The golf world is full of tenuous claims ‚?? ‚??Tom Watson when he came here said this...‚?Ě, ‚??this is Ben Hogan‚??s favourite hole in the world,‚?Ě ‚??people have been playing golf here since Egyptian times...‚?Ě, etc etc. ¬†Some are credible, some you fire a wry smile at and change the subject. ¬†Westward Ho!‚??s claim to be the oldest course in England falls into the former category. ¬†For me, its credibility derives entirely from two sources. ¬†The first is the name, which is so immediately and intensely endearing that one can‚??t help but swallow anything fed to one about the club with lustful appetite. ¬†Second, is the place itself ‚?? clubhouse and course. ¬†So steeped in ancient dust and that smell of oldness is the clubhouse ‚?? and so quirky and St. Andrews-like is the course itself ‚?? that there can be no doubting Westward Ho!‚??s claim. ¬†Plus it‚??s Royal North Devon to us underlings ‚?? giving another, royal, stamp of approval. ¬†I rest my case.
Quite apart from all the history, RND is also just a tremendously pleasant place to visit. ¬†Mark the Secretary had kindly accommodated our request for a visit at relatively short notice (and a rescheduled tee time in light of burst tyre on the M5 to boot). ¬†When we met the man himself he was delightful, and spoke with what I can only assume is a thick Devonshire accent. ¬†In a past life he may have been a gentleman farmer. ¬†But that‚??s beside the point ‚?? Mark couldn‚??t have been more welcoming, something y‚??er man on the street doesn‚??t always expect when he visits a Royal club. ¬†(Truth be told, we‚??ve found most of the Royal clubs we‚??ve visited ‚?? some 14 or so, by now ‚?? to be among the most welcoming we‚??ve experienced this year). ¬†When in his presence, our three were like naughty school boys visiting the headmaster. ¬†I say that because we were standing in his office ‚?? which is just offset from the lounge / museum, where the members were sitting with apple juice in hand ‚?? in our socks, there being no spikes allowed in this part of the building and our loafers being back in the car. ¬†An unorthodox but warm encounter. ¬†
On the putting green we got talking to a very pleasant chap who looked and sounded like a pirate. ¬†An affable pirate, of course, who was clearly off duty from pillaging ships off the Devonshire Coast. ¬†Which, by the way, is nothing short of stunning. ¬†As we surveyed the vistas in front I couldn‚??t help but draw parallels with Waterville over in Ireland, which has a similar wow factor. ¬†Added to the mixer was the enchanting village of Bideford behind, set against the hill. ¬†All I could wonder was how many times this place has been invaded by the Normans and the Vikings (more likely) and the Romans (most likely) and every other dastardly uninvited guest through The Ages. ¬†In any case, today was the day of The puregolf2010 Invasion. ¬†What a windy day we‚??d picked for it too.
From the 1st tee you immediately get a sense that you‚??re not about to play an orthodox course. ¬†A burn gurgles some 50 yards or so ahead. ¬†A wide fairway opens up yet further ahead. ¬†Another burn / ditch runs along the right side of the hole. ¬†To the left is rough that you wouldn‚??t wish on anyone. ¬†Even your most bitter adversary. ¬†Nope, not even him. ¬†30 yards short of the surface snakes the same burn (it‚??s a short par 5, by the way) that was a‚??snakin‚?? before. ¬†Then there‚??s a fairly wide open green complex with little standing guard other than a flat-ish sandpit. ¬†In benign conditions the big boys would tear this up. ¬†However. ¬†I‚??d be surprised if the odds at William Hill on there being two calm days in a month were not longer than the Danube. ¬†This be windy country. ¬†And, like The Old Course at St. Andrews ‚?? Westward Ho!‚??s ever so slightly more ancient northern cousin ‚?? the course needs it. ¬†
A Sou‚?? Wester wind, coming from Bideford and beyond, makes the front nine a fairly gentle proposition. ¬†Relatively speaking. ¬†The inward nine on the other hand is a devil of a thing in such conditions ‚?? the sort of nine that you‚??d happily walk off having played within a shot or two of your handicap. ¬†Ahhhh, links golf.
On the third tee we spotted our first rafter bunker ‚?? something I‚??ve always thought the south of England is famed for. ¬†(Is it?). ¬†This miscreant was deeper than Barry White‚??s voice and apparently fortified with every tree felled in the northern hemisphere 116 years ago. ¬†A huge expanse of a hazard. ¬†Now, without sounding overly self-assured, The Thing wasn‚??t in play for us. ¬†In this wind the 385 yard hole was almost driveable (Mike and I were just short of the front edge). ¬†We did however witness a few more mature golfers toiling away ‚?? ‚??thud‚?Ě after ‚??thud‚?Ě ‚?? as we walked to the 17th tee, some hours later. ¬†Not funny of course, but mildly amusing.
More remarkable bunkering was to be found on the par 3 5th. ¬†Every shape and size of hole ‚?? a bit like Pine Valley in this sense; you look down in misbelief that someone‚??s been bold enough to cut a hole in the ground in this shape. ¬†We‚??ll blame it on the Romans for now.
Again, dog walking was a feature of this very traditional slice of golf land. ¬†Natural I suppose, given people like to walk their dogs by the seaside, and the UK‚??s coastline is peppered with prime golf terra firma. ¬†Often it means you have an audience when teeing off; an audience that unlike you probably doesn‚??t see one iota of sense in chasing a wee white ball around scrubby ground. ¬†Sometimes even the dogs look on with bemusement, even disdain. ¬†In such cases I stare ‚??em out and invariably win the battle of machismo (most probably they get a whiff of a good looking bitch down on the sand and decide they‚??d rather be looking at her posterior than my repugnant dial).
Bart on a number of occasions would blurt out ‚??this is the best designed golf course I‚??ve ever played.‚?Ě ¬†Quite spellbound was our gaffer. ¬†I was surprised at his preoccupation with this most quirky and fun of golf courses, given the real possibility that his mind could be elsewhere. ¬†Bart you see had met a wonderfully exotic ladyfriend the night prior who‚??d taken to his Kiwi charm like a bee to honey. ¬†Friends you‚??ll be pleased to hear the feeling was mutual. ¬†And so, I expected, pining could get in the way of his enjoyment of RND. ¬†But it didn‚??t. ¬†Indeed the three of us ‚?? like a trio of school pals at the beach on their summer holiday ‚?? were in our element, breathing in the salty Devonshire air. ¬†And pirate spotting. ¬†And staring out dogs.
Life changed when we turned into wind. ¬†Fresh off a solitary front nine birdie on the par 3 8th my tail was up, then quickly blown back down. ¬†Par 5s became par 5 and a halfs; par 4s became par 5s. ¬†Pars on the scorecard were replaced with bogeys. ¬†A right battle we had on our hands. ¬†
At RND you will find holes that you won‚??t find anywhere else. ¬†Like the 13th, deceptively named ‚??Trap.‚?Ě ¬†The only trap is the name, which leads you to believe you‚??re being trapped. ¬†In fact the 12th has one of the widest ‚?? if not The Widest ‚?? landing zones I have ever laid eyes on. ¬†Yet from the tee all you see is gorse in front and in the foreground on both sides ‚?? and so you assume it‚??s tight like a tiger the whole way to the green. ¬†When it‚??s not. ¬†A lone bunker guards the ‚??fairway‚?Ě and a couple of greenside bunkers ‚??guard‚?Ě what may be the most wide open green complex in the northern hemisphere. ¬†More threatening were the two horses munching down chlorophyll behind the green like it was going out of fashion. ¬†Oh, did I mention the wildlife? ¬†By this point, we‚??d also met the acquaintance of sheep and cattle. ¬†The horses then rounded off the barn animal complement. ¬†
Equally as quirky was the 440 yard par 5 14th. ¬†Straight into the Great White Shark Teeth of the hurricane. ¬†3 bunkers guarding the LZ (as we called it back in ‚??Nam), but 34 acres of light rough on either side of said sandpits in which to park your tee shot. ¬†Then it‚??s a heave with a 3 wood or long iron. ¬†Followed by a pitch or a chip (no, you won‚??t be keeping it on this green in twe). ¬†To say that the green is an upturned saucer would be to say you‚??re all sick of my pointless ramblings ‚?? a bloody great big understatement. ¬†More like an ice cream cone. ¬†Pitching from 50 yards to it ‚?? in a howling gale ‚?? is no enviable task; I suspect the Texas Wedge comes out frequently when the old boys are out ‚??ere. ¬†No one would build a hole like the 14th and that, my friends, is a shame.
The rest of the round is something of a blur: a struggle into the wind, past cowpats, over roads and burns and God knows what else. ¬†I do remember though that it was a boatload of fun. ¬†There‚??s that word again: Westward Ho! Is a fun name to say and an even more fun course to play. ¬†Fun, fun, fun.
Three weary Kiwis washed away the cobwebs in the shower, then perched by the fire with a couple of locals. ¬†There we drank pints and pints of OJ and lemonade; ate a fill of chippies; and put the world to rest with our new friends, whose names sadly have escaped me. ¬†Let‚??s call them Bert and Eddie, for those are two names befitting of these cheerful and somewhat long in the tooth characters. ¬†Exchanges like this are in many ways what puregolf2010 is all about ‚?? spontaneous, interesting and banterous. ¬†(At this point, Microsoft is telling me something that my ‚??friends‚?Ě have long asserted: namely, that ‚??banterous‚?Ě is not a proper word, and I shouldn‚??t use it ‚?? WELL, to hell with you Microsoft and to you, my righteous so-called friends; I‚??m using it anyway).
Mark popped his head around the corner and insisted that we pop our heads back into the office before leaving. ¬†After we‚??d inspected the riches of the museum (honours boards going back to 1874; medals of biblical age; clubs from times gone by that look improbably difficult to use; paintings of The Great Triumvirate Braid, Vardon and Taylor (the latter having been a past Captain); etc etc) we did just that. ¬†Much to our amazement Mark produced four wonderful prints of the course and of RND mischief gone by ‚?? a gift to us, to auction off for The First Tee when we make it back home in December. ¬†What a gentleman. ¬†Folks warm up your wallets; these are of a rare beauty. ¬†They were done as a fundraiser for the upcoming 150th anniversary of the club, and will look spiffing on your wall. ¬†
On that note, a sincere thank you to Mark & Westward Ho! for their incredibly gracious hospitality, and touching gift. ¬†Today was a real step back in time and a tremendous amount of...fun!
JP ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬† ¬†
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