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Westward Ho!: Classic Links at Royal North Devon

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The Royal North Devon Golf Club, commonly known as Westward Ho!, traces its origins back to 1864 when it was founded on the Northam Burrows coastline. This makes it the oldest golf course in England, still located on its original site. The legendary Old Tom Morris, the winner of four British Opens, was brought in to design the initial 18-hole layout on the seaside common land. This means golfers share the space with grazing sheep, horses, and walkers.

In the 158 years since, Royal North Devon has cemented its status as one of the world’s great and challenging links courses. Its natural aesthetic blends seamlessly into the environment, with grazing sheep and horses wandering the course. Royal North Devon continues to balance its rich history and treasured landscape while enhancing the timeless playing experience. Golf architects Herbert Fowler and Frank Pennink have made changes over the years while retaining the course’s authentic spirit.

The club has hosted prestigious events like two British Amateur Championships, welcomed legendary members like J.H. Taylor, and earned honors as a top 100 course in the UK & Ireland. But its uncompromising challenge, quirky holes, and rumpled fairways deliver a raw links test like nowhere else, harkening back to the game’s origins.

In this post, we’ll run through the course’s origins and history, its critical acclaim, and notable events the course has hosted. We’ll provide an overview of the course with a walkthrough of both nines and suggested further reading. We’ll finish off with some videos to bring the course to life.

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Origins of Royal North Devon

Golf has been played on the Northam Burrows linksland in North Devon since 1850. In 1860, Old Tom Morris was invited to spend a month advising on a new course on the land and his 1864 layout officially established the club and course. Morris’ creative routing over the coastal common land incorporated the rumpled terrain and contours, taking advantage of the dunes, undulations, and coastal views. In 1867, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, who later became King Edward VII, bestowed the club’s prestigious “Royal” title, the first non-Scottish course to receive the honor, cementing its status as a prominent golfing institution in England.

Over its 158-year history, Royal North Devon has hosted many top tournaments and seen great champions play its challenging links course. Notable figures include English golf legend J.H. Taylor, who started as a young caddie at the club before winning five Open Championships and serving as club President. Other famous members were Horace Hutchinson and Harold Hilton.

Throughout its existence, Royal North Devon has maintained its status as an iconic and prestigious course. Bernard Darwin called it “one of the greatest courses,” while later writers have dubbed it the “St Andrews of the South.” A challenging yet fair test, Westward Ho! contains all of the traditional links characteristics – rumpled fairways, gnarly rough, cavernous bunkers, wavering sea breezes, and ocean views. For over 150 years, Royal North Devon has balanced preserving golfing heritage and its treasured landscape with enhancing the playing experience.

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Critical Acclaim

As England’s oldest links, Royal North Devon has earned consistent praise and high rankings over its long history. Golf Monthly calls it “one of England’s finest championship links courses.” Golf World ranks it as the #1 course in Devon, while Golf Club Atlas says “there may be no place that feels more like a true links.” It has been added to Golf World’s “Top 100 Must-Play Courses in the World.”

The course is consistently ranked as a Top 100 course in the UK and Ireland, currently at #84. It has been described as “a masterpiece” by Bernard Darwin of Country Life, while Horace Hutchinson called it “a course very full of hazard and incident.” Its signature 8th hole “Bar” is considered “one of the toughest par 3s you’ll find anywhere.” Architect Tom Doak calls the course “quirky yet charming”, adding that “it feels like it has been there since the beginning of time.”

With its long history and picturesque seaside location, Royal North Devon continues to earn accolades as a world-class links. Its unique character and memorable holes keep it ranked among the finest in the UK. As Hutchinson said over a century ago, it remains “a course where the most condign punishment visits the ball which is not perfectly played.”

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Notable Events

The Royal North Devon Golf Club has a long history of hosting prestigious golf tournaments since its founding in 1864. Most notably, it has hosted the British Amateur Championship 3 times (1912, 1921, and 1935) over its 158-year history. It also held the Martini International Pro-Am event in 1975, with Christy O’Connor Jr and Ian Stanley sharing the title. The challenging links course has tested the skills of top amateurs and professionals from Great Britain and beyond.

As England’s oldest golf course, Royal North Devon holds a special place in the sport’s history and culture. Each year, golfers pilgrimage to play the celebrated Westward Ho! links, walk in the footsteps of legends, take on the ultimate examination of skill and shotmaking, and connect with the origins of golf. Royal North Devon continues to evolve while maintaining its status as one of the world’s great courses.

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Did You Know?

The club owes its unusual name to the novel “Westward Ho!” by Charles Kingsley. Published in 1855 and set in nearby Bideford, Kingsley’s swashbuckling tale of adventure on the high seas during the reign of Elizabeth I sparked the Victorian public’s imagination. Sensing an opportunity, local businessmen formed the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company in 1863 to develop the area as a seaside resort. Their prospectus stated, “The want of accommodation has hitherto prevented this beautiful and salubrious coast from becoming a popular visitor destination.”

The company constructed a grand hotel called the Westward Ho!-tel, with adjacent villas also taking their names from Kingsley’s novel. As the village grew up around these first developments catering to seaside holidaymakers, it became known as Westward Ho!. The exclamation mark has been part of the village’s distinctive name. Westward Ho!’s unusual moniker and picturesque location on Northam Burrows continues to draw tourists today. The wide sandy beach stretching for two miles is popular with surfers, walkers, and nature lovers. While Westward Ho! originated as a fictional place in a Victorian adventure story, it is now a thriving community whose name celebrates a literary legend and the captivating North Devon landscape.

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The Course

Royal North Devon is a par 72 championship links course playing 6,724 yards from the back tees. The classic out-and-back links layout features rumpled fairways lined with prickly gorse bushes and pot bunkers. Typical of all links-style courses built on sandy sites, the undulating terrain plays a strategic role. A unique characteristic of the course is the presence of sea rushes – tall, erect perennials that grow in coastal areas and salt marshes. The “Great Sea Rushes” at Royal North Devon are described as thick, tall plants that can severely punish shots that end up in them.

Greens are elevated and canted, guarded by swales and grass hollows. The course is exposed to the elements coming off the Atlantic Ocean, making wind an ever-present factor, and the large greens make lag putting a big factor in your scoring. White stone on the course is used to indicate the presence of hidden hazards. Coastal erosion caused the club to alter holes seven through nine, with changes completed in 2023.

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Outward Nine

The outward nine at Royal North Devon begins with par-5, which appears straightforward but has some nuance. With a wide fairway, it is reachable in two for longer hitters but will penalize an errant tee shot. A diagonal ditch runs short and right of the green, and the best play is approaching from the left. The 2nd is challenging, with hazards on both sides of the fairway. A precise drive just right of a white stone marker (marking a ditch). The slightly elevated green has subtle slopes that require careful navigation.

The next stretch from holes 3-5 takes golfers into the dune-framed landscape. The 3rd is a short par-4 at 350 yards with a wild, rustic fairway ensuring a blind approach to another contoured green. The 4th, the most recognizable and notable hole on the course, features a diagonal drive over dunes and the infamous “Cape” cross bunker. Its 170-yard carry may have been menacing in days gone by, but it is not much of a problem with modern equipment, with a good drive leaving a short shot into the green. The 5th, “Table,” is a one-shot hole played back toward sandhills, while the 6th is a good driving hole, set up as a medium-length par-4.

After they lost over 20ft of sand dune beside the 7th green, the club moved and rebuilt the hole, “Lifeboat,” now a par-5 with spectacular views. The ideal tee shot is just left of a large bunker on the right side, as shots to the left can end up in undesirable areas. Big hitters may attempt to reach the green in two, while those laying up have room to the right but must avoid strategically placed bunkers. Approach shots require precise yardage due to the narrow and long green, with tough up-and-downs. Despite the breathtaking views, players must stay focused as trouble lurks with every shot.

The first nine concludes with the tough par-3 eighth, also newly constructed, where par is a great score. “Bar” plays back towards the sea with another memorable view, usually with the wind at your back, making club selection tricky. The ninth has also been altered and plays as a par-4, with a tee shot presenting a typical risk-reward situation. There is ample room to the right, but the farther right you go, the longer the second shot. Strategy and shot shaping are paramount to score well on the ninth.

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Inward Nine

The inward nine offers a diverse and challenging test of golf, beginning with a tough stretch between 10 and 12, referred to as their own version of “Amen Corner.” The 10th is a short but strategic par-4 with risk-reward options off the tee for longer hitters. The 11th might be the trickiest tee shot, but the fairway widens around 200 yards, providing more room for longer hitters, but flat lies are hard to come by.

At the 12th, the right side is wide open except for “Fowler’s Bunker,” hidden from sight off the tee. This is a true links-style hole, where you must run the ball onto the large putting surface because any shot on the green will funnel off the back. The 13th, “Lundy,” is a short par-5 that plays into the wind, while 14 is the longest and toughest of the par-3s, with an ever-present crosswind affecting the tee shot and a multi-leveled green that makes two putting a challenge. The 15th, “Church,” starts a tough closing stretch with bunkers short of and surrounding the fast, flat green. The 16th hole is a deceptively short par-3 with a seemingly large green. The prevailing wind, typically blowing down and over the left shoulder, adds to the challenge, making it difficult to hold the ball on the green.

The penultimate hole presents a challenging long par-5, with most trouble situated around and short of the green. The ideal tee shot targets a tower on the hill, while the perfect layup is on the left side of the fairway, avoiding hazards guarding the green’s front. Approach shots typically play longer than the yardage suggests, adding complexity. The 18th ranks among the toughest, as players must avoid a ditch on the right with their drive and carry a burn across the front of the green with their second shot. Precision is key, as the large green has no trouble at the back but requires careful consideration.

Visit Royal North Devon online at https://www.royalnorthdevongolfclub.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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Remarkable Golf Courses
by Iain Spragg

Summary: Remarkable Golf Courses encompasses the extremes of the sport – from the highest golf course in La Paz, Bolivia, to the lowest, in Death Valley, USA; from the most northerly in the Arctic Circle to the most southerly in Tierra del Fuego. The many quirks of the golfing world are covered, such as the 18th green the other side of the River Lea which is serviced by an electric ferry, or the LA golf course that has its own funicular railway, or the floating golf hole in Idaho, where it’s not just the pin position that’s changed every day, it’s the distance from the shore!

Golf courses that feature neolithic standing stones (Scotland), Roman roads (England), and ruined medieval castles (Wales) take their place alongside the old temples of Delhi or a UNESCO World Heritage bridge that is used to link the 9th and 10th at Angkor Wat. There are the beloved classic courses of St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal St. George and Westward Ho!

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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

Royal North Devon
Oldest Course in England
Fantastic Golf Holes

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