The year 1860 was a momentous one for the game of golf. It not only saw the birth of the Open Championship, but also marked the beginnings of the sport in England, when Old Tom Morris travelled down to Devon from Prestwick to design a proper course at Westward Ho! Six years before that marks the first origins of a course here and it remains the country’s oldest still being played over the same piece of land.
That is not quite the same as saying it is unchanged, because Herbert Fowler arrived in 1910 and effected a significant renovation. What he left over a century ago however is pretty much what you can find today.
The great Horace Hutchinson grew up here, becoming captain at the age of 16 by winning the club championship. Twice Amateur Champion and the author of over 50 books on a variety of subjects, Hutchinson was also the first Englishman to be R&A captain.
A young JH Taylor, who would win the Open Championship on five occasions as well as become a course designer of great repute, caddied for him as a boy.
Taylor was never happier than when home at Westward Ho! and retired here to a cottage overlooking the links, with what he described as “the finest view in christendom”.
He lived there until his death in the early 1960s at the ripe old age of 92. The achievements of these two fabled names, and much more besides, is celebrated in the clubhouse at Royal North Devon, which is also a museum.
It is worth a visit in its own right but having made the pilgrimage it would be a crying shame not to take to the links itself, which often defies straightforward description.
Certainly it is an acquired taste, and it is impossible to collect a full impression without playing here on several occasions.
It is a relief to return to the ancient locker room, the wood dark and sturdy, and study some of the museum exhibits.
In that respect it is a little like the Old Course – at first glance a wide-open landscape with little in the way of definition. There are also shades of Royal West Norfolk in the wooden-slatted bunkers, marshland and spiky grasses.
Only in time can you come to appreciate the different ways most of the holes can be played. So on your first visit it is best not to be preoccupied with a scorecard but instead to take in as much as you can of the surroundings.
It must be said it begins unpromisingly – three long holes, one a par 5, take you towards the sea. Featureless, bland and lacking in definition, do not judge this book by its cover.
Things soon take a turn for the better at the short par-4 4th, albeit the drive over the Cape Bunker is nothing like as intimidating now as it must once have been. Still, when into the wind the 170-yard carry can still make most a little anxious.
Suddenly, the golf is now thrilling. The first short hole, the 5th, is a classic while the 6th doglegging to a green set diagonally offers views towards the Isle of Lundy.
The 9th should be a birdie chance at under 500 yards and played often downwind, but the combination of a small bunker in front of what seems an unfeasibly shallow green complicates matters.
Now you are in the middle of the rushes; dense, spiky outcrops punctuate the otherwise barren landscape. It is frankly disorientating, so much so that you could end up playing in entirely the wrong direction.
With nothing to concentrate on but avoiding these unusual hazards, it is uncanny how often you find them. Mercifully, and perhaps at the point of submission, the closing stretch changes in character again.
If the 14th is the strongest of the par 3s, so the 17th is the most intimidating of the par 5s. As you could have guessed from the opening stretch, the end is tough, and not especially charming.
It is a relief to return to the ancient locker room, the wood both dark and sturdy, and study some of the museum exhibits. Then it’s worth imagining just how intimidating a course this must have been 150 years ago with feather balls and hickory clubs.
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