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  • Neil White

Royal North Devon

A flying bat, a zombie and 500 sheep! Royal North Devon must be England's oldest and arguably most eccentric golf course.

I had heard several negative reports prior to our visit to Westward Ho! (one of only two towns in the world with an exclamation mark in their names) from those who thought the course was too raw but I have to say we loved our visit.

This is largely down to my love of golfing history and penchant for quirky links.

The welcome at RND is lovely. We chatted amiably with the pro and one of the club's officers as we downed the heartiest full English breakfast imaginable.

We had deliberately arrived a couple of hours before our tee time so we could take in the wonderful museum which makes up part of the substantial clubhouse.

I could only marvel at how players would have shot around the links with such implements and balls.

The honours boards date back to 1864 and names include golfing luminaries such as Horace Hutchinson, Harold Hilton, Herbert Fowler and Captain Molesworth.

Particularly revered is five times Open champion John Henry Taylor who was born overlooking the course on which he now has a substantial memorial.

There are some differences to the layout from Taylor's day because action has had to be taken to offset erosion and sea flooding but, in essence, RND captures the spirit of bygone times.

Therefore, the sheep wander freely across the rugged course as do some horses and dog walkers!

Kites in the shape of birds and a bat and even the aforementioned blow-up zombie are intended to scare wildlife, especially crows, from the greens.

At this point, I should mention the putting surfaces. They were tremendous. We played at the end of January and they were as slick as some will be in June.

The links at Royal North Devon don't have as much elevation as we might have expected but that doesn't dilute its challenge.

Indeed, it sets a daunting tone from the first drive which needs to avoid a stream directly in front and down the right-hand side.

Sea rushes which are dotted throughout the course, line the left and the brook meanders in front of the green. However, in common with much of RND, the fairway is wide and consistently straight hitting will be rewarded.

About 20 sheep gathered in the centre of the fairway provided the greatest obstacle of the bending second hole.

Obviously, they simply move when the ball comes near but I tried to miss them and, consequently pulled my tee shot into the tangly rushes.

Sea rushes have similar properties to heather. If the ball goes in deep, it is lost and even if it appears that the lie is favourable, better to chip out rather than be too ambitious.

The fourth is one of RND's classic holes because of the enormous bunkers directly in front of the tee. Thankfully, both Mrs W and I found our way over them.

The sixth runs alongside the coastal path and offers the best views on the links, out to sea.

It was also the scene of one of my most memorable birdies ever.

After meeting the assistant greenkeeper on the tee after some pre-round correspondence, I hit a decent drive down the middle, followed by a stinger three-wood to teen feet. He beeped the horn on his tractor in appreciation and I nailed the putt.

There has been some work to shorten the seventh and move the eighth because of the aforementioned erosion but they remain invigorating holes with more thought demanded than I possess.

I was back on track on the ninth, a curving par-four from an elevated tee, although I did add a kilometre-long walk when Mrs W announced she had left her putter on the eighth!

Unfortunately, a couple of winter tees changed the nature of some of the holes on the back nine, including the curving 10th which usually demands a drive over sea rushes.

The course video describes this as the beginning of RND's Amen Corner and says players will do well if they get through them unscathed.

I did not - losing my ball off the tee on the 11th finding the trouble on the right-hand side and then sliding into the deep pot-bunker adjacent to the 12th green.

If I was to have a quibble with Royal North Devon, we felt the signposting could be better. This is important because so few of the flags are visible from the tees.

An example is the 15th which does have two discs to indicate the way but is still a tad perplexing - possibly because it has an incredibly wide fairway behind sea rushes and before dunes which hide the green.

But the most mind-bending is the par-five 17th, arguably the quirkiest hole on my top 100 travels so far.

Why? Because the target is behind a busy road and bushes. After waiting for tourists' cars to depart, my approach literally hit a sleeping policeman!

Anyway, the most important match anyone will ever have on a golf course - husband versus wife - went down to the short par-four 18th which we both parred.

We have decided not to publicise the results of these bruising encounters but, suffice it to say that, while we both played well, we shall not be troubling the Royal North Devon's fabulous history books.

But we did thoroughly enjoy our day in the footsteps of golf's greats from yesteryear,

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