It was a moment which conjured memories of the great concession by Jack Nicklaus to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup. With my marker two and a half feet from the cup and my knees already knocking, our opponent said: “Take it away, you’re not going to miss that one.” This was my debut in the Press Golfing Society team for their annual and hotly contested match with Northcliffe. In our personalised sweaters, my pal and I had jousted across the dunes of Saunton West with our rivals who, frankly, could hit the ball further and often with more accuracy.
But we had hung in there and on the par-three 18th – an unusual and wonderful finishing hole, my ball had skirted the bunker to make the green. I even thought I may snatch victory with a birdie putt which skimmed the hole only to watch in anguish as the ball kept going. I was rightly asked to mark it and contemplated the shame and humiliation of losing because of a missed tiddler when the grand gesture of sportsmanship was made. It was an apt finale to a game played in the best spirit on a course which increased my love of links golf in the south-west of England.
Saunton is the finest links destination in the UK because it is home to two top 100 courses. We were playing both over two days and the opener was on the West, deemed to be its ‘second’ course. This certainly wasn’t an ugly sister. It had already charmed with is quirks and undulations over the front nine but after the cloud parted on the way back, its true beauty became even clearer.
According to a former ladies’ captain, The West at Saunton is the ‘thinking man’s course’. Strategy is important and there are possibilities to score well if you can avoid the deep revetted bunkers. I did not. As early as my first approach I found one and it became a theme throughout. The traps are deep and the sand is unusually compacted so clipping the ball high enough to escape was very tough.
The obvious answer was to club up to avoid the traps guarding the holes but usually deep rough was behind the greens as my playing partners discovered in turn. The first hole on the West sets the tone –the marker post, in common with others on the course, shows the line from the tee rather than a guide to go over. Aiming at it means the perfect position for the slight dogleg to the right. There is many a thin gulley at Saunton and they often out to punish those who are looking for shortcuts. This is the case on the par-five third where those taking the Tiger line could find water.
The seventh is the hole which I would most like to repeat because it is unlike any I have played on my travels. A wide ditch crosses the hole diagonally from the tee and the only slither of fairway can be seen just a short-iron flick away. A big hit could strike a tree to the right or even be lost over a mound to the left. It seems impossible to avoid trouble and out of our fourball, two of us found water, one lost his ball in the rough while the other’s handsome drive gave a short pitch into the green from the right.
The latter found, however, that success at Saunton can only be hailed after the greens are conquered. They were so quick in March that I could only imagine their pace in July. However, they were very true and our group saw several putts drop from distance. We also saw many run on a rather long way. The par-five 12th is also worthy of mention because it has a ditch running down the left-hand side and prompted a short but heated debate between my partner and me about tactics. I favoured a lay-up with the second shot but he harrumphed, correctly predicting that he would sail the ball over the water, leaving himself with a doddle of a chip. We won the hole.
The wind was blowing on the West, making judgment on the superb par-threes a wonderful challenge. I chose pitching wedge for the 9th, which has water in front and is sheltered by a semi-circle of trees and left myself a birdie putt. The 11th is longer, more exposed and was into the wind. I took driver and ended with the same result. The 18th is one of my favourite home holes and a very rare par-three finish. Again, I needed driver to avoid the dune on the left, skirted the bunker and the ball rested pin-high on the green. The back-nine has some cracking strategic holes including the dog-leg 14th where three of us fell foul of trying to cut the corner down the left only to watch our compadre snatch a par by going around the long (sensible) route down the right.
The 15th seems benign from the tee at less than 300 yards but its green is perched on a hill, between long grass, bunkers and in the shadow of an attractive tree. Consequently, its approach is short but deceptive.
As said, the West course is not as celebrated its sister course but the aforementioned former ladies’ captain was clear. “The East is great but those who know both well, prefer the West.” Certainly, the East would do well to match the excitement and visually stimulating West course.