Royal North Devon Golf Club Review
The English Original
By Mike May
Often referred to as Westward Ho!, the Royal North Devon Golf Club is England's oldest links course. It's located in Bideford in north Devon. A series of sand dunes is all that separates the course from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. At Royal North Devon, you'll hear the nearby surf, feel the breeze from the sea, and see the gulls fly overhead. This course is everything as advertised and then some.
Royal North Devon, designed by the legendary Old Tom Morris, opened for play on April 4, 1864. The club's founder was The Rev. L.H. Gossett, M.A. Some refer to Royal North Devon as the cradle of English golf. Not surprisingly, Golf World has listed the Royal North Devon Golf Club on its list of 100 Golf Courses in the World that a golfer 'must play.' When you play Royal North Devon, you are literally walking through the pages of golf history - dating back to Victorian England. In fact, on the golf course, there's a monument that has been built to honor the role that five-time Open champion J.H. Taylor played in the growth of the club in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s.
In the beginning, this course was named the North Devon and West of England Golf Club. In 1867, the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII and was a Patron of the club, gave this golf club its Royal title, which meant the course became the Royal North Devon and West of England Golf Club. In 1910, the name of the club was changed to The Royal North Devon Golf Club. While this golf course was built on more than 650 acres of Common land, known as the Northam Burrows, the actual course covers just 170 acres.
More than 100 years ago, golfing great Harold Hilton stated that Royal North Devon was the number one competition golf course in England. The course remains high on all golfers' opinion polls to this day. Royal North Devon's pedigree and reputation are the main reasons why this course has hosted the British Amateur Championship on two occasions and the Martini Pro event in 1975.
Royal North Devon has been described as a wild and natural course where golfing traditions are on constant display. This course is simply a special place where golf is enjoyed throughout the year - whether it's early January or late June. This par-72 (36-36) layout, as its website correctly states, is "pure, raw exhilaration." When you step foot on this course, you will sense that feeling of pure and raw exhilaration.
Like many famous Scottish golf courses, each of the holes at Royal North Devon has a name - starting with Burn at the beginning and finishing with Home at the end. Other interesting names for other holes include Baggy (#2), Lifeboat (#7), and Iron Hut (#14). Probably the most fun hole to play at Royal North Devon is the par four 4th hole (Cape). Here, you have a blind tee shot over a series of railway sleepers (large planks of wood). If struck well on a nice day in the summer, it's possible to drive the green, though you must negotiate the series of sand bunkers which protect the entrance to this short par four. Low, poorly struck tee shots may hit the railway sleepers and bounce back toward the tee, finish in a nearby sand trap, or carom in any given direction. The toughest hole (handicap rating/stroke index #1) at Royal North Devon is the right-to-left, par four 6th hole (Alp), which measures 412 yards from the tips. This hole has been recognized by The Golfer as one of the 100 Great British Holes for 2017. On the back nine, make sure that you avoid Fowler's Bunker when you play the 400+ yard 12th hole (Trap). This sand bunker sits about 220 yards from the championship tees on the right side of the fairway. This hole, rated as the #2 handicap/stroke index on the course, is tough enough without having to deal with hitting from a fairway bunker.
It is worth noting that at Royal North Devon, sheep and horses are fulltime residents and permitted to roam on the golf course. While the sheep and horses have a noticeable presence on the course, they don't interfere with play in any way whatsoever, as they tend to gather in the rough, eating the longer strands of grass. Frankly, the presence of the sheep and horses is an attractive aspect of the Royal North Devon experience. You must take a picture of the sheep to document the experience. Fortunately, there's a local rule which allows relief from a 'situation' that involves those roaming mammals: "A ball which lies in or touches heaped or liquid manure may be lifted without penalty, cleaned, and dropped." Now, that's much appreciated relief!
Royal North Devon is an out-and-back links course which means the transition from the 9th green to the 10th tee is 'out in the country.' Once you leave the clubhouse following your opening tee shot, you will not return to the clubhouse until you walk off the 18th green. So, if you want a snack or a drink during the round, bring it with you. And, as tradition would have it, Royal North Devon is a walking golf course where only a handful of golf carts or buggies, as they are referred to in England, are used for people who have special medical needs.
For golf history buffs, it's worth noting that English golfing legend J. H. Taylor started his golf journey at Royal North Devon where he worked as a caddie as a young boy. His childhood home was nearby. Taylor finished his lifelong affiliation with golf by serving as Royal North Devon's club president in 1957.
While the golf course is in a class by itself, the clubhouse at Royal North Devon is another great reason to visit this course. The only place in the United Kingdom with more historic golf memorabilia is at St. Andrews in Scotland. That's why Royal North Devon is often referred to as the St. Andrews of the South. The clubhouse is decorated like a golf museum as it's filled with a number of golf artifacts, trophies, and memorabilia, such as many of the golf clubs which Taylor used to win his five Open Championships. Some of the specific items on display include the Bulger driver (circa 1890), a driving mashie, the long-nose short spoon, the rut niblick, a smooth faced mashie, the lofter, and a Scared Head hickory shafted left-handed putter, which was built by Tom Morris (circa 1880).
In order to properly showcase its treasure trove of golf memorabilia and improve the club dining facilities, the clubhouse has been refurbished. Today, visitors not only enjoy golf amongst the sheep and horses that graze on the common land where the course is laid out, but can now see historic golfing artifacts such as hickory clubs, portraits of J. H. Taylor and ancient golf balls displayed in bright, new cabinets around the clubhouse. Five-time Open champion Tom Watson has visited and played a round at Royal North Devon. His scorecard, which lists his 64, and a hand-written note of thanks to the club membership are also display in the clubhouse.
Before or after your round at Royal North Devon, a visit to the clubhouse is a must. And, it would also be a good idea to stop at the course's restaurant -- PaR Dining -- for a post-round beverage and a sandwich. Breakfast is served beginning at 8:30est.
In a nutshell, Royal North Devon represents a blend of the present with the past. Your golfing resume is incomplete until you make the trip to visit and play Royal North Devon, where caddies are available upon request. And, don't forget to take a selfie with the sheep.
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Revised: 03/12/2020 - Article Viewed 9,431 Times - View Golf Course Profile
About: Mike May
Mike May is a Wellington, Florida-based freelance golf and sportswriter, who is also a 25+ year public relations and communications executive in the sporting goods industry. He is also a veteran high school soccer official, an experienced high school basketball coach, an avid athlete, a part-time personal trainer, and a passionate golfer who is forever in pursuit of Old Man Par. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
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