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).
Date: December 29, 2019