Cornwall is renowned for its great food – everything from traditional Cornish pasties to incredible seafood – warm welcomes and incredible scenery from the wild moorlands and rugged cliffs to its sandy beaches. All of which makes this golfing journey as spectacular as the destination itself.
Few places in the British Isles elicit such misty-eyed nostalgic reactions, from the English themselves, as Cornwall.
It seems everyone did at least one holiday there as a kid, likely via camper van, and the memories – of simpler times in seaside towns, of pastoral scenes and broad beaches hemmed in by stunning cliffs (mind’s eye images reinforced by shows like Doc Martin and Poldark) – never did leave them.
Sue McDevitt hails from Worcestershire and holidayed in the southwest for 50 years; later in life, she found herself driving home from one of these visits in tears: “I finally decided I had to find some way to live and work here permanently.” In 2017, she was hired as club manager of Perranporth GC, the last of our six stops along the West Country coast. The links of Ireland and Scotland are fine, but it turns out the Mother Country has its own mother lode of seaside attractions.
It’s typically 24 hours of travel from Sydney to London, with a stop somewhere in between. Most of these flights typically leave in the evening and arrive at Heathrow early the next day. Upon clearing customs, do fetch the rental car and drive straight to the golf course. Nothing helps your body adjust better than a round of golf. Heathrow, long derided for its complete lack of charm, is actually positioned ideally (western edge of the Megaplex) to enable a West Country foray. My group of four had all arrived by 9am and by noon we were lunching in the pub at Burnham & Berrow Golf Club, hard by the Bristol Channel.
When folks talk about golf in this part of the British Isles, they tend to fixate on Royals and Saints, but the truly wise and well traveled always make time for Burnham & Berrow. Now I know why (and why the R&A routinely holds Open qualifying here). A towering sand ridge that extends from the clubhouse to the northeast provides for nearly all the golfing drama here. The superb front nine plays through and against it, all the way out – then amid and along its leeward side, all the way home. It’s a bit of routing genius that should come as no surprise: The estimable Herbert Fowler did the original 18 here (1910) and Harry Colt polished things up. It’s hard to imagine a links being much better, though truth be told, we played only 17 official holes. The par-3 14th was being renovated. Having inspected it quite closely, we can report it’s going to be a stunner. Full marks to the boys at Mackenzie & Ebert, the architects responsible for the new holes on display at Royal Portrush during last year’s Open Championship.
After bedding down at the lovely Ashbourne House, we left Somerset down the M5, passed into Devonshire and watched the landscape transform, the thickly settled giving way to the rustic and rural, in various shades of green, all of it carved up by meticulously maintained walls and hedgerows. Soon we arrived in Braunton Burrows, home to the largest sand dune system in all of England.
Which brings us to Saunton Golf Club, home to 36 sterling holes nestled amid these very Burrows. We arrived just one month after the 2019 R&A Boys Amateur Championship was contested over the East Course, where the golf is quite magnificent: subtle, diverse, quirky in spots and always exacting, with the best set of greens we encountered on this trip.
You don’t hear much about this place but were Saunton East located in East Lothian or near Inverness, they’d have written poems about it by now. It’s that good. Mackenzie & Ebert have done a bit of work here, too, but they undertook a far more extensive renovation at Saunton West, which comes into closer contact with the giant dunes of the Burrows. And here’s the lesson: Modern technology has, over time, allowed architects to venture further and further into these more dramatic dunescapes – but the golf thereby created isn’t necessarily superior. Fowler designed both courses at Saunton but there’s a reason he built the East Course first: It was the preferred ground for golf and so it remains.
“It turns out the Mother Country has its own mother lode of seaside attractions.”
A word about Mr. Fowler: He was 35 when he first took up golf; within two years he played off scratch. He proved an equally quick study on the design side. No less a heathland masterpiece than Walton Heath was the man’s very first job (one he secured only because his brother-in-law was an investor). When presented with seaside ground, he would produce sterling layouts like Burnham & Berrow, Saunton and Royal North Devon – also known as Westward Ho!, a bookend companion to the American links he designed on Cape Cod, Eastward Ho! Why Fowler’s name doesn’t roll off the tongue alongside those of Morris, Mackenzie, Simpson and Colt is something of a mystery. But he was certainly in their class. After all, he also designed a pair of superb courses at The Berkshire and the canny 18 at Beau Desert, in the East Midlands. This was the fellow entrusted with the sweeping redesigns of Royal Lytham and Ganton.
Fowler is indeed credited with formalising/redesigning the 18 we play today at Royal North Devon, the oldest course in all of England (1864) and located just south of Saunton across the River Taw. From one perspective this was perhaps the least inspiring stop on our itinerary. The ground here is very flat. The dunes that finally intercede on No.4 are gone by No.8 – indeed, the club has been obliged to reroute and reimagine holes 7 and 8 because the dunes have eroded so markedly (Mackenzie & Ebert have been tasked with this work, too).
“Where else might golfers share fairways with so many wandering sheep – and ponies?”
Much of the back nine zigs and zags quite blindly through massive stands of bull rushes with only signposts to guide new arrivals. In the wind, it can be most disorienting – and difficult. And yet … Westward Ho! is not to be missed. Where else might golfers share fairways with so many wandering sheep – and ponies? (Massive swaths of the Devon and Cornwall coasts are national heritage sites or otherwise held in trust, preserving ancient grazing rights. Environmental restrictions also mean Royal North Devon has not been altered much at all since Fowler was here, so this may be England’s best example of what 19th century golf was truly like. What’s more, the shore-access road runs right alongside the 1st and 2nd fairways; 3, 4 and 5 play parallel to the beach itself. This routing intermingles with golfers all manner of swimmers, surfers, kite-sailors, dog-walkers and sightseers. One rarely gets the feeling he is golfing alone at Royal North Devon – unless one is searching in vain for one’s ball amid the bull rushes).
Our foursome had stayed the previous two nights in a lovely Air B&B (Slade Cottage) south of the Taw estuary, and while the river town of Bideford and the more beachy hamlet of Westward Ho! were delightful (and full of restaurant options), our next home base lay an hour down the coast road, into Cornwall itself, where the pace is that much slower and the mobile phone coverage even more spotty. Padstow is the sort of chill, dreamy harbor town that urbanised Brits romanticise when they’re not on holiday in Cornwall. But it’s real enough and sits directly across the Camel River estuary from The Church Course at St. Enodoc Golf Club, a track that combines all the finest elements of West Country golf and rightly ranks among the most diverse, scenic links on Earth.
Stepper Point, the striking southern headland at the Camel’s mouth, is visible from the 1st green at St. Enodoc but doesn’t fully re-emerge until one is standing on 10 green. In between there isn’t a golf hole, a piece of terrain, a strategic scenario or scenic backdrop that even approaches the ordinary. The routing and most of the credit for all this go to architect James Braid, whose work here dates to 1907. His gaping Himalaya bunker at the par-4 6th is the most photographed/famous element in this early stretch but other highlights include the flamboyant fairway contours at the uphill 2nd and downhill 3rd, which drops 80 feet from the tee to rock-wall-guarded green; the extraordinary right-angled 4th, a short par-4 with out-of-bounds right and “long” (meaning 2 feet over the putting surface); the towering dune beyond Himalaya that accommodates the 6th green at its foot (and renders blind the tee shot on 7); and the mind-bending par-4 10th, which words cannot meaningfully describe. Suffice to say, it measures 457 mostly downhill yards but still manages to play substantially harder and longer than that.
By this time it feels as though one has walked a full round of golf but in fact the slack-jaw moments just keep coming. The church that gives this course its name, St. Enodoc’s of Trebetherick, is situated just right of the 10th green and dates to the 13th century. For a couple hundred years it sat nearly submerged in sand apparently; it was unearthed and restored in the mid-19th century, just prior to Braid’s arrival. Playing in such close proximity to such an ancient structure (including an awfully creepy graveyard) is fun. But the best view comes from the elevated 14th, back over the church to the estuary and Stepper Point. That would be a tough act to follow, but this is St. Enodoc: The 16-17-18 finish, playing high above the estuary over dramatic dunes terrain, is among the most epic and testing in Britain.
For our final two nights in the West Country we opted to stay just outside Padstow at Trevose Golf & Country Club, a full-on resort centered around a Harry Colt-designed course that has the misfortune of living in the shadow of its luminous neighbor to the northeast. But Mackenzie & Ebert renovated here, too, more comprehensively than anywhere else we played on this trip and the results are predictably grand. The terrain, always in sight of Trevose Head, is lovely; Colt’s routing is superb; and Mackenzie & Ebert’s bunkers are dramatic in the extreme – their rough edges seemingly “torn” away, to deploy the architects’ own parlance. What’s more, after the better part of a week “on our own” in various B&B settings, it was well to do some resort time with a lively bar and killer restaurant within walking distance of our condo.
Another welcome resort feature on our last day in Cornwall? Buggies. We took two and played Trevose at foursomes before heading down the coast where one last revelation beckoned. Perranporth Golf Club, where Sue McDevitt presides, is unlike anything we’d seen – not just in the West Country but anywhere frankly. Imagine if roller coaster rides required physical exertion. This may best describe the golf at Perranporth, another Braid creation that sits very high above the town and Perran Bay, atop an enormous headland covered with dunes. I’d never seen nor played a links set quite so high (read: utterly exposed to coastal wind) and designed quite so idiosyncratically. Every other hole features at least one blind shot – sometimes two. The ups and downs of the routing made the golf dramatic in the extreme, to say nothing of the walk. In a moderate wind (some 20-25 mph off the water), a few holes proved nearly unplayable but the entire experience was exhilarating.
Chatting over post round pints (a bit disheveled, in dire need of liquid sustenance), we fully understood why McDevitt made the move she did – and why golfers would do well to follow her example, if only for a week.
“The fact that I can stop off at the beach on my way home, get my toes into the sand, dip them into the cool Atlantic and sniff the clean sea-fresh air, somehow takes away any stress of the day,” she explained. “Don’t expect to get anything done in a hurry, don’t expect to get a consistent mobile or broadband signal and certainly don’t expect to earn a fortune. But do expect a totally joyful life.”