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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.
I returned to Saunton last Monday to meet up with Richard Smith from Knoxville, Tennessee. Richard is one of our Top Reviewers and a fine golfer who has visited Britain & Ireland regularly over the last thirty years or so. The southwest of England was a gap in his golfing CV, so I persuaded him to make the trip to see for himself what this area has to offer.
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
You can’t get a much tougher start than a 478-yard par four. The 2nd hole is not much longer and it is a par five with several fairway bunkers that need to be avoided. Then follow two more par fours over 400 yards.
From the 6th to the 12th is a succession of seven par fours but they are all quite varied and I did not for one moment feel any sense of monotony. At this stage, there has been just the one par three, the little 5th, known as ‘Tiddler’.
The 17th is a very tough par three of 207 yards with three bunkers and plenty of rough-clad mounds. The 18th is a glorious finishing hole, gently uphill and with a slight dogleg right and then a fairly long second shot to a lovely green framed by the clubhouse behind.
Considering there are only two par fives, both relatively short, Saunton (East) is a formidable 6779 yards from the blue and 6427 yards from the white tees. This really is a top class course with plenty of challenges but all set out in a fair manner.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every English course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.
After a six-day North Atlantic Links Tour, which culminated in late night festivities at the nearby Saunton Sands Hotel (that saw the revelry last into the early hours), it was off to Saunton GC for 18 holes on the West in the morning. However, the East Course picked me up, took one look at my golf game – as the afternoon breeze asserted its mischief on my ball striking – and dismissed me into the prodigious and ubiquitous rough, hazards, ditches and gorse that surround the fairways and greens, which sit like impregnable fortresses amongst the towering dunes. Just play it. In fact play it more than once. I dare you. This is a links titan from the top drawer of what Britain has to offer, and it has much to offer, but this is a unique and special layout that has a feel all of its own. Check out the club website for sensational opens held throughout the year and expect a very warm welcome. Why on earth would you pay £250 to play Kingsbarns when you can play here for far less? It goes without saying the course was in very good order. We are still talking about that day. JCB Lay