Burnham Golf Club was opened in 1891. It was a nine hole course laid out amongst the sand dunes of the Berrow Warren close to the Burnham lighthouse.
It had been designed by the golf professional at Royal North Devon, Charles Gibson, using the design principles of the day; if there was a large sand dune you hit the ball over it and if there was a deep hollow then there would be a green.
By 1896 the members wanted to extend the course to Berrow Church and the Lords of the Manor agreed only if the name of the club was changed to Burnham & Berrow Golf Club. A further extension beyond the church followed in 1901, and in 1910 the first ‘professional’ course designer, Herbert Fowler, a member of the Club, extended the course to over 6000 yards. It was in this phase that Fowler designed the famous Church Hole and the current 18th hole.
In 1913 Harry Colt produced a blueprint to turn the course into the challenge it is today. It was the single most significant action in the development of the course. He removed all the blind shots and the weaker holes and introduced new 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th holes. The war interrupted the construction of the new holes which were not completed until 1923. Colt’s close partner Hugh Alison was, again fortuitously, a member of the Club and so able to keep a close eye on progress.
Colt also invited Dr Alistair Mackenzie, who was later to design Augusta National, to give his views on the new 9th and 10th holes. It was this course that saw Burnham & Berrow through the Club’s boom years in the 1920s and 1930s when it built the reputation that it still holds today.
The first professional/Keeper of the Green was a young man from Royal North Devon, J H Taylor, who is considered to be one of the best golfers of all times and 5 times winner of the Open Championship. Although he only stayed at Burnham for 16 months, his impact on the course and the community was huge. He looked back on his time at Burnham as crucial in his development as a professional golfer, as it was his first post and he found he loved the challenge. Taylor also had a great influence on local youngsters, among whom were the three Whitcombe brothers, Ernest, Charles and Reg – all born in a cottage next to Berrow Church. Charles was a four time Captain of the Ryder Cup team. Ernest played in three Ryder Cup teams; Reg in one, with all three brothers playing in the same team in 1935. The youngest, Reg, won the Open at Royal St Georges in 1938.
Taylor was born in Northam, Devon. He was a member of the fabled Great Triumvirate of the sport in his day, along with Harry Vardon and James Braid, and he won The Open Championship five times. Born into a working-class family, and orphaned as a boy, he began work as a caddie and labourer at the Royal North Devon Golf Club (also known as Westward Ho!) at the age of eleven. He was employed as a caddie and houseboy by the Hutchinson family and was tasked to carry the bag of Horace Hutchinson. He became a professional golfer at 19, and was employed by Burnham & Berrow Golf Club, the Winchester (later Royal Winchester) Golf Club – whilst there winning in successive years the first two of his Open Championships – then the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club, before eventually moving to the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club from 1899 until his retirement in 1946.
In 1901, Taylor was a co-founder and the first chairman of the British Professional Golfers' Association. This was the first association for professional golfers in the world. Bernard Darwin wrote that Taylor "had turned a feckless company into a self-respecting and respected body of men".
Taylor captained the 1933 Great Britain Ryder Cup team to a win over the United States, and remains the only captain on either side never to have played in any of the matches.
Taylor was also involved in designing courses across England including Hindhead Golf Club in 1904, Andover Golf Club in 1907, Frilford Heath's Red Course in 1908, Hainault Golf Club's Upper Course in 1909, Heaton Park Golf Club (Manchester) in 1912, Hainault Golf Club's Lower Course in 1923, Bigbury Golf Club in South Devon in 1926, Pinner Hill Golf Club (Middlesex) 1927, Axe Cliff Golf Club (Seaton, Devon) in 1920s and Batchwood Hall Golf Club (St Albans) in 1935. He is attributed with being the inventor of the 'dogleg', although holes of that form had existed on many courses before Taylor began golf course design (for example No. 7 at Old Course at St Andrews and No. 4 at Prestwick Golf Club). He was made an honorary member of the R&A in 1949, and was president of Royal Birkdale, whose course he had designed, in 1957. A housing development in his hometown of Northam was named in his honour (JH Taylor Drive).
The next two professionals were a father and son, Walter and Ernest Foord. Walter was more of a groundsman and club repairer whereas his son was an exceptional player. Ernest became a professional in 1900 when only 16 years old and among his assistants was Ernest Whitcombe whose family lived close to the church in Berrow. He is known to have beaten Taylor in an exhibition match over 36 holes in 1913 which left Taylor full of admiration for the young man. During the First World War Ernest emigrated to America and although he did not respond to letters sent to him from the Club, it is believed he had a successful golfing career.
Another golfing family inextricably linked to Burnham were the Bradbeers. Seven of the ten brothers made golf their life. Probably the greatest triumph as a group was when four of the brothers qualified for the final two rounds of the 1928 Open at Royal St Georges. The Bradbeers provided Head Professionals at Burnham for 60 years with Bob Bradbeer 1919 to 1938, Fred from 1938 to 1968 and Richard (Bob’s son) from 1968 to 1970 before moving to Royal Birkdale.
The present Clubhouse was built in 1910 and with Colt’s new course completed by 1923 the Club was attracting a good membership and many visitors. In 1923 the membership was 430 full members and visitors numbered 4000, and these figures remained relatively constant for the next 17 years. In 1928 the Club completed the purchase of the golf club for £2350 and in 1933 ladies were allowed to join the Club as Associate Members. The Ladies had their own course built in 1892, just south of the men’s course but in 1932 the lease was not renewed. As a result the men offered the ladies the opportunity to join the men’s Club provided they funded the necessary Clubhouse changes themselves. In 1934 the men’s membership was 400 and the ladies’ 91.
After the 1939-45 war, membership dropped alarmingly. For the next 10 to 15 years golf clubs all over the country were struggling to make ends meet. By the 1960s the Club Committee was assessing the assets of the Club with a view to development. This was the path which eventually led to the loss of one of the finest holes of the course, the 13th, the ‘Old Mill’ hole close to the Berrow Common. In 1976 the club received £65,000 from the sale of these 6 acres of land which at the time was hailed as a new beginning. In a way it was but it had to be associated with a complete reappraisal of the way the Club’s finances were being run. This was successful and since the 1980s the Club has enjoyed financial stability.
Another feature which has dramatically changed since the war is the shoreline along the western boundary of the course. The high tide line has moved a good 100 metres out to sea from its wartime position along the edge of the current 4th fairway. This has opened up land which the club has used for the development of a new nine hole course (18 tees) and has provided 100 acres for ecological conservation in the form of a salt marsh providing habitat for many rare species of flora and fauna.
The nine hole was designed by Fred Hawtree and opened in 1977. There were a number of difficulties associated with the quality of soil used and the length of time it took for the course to show any improvement but there are some excellent holes and today it ranks as a fine addition to the golfing experience at Burnham.
Venue for Major Amateur Competitions
The Burnham and Berrow golf course has been selected for many major amateur championships throughout its existence. It has hosted over 40 major Men’s and Ladies’ Amateur Championships, including the Brabazon Trophy, the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship, the Men’s and Ladies’ English Amateur Championships, the Men’s and Ladies’ Home Internationals, the Men’s and Ladies’ County Finals and 3 Varsity matches. It is said of a good championship course that the best players usually come out on top. That certainly appears to be the case at Burnham where the final of the 2006 English Amateur Championship was played out between the two best amateur players in the Country. Both players now well established on the Professional Circuit.
For further information on the history of the club please refer to ‘Between the Church and the Lighthouse‘ written by Philip Richards available from the office of the Managing Secretary at BBGC.