The view from the clubhouse at Saunton, the home of Saunton East, is one of the finest in British golf. The sand dunes of Braunton Borrows lie ahead, situated between the River Taw and the Torridge estuary, and they accommodate 36 links holes of the very highest quality. A snaking fairway can be seen here, and a flag fluttering there, dotted across this expanse of prime golfing land. Small wonder that many believe, were the R&A ever looking for a 10th venue on the current Open circuit (St Andrews, Muirfield, Lytham, Birkdale, Troon, Turnberry, Carnoustie, Hoylake and St George’s are the current nine), that their search should begin and end here in North Devon.
With the seaside town of Barnstaple nearby, and the M5 passing within 30 miles, it is an opinion that extends far beyond the locals whose privilege it is to be able to choose on a Saturday morning which of the club’s two fabulous courses to tackle.
While St Enodoc, a couple of hours even further south and west in Cornwall, possesses the unpredictably and charm of seaside golf at its best, it is Saunton that presents the kind of honest, relentless challenge guaranteed to identify a true champion.
Leaving aside the merits of the almost-equally fine West for a moment, it is the East that is billed as Saunton’s championship course. Golf has been played here since 1887 but the East Course as we know it today was redesigned in 1919 after the Great War by Herbert Fowler.
Fowler is the man responsible for such inland gems as Walton Heath and The Berkshire, but the only other links he ever had a hand in was Lytham.
It’s no wonder that many believe, were the R&A ever looking for an 11th venue on the current Open circuit, that their search should begin and end here in North Devon.
Much like Royal Birkdale, holes here tend to run between rather than across the dunes, and blind shots – for those who believe they carry a negative connotation – are few and far between. And just as at Birkdale, the East is a course that eschews the spectacular in favour of presenting one hole after the other of fair and demanding character.
This is not a course for clifftop thrills and tee shots demanding carries over the ocean. But what it does offer is something courses of the above type so rarely can – namely the maintaining of an excellent standard from first to last.
With only two par fives and only a couple of obvious birdie opportunities, Saunton does not give much away. That’s even more true now that the 2nd, previously shorter on the card than the 1st, a par four, has been extended to almost 530 yards.
In fact the opening four holes are particularly fearsome, each measuring over 400 yards. Stand on the elevated 1st tee when the wind is up and survey the 480 yards ahead, and you’ll know you’re in for a challenge.
Accordingly, it comes as something of a relief when you arrive at the extremely short 5th, just 120 yards. If there is a chance to make a score here, it comes around the turn, where a series of four holes under 400 yards offers the chance to smarten a card up.
After that things get much harder, not least on the closing three holes. The 16th is probably the best hole on the course and accordingly is named after its designer. The ideal tee shot on what is a demanding driving hole will run close to the bunker on the left that protects the inside angle of the dogleg, leaving a mid-iron to the almost circular green.
The 17th is also awkward, not least because the elevated tee on this 200-yard-plus short hole means the approach is at the mercy of the wind. Finally, the drive at the 18th must avoid a nest of bunkers on the left to set up an uphill approach to the large green.
If the neighbouring West course is not quite as long as its elder sibling, it should certainly not be ignored. Like other courses that are the junior half of a double act – try the New at St Andrews or the East at Wentworth, to name but two – it undoubtedly suffers in comparison. If it were a separate club 10 miles up the road, its renown would be that much greater.
As it is, for a course that was lost during the Second World War and only reopened after a re-design by legendary amateur and Walker Cup player Frank Pennink in 1975, it is remarkably mature.
Certainly, by combining a round here with one on the East it is hard to think of a better day’s seaside golf at one venue this side of St Andrews. Perhaps one day the R&A will agree and bring the Open Championship to England’s South West.