Extinct golf courses in Devon

Links course in South Devon

Links course in South Devon - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In my last article on the former Seaton Golf Club, it was mentioned that nine Devon courses did not survive World War II.  
It may surprise many readers to learn that a total of 40 courses have ceased to exist in Devon. Quite a number did not service WWI but some failed as late as 1969, when Willingcott Valley Golf Club at Woolacombe folded.   
Torbay Golf and Country Club, whose clubhouse was the magnificent Oldway Mansion at Paignton, was good enough to attract one of the greatest professionals ever to play the game, Walter Hagen.   
This course went on until the mid-50s, as did one of the earliest courses in England, Exmouth, established in 1883.   
From the outset, it appears there was some friction between golfers and others who shared some of the same land.  
The Western Times in 1890 reported: ‘Tis true that the golfing is an apparent encroachment upon the “People’s Park” which the Maer has been for time immemorial represented, but the encroachment is more apparent than real. In all such cases, there is sure to be friction at times, some self-important golfer taking high at some thoughtless intruder, or the other way about. On the whole the good exceeds the evil.’ 
Over the past few years, there has been a steady decline in the total membership of UK golf clubs but there was a significant surge in membership after the first Covid lockdown was lifted which allowed golf to resume, when many former golfers and others, denied their regular sport, took up the game.   
How the banning of golf during this current lockdown will impact membership remains to be seen. 
The reasons for the decline has been hotly debated, but the time taken to play the game and increasing cost have been cited.   
Until the 1960s, the standard two-ball was expected to take 2½ hours and a four-ball three hours. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for players on the American PGA tour to take five hours and their time-consuming antics have often been copied at the club level. 
The great former England cricket captain, Ted Dexter, a very talented golfer has long been an advocate of speedier play. Amongst his suggestions are limiting clubs to seven, which would allow all players to carry their clubs in pencil bags and simplifying the rules.   
One of his suggestions to revert to the former rule of leaving the flag stick in the hole has been adopted by the R and A and the USGA.   
Not only does this speed up play but reduces compaction around the hole as it is no longer necessary for a player to attend the pin, whilst his opponent putts from distance. 
Then there is cost. When I moved back down to the Westcountry in 1967 and joined Lyme Regis GC, the subscription was six guineas - adjusted for inflation, that is £120. Of course, we are not comparing like with like.   
There is no comparison with the condition of courses in the 1960s and today. The former Director of the Sports Turf Research Institute, R B Dawson in his wonderful book, “Practical Lawn Craft and Management of Sports Turf” in the chapter on mowing and mowers writes, “Up to £46 must be paid for a high speed non ribbing machine, giving 100 cuts per yard, suitable for golf greens.”   
As he was writing in 1969, the price in today’s money would be £820. A Triplex ride-on greens mower as used today would be nearer to £20,000. 
Going further back in time at St Andrews, old Tom Morris was the first greenkeeper in the World to have a cylinder mower to assist him with his greenkeeping duties on the Old Course, until then greens were kept short by rabbits who have a preference for the courser grasses such as rye and annual meadow grass and the occasional scything.   
Along with the mower, Tom was provided with a wheel barrow, how things have changed! 

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