Saunton Golf Club is located on the beautiful unspoilt North Devon coast. On the edge of Bideford Bay and the estuary of the River Taw, lie the mountainous Braunton Burrows – one of the largest systems of sand dunes in England.
The West is the second course at Saunton and was originally laid out in the mid-1930s. The land was used as a training ground during the Second World War and it lay dormant for over 40 years. Frank Pennink brought the West back to life and the course opened for play in 1975.
According to Frank Pennink's Choice of Golf Courses, published in 1976, "the pre-war New Course is now rapidly coming into play, designed jointly by the Secretary [J.W.D. Goodban] and myself... For reasons which I will not go into now, apart from its inherent character and charm, Saunton is one of my favourite links, and the New Course seems destined to become equally popular."
The West is slightly shorter than its older sister – the East – but, nonetheless, it represents a fine test, now measuring nearly 6,600 yards from the blue back tees. It challenges the very best golfers, playing host to a number of County Championships and the EGU Seniors Championship.
It’s a more than worthy understudy to the East, requiring accuracy from the tee. Both courses at Saunton have par set at 71, but the configuration of holes on the West’s inward nine is unusual and more varied than its older sibling. Three back-to-back par fours in the middle and three par threes and three par fives interspersed at the beginning, and then again, at the end.
A number of narrow streams (if we were in Scotland we’d call them burns) come into play and many of the holes feature doglegs. Apart from the opening hole, which plays directly through towering dunes, the rest of the course plays over pleasant undulating links land, where the dunes are far less imposing.
Tom Mackenzie has recently completed a West course renovation and commented as follows: "In 2016, a significant package of work was under-taken on the West Course, adding drive bunkers, re-aligning ditches and adding tees. The aim was to close the perceived gap in standard between the two courses."
The West is undeniably a very good course and some would say that alongside the mighty East, the West plays second fiddle, while others have it in the leading role.
The second course at Saunton is certainly not 'inferior'. Like its sister, this is a wonderful links and is surely a must play if in North Devon. The first half dozen holes are set amid some impressive dunes and will challenge the best. Then a change of pace and onto flatter land but with some excellent holes nonetheless. Then back to the dunes and again some terrific holes with a par-3 to finish which I liked. This course is not included in your British Isles Top 100 which I find disappointing; it makes the list in other serious publications. Underrated for me.
Much like with the East course, the first hole on the West is a great getaway. It requires a solid drive left centre fairway, and then a mid or short iron up into a raised green surrounded by dunes on three sides. Nice to meet you Saunton West.
The opening 4 or 5 holes continue playing along the dunes, keeping them on your right, before heading out towards the flatter land. These holes continue to be interesting though due to the playing angles, bunkering, and interesting green sites. And you can have too much of a good thing, so it’s also a nice change of pace. I really liked the way the Par 4 5th confidently heads off in a different direction.
The course reaches a bit of a nadir for me at the swampy Par 3 9th - half expected to encounter a little green man and a young Jedi in training - before picking up the pace again as you head back towards the dunes. A favourite hole for me is the Par 4 13th which doglegs left back up to a green at the foot of the dunes. It plays well and looks good. The following couple of holes dogleg effectively along the dunes, kind of the opposite to the opening holes, before you reach the excellent Par 3 16th. The 17th is a bit technical so you need to choose a good line, with a couple of bits of water to negotiate, before finishing at the semi-obscured green of the Par 3 18th. I don’t really like starting or finishing on a Par 3, as you miss out on a bit of foreplay (although I am equally likely to shout fore on a Par 3), but at least it’s a good hole.
Playing the courses at Saunton evokes memories of England’s effective striking partnership of Lineker & Beardsley. They complement each other perfectly. One is arguably more famous and successful - the pretty face that launched a thousand crisp flavours and the star of a nation’s favourite TV show. The other is not quite so famous, not quite so successful, and arguably also fails a little on the beauty front.
But those who understand football know just how good the ugly duckling was and how much fun it was to enjoy the variety and creativity he brought to the game. And so it is for me with Saunton West. I wouldn’t be so frivolous as to suggest renaming them Saunton Least and Saunton Best - as I do feel the East is a bit better - but if I only had one round left to play on the Braunton Burrows, I would choose the West
A wonderful course that is set amongst a massive dune system that could contain another 54 holes. A tough start and it helps to have some guidance. The first two holes, in the fast, still conditions we experienced, require approximately your 160m club that will roll into place to have a wedge in. Missing the greens or fairways will mean some good skills to get your par.
The first cut or two of rough throughout the round was dry and wispy but once you ventured a bit further in it got pretty tangly and, if found, required a hack hopefully in the right direction.
My game with Keith was evenly poised until the turn where it was claimed the closure of the halfway house caused some poor swings and feeling at home in the warm 28 deg weather, I romped in for a 3/2 win. My apologies if the dust you ate contributed to your hay fever!
The course has plenty of variety and whilst not full of blind shots it does require thought off the tee as reaching blindly for driver every par 4 will result in pain.
This course pushed 6 balls but just needs some more holes like the last to get into that company. The last is a terrific par 3 that would make a sensational second shot in for a par 4 if the acreage allowed.
Relaxing clubhouse that would be my second home if (when) I chuck it in and live my dream. Warren from Aust
If anyone dare claim there is a better 36 holes of links golf at one golf club in England than at Saunton I'm pretty sure I could make an unquestionable case for this wonderful piece of linksland.
One of the things that confirms this for me is, not only the quality of every single hole, but the subtle yet significant differences between the two courses.
I've played both courses on multiple occasions and there is no doubt that this is links golf of a very high quality.
My first ever round was on the 'inferior' (ha!) West course but after the first two holes you know this is going to be a special day;. The first hole contains everything that an opening hole should possess in my opinion. It's of medium length, has a high tee where everything lies before you, there's a safe option or a more aggressive line and the green is just out of sight adding a level of suspense. And when you reach your tee-shot that uncertainty is replaced with delight at a green complex that sits perfectly into the foot of large sand dunes inviting your approach. The second is also a magnificent hole with a precise drive required between more huge dunes before the hole turns to the right and you are faced with an intimidating second shot. This really is one of the strongest starts to any course in the country.
There aren't any weak holes on the course although the par three ninth, named 'Pond', is my least favourite. Take that away and you have 17 thrilling holes each offering something special and without a hint of monotony.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
The Saunton "resort" is top quality in terms of having 2 excellent links golf courses (maybe only St Andrews, Rosapenna, Ballybunion and Ballyliffin better as a 36 hole links resort). Of course the West is a level below the East but still a solid course with many strong holes including:- 4, 5, 7 (best hole on the course), 10, 13, 14 and 17. Finishing with a par 3 is unusual but it is of decent length.
We played Saunton last week in the esteemed and very enjoyable company of our Editor in Chief under an eventually cloudless blue sky in 2 club winds on a links that felt like July due to the very dry Spring. I really wanted to rate the two courses without reference to each other, but it's tough when the land is shared. Saunton is an excellent 36 hole setup in a beautiful location, and probably the hardest amongst 2+ course clubs to identify the "best" course, particularly with the recent excellent improvements to the West. The West benefits from the most obviously spectacular setting on the property whilst the East has probably the better conditioning as the senior partner. It would be facile to try to rank twins or the discs on a double album, so I will try not to.
Saunton feels like a fantastic 36 hole golf course, long yet compact and easily walkable, and should be played as such, but with the caveat that you should allow sufficient time for the excellent, good value lunch in the friendly yet efficient club house. On our visit the courses were chocker with happy golfers with attendant pace of play issues in such a beautiful place. Maybe the club could get rangers out a little more frequently to support the excellent starters?
In summary the West is a very enjoyable course which benefits greatly from the clearly significant recent investments with good greens and interesting variety in holes from the great start onwards. Make a day of it and you will leave a very happy golfer.
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The 2017 West course at Saunton must now be as good as the East. Having played the changed course off the blue (back) tees I feel justified in uplifting my previous rating of last September. The changes are really really good. Having negotiated the subtle changes on the front nine (including the extended back tee and fairway bunkers on nr 8), you then reach Saunton's equivalent of Amen corner. Played into the prevailing wind this is one tough stretch. The par 5 10th has been extended to 573 yards by extending the tee backwards into the field; standing on the tee into the wind with a barely visible fairway and no bale out area, you simply have to commit and hit it true and straight. The existing bunkering as you progress up the hole just seems to suit the new length perfectly. The long par 3 11th remains unchanged but the revised stroke index makes it harder in stableford comps. The par 5 12th has like the 10th been transformed with a back tee, fairway bunkering and re-routing of the ditch across the fairway. The only change to the 13th is to extend the length of this par 4 normally into the wind. Having negotiated 10-13, it was a strange feeling standing on the tee of nr 14 (par 4, 453yds, SI 2) almost with a sense of relief. I still feel that the 18th (although not a bad hole and a tough par 3) is not a perfect finish, but that is really being picky. To summarise .. fantastic !
Thank you for the wonderful review. We are so pleased with the changes made this winter
Saunton West does more than compliment the East, and together they form 36 holes of quality golf (is there any where better ?). Most of the other reviews cover the salient points. I particularly like the first few holes, especially the 1st (glimpse of the sea from the tee, threading its way through the dunes) which is a fine opening hole. And don't be fooled, although shorter than the East, it's a real test off the back blue tees when the wind is up. Maybe the par 3 18th hole doesn't give the course the finish it deserves, but otherwise a fine variety of holes (some of which are currently being extended and improved). Like the East always in good condition
Saunton’s GM, Russell Mayne, showed me the improvement work in progress today, which Tom Mackenzie is overseeing: 3rd - two new fairway bunkers, 6th - teeing ground and fairway alterations (adds 20 yards), 8th - new back tee and two new fairway bunkers (adds 40 yards), 10th - new back tee, one new fairway bunker and one new greenside bunker (adds 60 yards), 11th - alteration of the ditch and new contouring of green surround on the front right, 12th – new back tee, two new fairway bunkers, realignment of fairway and alteration of the ditch (adds 50 yards), 13th – new back tee (adds 40 yards), 15th – new teeing grounds, 17th – new teeing grounds (adds 20 yards). The new West will stretch to around 6,700 yards and the new bunkers, reshaped fairways and ditching looks fantastic. Can’t wait to play it again in early spring. Keith Baxter
There are a number of beautiful and subtle dog legs and driver is clearly not the ideal play on a number of holes. The course is clearly fun, difficult yet fair. I enjoyed the par 4 first which was uphill, into the wind and rewards good play. I'll call the creeks burns because it's the UK, and the burn plays havoc with the drives and approaches on 6 and 7 which are excellent par 4's. 9 is a beautiful short par 3 which leaves some openings but severely penalizes the wayward shot, entirely appropriate for a hole of it's length. On the back nine 13, 14 and 15 are a superb run of par 4's varying in length and challenge but providing a great challenge. The finishing three holes of two par 3's and a par 5 is somewhat unusual but doesn't detract from a great experience.
I would rate the two courses at Saunton on par with the great 36 holes in the UK. I've never played Sunningdale but this compares favorable with Walton Heath. Among links courses the Dunluce and Valley at Portrush can give Saunton a run for it's money but that is very high praise. I know Keith is trying to decide where to join, but I can't imagine anything better than to be a member at Saunton and play both these excellent courses all the time. Click the link to read my Atlantic Coast Golf Links story. Richard Smith, Knoxville Tennessee