Royal North Devon Golf Club has the oldest golf course in England, often called Westward Ho! and was the first English club to be formed (in 1864) by the English themselves rather than by ex-Scots.
The famous sons of RND include Charles Gibson, the clubmaker, Horace Hutchinson, the amateur champion and a significant early golf writer and J H Taylor, the five times Open champion and member of The Great Triumvirate, with Vardon and Braid.
A whole industry around the collecting of golf artefacts, implements and publications has bloomed, exemplified by The British Golf Collectors Society and some of the most valued of these are associated with RND. The Club has its own distinguished museum within its hallowed clubhouse that is just as well known for its genuine welcome to visitors.
Old Tom Morris from St Andrews helped lay out the course and Hutchinson must be the youngest ever player to become Captain of a club when in 1875, at age 16, he won the Club Championship which automatically gained him the captaincy. (The Club changed the rule a year later!)
RND has always been revered but the course polarises opinion. Herbert Fowler, that brilliant amateur golfer and architect of so many of the finest courses, said in 1907 “It seems a curious thing that the Championships should be held on such courses as Sandwich, Muirfield and Prestwich and such a much finer one be left out in the cold. With improved clubs and rubber-cored balls, none of the above courses can compare with Westward Ho! and the only reason ever given why the Championships are not played there is that it is out of the way”.
This omission was, of course, rectified partly by Fowler’s own redesign in 1908 which then attracted the great Amateur championships, not least of which was the famous final of the Amateur in 1912 when John Ball (Hoylake’s favourite son) beat Abe Mitchell (from Ashdown and before he had turned pro) at the 38th to claim a remarkable 8th title.
The course has evolved to cope with, for example, the increased length of modern equipment and the championship tees can be extended to over 7000 yards but the most wonderful thing about RND is that its members have held steadfastly over the ages to the time honoured methods of maintaining a dry, firm, fast-running course across “The Northam Burrows” that is still common land and grazed by horses and sheep.
Jim Arthur didn’t need to protect them from the invasion of ‘target’ golf in the 1980s: the long serving officers of the Club knew how to maintain this fine course.
Today the greens are a patchwork of 60% fescues and 20% bents grasses, cut at normally 5mm and giving a stimp speed of around 10 varying with the weather, and with hardly a pitch mark to be seen!
Do you need to be sophisticated to enjoy RND? Perhaps. It is certainly a shock to inland sensibilities of tidiness, ‘fairness’ and lushness. The beauty is in its wildness and remoteness from normal golf life, set against a background of crashing surf.
This course is raw, the animals devour the rough and it is only the terrifyingly spiky rushes and the occasional bunker or ditch that provide the hazards across what is initially seen, rather depressingly from the first tee, as a flat landscape.
A similar thought may enter the mind when the finest golf challenge in England is viewed for the first time at Hoylake but how exhilarating it is to then discover the depths of intrigue over succeeding visits.
Some holes, for example, distract you with their lack of definition and may tempt you to slog but, if you for one moment stop plotting your way round and think it’s all about length, the sparsely populated but brilliantly positioned hazards will catch you out. The omnipresent one-, two-, three- or more- club wind requires precise bump-and-runs and shots made close to the ground.
The pedigree of this Club is well expressed by the fact that J H Taylor, who was born and grew up as a humble caddy at Westward Ho!, and reached the greatest heights in the game, was based from Royal Winchester GC for a number of years, was fond of quoting the Winchester College motto “manners makyth man”.
Westward Ho! is unquestionably a matchplay course.
Normally the first chance of a birdie comes at the 4th where modern clubs should remove the terror you feel in driving over the enormous, sleepered Cape bunker but the following downhill pitch is fraught with danger if you don’t go for the middle of green, irrespective of the pin placement.
The classic short (130 yards) fifth, back into the prevailing wind with the green set up into the pebble ridge that protects the course from the sea, has a necklace of deep bunkers and, with the sixteenth (160 yards), that has a subtle devilry, the more alarming as it comes so near the end of the round, are two short holes often chosen to represent the finest anywhere.
Bernard Darwin touches on an aspect of the psychology of RND when he says of the 16th “I saw it first from the green and wondered a little why it had always seemed so difficult. There are plenty of bunkers to be sure and the ground sloped away towards them, but still there appeared plenty of room on the green, and the extreme fiendishness of the hole must surely be an illusion.
Then later, I stood on the tee and the hole looked horribly difficult. It seemed to be perched on the top of a hog’s back ridge where it would be impossible to stop; further – herein I believe lies the secret – one could not quite see the bottom of the pin. The hole has that quality of semi-blindness in which distinguished students of architecture discover the surpassing merit and difficulty of some of the St Andrews Old holes”.
Are there any other great holes at RND? The sixth certainly comes close at only 400 yards: the drive has to thread its way to a narrow, bumpy and sloping fairway and the second to a tight high green with calamity looming if you don’t hang on to the putting surface. This hole runs along the ridge from whose tee one sees the estuary and the shape of things to come.
The next, another blind drive, has an extraordinarily difficult second to a treacherous green. One is often advised that most of the trouble is at the front of RND’s greens and this perhaps is a good time to remember that advice and construct a bump and run four.
After a good short 8th, nearly always played into a cross-wind, we come to a hole dominated by one bunker immediately in front of the green and it is strange that such an open hole should so successfully confuse the mind.
From the 10th tee we are truly into the rushes country. They are a physical and mental hazard of supreme quality and of exactly the right height to inspire the maximum of unrest. In truth, there is plenty of fairway over the next few holes and the judgement of distance is the essence across this flat land while the greens, when dry and fast, can be most deceptive.
Why is the 440 yard 13th a par 5? Well, a birdie four is certainly an achievement!
The 14th, 200 yards into the prevailing westerly, is as you would expect, an improbable par and a bogey is much the more likely.
You must keep out of the bear pit on the angle of the dogleg 15th and then comes the epilogue, the 17th and 18th returning straight inland, beside the 1st and 2nd, the prologue, which went seaward across flat grazing country. The 17th is very long and the 18th has a muddy ditch in front of the green that has spoilt countless rounds.
Many writers have described RND as requiring not straightness but precision of ball placement. This is correct though, as long as you don’t top the ball, to play round the openness of RND in bogey golf is frankly easy on a calm day, even occasionally uninspiring when it becomes a repetitive tactic.
The excitement is in allowing your ball to run for you; the wind does nothing to help you; you have to do it all yourself.
The target golfer here is denied being able to attack every flag. The fine golfer will strive to use backspin from off the tight turf and will appreciate the ‘rub of the green’ and the subtlety of the run up shot in the wind that is said to be “aye fechtin against ye”.
And so we return to the immortal J.H. himself! Old Wykermists, known for their cerebral abilities, may not associate themselves immediately with such a raw phenomenon but this links has tamed the very best and reminded them that it is worth treating your compatriots with good manners, as it is only a game.
There are two erudite, poetical histories of the Club, one edited by J W D Goodban in 1964 and the other compiled by E J Davies and E W Brown – a limited edition – in 1989. I am grateful for the trust in being lent the first copy. This contains the story of a hickory versus modern equipment match played over The Burrows in 1964 that makes quite fascinating reading and will merit a news item of its own in due course.
Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2009. Do leave a comment below
The best introduction to this, as with many (quirky to inlanders) seaside tracks is matchplay. The club has a great summer week ( very reasonably priced), with a good mix of match and card play. See their website/ visitors/open competitions.
I have been a member of Rye since the 1980’s and just love this type of golf and I just wish others would give themselves the opportunity to “get it”
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