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Far from the Madding Crowd

Those rhythms are noticeable on the courses here, where we feel vulnerable to the capriciousness of the bouncing ball. Fine: Golf is a better game when it leaves us feeling vulnerable, not protected. A course should call us to spend time in the outdoors, open to the elements and not enclosed in carts with roofs, isolated on paved cart paths. I felt called to these courses and found the calling more strongly the deeper into old-style golf I ventured. At Trevose Golf and Country Club, in Cornwall, I stood on the high first tee and looked up the north Cornish coast. At one point I could see nine or ten greens, and golfers all over the course, telling their own tales through their play.

Perhaps no course has so determinedly resisted modernization as Royal North Devon Golf Club, in the county of Devon and across Barnstaple Bay from Saunton. Thecourse is also known as Westward Ho!, after the improbably named town that is its home (said to be the only town in the world with an exclamation mark in its name). Mind you, members of Royal North Devon prefer to call it RND. By any name, it's an original; the club was founded in 1864 and is the oldest in England still playing on its original course. It is like nothing else in all the world of golf in that it transports the golfer to another century, back to Hardy's time.

The approach to Royal North Devon is not impressive and belies the treasures that soon become apparent. We drive into a scruffy parking lot where a few ramshackle buildings around it make us think we have dropped in on an abandoned farm. We can't see any golf holes from the parking lot, but as we walk around the buildings--one of which happens to be a low-slung wooden clubhouse, whose delights we shall soon discover--we begin to see what look like golfers out on a vast plain. People are pulling trolleys and taking swings, but the most visible forms of life are not golfers; they are horses and sheep that graze on the ancient linksland.

Farmers, we learn, maintain ancient grazing rights over the land, and the livestock roam freely, as much a part of the scene as the players. A narrow rope around the greens protects them from the heavier footed horses and ponies. But sheep can be out there munching away at the greens. Small piles of "biodegradable hazard" are scattered about on the fairways. Soon this doesn't matter. The animals wander nearby, but all around one finds compelling golf.

Royal North Devon plays across tidal flats, and sometimes the opening holes are damp. I stand on the first tee and have to focus my vision narrowly to pick out a landing spot in the fairway. Make no mistake: Although the fairways here are wide, it's still important to find the right segment so that the shot into the green will be along a better angle. And the wind blows--does it ever. I hear it whistling as I work my way into my stance and swing. This is exposed land that exposes the player to elemental golf. At the fourth hole, I come across one of RND's famous "sleeper" bunkers, shored up with railway ties. The bunker looks fearsome but asks for only a 170-yard carry. The fifth is a wicked par three where the green sits up above one of these massive bunkers and all but hangs out over the sea. Today, downwind, I hit a half-wedge to the 136-yard hole. But against the wind, the shot can require a three-iron. Downwind or against the wind, balance is everything.

I think of something a golf teacher once told me: Never do anything at the expense of balance. It's an admonition especially relevant to golf at RND.

Ah, the ways that golf takes us to our limits. Can I quiet my rushing mind and negotiate my way around RND's well-known rushes?These are challenging hazards, but there's always a way around or over these spiky grasses that shoot ten feet in the air and cut like needles into those who dare to look for golf balls in the area. Menacing rushes notwithstanding, there is a delicious feeling of freedom at Royal North Devon; the land, flat except for some of the green sites, seems to go on forever. The last fairways must be some of the widest in golf, but now I must find a way to hit the ball low into the howling wind that bends the flagstick at the last green. A burn only three-feet wide runs across the fairway short of the green, and I must get across. But at the same time, I don't want to hit the ball high in the air where the wind will take it. High enough but low enough--of such puzzles is golf on natural, untamed ground made.


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