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Saunton Golf Club: A Links Legacy

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Saunton Golf Club, located near Braunton in Devon, England, has a rich history that dates back to the late 19th century. Although there is evidence that golf was played on the Braunton Burrows as early as the 1890s, Saunton Golf Club was officially formed in May 1897. Saunton is renowned for its two courses set along the beautiful Devon coastline, the East and the West, both of which are nestled in a magnificent tract of sand dunes which extend further from the shore than the typical linksland.

The East Course at Saunton has been the venue for major amateur championships, including the 1937 English Amateur and the Boys Amateur in 1997, which saw victories by Frank Pennink and Sergio Garcia, respectively. Henry Longhurst once called it “the greatest course never to have hosted the Open,” and Harry Vardon, upon his first visit to Saunton, declared that he wanted to retire, build a cottage there, and play golf for pleasure.

The West Course, while shorter, is more exacting and offers a unique challenge. It plays on higher ground with many of the green complexes nestled in the dunes. Both courses have been featured in the Golf World’s Top 100 in England rankings. Saunton Golf Club is a testament to the beauty and challenge of seaside links golf, offering a unique experience to golfers of all levels.

In this post, we’ll review the history of Saunton, its East and West links, and what makes them so memorable. We’ll learn about the course’s role during World War II, and we’ll conclude with some suggestions for further reading and some videos to bring the course to life. As always, the adjacent images are simulated to set the scene and provide context.

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Origins and History

The club began with a 9-hole course, utilizing the local Post Office as a clubhouse, expanded to 12 holes by 1906, and extended to a full 18-hole course by 1908. A clubhouse was constructed in 1907 for £1,000, which still exists today as a private residence to the right of the 16th fairway on the East Course.

The club’s development was interrupted by the First World War in 1914, which led to a reduction of the course back to 12 holes due to labor shortages. After the war, in 1919, the club employed the renowned architect Herbert Fowler to redesign the course. Saunton gained a reputation for its quality links and began to host prestigious events, including the British Ladies’ Championship in 1932. Recognizing the need for a second course, J.H. Fowler was commissioned in 1935 to design what is now known as the West Course. However, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 once again disrupted the club’s activities, with the courses and clubhouse being occupied by the military until 1951.

Post-war, Saunton Golf Club worked to re-open after extensive damage. The East re-opened in 1952, while the West was redesigned by Frank Pennink and reopened in 1974. The East Course is particularly notable, ranked No. 95 in the Golf World’s Top 100 in the World and No. 22 in the Golf World’s Top 100 Courses in England’. The West Course also ranks respectable at No. 71 in the Golf World ‘Top 100 Courses in England’. After over 125 years, Saunton Golf Club remains one of the premier golf destinations in the UK.

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Did You Know?

Saunton’s historical significance extends beyond golf. During the Second World War, the club played a pivotal role as a training ground for the largest invasion in history, the D-Day landings. The area’s topography was strikingly similar to Omaha Beach in Normandy, making it an ideal training site for American troops.

The Assault Training Centre was established in 1943, primarily because many American troops sent to Britain for the upcoming invasion of France were not battle-ready and needed training. The area around Saunton was designated as ‘D’ in the Assault Training Centre, which was divided into lettered areas along the beach from A to M.

Evidence of this period, such as pillboxes and mine traps, can still be found on the course, and in 2016, a bomb disposal unit was even called in to defuse a live weapon discovered during renovations.

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The East Course

The East Course at Saunton Golf Club is a true gem among English links courses, offering a challenging and picturesque golfing experience. Playing to a par of 71 at 6,779 yards, the course is set within the stunning coastal dunes of North Devon, known as the Saunton Burrows.

The opening holes of the East Course are particularly memorable, as they are routed through impressive sandhills, setting the tone for the unique links experience to come. The East Course is known for its demanding par 4s, including the 14th hole, aptly named “Narrows,” which requires a long and straight drive to navigate the 455 yards from the back tees. The par 3s are no less challenging, with the 13th hole “Saddle” requiring a well-flighted tee shot to an elevated green, emphasizing the need for accuracy over brute strength.

The course transitions from the dune-lined holes to quieter territory, where the holes are framed less dramatically but still offer solid golfing challenges. Despite the lack of towering dunes in some sections, the course maintains its character and quality throughout. The East Course at Saunton has been recognized for its championship quality and is regarded by some as a potential Open Championship venue. Its design and natural setting have earned it critical acclaim with its combination of natural beauty, strategic design, and historical significance. It is a course that challenges golfers of all levels and leaves a lasting impression with its distinctive holes and the natural landscape.

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The West Course

The West Course at Saunton Golf Club is often considered a formidable counterpart to the more famous East Course, providing a distinct challenge. While the East Course is celebrated for its championship qualities, the West Course stands out with its own character, offering a slightly different links experience. Elevated tees offer scenic countryside views but demand accuracy to find the narrow fairways, especially over the opening holes.

The course plays to a par 71, spanning 6,403 yards. The layout takes full advantage of the natural terrain, with many holes playing on higher ground and green complexes nestled among the dunes. This positioning provides golfers with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including the untouched and protected areas of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where golfers can appreciate the diverse flora and fauna, including the 400+ species of wildflowers and a variety of birdlife that inhabit the region.

The course layout also takes golfers through streams, burns, and other geographical features that add to its distinctive character. Its greens were meticulously rebuilt by renowned golf architect Donald Steel in 1987 and are among his best works. While less lengthy than the East Course, the West presents plenty of variety and an engaging test requiring thoughtful shot selection and course management. The finishing stretch builds drama, culminating with the tricky 180-yard, par-3 18th hole on which many matches have pivoted.

Visit Saunton online at https://www.sauntongolf.co.uk.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Saunton – Take a Tour
Saunton – East Course
Saunton – West Course
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