Any golfer worth his salt always hopes for at least one authentic, British Isles links golf experience in his lifetime—to wallow in the history of the game, experience a variety of conditions, have a go at bump-and-run and negotiate a minefield of pot bunkers.
Scotland and Ireland are the obvious choices for such a pilgrimage, and rightly so. But another region well worth exploring is the southwestern corner of England—the picturesque counties of Devon and Cornwall, to be precise. Here lie several good links courses, and three venues that are genuinely outstanding. The pride of Cornwall is St. Enodoc, a charming, century-old layout that might be described as across between Prestwick and Cruden Bay in that it is at once quaint, cavalier and extremely scenic. On the northern coast of Devon is Saunton, a club that boasts 36 holes, with the East Course providing a strong Royal Birkdale-like championship test. And thirdly, there is Royal North Devon, often referred to as Westward Ho!, a course incomparable in terms of character and the nature of its challenge.
Founded in 1864, Royal North Devon is the oldest golf club in England still playing over its original site. And what a site it is. The location is Northam Burrows, an exposed and—from a distance—rather barren-looking stretch of windswept linksland. Over-looked by the villages of Westward Ho! and Northam, the tract is common land—that is, it’s owned by no one and thus by everyone. The villagers of Northam have possessed “since time immemorial” the right to graze their livestock (particularly sheep, but also horses) on the Burrows. The golfers therefore have always shared their links with the animals.
The club has a rich history, and one that is proudly celebrated in the old timber-fronted clubhouse that houses its small, yet far from modest, golf museum. Great players and great championships have colored this history: Five-time British Open champion John H. Taylor learned his golf at Westward Ho!, as did Horace Hutchinson, who won the British Amateur Championship on two occasions. Considered too remote to host the Open Championship, Royal North Devon staged the British Amateur three times during the early part of the 20th century: in 1912 (when John Ball won his record eighth title at the age of 50), in 1925 and again in 1931.
Mother Nature must surely be credited as the principal architect of the golf links, but two famous names actually established the layout. Old Father Time himself, Tom Morris, was the first—he visited twice in the 1860s—and Herbert Fowler, the man who created Walton Heath, made substantial revisions in 1908. Notwithstanding Fowler’s typically accomplished work, Westward Ho! never shed the wild, unsophisticated look. In the first edition of his celebrated 1910 book, “Golf Courses of the British Isles,” Bernard Darwin declared, “It looks for all the world as if some golfing adventurer had merely to stroll out with a hole-cutter, a bundle of flags and perhaps a light roller, and had made the course in less than no time.”
Still, it seems improper to herald Royal North Devon as an ideal example of a natural, traditional links when it is so unique. At what other golf course, for instance, can you tee up on the first hole, step back to survey the ensuing drive, then gaze incredulously as a sheep wanders up to your ball and bleats a couple of times before casually retreating to the longer grass? Certainly this would never happen at any other “Royal” golf course. And where else in the world does there exist the prospect of finding your golf ball impaled on the spikey tip of a giant marshland reed?
These hazards are extraordinary—and some might suggest bizarre—but what really distinguishes the links at Royal North Devon is the diversity and combination of obstacles that confront a player during the course of a round. In addition to a possible four-legged intrusion, a burn must be negotiated on the opening hole; dry ditches and pot bunkers swiftly introduce themselves at the second and third; then on the fourth the golfer faces—and must carry with his drive—Royal North Devon’s legendary Cape bunker, a vast sleeper-faced cross hazard.
After an attractive Postage Stamp-type par-3, the sea at last comes into view, and the next two fairways flirt with the sand dunes alongside the beach. Those fearsome marshland reeds, known locally as the “Great Sea Rushes,” first appear on the ninth, an ingeniously designed par-5, and they threaten and fashion each of the following three holes.
The 10th at Westward Ho! is a short, superb, risk-reward, bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare par-4. The hole doglegs from right to left and demands a drive across an ever-widening stretch of marsh—here lurk the Great Sea Rushes. It is possible to hit a long or mid-iron across the narrowest strip of marsh, but this leaves a much longer approach to a green that is small and notoriously unreceptive. A brave drive courts disaster (possibly impalement), but there is considerable reward for a successful execution. The 11th and 12th holes are less heroic in nature, although both call for solid, accurate tee shots to avoid a prickly or watery grave. Incidentally, it is always easy to distinguish the fairways from the marshy areas: Our four-legged friends keep a respectful distance from the Great Sea Rushes.
A sizeable flock of sheep once accompanied this writer all the way down the 13th hole, a mighty two-shotter when played into the teeth of a hard wind. Two short holes top and tail the par-4 15th, the better of these being the mischievous 16th, which sports a slippery whaleback-shaped green. (Darwin rather flatteringly described this hole as “perhaps the best par-3 in the world.”) A road crosses in front of the 17th, and the final approach must be struck over a burn to a large but deceptively sloping green.
The fairways at Westward Ho! are remarkable in that the first two and the last are pancake flat, whereas the remainder are crumpled and ripple in a manner akin to St. Andrews. The condition of the fairways, it must be said, is not always perfect, and the sheep, Royal North Devon’s original grounds crew, contribute to the situation (let’s just say that they regularly “leave their mark”). By contrast, the greens are protected from the animals by bright orange tape barriers, and are well maintained and invariably quick. With one or two notable exceptions, the putting surfaces aren’t overly contoured—at least not when compared with the likes of the aforementioned Prestwick—but chipping and pitching onto them is always interesting and rarely straightforward.
Aside from a little lengthening, Royal North Devon has not really changed since the club’s halcyon days in the late 19th and early 20th century. Even in the age of Tiger and Sergio, it’s not difficult to imagine J.H. Taylor and Horace Hutchinson striding purposefully down the first fairway or contemplating their tee shots at the fourth. It’s as if the links and its various inhabitants were caught in a time warp. Northam Burrows is a remarkable domain, and the golf course that occupies it is both eccentric and wonderful. Long may it remain that way.