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.
Many will debate that Saunton is the best golf club in the United Kingdom with two courses. Royal Portrush, The Berkshire, and Walton Heath are considered to be of a similar class (I have not played the Valley course at Royal Portrush). Royal Troon, Rye and Royal Dornoch are considered to be below Saunton due to the quality of their second course. In my mind only Sunningdale is above Saunton if one discounts resort courses. Thankfully, other contenders have three courses – Woburn, Gullane, Wentworth, and Gleneagles so at least the discussion is limited!
We stayed at the Saunton Sands hotel which offers a lovely outside heated pool and a long, wide beach for a roundtrip 4+ plus mile run. The hotel is close enough to the Saunton Golf Club that one feels almost as if you are staying at the club. More importantly, from the hotel one can see the high dunes that eventually form the beginning of both courses.
Four of us played the East course and after lunch two of us then played the West course. The wind was medium and no rain.
Much like Winged Foot, Sunningdale, or Baltusrol, one cannot go wrong whichever course one plays at Saunton. After my playing partner and I finished our second round (he is a better player), both of us thought the East to be superior to the West from a visual, playability, and enjoyment experience. The greens are superior on the East. We found the West to be slightly more difficult due to tighter driving areas. The West seemed to offer more character in the land on several of the holes as it felt closer to the dunes.
As an aside, the dunes that sit between Saunton Golf Club and the sea are amazing and seem to heave up and down forever. During my run on the beach I walked up to have a look at this area and there is no flat land anywhere. Good luck to anyone that one day might try to build a course there, although I assume it is environmentally protected. Sauton choose well when they decided to build the two courses inland from these dunes.
Our foursome found the front nine at the East course to be the stronger of the two nines. This is not to criticize the back nine, it is merely to point out how splendid the front nine is. We played the white tees due to the wind.
As much as I like the first hole at Burnham & Berrow, Saunton East is a much better beginning with the view from the elevated green. The long par 4 requires one to carry high dunes and heavy rough. There is a mound on the right that longer hitters will likely carry to try to get a better view of the hole, a slight dogleg left. Ditches run on both sides of the fairway but end well short of the green which is nestled upward between dunes and appears very skinny. It is an undulating green with deep bunkers on either side and bushes on the left. The back of the green sits between dunes and a pin placement back is very difficult. One cannot go long over this green as it is a challenging recovery. It is a starting hole that probably yields very few birdies, and more likely 5’s and 6’s. It is rated the third hardest hole on the front nine but we considered it as the second hardest on the golf course.
The second hole is fairly easy as a mid-length par 5. This hole seems to favor shorter hitters as there is more danger for those trying to hit between the dune and bunker on the right and a ditch on the left. The ditch pinches in on the right as well as the left, nearly across the entire fairway and then continues only down much of the right side. Fronting the green are three deep bunkers placed on the upslope. The green is up a bit and sloped from right to left and back to front. If one hits the fairway there is a good chance for birdie.
One can get a good look at the short par 4 third hole by looking for the back tee which is elevated. The line for the tee shot is on the edge of the left dune on this dogleg left. Rolling mounds line both sides of the fairway. The green is long but crowned sloping back to front. The green will kick approach shots either right or left into swales surrounding the greens with the deeper swale to the left. It I a very good par 4.
The number one index is next although we found this to be the third hardest on the front nine. This hole goes in the same direction as three, which is atypical on the routing to have two consecutive holes going in the same direction. It is a longer par 4 although not as long as the first, some 35 yards shorter. Mounds again line both sides of the fairway for the longer hitters with four fairway bunkers on the left for additional defense. Shorter hitters need to find the center of the fairway before the mounds. If one goes down the right side, a high dune can block the view of the green. The green is fairly large and has a false front but missing the green here offers a much better chance of recovery than previous holes. While this hole can result in a bogey, it is less likely to result in a double or triple bogey unlike the first hole. This is another good hole.
The first par 3 is a short one at only 122 yards but it is a beauty. Two large bunkers front the green with grass bunkers on the right. The green is crowned with severe run-offs all around although going long is a tougher recovery shot. I did pull off the recovery shot from behind despite the very undulating surface but one of our foursome made double bogey. All of us liked this hole and thought it to be nearly the equal to The Postage Stamp at Royal Troon Old.
The sixth is a slight dogleg left at 370 yards with a ditch running all the way down the right edge of the fairway. The green runs away from you and has mounds and a fall off mainly on the left. I recall this as one of the lesser undulating greens. If you find the fairway this is a fairly easy hole but if you do not then it requires a precise approach shot. It is a good, classic short par 4 yielding 3’s to 6’s.
The par four seventh hole reverses direction and is a mid-range par 4 at 428 yards. The left side provides the line to the hole if one can avoid the two bunkers left. The right side has rushes and out-of-bounds for the very wayward shot. A bunker left and two bunkers are at the front of the green with slopes off of the green. This is a good hole because it requires two well-struck shots and good decision-making.
The short par 4 eighth is routed towards the sea and generally one should be factoring in the direction of the wind. This hole caused me trouble although the blind shot from the tee over the high dunes is simple Missing the fairway leaves one in both taller grass and a likely uneven lie. The green lies in a dell on the left side of the fairway. If the green is missed, the chip is difficult due to the unevenness of the mounds surrounding the green. For a short hole, this one has a lot of defense.
A short par 4 finishes the front nine with another wide fairway going parallel to the sea similar to the seventh. Longer hitters will need to avoid both the bunker on the left side of the fairway and one much farther down which appears as if it is in the center, but is actually the perfect line down the right. The green has a deep bunker front left and is again surrounded by mounds and swales. The green itself is very undulated and is one of the top two greens on the golf course. It is an excellent short par 4.
The short driveable par 4 kicks off the back nine as long as one can either carry or get through the two deep bunkers fronting the green. This hole moves parallel to nine but in the opposite direction similar to the sixth. At 337/309 yards this hole perhaps favors the shorter hitter who does not take on the hole leaving a short club to the plateau green which is sharply tilted back to front and left to right. One should try not to go over the green (I did) which leaves a slick chip back to try to recover. The fairway is lined with bushes on the right and on the left are mounds as well as a large depression just in front of the green. This is another excellent short par 4.
Eleven goes away from the sea on a different line than any previous hole. This short par 4 is best played down the left side of the fairway as there is out-of-bounds and a ditch on the right corner. The bunkers on the left of the fairway and the green must be avoided but the real danger is anything hit slightly right of the green will go into the ditch. There is a lot of trouble for the short par 4 similar to nine and ten.
The longer par 4 twelfth plays diagonally to the sea, yet another new direction on the course.. It is a semi-blind shot given the tall grass in front of the tee. One should favor the right side for the approach. Rushes cross the fairway on a mound about 100 yards short of the green. The green is crowned and fronted by two bunkers. It is a good hole.
For only the second time on the course the next hole goes in the same direction as the previous hole. The mid-length par 3 thirteenth has a raised two-tiered green with a bunker front left and front right. It is a nice par 3 but not in the same class as those as Burnham & Berrow.
Reversing direction once again the fourteenth goes in the same direction as 1, 3, 4, 6 and 10. This likely plays back into the prevailing wind as a long 455/430 yards par 4. From an elevated tee, the fairway bunkers on the right must be avoided. The fairway then narrows almost to the same width as the 10th at St. Enodoc Church with uneven mounds and taller grass as the defense. The green tilts back to front. Despite my score on the hole, I thought fourteen to be one of the best holes on the golf course.
While fifteen has a nicely defended green with two deep bunkers at the front and a good tilt to it, it is too short as a par 5 at 477/462. It is a good opportunity for birdie, or for the longer hitters a chance at an eagle.
For the third and final time for consecutive holes, the sixteenth goes in the same direction as fifteen until it doglegs left. This longer par 4 is splendid with two bunkers on the right to defend against those trying for a better look into the green. On the left there is a hidden bunker and dunes all the way to the green. The green sits in the dunes off to the left and can be hidden due to a ridge fronting it. A marker behind the green provides the line to a green sloped left to right. I thought this to be the third best hole on the back nine.
Another good hole is the seventeenth which is a long par 3 of 208/188 requiring a carry over tall grasses and mounds to the green. The green has bunkers left and right. This hole requires a straight tee shot. This hole essentially goes in the same direction as eight.
Eighteen is a fine finish to a very good golf course. This is a dogleg right of just over 400 yards, par 4 going in the same direction as twelve and thirteen. There are three bunkers on the left as well as large dunes on either side. This hole has one of the larger greens on the course after the bunkers fronting it on the right and left then continuing for a total of five surrounding the green. For me this is the second best hole on the back nine as visually it is very appealing and it is well defended.
The East course is wonderful in that there are decisions to be made on the course regarding line off the tee and the type of approach shot one should hit. It is an excellent routing since only three times do holes consecutively move in the same direction. In addition, most holes are routed in slightly different directions thereby making a windy day either friendly or a foe.
The weakness in the course are the two par five’s both significantly too short. Each should be nearly 100 yards longer. The par three’s are good, but they are not in the same class as some other top golf courses.
There are some very good greens on the golf course, not in the same league as Burnham & Berrow in terms of condition, but definitely as interesting and well defended.
If this course had slightly more interesting terrain throughout the eighteen holes similar to St. Enodoc Church or perhaps had another 500 yards to challenge the better players, it could possibly be a world top 100 golf course as well as be a course others would strongly encourage to host an Open championship, (although very unlikely given the narrow road access to it and other infrastructure issues such as parking, hotels, and restaurants).
What an extremely intelligent and informed review! I adore Saunton East but my game is clearly not as refined as yours thus my perception more simplistic. I personally would rank it above St Enedoc... thanks for this review.
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.