J.F. Abercromby, one of the great English architects of the early 20th century, designed the Old Course at Bovey Castle, which opened in 1930 in North Bovey, England, and became immensely popular because of the Great Western Railway Co.
Playing the course is like a pleasant walk in the park in the Devon countryside, and in fact the castle grounds cover 368 acres in Dartmoor National Park–the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes classic, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Parts of the 1939 movie version, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, were filmed at Bovey Castle, where Richard Lewis is the director of golf.
Other movies have filmed in the moorlands, most recently Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” in 2011.
Donald Steel, architect for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, with help from Tom Mackenzie, brought the course up to modern standards in 2003. The course plays to 6,303 yards from the back tees and a demanding par of 70.
Although Abercromby’s original design is a classic that was meant to rival its sister course Gleneagles and Turnberry in Scotland, the first and 18th holes played downhill to sloping fairways that were almost impossible to hold. Rough was grown to keep the ball from disappearing into the water on the first hole and into the woods on No. 18.
During the renovation, the slope of the final hole was reversed by 43 percent, and although the work was not as extensive on No. 1, it made both holes much more playable and now among the best on the course.
The first eight holes play through a parkland setting between the Bovey and Bowden Rivers, but it is almost impossible to lose a ball in the water because neither is very wide or deep and there are large ball retrievers along the banks.
Henry Cotton, the three-time British Open champion and a Bovey regular in the 1950s and 1960s, called the 384-yard seventh hole — which has six bridges to span the rivers — “possibly the best par 4 in British inland golf.”
It is followed by the most difficult hole on the card, the 402-yard eighth.
The first three holes of the back nine comprise perhaps the best stretch on the course. The 512-yard 10th is a roller coaster of a par 5, followed by a 451-yard par 4 that plays more like a nice par 5 for most players. Both require precise approach shots to elevated greens.
No. 12 is an uphill, 208-yard par 3 on which the tee ball must be threaded through a tunnel of trees.
With only two par 5s, it is a typical English course with strong par 4s that put an emphasis on the second shot. The layout is considered second to none in this part of England.
There are more than 50 courses in Devon, including another moorland course nearby–Tavistock Golf Club in Tavistock. The Ashbury Golf Hotel offers five 18-hole courses–Kigbeare, Pines, Beeches and Oakwood plus the par-3 Willows–in Higher Maddaford.
Other popular courses in the area are Exeter Golf and Country Club, Dartmouth Golf and Country Club, East Devon Golf Club in Budleigh Salterton, Warren Golf Club in Dawlish, Honiton Golf Club in Middlehills, Sidmouth Golf Club and Teignmouth Golf Club in Haldon Moor.
Bovey Castle, 12 miles from Exeter, was built in 1906 as a private home for Viscount Hambleden, son of business baron W.H. Smith, who also was First Sea Lord of the Admiralty–a title later held by Winston Churchill.
The castle was restored in 2003 to its 1920s grandeur by entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who did a similar renovation at Skibo Castle in Scotland and also owns the Abaco Club in the Bahamas, Carnegie Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., and Cherokee Plantation near Charleston, S.C.
Bovey offers countless activities other than golf, including tennis, swimming, fly fishing, hunting, rifle and pistol shooting, horseback riding and more. Or you can just kick back in the spa at what they call “Heaven in Devon.”
De Savary, who grew up nearby in Essex, also owns two bed and breakfast hotels in the neighborhood, the White Hart Hotel (which dates to 1828) in Moretonhampstead, and the Sandy Park Inn in Chagford.
ON THE WEB: www.boveycastle.com