The land at Saunton Burrows has hosted golf since 1897 and given us today’s premier golf course in the West Country since Herbert Fowler( famed designer of Walton Heath, The Berkshire, and Delamere Forest to name just a few) created the East course in the 1920s. This venue has been used ever since for major amateur championships, notably the 1937 English Amateur when Frank Pennink was victorious.
Ken Cotton, Pennink’s course-architect partner, following devastation wrought by the armed forces during the second world war, restored thirteen of the holes at Saunton East to more or less what they were, creating new tees at the third and sixth and completely changing the first two and last two holes.
So we still have essentially a Fowler course, whose greens were typically mere extensions of a fairway and whose bunkers are used sparingly, allowing the natural lie of the land to remain the essence of the challenge.
Ian Andrew’s Caddy Shack notes “The one thing Fowler never seemed to do was to add mounding or other backings to add definition, he chose instead to embrace what was already there”. Perhaps this comment is a generalisation more descriptive of Walton Heath than Saunton
but as the Saunton professional, Albert Mackenzie, advises in the excellent course planners, the greens from distances of 5-50 yards out are best approached with a straighter-faced club than modern lob wedges, in conjunction with a bump-and-run shot played close to the ground. Ken Cotton has perpetuated this ‘Fowler’ design aspect.
The second course to the West, closer to the enormous sand dunes that protect the flattish links land from the full battering of a prevailing southwesterly wind, has a lower water table and the grass is generally of an even higher standard of knitted type and of tighter lie than those to be found on the East. In a drought the West course fairways turn a lovely ‘white-green’.
Throughout these 36 holes the agronomy is excellent, much as would be expected of a club that shrewdly utilized the advice of Jim Arthur (golf’s greatest agronomist) from the 1970s to the 1990s. The East’s greens used to have quite a lot of rye grass in them, but using the herbicide ‘Rescue’ this has now been eliminated and is helping the bent/fescue grasses to flourish.
There was though one hiccup as a result of inevitable economy, combined with a generous offer by a member in the construction industry. Following the club becoming owned by its members in the 1960s, Frank Pennink was invited to completely redesign what is now called the West course across land where Fowler’s 1930s earlier, secondary ‘holiday’ course had been built. All kinds of housing rubble was trucked in to form the basis for supposedly well-drained greens but unfortunately agronomically this corner-cutting tactic did not work so Donald Steel, Pennink’s younger partner, fifteen years later supervised the digging up and relaying of all of the West course greens.
Steel, (a member of Finegolf’s Advisory Panel) who has designed over 80 golf courses and advised on some 350 others around the world, considers Saunton’s West course greens some of his best work and one has to agree.
There is more movement in the ground on the East with valley holes running between sand dunes, where one has to ‘discover’ the greens, such as at the eighth , fourteenth and the hidden sixteenth. Pennink’s routing also hugged the major dunes to the west and he created brilliant green sites using higher ground at the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th and the 13th, 14th and 15th with classic side-shelf or raised greens. These latter three are of a somewhat similar style to Hoylake’s where one plays at the beginning of the back nine from doglegged fairways up into the dunes.
The West course emulates the general characteristics of the East course but has its own distinctions and offers no weak hole. They all require clever and strong placing of your ball off the tee to get at the greens with your approach. The green complexes demand 100% commitment but are perfectly fair if you choose the right line on which to run in your ball.
A friend playing both courses for the first time, commented that the East was kinder on the eye than the West. What he meant was that many of the East’s tees are raised and it is easier comparatively, to see where you needed to place your tee-shot on the East for somebody playing the courses for the first time. I think this is an astute comment while those who know the West well, with the many holes sculpted into the towering dunes of the adjacent Braunton Burrows, may add that there is more of that exciting ‘discovery’ feeling about the West.
There is a beautiful wind-ravaged tree behind the West’s sixth and fifteenth greens but the large deciduous offering on the corner of the new, banked-up second fairway sticks out rather incongruously.
The West is not a brute but comprises pleasant golf at 6380 yards, par 71, SSS 72.
The East at 6779 yards, par 71, SSS 74 will continue to be considered the senior course and does have some holes of a more distinctive character but here are also weaker holes like the seventh and eleventh lying on flat ground protected respectively by bunkering and out of bounds.
I think one has the exceedingly testing and varied par fours in one’s mind when envisaging the best of Saunton and there are only three par 3s on the East course, though each is different and challenging.
One of the reasons the West is shorter is that there are five par 3s, two each of 190 yards coming at sixteen and eighteen, giving the low handicapper an advantage in matchplay at the end of the round. The eleventh at 215 yards is the only one played straight into the prevailing wind, apart from the East’s seventeenth (207 yards) and is stroke index four.
People speak well of the East’s first hole with its lovely high tee but really it is a bit of a slog while West’s opening hole is fantastic, composed on a wide doglegging fairway where the temptation to cut off the corner should be resisted to obtain the best angle into a small two-tier green tucked up in the dunes.
The East’s sixteenth is actually out of character with the other 35 holes in that it requires a blind risk/reward doglegged drive to set up a long iron across the wind to a hidden green. It is a special hole and not surprisingly is called ‘Fowler’ to commemorate the great man.
On a nice calm day it could be argued that the courses do not have enough defence and more bunkers might be needed and as Albert mentioned to me he has once played ten consecutive rounds without going in a single one! Nevertheless though many of the greens look innocent, coming naturally out of the surrounding fairway, there are few easy putts across the many undulations that are not of the modern, boringly consistent computer-aided design type.
Saunton and Royal North Devon, only two miles apart as the crow flies across the River Taw, have always had a close association. For example, RND offered reciprocal membership while Saunton was being rebuilt after the war. One man who was a captain of both, as well as being one of the most respected figures in golf administration, serving on both the EGU and R &A committees for many years, was John Goodban OBE. He was secretary at Saunton for 19 years and it is primarily down to his outstanding leadership that the club now has two championship standard courses.
He was always accompanied by his dogs, one of whom, Rikki, appeared on the BBC Blue Peter programme having found 24,000 balls on the course! Unfortunately other dog handlers have been less disciplined and dogs are unfortunately today banned at Saunton.
Mention should also be made of Leonard Lake, the club’s most successful low handicap player, who dominated West Country golf in the 1930s and 1950s and whose medals are exhibited in a case in the clubhouse lounge.
When we posed the question on the website as to whether Muirfield had the finest view from a Clubhouse’s dining room some months ago, a number of people suggested that the view from the verandah of Saunton’s clubhouse should be mentioned, a nomination I readily accept.
The modern practise and clubhouse facilities here are well able to handle the large number of happy visiting golfers who, if accompanied by their families, will find plenty to do in this beautiful holiday area with its spectacular strand beaches.
Perhaps now that Dornoch’s Struie course is altered to a friendlier test, Saunton possibly is. Royal Portrush has a fine second Valley course and would certainly be in contention. At Saunton the combination of the work of Herbert Fowler, Ken Cotton, Frank Pennink and Donald Steel has created 36 holes that match the magnificent open landscape of the Saunton Burrows which lie beneath high downland. Saunton can justifiably lay claim to be called the finest 36, with only its remoteness reducing the number of championships played here.
What can definitely be said is that one is happy to let a toss of the coin decide which course to play as both give a high ‘joy to be alive’ fine, running-golf factor.
See “Saunton Golf Club, 1897-1997. A Centenary History” By Bill Geddes
I have not given as detailed a description of the holes as I sometimes do because a friend, Peter Newman, has composed for Finegolf a magnificent tableau of the East Course, hole by hole. See below.
Unusually for a links course the Clubhouse terrace affords a panoramic view of the challenge ahead, the two courses, West and East, stretching out between the high dunes to the right and the medieval ‘Great Field’ of Braunton. The courses are not at all hard by the sea, which is glimpsed only fleetingly from both first tees. But then this wonderful golfing arena captures only a small part of Europe’s largest dunescape. For the visiting golfer the prospect of the pleasures ahead on either course is truly delightful.
Ascending the dune to the elevated first tee the pulse quickens. A sharp intake of breath, facing southwest, into the prevailing wind, the opening challenge is a 478 yards par 4. Even the modest carry over heavy rough and dunes can seem less than a foregone conclusion…but banish the nerves, swing easy and aim at the far bunker to the left. Though long hitters may be tempted by the 250 yard carry over the mound to the right, to open up a better view of the green. Short ditches perpendicular to the fairway left and right can threaten any slightly mishit second shot, but avoid them and most will be content to have left a short pitch (or even a Texas wedge) onto a long, narrow undulating green, protected by deep bunkers left and right. In common with almost all the holes on this course, go through the back at your peril…the rough can be brutal.
The first of only two par 5’s and, often wind assisted, at just 526 yards from the White Tee, it can offer early redemption for any minor damage already evident on the scorecard. The longer hitters may be tempted to try for the gap between bunkers in the face of a dune to the right and the ditch perpendicular to the fairway left. But severe penalties await if the line is not spot on. From there a hybrid or long iron can get them home, provided they negotiate three deep bunkers in the upslope to the front of the green! For most though, the tee shot will look to find the fairway a little short of the hazards, before feeding a second down the right half of the fairway to follow the contours down and leave a short iron or pitch to the green. A large green, a relatively recent addition, runs transversely, sloping more severely than it appears, from right to left. Any more than 20 feet away and a two-putt here is a good outcome.
The visitor will be well advised to pause by the elevated Blue Tee, which affords a view of the fairway ahead, beyond the high dunes to the left and right. Another par 4, and resuming the outward direction of the 1st, this is more manageable at 402 yards. Descend to the regular tees, take courage and aim over the right edge of the left dunes to find the right centre of the fairway. The carry looks more daunting than it is in reality and a well struck drive will leave a mid-iron to a tricky, long green. The slopes left and right will throw anything slightly wayward into the swales, from where making par will require an extremely well judged chip or approach putt.
If you are receiving just one shot this is where you get it….a par 4 again, at 441 yards and still into the prevailing wind. Aim the tee shot to finish in the left half of the fairway, but not so far left that you catch one of the three well-positioned bunkers lurking there! The view of the green is partly obscured by a high dune to right, so sight the marker post behind the green and take plenty of club for the second shot. The landing area in front of the green is generous, but if you don’t quite make the putting surface in two take a straight faced club and run your third up the steep slope towards the flag.
A Saunton icon, the first par 3 at only 122 yards, but with severe slopes off the front and back…and also, now the ‘hump’ on the right edge has been removed, on both sides! So be sure of your club selection and hit a crisp and positive shot to hold the undulating putting surface. Not many make par from over the back!
A dog-leg left at 370 yards a good tee shot can set up a short iron approach to give a birdie chance. But beware the ditch that runs all the way down the right edge of the fairway. The distant marker post is well-sited, provided you carry the 200 yards over the left rough there is more room than there looks on that line. The breeze often assists and the green runs away from you, so don’t be tempted to over-club your second.
Reversing direction, at 428 yards the seventh is a demanding par 4. Favour the left side of the fairway, taking care to avoid the two bunkers on that line. The green is large and will hold a well-struck long iron or hybrid second shot, but avoid the hidden little pot bunker front left. If in doubt, a lay up to 15-20 yards short will often leave a straightforward chip and run and good chance of par.
There is lots of fairway on this 380 yard par 4….no, really, there is! The high dunes in front of the tee make it wholly blind, but trust the marker, relax your grip and swing through. No need to look up, your partners will confirm it has flown straight enough! Check your yardage for the second shot into a long green, lying in a dell in the dunes. Remember to ring the bell…thank you!
Another dog-leg left at 392 yards. But ignore the direct line and take aim at the bunker on the right edge of the fairway. The green is a wonderful rollercoaster…if your tee shot though has left a lot to do, don’t be afraid to miss it just short or right. Leave the left side well alone to avoid the deep front bunker or even trickier dunes and rough off the left edge.
In winning the 1997 British Boys’ Championship Sergio Garcia successfully took on this 337 yard carry from the tee, but then he was a very special and precocious talent! Take a club from the tee that will leave you a full shot in with a wedge or short iron. Favour the left half of the fairway to give yourself a straighter line up the green. Be up but don’t be long….anything over the back leaves a treacherous chip onto the downslope.
Make the most of this, the last ‘easy’ par 4, at just 362 yards, usually downwind. Find the left half of the fairway at about 230 yards distant for the best line of approach….avoid the temptation to flirt with the OOB and ditch on the corner, right. The bunker that then dominates your view in is actually 20 yards short of the green which runs away from you and is guarded by a ditch to the right and behind, so don’t be fooled into over clubbing.
At 414 yards it plays its full length. It’s hard to see the fairway from the tee across a band of high rough, but there is a bit more room to the right than appears. So aim to finish on line with the right edge of the green, giving you a better line in for your long iron or hybrid approach. If your tee shot though was not your best, pause and consider a lay-up short of the rushes that cross the fairway at about 100 yards short of the green. Tangling with them, or those in the right rough all the way down to the green, could cost you dear.
Another short par 3, at 145 yards, but don’t be fooled into chasing the pin. Choose a club to get to the middle of the green and make sure you comfortably carry the wicked front bunker. Anything long falls down a steep slope and leaves a hugely difficult pitch back onto a downslope. Take a very good look at the borrows before making your approach putt…a three here is a very good score.
Reversing direction once again, back into the prevailing wind, this 455 yards par 4 will challenge even the most accomplished golfers. A magnificent prospect from the elevated tee, aim just left of the large bunker that dominates the hole. Quite appropriately named as ‘The Narrows’, the fairway for most of the second half of the hole is little wider than a pathway. So if your tee shot is long enough to have a crack in two, take plenty of club and aim just right of the flag. But any mishit overambitious attempt that finishes in the rough short and left, or the rushes shorter and right, can be catastrophic. So, if you’ve not hit your very best tee shot, consider laying-up into the neck of the narrow section, from where you should have a good view and a full short iron in.
The second par 5 heralds the finishing stretch. A dog-leg right this time, at just 478 yards, it could be your last realistic birdie chance. But don’t be tempted to take the shortest line off the tee, the rough and rushes on the right cut in more than it seems and must be avoided. Aim at the marker post and a good drive could give you a chance to get up in two. The green sits well above the fairway though and, after recent re-routing of the pathway, it is well guarded by two bunkers and a steep slope. If you have decided against attacking it with your second, take a club that will leave you your favourite yardage for a full short iron in to the pin.
‘Fowler’ – named after the course’s designer and appropriately so, as it is a brilliant hole. A dog-leg left at 434 yards, but taking the longer route down the right half of the fairway, just inside the two bunkers that look to collect a fade, is a must. Tough rough, hidden bunkers and dunes spell real trouble for anything that just misses the left edge of the fairway all the way down the hole. The green itself nestles into the dunes on the left and is hidden from view for the second shot by a ridge of that runs across the line. Trust the marker post at the back of the green and your yardage and look to carry it all the way to the putting surface. If your tee shot has left you too far back aim for the ample fairway to the right of the green and look for your par with a good pitch and putt.
The final par 3, much longer than the others at 207 yards and often into a stiff wind from an elevated tee to boot. Hitting it straight here is more important than getting the length just right, so take plenty of club and swing smoothly. The green is well bunkered left and right and getting it up and down from the sand, or from the dunes that lie beyond, is very awkward indeed. But anything that approaches the front edge gives you a good chance of making your par.
Another dog-leg, right this time and 408 yards uphill. Depending on the strength and direction of the wind choose your target off the tee, one of the three fairway bunkers or the starter’s hut up on the 1st tee beyond them. There is no reward at all in trying to shorten the hole by hugging the right side….there only heavy rough awaits on the slopes of a large dune. The home green is well protected by bunkers left and right but it is large and long and delights in receiving a well struck shot to its heart. Two putts, or even a closing birdie, will cement the smile on your face as you repair to the welcome of the bar to reflect on your encounter with this most memorable links experience.
At last, a review which does justice to these remarkable courses. Like the fun of debating County Down or Portrush, my friends and I often contrast the East and West at Saunton. The back five on the West get my vote for the joy-to-be-alive prize, capped by a magnificent Par 3 18th through a left to right sea breeze. But the short 5th, and the 8th, 9th and 16th on the East are wonderful holes. The clubhouse view is indeed the best I know.On April 29th, 2012 robin brown Said:
I agree that both courses at Saunton offer a wonderful day of real links golf. A feeling of solitude, great welcome and proper running golf. Look forward to returning sometime.
St.Andrews and Carnoustie also offer enjoyable 36 hole options.
Dear Robin, I agree about St Andrews and Carnoustie, except that St Andrews Links runs seven courses and Carnoustie three. Yours LorneOn September 21st, 2012 GEFFERS Said:
Saunton East is a design master-stroke and is a wonderfully enjoyable Links experience. Just breath-taking.