Royal North Devon, 30th June 2017
Whoosh! Splash! Westward Ho!
Gusting 30 mph the first drive went whistling over the sheep and into the lateral hazard of tidal water. What a day! What a course! The exclamation marks are catching. Is this what links golf is all about? The last day of June in a blistering summer and we get flat terrain, scudding clouds (as in Scud missiles) a much needed RNLI station below the Pebble Ridge, and sheep, ponies and golfers scattered to the winds. Playing in these conditions would become a nightmare on any inland course but here the course is built for days like these. There is always a fighting chance; balls were only lost when they deserved to be. However, if you weren’t up for the physical and mental challenge you could not enjoy the day. Can you control the ball into the wind or judge flight and run downwind? More questions than answers. With most of the greens necessarily raised, if not upturned, above the fairways, distance was not everything yet the first two holes are long into the wind across richer soil and grazing land. Pipes, if not veins, are opened on these bristling holes but they are just warm ups for the real links land which builds from the third through the turn before a couple of more regular holes towards the close.
This is the oldest links course in England with Northam Artisan membership dating to 1888, a museum and a glorious honours board stretching back to 1864. JRH Taylor is the local hero but anyone who could get round this course using the equipment on display in the museum is a hero. It is not just the ball, and ball striking equipment but on a wet day your tweed suit would probably have gained a stone in the rain. No lesser man than ‘Old' Tom Morris was here to layout the links and while there isn’t the St Andrew’s shiver of history there is a frisson about this marvellous course. It deserves it’s own place in the continuum of links golf as a pure and natural course with no little difficulty that is not upstaged by more glamorous rivals. We are used to immaculately tended courses so the thought of playing amidst sheep and ponies is an anathema to most but it did not curtail the golf. On only one tee did I spot a hoof or cloven foot mark. Unfairly, I think some deride this place because of it’s agricultural overtones. Do not underestimate it.
All the par threes were a great challenge; the first is into the south westerly with high banked dunes above the green and a necklace of bunkers below there was no obvious place of safety, the next par 3, the eighth runs in the opposite direction. All were testing 3s but offered big enough greens to allow for the wind. Likewise the par 5’s whilst not overly long by today’s standards, offered smaller raised greens so the bludgeoner needs to find some finesse around the green. A couple of the holes nearer the club house both out and back, if I were to be critical, lack a little definition which distorts perspective and makes it harder for the newcomer to understand the challenge ahead. Everywhere sleeppered, revetted and pot bunkers abound, whether to preserve the contours or enhance the golf, they are all well placed and much friendlier than the marsh grasses and dry bunkers that fringe some of the holes.
Perhaps we got it on the right, wrong day, four enormous cable stays just about held the flagpole up and we were unable to see Lundy Island but on the other hand we did see kite surfers behind the 5th green and the ponies heading for shelter. The bulk of the Saunton Sands Hotel was also visible through the cloggy sea spray atmosphere across the estuary. Saunton Sands golf club, however, which sits below it is more sheltered than Royal North Devon but this felt like a proper march through links history. Saunton is a tougher test of golf because the fairways are narrower and the rough is tougher but I question whether it would you have given us as good a game that day as Westward Ho!
Referring to earlier blogs they make an excellent Gunners; with the addition of lemon squash in their premix. Unfortunately the food was either badly chosen or shocking. My fishcakes could have been played round 18 holes although unlike my first drive I would have been happy to see it go in the water!