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.
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
In terms of value, a day at Saunton Golf Club is hard to beat anywhere in England. Billed as the country’s best 36-hole links venue, it’s impossible to argue that claim. However, can anyone think of another 36-hole links club in England? I can’t.
I’m a lover of links golf and a strong supporter of England’s southwest. This is where I’ve chosen to live but as yet I have not joined a golf club in North Devon. The dilemma I face is that I can’t decide which club to join – Saunton or Royal North Devon. I’m still deliberating but it’s more likely that neither club would have me as a member.
The West course is more fun than its older sibling the East. There’s more variation, with three par fives (albeit short ones) compared to the East’s two short par fives. There are five par threes on the West (only three on the East) and every one of the West’s one-shotters capture my attention and fuel my imagination starting at the downhill 4th (“Covey”) and concluding at the home hole (“Rookery”), where I threw my match away against Richard Smith when I played here last Monday.
The East is undeniably the stronger course at Saunton Golf Club, but if the West course belonged to separate club I’d probably choose to join it rather than joining the East’s club. The reason for this is that the West is a course that always entertains me from start to finish. It’s a course that surprises me because I’m always amazed that the round finishes so quickly such is the engagement throughout. The course would benefit aesthetically and in terms of challenge from a few more fairway bunkers (as would the East) but this is a small criticism because the West course is simply a little charmer in my eyes. Keith Baxter
After a succession of different length holes, the 6th heads back into the dunes. The dangers are the grassy mounds jutting into the fairway and the green which has two bunkers front left and which slopes from back to front.
The start of the homeward nine also provides for varied holes but the finish is unusual with two par threes in the final three holes. The 16th is rather like a shorter version of the 17th on the East. There are two bunkers at the front but it is a large green so hit one more club than you might think.
The par three 18th is somewhat tougher than the 16th and has plenty of gorse and buckthorn for a poor tee shot. The green has a number of mounds and anything too strong can finish in a bank with long grass.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every English course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.