Royal North Devon Golf Club
Bideford, England, United Kingdom

Eighth hole, 235 yards, Bar; For such a traditional links, it is interesting that three of its four one shotters require a forced carry. This is the most daunting and highlights the addition of championship tees over the past decade that has stretched RND to more than 7,000 yards. For decades, the course measured 6,600 or so but the club is proud of its heritage of asking quality players to hit every club in the bag and these days that requires more length.

Over the years, the 8th has suffered the most damage from storm surges and Mother Nature. Hopefully, the construction of the storm wall will mute future damage to this splendid hole at the end of the property.

Ninth hole, 520 yards, Dell; From the tee an Elysian Fields vista unfolds and the golfer is encouraged to swing away with the going getting progressively more fascinating. Modern equipment makes the hole reachable but three bunkers wall off access from the center of the fairway. Rather, the thinking golfer needs to sort out how to use the ground and the prevailing wind which quarters from the right to loop a ball past the right hazard and onto the putting surface. Similarities with the fourteenth at St. Andrews exist and Tom Doak singles this hole out as one of the great reachable par fives. Only the player that uses the mound on the right can find and routinely hold the shallow 21 yard deep green. Few links boast a par five of such sterling quality. Ultimately, it is RND’s rash of world class holes (four, six, seven, ten, eleven, sixteen and this one) that inform the golfer in no uncertain terms just how relevant the course remains. What a great, great pity that the Open Championship was never contested here.

The shallow green is perpendicular to the line of play and is fronted by three pits.

Trying to fly a ball from 200+ yards out onto a green with so little depth is nonsensical. Better to figure out how to scoot past the right bunker and then …

… use the mounds right to shunt the approach left onto the putting surface.

Tenth hole, 410 yards, Rush; Regardless of whether a hickory or steel shafted club is in hand, the disconcerting sight of the Great Sea Rushes directly in front of the tee has unsettled golfers for over a century.  The five foot tall rushes are only on the left side of the fairway, so the temptation is to steer one’s tee shot right where three fairway bunkers define the task.

Conviction is required to launch one’s ball over the black and white marker.

The elevated 5th green left and 6th tee right provide the backdrop for the approach to the 10th across spendidly broken ground.

Eleventh, 395 yards, Appledore; Rushes surround the eleventh. Generally played in a cross breeze from the right, it is a particularly feared hole in golf lore. In contrast to the broad, expansive nature of the previous holes, it seems claustrophobic. Though there is ample fairway, that’s of small consolation to the trembling golfer who fears the finality of a mishit into the rushes. Finding a sub-400 yard hole that has defiantly stood the test of time like this one has is rare indeed. Every course should have one such genuine position hole that makes you clinch (but probably not two).

One of the most alarming tee balls in all of England; the golfer needs to be at peace with his swing when arrives at the tee!

The fairway becomes progressively lumpy nearer the green. In all respects, this modest length hole has withstood the onslaught of technology remarkably well.

Twelfth hole, 425 yards, Trap; Simplicity itself. Death in the form of the rushes along the left; down the right, gobs of room. Cleverly, Fowler constructed a series of three bunkers that buffer the green’s right, making an approach from that side infinitely more difficult.

The view from the tee says it all. Rushes and the red flag are left while …

… a series of bunkers obscures the putting surface for those that go right off the tee.

Thirteenth hole, 475 yards, Lundy; This concludes a stretch of four holes with the high to low point being a mere six feet. Not a golfer alive realizes he has just played across such level land, in part because of the verticality of the sea rushes that effortlessly lend genuine terror to the proceedings. One thing many of its members readily appreciate is how fabulous this course is to grow old upon. Exhilaration surely is evident while playing along Pebble Ridge but the merit of these flattish holes also deserves praise not only for their golf qualities but because they make the walk more pleasurable.

This top-hat, criminally small green tantalizes. Given that the green is a scant 24 paces deep (only the 9th green is shallower), a finely judged low rolling approach is a thing of great beauty.

Fifteenth hole, 430 yards, Church; Fairway bunkers are employed by modern architects to define strategy and demarcate the hole. Golfers have become accustomed to them as guideposts but what happens when a fairway is devoid of such (no pun intended) trappings? A certain amount of confusion can ensue and such is the case at  fifteenth where a bunkerless vista gives few hints at one of the more important fairways to hit during the round. High shoulders feed off fronting greenside bunkers left and right and the putting surface runs from front to back.  Balls not clipped from the fairway invariably find their way to the back of the green. As such, front hole locations are the toughest. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, an appealing mystery accompanies so many shots at Westward Ho! A thoughtful golfer is bound to ask: do modern architects show us too much?

Not that it is readily apparent standing on the tee but a series of depressions along the right and the fallaway green mean that the left center of the fairway is optimal for one’s approach.

Sixteenth hole, 160 yards, Punch Bowl; The bottom of the flag isn’t quite visible from the tee, which prompted Darwin to write in Country Life in 1947, ‘The hole has the quality of semi-blindness in which distinguished students of architecture discover the surpassing merit and difficulty of some of the St. Andrews holes. I never fully realized before how right they were. To stand on that 16th tee and imagine a good, strong wind blowing from the left, was to feel once more a shiver of apprehension down the spine, and see, in the mind’s eye, the ball, half-heartedly struck, toppling gently down the bank into the bunker inevitably waiting for it. So I came away with no doubt at all that it is a very great short hole indeed.’ The great shame is few holes of this length which prey on both mind and body are found among closing stretches anymore.

As seen from the left, the putting surface falls away on all sides, making this one of the most elusive greens to consistently hit.

The last two holes are across flat grazing land and as such incapable of providing the thrill of playing over roly-poly landforms. Nonetheless, neither is a weak or indifferent hole. Many a golfer has come undone  trying to reach the penultimate green in two across the beach access road. In fact, one of the handful of best hole locations on the course is found on the back of the seventeen’s tiny lower plateau. The Home hole marches away from the sea and toward the iconic white clubhouse which dates back over a century. There’s a ditch to clear if one is to find the rolling green and tee balls off the fairway greatly diminish that outcome. This ultimate approach provides plenty of anxious moments and is something different from the undertakings of the previous three hours.

This front hole location is brutal to get close to, especially downwind.

From a historical perspective, Westward Ho! has no peer in England – it was the first golf club incorporated there in 1864 and it is the oldest club that occupies its original ground. Inside the rambling clubhouse there’s a patina of  history and heritage, all sorts of memorabilia and an honor board for the ages. Yet, for a club so steeped in tradition, the welcome is exceedingly gracious. Even Brits comment on a very special club atmosphere. Frank Pennick, a member for a time, wrote, ‘There has never been any doubt in my mind as to where and when I have enjoyed a week’s golf holiday most. …. For pure enjoyment of fine but not too serious golf and excellent company, give me the Open Meeting at Westward Ho! in August every time.’ 

Golf is for making friends (of all sorts, just ask the lady above in the 18th fairway!) and few clubs offer as warm a welcome as RND.

Let the last words go to Fowler who wrote in 1912, ‘Westward Ho! means the greatest reward for good and the most severe penalty for bad play to be found on any links, and at the time of writing reigns as the finest course in the United Kingdom.’ High praise indeed and it remains far closer to the truth to this day than most people realize. Put another way, who wants to wager that Horace Hutchinson, Bernard Darwin, Frank Pennick, Pat Ward-Thomas, JH Taylor and countless other keen players and students of the game were all wrong?

The End