Royal North Devon

Words by: James Wilson
Photography by:Jack Ducey

The forecast looks bleak, but we knew that when we left London: fortune favours the bold. Glancing between the sodden road ahead and the weather app, I mutter to myself, cursing the idiom that led me here.

From the front seat of the car, sitting just in front of the clubhouse, a saturated, reed littered marshland comes in and out of view between the droplets on the windscreen.

“The clouds will pass soon”, says my optimistic passenger. I look at the sign above the glowing pro shop window, Royal North Devon. Pfft, the cheek.

Royal St George’s, Royal Troon, Royal Lytham. These are the pillars of decadence and grandeur worthy of their monarchic title. Ornate clubhouses that date back to the 19th century, layouts that hold a majority stake in the GB&I Top 100.

Cowering from the rain we make a dash for the front door. The warmth hits first, followed closely by the heritage. The main lounge isn’t a conventional one. Divided almost exactly in two, the left half has been transformed into a museum. Displayed on the far wall, like a rack of the latest Taylormade woods, is a 60-something strong collection of pristine hickories. Salvers, bowls and trophies line the dark wood cabinets on either side. I’m no history buff, but I give a nod of approval.

The correct line off the first tee is ambiguous. 3 sheep meander between the tall rushes on the left. Two tall poles with artificial crows on them blow in the misty distance. A burn on the right snakes towards the sea. A smatter of rain persists as we continue toward the coast. Gaps between the rushes offer glances into the distance across the cracked marshland.

From the 6th tee the view looks north toward the Bristol channel, across the bay is Saunton. Towering white sand dunes on the far side of the estuary wind into the sea hazed distance. As the round progresses we venture into the heart of the marshland, fairways snake just below the surface of the reeds, our 3 ball like a rowing boat tracking through the Amazon.

The Royal title elicits images of grandeur: golden cornessing, upturned noses, bejewelled goblets. But there are no manicured details at Royal North Devon. There’s more sheep shit on the fairways than members. 2 holes were recently re-routed because the tide devoured them. The old greens lie dormant next to the rock barricades. Rushes overflow onto the fairways, spilling into untidy places.

But there’s a rugged agricultural whisper that the adventure golfer hears loud and clear. This is a plot of land untouched since its inception, where the barrier between golf and landscape isn’t just blurred but non-existent. There’s grandeur in the atmosphere, in the warmth of the clubhouse and the low lying mist that creeps in from the sea. There’s a sense of pride in the shit that lies on the fairways: it’s a marker of authenticity. The grandeur is in the air, not in the manicured turf.

Neatly riveted bunkers and password protected front gates can create the illusion of royalty, but inviting everyone in, cattle and all, with the confidence that your club needs no veneers requires a level of self-assuredness that the more opulent destinations of the United Kingdom could only dream of; true royalty.