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.
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.
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.
Wow! What a day. If you play golf and have a couple spare golf balls you don’t mind losing then make your way over to this course. What an epic experience, one of the things I appreciated most is the warm friendly welcome and service all round by every staff member I came into contact with. Reception, pro shop, club pro and bar staff.
Top golf course in the UK without having to deal with poncy snobs. Thank you for the amazing visit. Golf course was impressive and condition was impeccable.
The East Course is rated better, but Both of these courses were brilliant, If you can, definitely try to play both! One of my favourite Golfing experiences
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.
Super review of the West course but would point out that the East course has three (very good) not two par 3's. The short 5th and 13th and the longer 17th.
Keep em long and straight.