England has a long and storied golf history and dozens of notable clubs — including Royal Lytham & St. Annes, site of this summer’s Open Championship. And while London gets much of the attention for clubs such as Sunningdale and Wentworth, it’s often said, by the English themselves, that to really appreciate England you need to get away from London. That’s especially true with this summer’s Olympics and its attendant congestion, price inflation, and travel disruptions.
So on a recent visit I explored some highly regarded but less traveled links courses in the scenic “West Country,” England’s extreme southwest corner. This verdant and charming region extends from a spit of land extending out into the Atlantic Ocean, with the Celtic Sea and English Channel also nearby, and continues northeast to the larger cities of Bristol and Bath—a touch over 200 miles. It takes some effort to head to the West Country, although the M5 motorway speeds matters along. Even with the extended travel time, the benefit is a true disconnect from the 24/7 grind that is a part of daily life in London and elsewhere.
My visit started at Trevose Golf & Country Club, in Cornwall. Designed by the legendary H.S. Colt, the championship 18 is more resort course than brutish links. However, the opening hole, which provides a stunning view of Constantine Bay, seduces the player right off the bat with a tiny sliver of fairway that tempts you to propel your tee shot through a narrow slot. The grand highlight of the outward nine comes on the tee of the beguiling par-5 4th hole. The shoreline captures your attention and the tee shot requires full faith in knowing how much of the dogleg left you’re prepared to chew off.
The remainder of the course, while enjoyable, doesn’t quite match up to those first few holes. It’s good in spots but somewhat reminiscent of Spyglass Hill in California — the superior terrain near the ocean is never returned to later in the round. However, Trevose has all the elements for an enjoyable stay — large guest rooms work in tandem with exceptional dining. A bay window in the main dining area provides a jaw-dropping panorama of land and sea. And supplementing the primary layout are a 9-hole regulation course and a 9-hole short course, fine diversions for those not up to the challenges of the main course.
Roughly 45 minutes away from Trevose in the small village of Rock is the superb St. Enodoc Golf Club. The layout, designed by James Braid in the early 1900s, provides 36 holes with the storied Church Course the headliner. Very few places can equal the marriage of quality links and the intoxicating views of the nearby town of Padstow and the Camel Estuary as it feeds into the Atlantic.
At the sensational sixth hole, you’ll encounter a massive dune/bunker combination that provides a significant obstacle to reaching a putting surface that was artfully dropped in a bowl. Speaking of tough, the par-5 10th hole is the most vexing on the course. The fairway gradually narrows to a dimension not much wider than a supermodel’s waist—with a slightly hidden water hazard on the left and a hillside, covered in tall heather grass, to the right. The smart play is to hit an iron to the more generous part of the fairway and proceed from that point.
Following that gauntlet, you should make it a point to visit the Church Course’s namesake behind the 10th green. The 13th-century chapel was nearly destroyed by a major storm that completely covered it with sand and debris in the middle of the 19th century. It was eventually extricated in 1863 and walking through it is a privilege, even in golf shoes. The concluding holes at St. Enodoc cap the day in grand fashion. The par-5 16th was recently lengthened, while the par-3 17th—sometimes requiring a driver when hitting into a fierce headwind — features an elevated target. The 18th, beyond toughness alone at 460 yards, is the most breathtaking spot to take in the coastal view. Stand on the rear championship tee and all the elements merge as one. When holing out you’ll turn to the nearby first tee and want to start all over again, a sure sign of a course’s greatness. The ancient ruins of Tintagel Castle are nestled into coastal cliffs.
Next up is Royal North Devon Golf Club, otherwise known as Westward Ho. Dating to 1864, RND is the oldest course in England and the oldest links outside of Scotland. Before teeing it up take a quick tour of the extensive antique club collection and other old-time memorabilia in the clubhouse. To top matters off you also find a fair range of animals having free run of the property, including dogs, horses and sheep. How many places can add the Bronx Zoo to a day of golf? But it all works well here.
The first half of the course sits immediately near Barnstaple and Bidford Bay. While the land itself can charitably be called featureless, getting to the preferred positions on the holes is no small task. Skillfully handling the wind and picking your target lines is mandatory, a good lesson for all the links courses in the West Country.
The 6th, a par four of 400 yards, provides a scenic view of the water and the nearby beach and coastal towns. The inner half of holes is located farther from the water but the challenges are no less rigorous. Small greens feature rounded edges that reject misplayed shots. Royal North Devon may be old in physical age, but the way it tests all facets of your game is anything but antiquated.
Up the coast about 30-45 minutes from Royal North Devon is the 36-hole complex at Saunton Golf Club, comprised of the East and West courses. The nearby Saunton Sands Hotel, a mere three minute ride from the golf club, is a convenient place to stay and affords views of some of the most spectacular dunesland imaginable. The land, in fact, is owned by a separate trust and cannot be used for golf, so the views will remain as they are in perpetuity.
The East is the more celebrated of the two courses at Saunton. In 1997, the club hosted the British Boys Championship, won by Sergio Garcia. It is a demanding driving course throughout — and the first four holes kick things off in style with three par fours measuring at more than 400 yards and a difficult par-5 second hole, with a creek that guards the fairway at just the right spot. The companion West Course is not as formidable, though still has its highlights. The first two holes play in and around some very impressive dunes, and the par-4 7th is one of the best holes on the entire property, with a pesky creek that must be navigated smartly. All in all, the 36 holes at Saunton make for a memorable day.
About 90 minutes away is Burnham & Berrow Golf Club, the final leg of the West Country golf journey. The Championship Course is a testament to the genius of H.S. Colt, and to a wonderful piece of land that rarely disappoints. The fairways heave and ho, akin to a stormy sea, for a number of holes. The course boasts one of the more daunting and exciting opening shots in links golf. Less than 400 yards in length, the par-4 first hole is framed by gigantic mounds, meaning a push or pulled tee shot results in a dicey fate. It’s a heart-pounding start to the course’s traditional out and in routing.
The trio of holes starting with the no-nonsense, par-5 13th calls for superior precision. The par-3 14th and par-4 15th are like an honest judge—no bribes accepted, with swift justice meted out for both rewards and punishment. Burnham & Berrow concludes with two stout holes. An elevated approach marks the treacherous par-3 17th, and the finishing hole is a testing par four that wraps itself around a series of mounds. There is a second 18 at Burnham & Berrow, the Channel Course, a sporty layout of lesser intensity.
The links courses of southwest England don’t generally receive the fanfare of those in other parts of the United Kingdom. But collectively, they provide a high-quality golf option for travelers who have played the name-brand courses already and are eager to try something new, without the crowded tee sheets and hefty price tags found in more well-traveled places. That sense of remoteness, and the caliber of the courses, have been treasured by the English for decades. Visitors, welcomed with open arms, can certainly see why.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?