| Somerset: In the Footsteps of Giants (Part 3)
Continuing his search for the hidden gems created by the designers of the Golden Age, Charles McLaughlin visits Devon and Somerset.
Let’s visit Devon and Somerset to continue to search for the hidden gems created by the designers of the Golden Age.
With a fond farewell to Westward Ho! we headed north-eastward in search of the next in the chain of Atlantic Links. Several years ago, some of the top tracks on the coast from Cornwall to Somerset via north Devon got together and formed the aptly named “England’s Atlantic Links”. Their efforts have been instrumental in raising awareness of the heritage and sheer quality of the courses in this criminally overlooked part of the global golfing map.
As is often the case, a fair amount of driving is required to get from track to track, but given the beauty of the scenery it’s no great hardship.
Just as Taunton tipplers debate the relative merits of Trevose and St Enodoc, so Barnstaple boozers are divided on which of Sauntons two championship tracks is best. Playing both, it’s easy to see why opinions are so divided. The East Course remains a fantastic track, perhaps the best in the South West, but the huge and ongoing upgrades to the West driven by Head Pro Albert Mackenzie (no relation!) narrow the gap daily. This may be the best two course setup in the UK, with a great clubhouse and a huge pro shop where John Morgan should be asked for advice before setting out…
If the powers that be broke new ground by deciding it was time for the West Country to hold an Open Championship, the East Course at Saunton would almost certainly be the chosen venue. Laid out over wonderfully undulating links land on Devon’s unspoilt north coast a few miles west of the pleasant market town of Barnstaple, Saunton is a full-strength championship track that winds its way through dramatic dunes and demands accuracy from the tee. It would be a poor decision to make a round on the East your first on a trip to these parts, as it has the potential to seriously bite. Fortunately, however, the club has a second course - the West - which is a very fine layout in its own right and provides an excellent work out before tackling its
longer and tougher brother. Long, wispy rough, hard and fast greens and classic pot bunkers, combined with an exceptional routing make the East one of the most majestic - and most unheralded - courses in the land.
Bernard Darwin didn’t hold back after witnessing Herbert Fowler work his magic in creating the East course, calling it: “one of the courses of the world, fit to hold up its head with St Andrews or Prestwick, Hoylake or Prince’s, the National or Pine Valley”. No argument here.
The clubhouse itself may lack some of the historical atmosphere of rival tracks, but is far more comfortable as a result. As ever, the food and beverages available should be sampled, with the “Pheasant Plucker Amber Bitter” a personal fav…
Heading reluctantly out of Devon and back towards London via Somerset, the resort town of Weston-super-Mare is a great final stopping point. Just south of the town overlooking the Bristol Channel lies a charming club steeped in tradition and with “giant footsteps” everywhere one looks.
BURNHAM & BERROW
When the original nine at Burnham, designed by Westward Ho! Pro Charles Gibson, opened in 1891 it was nothing exceptional. Gibson used the tried and tested links layout philosophy of the time. However, when the course was extended towards Berrow Church and beyond over the next couple of decades, things began to get interesting.
In 1910, the ubiquitous Herbert Fowler brought his genius to bear, designing the signature “Church” hole and the great closing 18th. Soon after, Harry Colt transformed the course in a breathtaking sweep, removing many blind shots, weak holes and designing almost half of the holes anew. Colt’s partner in his design team, Hugh Alison, was a member of the club at that time. Alison would go on to become legendary for his overseas work for Colt, especially in Japan.
To gild the lily, Alistair Mackenzie was enlisted to advise on the rerouting of the 9th and 10th, and even Harold Hilton got involved at one stage. The last changes (plus the new nine-hole Channel course) were wrought by Fred Hawtree in 1977. Fred is less well known, but Hawtree & Sons is the oldest golf design company in the world and are the R&A’s go-to guys to tweak Open Championship courses. It’s a staggering collection of design talent, a “super group” if you will, and it shows.
With five-time Open winner J.H. Taylor as the first professional at the club, the clubhouse is second only to RND for it’s fantastic displays of memorabilia and time should be allowed to soak it all in while the deliciously named Bev behind the bar dispenses ales, surprisingly good food and wisdom in equal measure. Taylor in turn inspired the local Whitcombe lads, who made history in 1935 when all three brothers played in the Ryder Cup - a feat that will surely never be repeated.
On to the course, where starter Ray Higgins gets us off with a welcome, a smile and very useful course tips. This is a superbly conditioned track, and a delight to play. It seems every hole offers strategic options as the narrow fairways wind among the enormous sand dunes. Finding the fairway is key, as for every fortuitous kick back off the dunes, there will be two or three shots that stay up there and the resulting sidehill - uphill - or downhill-lie is a potential card wrecker. Nice views from up top, but not where you want to be!
This is a classic “out and back” links layout where wind direction is a major factor. In particular, the back nine in the prevailing stiff westerly wind is a true challenge.
Highlights include the stunning views from the 4th tee across the Bristol Channel, then the 5th, the first par-3 where wind is a huge factor and the bunkers are brutal. The Mackenzie 9th is a beautiful hole to look at, but don’t let the six bunkers and severe slopes intimidate you too much. Take a half club more and a confident
strike to the middle/back of the green will pay dividends. The 12th is the “Church Hole”, with shades of St Enodoc, and is a tough par-4 into a plateau two-tier green with anything short being tossed aside disdainfully. Afterwards, make time to take a peek over St Mary’s church wall.
Before you know it, you are on the elevated 17th tee, with the best view of the iconic lighthouse on the left. This is a beast into the wind, and has undoubtedly nipped more than a few great rounds in the bud. And finally, we have the 18th, a fantastic closing hole. Calling for a draw off the tee and then a fade into a difficult to hold, well-guarded green, this has surely seen plenty of drama over the years.
Our last course on a memory filled trip, but certainly not the least. This is a club that has everything: a fantastic course, great facilities, and even a dormy house so you can stroll to the first tee. Can’t wait to go back.
Hole 1 at Burnham & Berrow
Burnham & Berrow starter Ray Higgins
Hole 9 at Saunton West Course
Hole 9 at Saunton East Course
The 4th green at Saunton East Course
Hole 17 of Burnham & Berrow
Burnham & Berrow St Marys Church