| In the Footsteps of Giants
Off the beaten track, but easily reached from London, Charles McLaughlin discovers a forgotten quartet of superb courses created by the finest architects of the Golden Age of course design.
Off the beaten track, but easily reached from London, South Devon has a forgotten quartet of superb courses created by the finest architects of the Golden Age of course design.
We are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery on earth where, back in the day, legendary designers like Alister Mackenzie, J.H. Taylor, Harry Colt, J.F. Abercromby, and Herbert Fowler were laying out and remodeling fantastic courses and had the likes of Bernard Darwin waxing lyrical about them... Where are we? California? Scotland? Augusta? The answer is South Devon and a series of superb tracks that make this a must see on any golf trip to the United Kingdom.
Only a couple of hours from Heathrow, leaving the bustle of London behind, and one could be in a different century, never mind country, as you visit a seemingly endless series of superbly conditioned courses designed by giants of the course design world. While it’s possible to take in all of these outstanding courses in a 3-4 days visit, a week or more would be allow ample time to take in more of the local sights and sounds.
This is a part of the world where people want to relax, breath in the unpolluted air, take in the beauty of their surroundings and enjoy the local food and fine ales. In keeping with this, the local courses aren’t 7,500-yard monsters to be endured rather than enjoyed, they are tactical gems calling for strategic course management
over brute strength. Rarely over 6,500 yards, all are best enjoyed walking, and a camera is essential in every case.
Life moves slowly here, not least because of Google Maps’ infuriating tendency to treat every farm access road as a 50mph road, when 5mph is a challenge! Joking aside, our initial joy at finding our rental car was a brand-new Jaguar was tempered when crawling along roads barely a car-width across, with untended hedges brushing the bodywork on both sides. There goes the deductible deposit!
THURLESTONE GOLF CLUB
It’s usually possible to work out a far faster route using the old-fashioned practice of actually looking at a map and/or asking locals for directions (remember that?!). The one exception is Thurlestone Golf Club who delight in the solitude and privacy their incredibly narrow approach roads offer. “No Tesco trucks here!” affable GM Steve Gledhill happily informed us. Thurlestone may be the most picturesque course in the area, a Pebble Beach lookalike with the spectacular clifftop front 9 a highlight. The original nine-hole course laid out in 1897 by J.H. Taylor was remodeled and extended by Harry Colt in the 1920’s and is only 6,600 yards from the tips. The ocean is visible from every hole, and in play on several. After a great risk reward opening hole - where the “sensible” shot can be over the clubhouse(!) before a tricky approach to a sharply raised green - the shoreline of Bigbury Bay
is immediately in play on the 2nd, and remains so until the 9th turns inland. The view from the 11th green (the furthest point on the course) is stunning, overlooking Burgh Island, infamous as the hideaway for the future King Edward VIII whilst wooing divorcee Wallis Simpson in the 1930’s. The return to the clubhouse is marginally less memorable, but a warm welcome awaits. A wee bit tricky to get to but well worth the effort, this is truly a hidden gem.
EAST DEVON GOLF CLUB
If one course summarises the attraction of south Devon, this is it. Designed in 1902 by the legendary Herbert Fowler and with both Harry Colt and James Braid remodeling the original, this picturesque gem gently climbs to the clifftops and back. Walking only, but not too strenuous and at around 6,200yds from the tips, not too long either. Onus is on accuracy over distance, with the heather taking a toll on errant drives and tricky undulating greens requiring thoughtful approaches. The elevated par three 10th is a cracker over heather and gorse to a 3-tiered green. The vista from the 16th was called the “best view in golf” by Peter Allis and it’s hard to argue with that. In fact, the closing stretch from 15th onwards may be one of the most picturesque in the world. Clifftop erosion has already led to some rerouting so get in quick! Trevor Underwood runs a well-stocked and friendly pro shop and the clubhouse has a delightful terrace running alongside the 18th. Just the spot for a Devon Cream tea, watching all too many players catch the front right bunker!
This is a very active, social, strong locally supported club and it shows. Very welcoming, and with a great choice of food and drink at keen prices, you won’t want to leave!
TEIGNMOUTH GOLF CLUB
Teignmouth Golf Club (pronounced “Tin”mouth) is a moorland track situated on a hilltop overlooking the English Channel, and of course, the mouth of the River Teign. The views from the clubhouse are some of the best in golf, and, coupled with the easy-going charm of the staff, great fish and chips and Doombar ale on tap, the terrace is a glorious spot to relax. Keep the chips away from Philip the Pheasant, who had decided to take up residency during our visit! Rob and Gina run a great shop, and with strong training facilities and a thriving junior programme, the future looks secure.
Which “giant” are we in the footsteps of this time? Mr Augusta himself, Alastair Mackenzie. He laid out the original course in 1924, and it has all the hallmarks of a Mackenzie classic. As one might expect, the greens are fantastic, with a remarkable eleven two-tier dance floors.
A moorland track, the heather bordering many fairways punishes errant drives. The greens command respect and care must be taken to not just find the putting surface, but it’s essential to find the right area or a likely three-putt awaits.
With six par-3s and a total yardage of just
over 6,000 yards, this is a course that can easily be played twice in a day, and you should! The conditioning is superb, and the finishing four holes are unforgettable. Coming off the long 15th, at 443yds into the prevailing winds, and the stroke index 1, one might expect to able to relax… However, the 16th (“Hell’s Mouth”) may be only 125 yards, but is fiendishly tricky. A true card wrecker, with its own “swear box” bunker - hence the name! The 17th isn’t long, but expect a tricky sidehill, downhill lie for your approach. Finally, the aptly named “Last Quarry” is a long par-three with OB left to perhaps the most undulating green on the course. A stunning finish!
Leaving the coast behind, we headed for the no less breathtaking vistas of Dartmoor, and the stately oasis that is Bovey Castle country house hotel. This fantastic retreat is situated in the heart of the massive national park and in addition to its 5-star accommodation, spa and facilities, offers countless activities to get as much exposure to the unique surroundings as possible. From huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ to riding to falconry, it’s hard to focus on the golf, but essential and worthwhile.
BOVEY CASTLE GOLF CLUB
The designer of the course at Bovey Castle, John F. Abercromby, was already renowned for his creations at Worpleston (1908) and Addington
(1912) when he won the commission. He was also famous for having used a hot-air balloon to conduct an aerial routing survey of a forest for his design at Coombe Hill in 1909, surely the first course architect to do so.
Abercromby sought out mentors throughout his career, even partnering with the great Herbert Fowler and Tom Simpson for a short time. However, his principal influence was a master of the craft. As a member at Huntercombe Golf Club, he was mentored by the legendary Willie Park Jr. Fresh from designing the Old Course at Sunningdale, multiple Open winner Park purchased Huntercombe Manor and almost 1000 acres of land in 1900. Within seven months he had built a course which Walter Travis declared was the “finest inland course” he had ever seen. “Aber” clearly took this to heart when asked to create a similar track in the grounds of another manor house on Dartmoor. Bovey Castle was opened in 1926, and amazingly is the only Abercromby course built outside of the M25 motorway which encircles London.
It quickly became a popular track, being added to the legendary stable of British Transport Hotels, which included Gleneagles and Turnberry. With two distinctly different loops forming the club, it’s easy to nip out for a quick nine between activities. Be sure to get some tips from pro Richard Lewis, who has been at the club for decades.
To the course: navigating the bottom nine is all about avoiding not one, but two rivers: Bovey and Bowden which are in play on every hole. The par three 3rd has perhaps the best view of the manor house and gardens, whilst the 7th was reputed to be Sir Henry Cotton’s favourite hole - a challenging narrow two-shotter with water down the entire right side, and a classic Abercromby green to finish.
A chat with greenkeeper Scott revealed a preference for the “top nine”, and it’s soon clear a different challenge awaits with elevation changes, blind shots and even standing stones adding to the challenge. The 208 yards 12th is a corker, requiring a needle-like shot through a tunnel of trees off the tee. Overall, it’s a demanding but exhilarating track, with a welcome variety between the nines.
As with all of these Devon tracks, try to get in more than one round if you possibly can. You won’t regret it!
Thurlestone Golf Club
Thurlestone 2nd hole
East Devon 9th
& 10th hole
East Devon 17th hole
East Devon 6th
Teignmouth 18th hole
Bovey Castle’s 3rd Green with hotel view