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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’ll try and keep it as balanced and objective as I can. The first thing that hits you is the view as you turn off the B3231 road to Croyde and into the car park. I’d defy any golf lover not to mutter at least Wow!! My buddy, who’d never played a links course before, blurted out a full blown PHWOAR!! The sight of a beautifully conditioned 18th fairway winding it’s way up out of the vast expanse of dunes is indeed a sight to behold and get the juices of anticipation flowing. A golf magazine front page if ever there was one.
The next thing I noticed was that members in the car park and in the clubhouse all had a smiling “good morning” for us. Mind you, I’d be full of the joys of spring too if this was my home club. Having drove a long way we were keen on a bit of breakfast before setting off but were a bit disappointed that only toast or teacakes and tea/coffee were available before 11.00. No sooner had we reluctantly agreed to the teacakes than the barman came back and said “The Chef has arrived early would you like bacon sandwiches?” Marvellous.
Had a quick ping on the range, now if forced to try and identify a shortcoming at Saunton it could be argued that the (irons only) range falls a bit short of what can be expected at a top class venue. Especially given that the 1st hole will generally require 2 decent hits with the longest 2 clubs in your bag. So after taking in the lovely views on arrival, meeting the friendly locals and sampling some tasty breakfast fayre. All of a sudden you’re standing on the 1st Tee and realising that there is a steel fist inside this velvet glove.
We elected to play the whites so 470 yards of brutal, into the wind PAR 4 lay in front of us. I duly started by leaking my drive right and donating a shiny new Pro V1 to the sand dune fairies. I did well to scrape a double bogey with a 3 off the tee. After a safe par at the Par 5 2nd the course then turns again into the wind (and the somewhat blinding winter sunshine). It was becoming clear that this course is very demanding of your long game accuracy. I found myself constantly questioning myself, taking driver on fairly tight fairways to give myself a chance of reaching Par 4 greens in 2. Then there’s Tiddler (the par 3 5th) which asks you for a bit of subtlety. The 8th is a totally blind tee shot over some dunes. On arrival on the fairway you find that the green is trying it’s hardest to hide away in more dunes on the back left of the fairway. The 10th is a rare short par 4 but makes up for lack of length by a particularly daunting approach to a 2 tiered green.
I could go on waxing lyrical hole by by hole but no, I’ll leave the description of the rest of the back 9 to your own imaginations, other than to say that 16 & 17 are great golf holes and any faux pas you have on 18 will be in full view of the Clubhouse bar/lounge. The course was in great condition and the greens fairly true. Yes, there was some G.U.R. areas around 16, 17 and the 18th tee but nothing to detract from the experience and to be fair this is the time of year such work has to take place. For £42 inclusive of a bar meal afterwards this has to be one of the best winter deals to be found.
In summary I found the East to be a fantastic test of golf, the long par 4’s are relentless. Leaving location and supporting infrastructure aside, if asked the question...”Is Saunton East a suitable course on which to hold a major Championship?” I would say yes. For the reasons left aside it probably couldn’t hold the Open but I believe it deserves say the British Senior Open or the British Ladies Open. Having now played about 20 of the top 100 I’m beginning to get a feel for what to expect and in my honest opinion I think Saunton East is more than worthy of a significantly higher ranking. It feels more like a 20 something than a 40 something to me.
For me, Saunton is on a level with Ballyliffin in Ireland (The Old and the Glashedy) and St.Andrews in Scotland (the Old and the New) as having 36 holes of excellent links golf at one venue and I think it’s a much under rated golfing destination that all links loving golfers should try to play at some time. It makes no sense at all to make the journey here without playing the West course first, of course, so make sure your game is tuned up on its fairways before tackling the tougher East track.
And what a start on the East, where the opening shot is played from a tee position high on top a sand dune in front of the clubhouse! Just check the scorecard though after you’ve cracked a very satisfying drive away to see that this par four hole measures 470 yards from the regular tees so already the scale of the East in relation to next door should be apparent.
There are only three par threes (the first two of which are played to fantastic greens that fall away on all sides) and two par fives on the scorecard so that leaves a lot of par fours to be played (seven in a row from the 6th hole) which one of my playing partners felt was a little excessive.
I have to agree the routing could be a little more balanced but let nothing like a tiddler of a technicality detract from such a marvellous course. “The Gap” is a wonderful two-shotter at hole 4 on the front nine and the quirky 8th has a blind tee shot followed by an approach to a blind green ringed by low-lying sand hills – delightfully old-fashioned. “Fowler,” the 16th, is a fantastic, dog legged par four named in honour of the East’s esteemed architect, played to a putting surface semi obscured by a ridge that runs diagonally in front of the green. My second shot round the dune on the right side of the 18th fairway somehow made it onto the green, twenty feet short of the hole but my attempt to imitate Sergio winning the British Boys Championships here in 1997 didn’t quite come off – that lucky Spaniard! Nonetheless, a tap in par finish was a great way to round off a wonderful 36 holes at a top links location.
Some people ask the hypothetical question of whether Saunton East is good enough to host an Open. My response to that is that there are at least two current Open venues that I’ve played, both on the west side of the UK, that Saunton could easily match – given the opportunity to toughen up its bunkering and allowed to tighten up some holes.It's just a pity the Devon club doesn’t have an enormous edifice of a clubhouse with matching egos inside to attract attention.