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.
It was a moment which conjured memories of the great concession by Jack Nicklaus to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup.
With my marker two and a half feet from the cup and my knees already knocking, our opponent said: “Take it away, you’re not going to miss that one.”
This was my debut in the Press Golfing Society team for their annual and hotly contested match with Northcliffe.
In our personalised sweaters, my pal and I had jousted across the dunes of Saunton West with our rivals who, frankly, could hit the ball further and often with more accuracy.
But we had hung in there and on the par-three 18th – an unusual and wonderful finishing hole, my ball had skirted the bunker to make the green.
I even thought I may snatch victory with a birdie putt which skimmed the hole only to watch in anguish as the ball kept going.
I was rightly asked to mark it and contemplated the shame and humiliation of losing because of a missed tiddler when the grand gesture of sportsmanship was made.
It was an apt finale to a game played in the best spirit on a course which increased my love of links golf in the south-west of England.
Saunton is the finest links destination in the UK because it is home to two top 100 courses.
We were playing both over two days and the opener was on the West, deemed to be its ‘second’ course.
This certainly wasn’t an ugly sister. It had already charmed with is quirks and undulations over the front nine but after the cloud parted on the way back, its true beauty became even clearer.
According to a former ladies’ captain, The West at Saunton is the ‘thinking man’s course’.
Strategy is important and there are possibilities to score well if you can avoid the deep revetted bunkers. I did not.
As early as my first approach I found one and it became a theme throughout. The traps are deep and the sand is unusually compacted so clipping the ball high enough to escape was very tough.
The obvious answer was to club up to avoid the traps guarding the holes but usually deep rough was behind the greens as my playing partners discovered in turn.
The first hole on the West sets the tone –the marker post, in common with others on the course, shows the line from the tee rather than a guide to go over. Aiming at it means the perfect position for the slight dogleg to the right.
There is many a thin gulley at Saunton and they often out to punish those who are looking for shortcuts. This is the case on the par-five third where those taking the Tiger line could find water.
The seventh is the hole which I would most like to repeat because it is unlike any I have played on my travels.
A wide ditch crosses the hole diagonally from the tee and the only slither of fairway can be seen just a short-iron flick away. A big hit could strike a tree to the right or even be lost over a mound to the left.
It seems impossible to avoid trouble and out of our fourball, two of us found water, one lost his ball in the rough while the other’s handsome drive gave a short pitch into the green from the right.
The latter found, however, that success at Saunton can only be hailed after the greens are conquered.
They were so quick in March that I could only imagine their pace in July. However, they were very true and our group saw several putts drop from distance. We also saw many run on a rather long way.
The par-five 12th is also worthy of mention because it has a ditch running down the left-hand side and prompted a short but heated debate between my partner and me about tactics.
I favoured a lay-up with the second shot but he harrumphed, correctly predicting that he would sail the ball over the water, leaving himself with a doddle of a chip. We won the hole.
The wind was blowing on the West, making judgment on the superb par-threes a wonderful challenge.
I chose pitching wedge for the 9th, which has water in front and is sheltered by a semi-circle of trees and left myself a birdie putt.
The 11th is longer, more exposed and was into the wind. I took driver and ended with the same result.
The 18th is one of my favourite home holes and a very rare par-three finish. Again, I needed driver to avoid the dune on the left, skirted the bunker and the ball rested pin-high on the green.
The back-nine has some cracking strategic holes including the dog-leg 14th where three of us fell foul of trying to cut the corner down the left only to watch our compadre snatch a par by going around the long (sensible) route down the right.
The 15th seems benign from the tee at less than 300 yards but its green is perched on a hill, between long grass, bunkers and in the shadow of an attractive tree. Consequently, its approach is short but deceptive.
As said, the West course is not as celebrated its sister course but the aforementioned former ladies’ captain was clear. “The East is great but those who know both well, prefer the West.”
Certainly, the East would do well to match the excitement and visually stimulating West course.
What a venue Saunton is now that the West course has been brought up to speed. A fantastic and perhaps fiddly links course, not in a kooky way, but in a way that demands a lot off the tee in terms of accuracy. The course hugs the dunes as best it can and has some holes that would probably improve the East in a combined 18. Do not go to Saunton and skip the West…
Nearly as good as the East course. I actually preferred some of the holes on the West course to some on the East.
Well set up and good greens. Go make a weekend of it and play both courses.
Being a younger sibling myself, I understand the feeling, particularly when I was younger, of wanting to prove yourself as the youngest in the clan. Having played the mighty (and older) East in the morning of a beautiful summers day, I wondered if I had already seen the best golf of this trip. How wrong could I have been? The comparative history of the two courses has this course as the second sister, but on what I experienced on a balmy June day in 2021, that gap is ever narrowing.
Compared side by side, the West is the shorter of the two par 71 layouts with 180 yards separating them from the back tees. The comparative course/slope ratings show that, although the East is also classed as the tougher test for a scratch player, the West is as pretty much as tough for the average golfer. The West has been continually improved since it’s redesign by Frank Pennink in 1975, with an eye on toughening up the course and the latest work in 2017 added more bunkers and length to the back tees.
The course is abutted, unsurprisingly to the western perimeter of the property which also pushes the routing up against the protective dunes and raised ground closest to the shore. This raised ground provides the best panoramic views across both courses, particularly on the tees at the 4th and 16th, two wonderful downhill par 3’s. It’s nice having a hole such as the 16th so close to the round as you know you still have the signature hole to come which keeps the anticipation levels building.
The layout starts with two peeling par 4 doglegs to the right. The first green resides amongst an attractive dune complex and it was as I approached this green that I realised this round was going to be just as enjoyable as my morning one had been.
The run that may make or break your round comes thru holes 6-8 where you will play 3 par 4’s consecutively that measure over 400 yards from the blue tees. The 6th and 7th both ask strong questions of your strategic outlook and the 8th really poses some jeopardy around the green, particularly long of the surface.
The most enjoyable run of holes for me came from 10-14, where you traverse the ground furthest away from the clubhouse. These holes have both a serenity and quality that genuinely made me want to walk across and play them again. 14 is the stroke index 1 and it is just a great golf hole, where strategy, club selection distance control and bravery all come into play.
The West has more variety in terms of the the dispersion of par 3’s and 5’s across the scorecard than its older sibling. Personally, I prefer that mixture of holes and examination of all parts of your game from the tee. The par 3/5/3 finish is a really fun end to the round and would provide much potential for drama in a matchplay scenario.
The West to me is a great compliment to the East and it’s not as cut and dried for me as to which is the better course. They both have their merits and nuances and there is no doubt that this is one of the strongest 36 hole pairings in U.K. golf.
Saunton West may be the little sibling of the two layouts, but it’s almost as tough and plays closer to the area’s tallest dunes. A few greens are tucked into these hills, the slopes allow for raised tees, and though I’ve not played in Ireland these big dunes and locations are what I imagine courses look like. Standing in the car park and looking across the landscape it certainly appears more Irish than English, albeit probably on a smaller scale.
Unfortunately I played it in such bad weather that some of the holes merged together. Of nine of us, no one shot near their handicap. The long par 4 7th was particularly rough, playing diagonally across a stream where you can choose how much risk you wish to take on. The same stream then lies short of the green, catching out us idiots who lose a tee shot then have to drop into rough.
9 is perhaps a weaker, flat par 3 that feels more parkland. It’s a nice break though. The par 3 16th and 18th holes make up for it too, offering views and playing down from the dunes to tough greens. 18 is especially no pushover and is a sweet way to finish.
Overall the greens are pretty difficult, they have more slopes than the average links and like the East, even short putts often have to be played outside the hole. There aren’t really any breather holes, the 15th is a short 4 but there is trouble on all sides of the green. With the greens tucked into dunes you are quickly into big trouble if you go awry.
Therefore I wouldn’t call this a fun course, but it is a solid, consistent one that’s well worth a visit.
To call this the 2nd course at Saunton seems to be doing the West a disservice. In fact I am surprised there are 40 places between the East and West in the current rankings. This is an excellent course in it’s own right, albeit very different to the East.
The West is shorter, due to having more Par 3s, the dunes are less prevalent and with the rough being less penal, the course felt a little more open. It also felt a lot less links-like than the East, certainly through the middle stretch. This is a course you can score well on if you plot your way round and find the right part of the fairway. A creek winds it’s way around the course and offers a variance of plays on a number of holes.
The opening three holes are fantastic, with the Par 4 2nd being one of the best across the 36 at Saunton. A narrow tee shot across a carry and doglegging right around a huge dune is not for the faint of heart. The closing stretch from the 13th to home are superb as they play back into the Dunes. The natural elevation here not only shapes 6 very different holes, but also offers some of the best vistas at Saunton. The tee box on the 16th must be one of the best in England. You can stand here for a few minutes and take in what a lovely part of the world this is.
I’m not normally a fan of Par 3 finishing holes, but here I’ll make an exception as it is a lovely one shot finish.
Throughout Saunton the conditions are fantastic with so much care and attention given to all areas, not just the greens and fairways. Huge credit must go to the green keepers.
There is only one hole I would change across the 36 here and that’s the short Par 3 9th, as it doesn’t seem in keeping with the rest of the quality on offer and in fact looks like a short hole you’d expect to see in somewhere like Portugal, but that is a tiny minor blip in what is otherwise a golfing haven.
As I’ve said in my Saunton (East) post, the members here are some lucky folk, as they have two cracking courses to choose from and it won’t be long until my return.
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Played the west course in May 2018, but only just got around to reviewing. Was on holiday in Devon staying near by, and like always take my clubs. Stopped by the pro shop and asked for a half hour lesson, then asked the pro if he would like to play 18 holes later in the week. Well he agreed, and we whizzed around the West course in a buggy together. (both playing some good golf)
The course is very good, although wouldn't say a classical links course. (quite flat around holes 5-13) When we played the weather had been fine and the fairways were running fast. Which meant that all the par 5s were reachable with irons, as this isn't a long course (if you carry driver 270, ball will roll to 320 easily). But this is a course where you need to plot your way around. Greens are excellent, as you would expect. Fairways fast and firm, and the rough not too penal apart from one hole near the end where i lost my ball in the rough only 5 yards left of the green!
I haven't played the other Saunton course (yet) so cant compare, but the west course is a great course and would definitely play again.
The holes i remember most are 1,2,18. I'm never sure about finishing a round with a par 3, but this is a good one. (also the penultimate par 3 is a great hole, but cant remember which hole it is)
It is quite expensive, but that's the price you pay for playing a top course.
I have always played both courses when I have visited Saunton and would recommend you to do the same, rather than trying to squeeze RND/Westward Ho! and Saunton East into one day.
Often, when one course is clearly superior to the other it makes sense to play them in a certain order or even skipping the lesser one. Here, I do not think that is the case as they are much more evenly matched, yet play quite differently. Think Sunningdale Old and New or the two courses at Rosapenna or Ballyliffin in Ireland.
Similar to my opinion of the East, I think the West courses nice, but overrated. 61st in the country, above Perranporth and Seacroft? The course is still lovely, and friendlier than it's sister.
The first 4 holes are great, before it moves out of the dunes and onto the flat, where it loses character. There are still good holes on the flat, but it's not the same as the dunes. The course gets good again around the 13th, and finishes strong.
A good 36 hole day, and you shouldn't overlooked the West.
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Incredible that this is Saunton’s second course. If anything, this course has more variety and interest than it’s better neighbour. Greens were fantastic as with the East. Holes 1 and 2 offered a very strong start with some other highlights coming at 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 and 17 (this last one reminding me somewhat of the 16th at Turnberry).
The par 3s though were the highlight with the elevated tees on holes 4 and 16 offering fantastic views across the links. Overall, a brilliant course that I would never tire of playing.