After an impressive jump of 19 places in our Top 100 Golf Courses England, St Enodoc Golf Club’s Church Course cements its status as the finest course in the South West.
Sometimes the first hole can set the tone for the rest of your round; at St Enodoc Golf Club, one of the best golf courses in England, you can be assured of it. A sinuous par 5 of some 520 yards, the opener gets the Church course off to the kind of start Lewis Hamilton can only dream of. Towering duneland flanks the entire right side of the hole, giving it almost a stadium feel, while in front of you a deliciously crumpled fairway entreats you forward. A marker post guides the way for the blind second; but as you mount the rise some 130 yards from the green, thoughts of where your ball might be are knocked clean out of your head by a blast of sea, sand and sky as the glorious panorama of the Camel Estuary opens up before you. It’s the kind of hole where, whatever you’ve scored, you walk off the green exhilarated.
“I’ve worked here for more than 20 years,” says teaching professional Mark Arrowsmith. “But even now, when I climb the small ridge to the green and those incredible views greet me, I feel like I’m on holiday.”
St Enodoc Golf Club creator, James Braid, once wrote “It is both necessary and desirable that holes should be laid out as suggested by the lie of the land, every natural obstacle being taken care of.” Right off the bat, you can see how faithful he has been to that principle here. And as the front nine unfolds, the feeling only intensifies. Probing through the duneland, the fairway of the superb par-4 2nd has echoes of Royal Birkdale before rising smoothly to a defiant green; doglegging left, the 3rd asks you to skirt the dunescape before firing over an ancient wall to a nestled green. These two virtuous and chaste par 4s are followed by a real coquette at the 290-yard 4th, just about driveable in the right wind but cunningly angled to bring OB and lethal deep bunkers into play.
But Braid’s routing – and perhaps the course itself – reaches its pinnacle on the par-4 6th. Here, instead of playing around a mighty dune, The Scot chose to go right over it (see panel). The result is a totally blind second to a magnificent, natural amphitheatre of a green. Another front-nine highlight comes at the tee of the par-3 8th – not just the anticipation of an exciting and wind-straffed iron to the beautifully-sited and heavily bunkered green, but the sheer enormity of the views, out over the expansive duneland, Daymer Bay and the treacherous Doom Bar to distant Padstow and beyond. Up above, the endless ebullience of the lark’s song is so very appropriate.
“What makes St Enodoc Golf Club special are the vistas from the tees,” says the club’s chairman, Julian Darnell. “There are several points during your round that offer panoramic views of the coastline, sea and cliffs. There is no urbanisation. It makes you feel part of the country, and the seaside. It’s not only about the golf here; it’s just a special place.”
St Enodoc Golf Club’s status as England’s premier south-west course has been long established, but its 19-place rise up our rankings is the direct result of the club’s refusal to accept what it has. In 2016 Tom Doak was invited to advise on course changes. His comments have resulted in a series of subtle but effective nips and tucks. New fairway cut lines have resulted in the reshaping of several holes, most effectively at the 2nd where the left-hand dunes have been bought more into play. Preserving the purity of the links experience is a constant battle, but as course manager Scott Gibson reveals, it’s one they have recently been winning. “We’ve had about six very mild winters in a row where growth has continued throughout,” he says. “It promotes an unwanted dense thatch in the rough; where we want marram grass and fescues, we are getting ryes and couch grass. But with a program of aggressive cutting and some targeted treatment, we’ve been able to eliminate some of those broadleaf grasses in large areas and return that linksy feel.”
Gibson has also attacked the invasive and non-indigenous blackthorn that was quietly changing the nature of the course and threatening to engulf some tees. Vast areas have been cleared, notably from in front of the 5th tee and across the back of the 8th, which has opened up the magnificent views. Fescue grasses have been sewn in their place. Further, two new tees have been created, at the 5th giving more playing angles into a challenging par 3, and more dramatically at the first, which has almost doubled in size from 800-1,500 square feet and makes a real statement.
“It’s great to see this work rewarded by the rise in Golf World’s ranking,” Gibson adds. “But this is a massive site and the works are ongoing. We are committed to keep improving the course and the playing experience.”
The 9th is a hole where you tee off on a links and hole out on parkland. The woods behind the green presage a sudden change in the nature of the course, which gathers speed as you plunge down the 10th over a water hazard – the remnants of an ancient canal used by slate miners – to a wisp of a fairway bordered by forest to the left. The hole is certainly dramatic, but with the fairway of this 450-yard par 4 only 13 paces across at full driving distance, it is the first point in the round where honey turns into Marmite. Treat it as a par 5 and it makes more sense.
Competing for your attention up by the green is the beautiful 12th-century church that gives the course its name. It’s the final resting place of poet Sir John Betjeman, a modest golfer whose famous poem Seaside Golf commemorates a rare birdie he made at St Enodoc’s 13th. Its wonky spire is a constant reminder of the days when congregations were forced to use it to access an edifice half-buried by sea-storm sand. Thankfully, the church was dug out and restored in the 19th century.
While the 12th tee is the closest you come to the beach, the stretch from the 11th to the 14th feels more like downland and the holes, while fine in themselves, pale in comparison to the magnificence of the front nine. The pace, however, begins to pick up at the pretty par-3 15th, a crisp mid-to-short iron played over a valley, before a sumptuous par 5-3-4 combination takes you back into the dune-flanked pure links experience and delivers the finale the course deserves. Indeed, the perched back tee of the 18th offers not only the most dramatic tee shot on the course but also what’s surely be one of golf’s finest views, west across the muscular duneland.
There is only one type of player who might not walk off the 18th green thrilled by the experience, and that’s the deep divot-taker. The wonderful sandy subsoils here mean that even after the wettest winter, the ground under your feet feels bone hard. If you get a bit steep your striking better be bang on… and your wrists strong. The firmness of the soil means that, at St Enodoc, you don’t so much watch the flight of your approach to chart its success as listen out for it; a gorgeous popping noise is all the confirmation you need your ball has landed above ground and in good shape.
Ask 10 members here their favourite hole and you will get 10 different answers. But there is consensus as to which part of the game is most important. The wonderfully natural siting of the putting surfaces – Peter McEvoy’s remodelled 13 and 16 excepted – ensures dramatic contouring that makes chipping and pitching a genuine challenge. No doubt this explains why, despite a modest length of just 6,557 yards off the tips, the course record is no better than a four-under-par 69.
But by the time you reach the airy and modern clubhouse, the only conclusion you can possibly reach is what a travesty it would have been for this land to be used for anything other than a golf course. It’s a rare layout that affords a genuinely enjoyable round irrespective of your performance – but at St Enodoc Golf Club, it’s a given.
How we ranked St Enodoc golf club
Superb routing makes most of the natural terrain. Par 3s a tad samey for length but playing in every direction mediates this.
Occupies high majestic duneland, overlooking the Camel Estuary and Padstow. Dramatic coastal views.
Some (deliberate) shaggy, broad-leafed grass on fairway bunkering seems out of step with a links, but otherwise faultless throughout.
Punishing green surrounds and a beast in the wind, but otherwise designed for all standards to enjoy.
Downland holes 11th to 15th suffer in comparison to the splendid links fayre. High score for a world-class first six and closing trio.
Rivetting programme means some holes are and some aren’t, though it doesn’t detract from the playing experience.
Sensational setting ensures the challenge, while stiff, is always fun. A course you can enjoy however you play.