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 by Herbert Fowler as a short holiday track. 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.
In the summer of 2018, while four of us played Saunton East in the morning, only two of us continued on to the West course following a quick lunch for the afternoon round. I very much enjoyed the West course and rated it nearly the equal of the East course. It is shorter in yardage than the East due to having five par 3’s versus only two on the East. However, the West is more balanced due to four par 5’s as the East only has two. Both are par 71’s.
The two courses sit within the Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in England and one that I got a look at from walking up from the beach during a run to make my way to the Matilda Tank. The Burrows are really impressive both in length, depth, size of the dunes and how wild they appear. From the Saunton Golf Club’s website the importance of the Braunton Burrows is explained as follows: “In recognition of this the Burrows, and hence Saunton Golf Course, have been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
The effect of this is that Saunton has to obtain consent from Natural England whenever we wish to carry out any significant works on the courses, which could be in danger of damaging the Burrows. We have had to agree a Course Management Plan with Natural England, which dictates exactly how we manage the land. “
I reference this quote because the only attribute the West course is lacking is length. It has everything else. Moreover, I believe the West course could be superior to the East course if it had additional length as much of it is more challenging. Given its location within an environmentally protected zone, it is likely impossible to add length to either golf course unless land is purchased to the east.
The West course seemed more penal with more opportunities for lost balls or out-of-bounds due to tighter driving corridors. I incurred five penalty strokes due to the difficulty although I would blame a few on losing my concentration in taking mental notes of the course. I would need to play each course again to confirm this.
We played the back tees on the West at approximately 6600 yards, some 150 yards longer than we had played the East course.
As difficult as the first hole is on the East, the West is perhaps its equal. The East’s beginning hole is 110 yards longer yet the drive is more difficult on the West requiring a ball to land between the dunes. The dunes are comprised of hills and deep valleys. If one hits a good tee shot, there is no guarantee of a par even if the approach shot is only 90-120 yards as there is no relief around a sharply tilted green, which is placed at the bottom of dunes with sharp run offs front and right as well as tall bushes right. For additional defense, there is a bunker front right and one back left. For a short hole, it is fraught with danger. I do assume that members know exactly how to play this sharp dogleg right from an elevated tee. I loved the hole despite my first penalty.
The second is similar to the first both in length, having an elevated tee, and a sharp dogleg right. If the fairway is missed, the hole offers a chance for a blind shot or pitch out for your second due to the terrain. The tall dunes are mainly on the right side and there are even a few trees added for additional defense on that right side. The left side has a series of valleys and fall offs that are deep enough that one could have a blind shot from that side. The green has a single bunker front left and has a hump almost in the middle making a front half pin placement tricky. Tall grass on a severe sloping dune await an approach shot pulled right. It is another tough hole despite the length.
A short par 5 is next at 475 yards from another elevated tee. There is a ditch running down the left side but one can play left of it on the seventeenth fairway. There is ample room to the right off the tee although longer hitters will need to avoid the two fairway bunkers. Tall mounds frame the opening to a well defended green with two bunkers left and one front right. The green is brilliantly sloped. This is a fun hole.
The first par 3 is a long one at nearly 210 yards. One cannot miss the tee shot off to the right due to the tall grass and dunes as either a difficult recovery shot or lost ball will be the result. A bunker on either side fronts the green which has a big fall off to the left. I did not find the hole to be visually interesting but it is a real test of a golfer’s ability to hit a straight shot. This is the last hole truly involving higher dunes on the front. From here one plays relatively flat holes until they arrive at the fourteenth.
The fifth hole is a mid-length par 4 straight and has the look and feel of a hole that could be placed on the back nine of the East course. This hole has a splendid semi-plateaued narrow, long green with a single deep bunker front left.
The sixth works parallel in the opposite direction as the fifth and is of a similar yardage. The fairway has more undulations to it. Ditches from either side pinch in about 40 yards short of the green which has two bunkers fronting it and a fall off left. It is another well shaped green.
The seventh hole begins the first time on the West course with consecutive holes routed in the same direction (7 through 9). This longer par 4 requires one’s tee shot to carry a ditch but there is ample room to the left side. The ditch crosses the fairway farther up but should not be in play. The hole turns back to the right with mounds on either side before the green which is semi-plateaued, long and narrow. While this hole does not have the best green on the front side, visually it is the most attractive. It is deserving of its rating as the most difficult hole on the front nine.
My favorite hole on the front is eight, a mid-range par 4 that is straight but has two fairway bunkers on the left and three fronting the green. The green is two-tiered. My playing partner thought the hole to be average for whatever reason I liked the look of the approach shot.
The mid-length par 3 finishes the outward nine and is framed by trees all-around the green and has two bunkers left and one on the right. The trees are inconsistent with the look and feel of either of the golf courses. I considered this hole to be a missed opportunity for a special hole.
The tenth is the longest hole on either course is a 570 yard par 5 with a tee shot playing out from a chute of trees to a wide open landscape. However, three bunkers are on the right side of the fairway just before the turn to the right. Two more bunkers are on the left for the shorter hitters to consider followed by three more at the green. The hole is average because the green is not in the same class as the ones before it. This hole is rated the second hardest on the back nine which came as a surprise.
Eleven is a long par 3 playing level to a fairly flat green with one bunker left. The green has some minor fall offs surrounding it. It is a difficult hole due to length only.
I thought twelve to be a superior hole to the tenth. It is a longer par 5 where the drive must avoid a ditch which runs up most of the left side as well as two fairway bunkers on the right. The ditch later crosses the fairway like the shape of an elongated “s” and one should play down the left or center for the safer play. The green has a single bunker front left and two on the right.
Smaller mounds line the left side of the mid-length par 4 fairly straight thirteenth hole. These mounds have tall grass and buckthorn (I lost a ball) and need to be avoided. If one can hit the fairway the approach shot is to a tilted green with a bunker left. It is a lovely hole and rated the second most difficult par four on the back nine.
The long par 4 fourteenth is rated the hardest on the back nine comes next at 441 yards. An argument could be made that this the finest hole on either course. From an elevated tee with higher dunes down the entire left, this dogleg left has plenty of room to the right but one is tempted to cut the dogleg as it is very tempting. It has another beautifully placed green with the hill hard against the left side with two bunkers on the right. The green has two tiers and is both steep and sloping on the front half. This is an excellent golf hole and reminded me of the eighth hole on the Portstewart Strand course.
For only the second time on the golf course, the next four holes to the finish go in the same direction back to the clubhouse. Much like the East course, this shows the brilliance of Herbert Fowler’s routing as wind is typically a factor when playing either course.
A lovely short par 4 with taller dunes down the left side comes next. The tee shot is simple but the green is well defended with two bunkers fronting it. This hole is a lot of fun and visually appealing.
A 187 yard par 3 is next with a great view from an elevated tee to a long green. The green’s defense is two bunkers fronting it and the burn right against the back. Visually this is the best par 3 on the course and perhaps the best par 3 as the green has two tiers.
The third and final par 5 is a short one at 500 yards. A cross ditch comes into play on the drive and the second shot. The green has a rise front to back with two bunkers left and tall grass immediately behind. It is another excellent green complex and a well-conceived golf hole albeit a little short.
The final hole is a par 3 and it is a good one at just under 200 yards ending off to the left of the clubhouse. Tall mounds and valleys line both sides of the hole with two deep bunkers fronting the green with taller grass behind. It is another very good green complex and could be argued it is the best par 3 on either course.
I am really impressed with this course. While I have not played the approximately 140 golf courses that are likely worthy of consideration of being among the UK+Ireland top 100, I find it hard to understand how Saunton West is not. Much like the East course, it has an excellent routing, asks one to consider strategic choices, requires an excellent tee shot and short game, and has very good shaped greens and green complexes. Although it is short by modern standards, it is quite a test of golf. It makes me eager to play the other 55 courses I would need to play to see whether it does not belong on the top 100. Many of the holes could be substituted for holes on the East course. I imagine the “composite” course here, if one is possible, to be very strong.
On my next trip west I will be sure to make another stop here.
It also confirms in my mind that Herbert Fowler's name should be mentioned among the world's greatest architects. Too often his name is overlooked.
Once you have played both courses at Saunton, the same question invariably arises: which is better, East or West?
Although the connoisseurs seem to opt for the East, I lean more towards the West, by a narrow margin.
It is true that the East is a harder test, and that its green complexes are superior, but I appreciate the greater variety offered by the West, and the fact that it is somewhat shorter and more affordable for the average player than his older brother.
In my opinion, the first holes of Saunton West are clearly the best of the lot, and are up to some of the best links. It is also noteworthy the use made of the small streams that run through the course, which forces the golfer to think well about the shot before executing it. Maybe some of the holes in the middle of the round do not arouse much interest, but the course regains interest at the end with a handful of good holes to finish.
Perhaps the only negative aspect, for me, is that both courses are somewhat distant from the sea, whose presence is never evident through the round.
But, in any case, I can not help but be envious of Saunton's members who can choose every day between two courses of such a level.
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