated first tee that is perched atop a sand dune. As I stood on that first tee, I decided that I really should get out more frequently to experience the seaside delights that lie on my doorstep. I last played Saunton almost five years ago.
Most male golfers with a reasonable handicap should choose the white tees. The club allows play from either the yellows or the whites and the whites represent a sensible challenge at 6,444 yards with par set at 71. The first is not a gentle start. This 465-yard par four requires a solid drive followed by an approach across a ditch that lies 50 yards short of the green. The pro’s tip is very true: “A 5 will win the opening hole more times than not. Keep this in mind.” The East’s 1st (“Gullpit”) is certainly one of my favourite opening holes. The first of only two par fives arrives at the 2nd hole and it’s reachable for big hitters, measuring only 34 yards longer than the 1st. Fowler’s green sites are usually interesting and the second green is set in a table-like style that is protected by bunkers left and right but has an opening that caters for the ground game. “Homeward”, the other par five, does not arrive until the 15th and it’s even shorter than the par four 1st.
“Tiddler” the par three 5th is the only one-shot hole on the outward half and as its name suggests is the shortest hole on the card. Short certainly does not mean easy – miss the green long and you can be in a world of trouble as I painfully found out. “Sandhill” the par four 8th is an old school par four that has a totally blind drive over a tall dune to a generous fairway on the far side. The green site on 10 is set on a high “Plateau”, hence the name and it’s an engaging short par four that is all about the approach shot to a wickedly tiered green. It’s one of the best holes on the East course. The 11th “Field” feels rather weak compared to 10 but from hole 12 to the last, it’s one solid links hole after another.
There is no doubt in my mind that Saunton’s East course is big enough to host an Open Championship. But as we all know that is unlikely to happen for a multitude of reasons. Assuming the East was chosen by the R&A, many extra fairway bunkers would be required as these are currently relatively thin on the ground. I prefer Saunton to a number of current Open venues but if the East course had a genuine par five I’d be even more impressed. Keith Baxter