In 1885, Dr William Laidlaw Purves of Royal Wimbledon Golf Club, spotted from the vantage point of St Clement’s church a spectacular piece of undulating land with expansive sand dunes. Being a Scot and a keen scratch golfer, he decided that there was only one thing to do with this links land; create a golf course. In 1887, the course opened for play and was named 'St George’s' after the English patron saint.
"For a course that is still comparatively young," wrote Bernard Darwin in his 1910 book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles, "Sandwich has had more than its share of ups and downs. It was heralded with much blowing of trumpets and without undergoing any period of probation, burst full-fledged into fame."
After only seven years of play, in 1894, Sandwich hosted its first of fourteen Open Championships. This was the first Open to be played outside Scotland.
Royal patronage was granted in 1902 and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) became club captain. Many celebrated people have been affiliated with the club; the great golf writer Bernard Darwin was president of Royal St George’s between 1952 and 1961.
The course is not a traditional out and back layout. In a similar style to Muirfield, each nine is broadly circular, a loose figure of eight. There is nothing artificial about Royal St George’s; there is a natural look and feel to the course that blends beautifully into the surroundings, with wild flowers, dune grasses and the sweet song of the lark. Commanding views over Pegwell Bay and the white cliffs of Dover ensure an engaging experience.
All the holes are very different and memorable, a true sign of a great golf course. Royal St George’s also has some unique features; thatched roof shelters, the red cross of St George on the flags, and that bunker on the 4th hole cut into a huge dune, the UK’s tallest and deepest bunker. If you can carry that famous bunker on this 470-yard par four, then you can enjoy the peace of the fairway beyond, called the 'Elysian Fields'.
The par three 6th is called the 'Maiden'. We’ll let Bernard Darwin explain why: “There stands the ‘Maiden’ steep, sandy and terrible, with her face scarred and seamed with black timbers, but alas! we no longer have to drive over her crown: we hardly do more than skirt the fringe of her garment.” 'Suez Canal' is the 14th, so called according to Darwin because; “many a second shot has found a watery grave”. The 15th is considered architecturally to be one of the most impressive in golf because the fairway bunkers are virtually symmetrical.
Some hazards are not clearly visible from the tees, but in the past things were much worse. In the mid 1970s, blind shots were considered passé, so Frank Pennink was brought in to ring the changes. Three new holes were built and tee changes were made to two other holes. Many, except for the real traditionalists, believe that these changes have further improved the layout.
Royal St George’s represents one of the most difficult tests of golf, requiring courage, confidence and solid ball striking. Severely undulating fairways make good scoring very tough indeed. Often the tee shot will come to rest on an upslope or a down slope, then one needs to hit a long iron or fairway wood into the green from an uneven lie.
Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, was a member here at Royal St George’s. The golf scenes from the film Goldfinger were filmed at Stoke Park, but Fleming called the course “Royal St Marks” in the film, no doubt inspired by his home club.
Sandwich is a classic links course, summed up nicely by Bernard Darwin: “My idea of heaven as is to be attained on an earthly links”. Darwin went on to become president of the club between 1952 and 1961.
I rate it overall as one of the best golf courses in England, and a better links course than both Royal Lytham and Royal Birkdale. I have never been a fan of the out and back layout and Sandwich is not one; it provides a superior routing of holes. There are no parallel holes and a constant change in hole direction, which is very important when the wind is up, which it often is.
The day I played at Royal St. George's, the wind was up. The temperature was roughly 50 degrees and the wind was blowing at a sustained 25 mph with higher gusts.
I found three holes at Royal St. George's to be particularly good. The par five 14th hole, "Suez Canal" has out of bounds down the entire right side and a burn/swale in play off the tee. You can't just wail at your second shot, since short of the green there are bunkers on the left side of the fairway and the fairway narrows to about 25 yards. Yet, if you can thread the needle and land in that area you will likely be rewarded with a birdie; otherwise you will pay the price. The fairway bunkers 80 yards short of the green will penalize you if you try to get the ball to the green. Even this close to the hole, you have to just get the ball out as your first priority. It is a hole you really have to use your head to play well.
The #1 handicap hole, the eighth, is a dogleg right and has a very interesting and challenging green complex that is artfully bunkered. Your second shot to the green plays downhill and usually downwind. Very tricky.
The fourth hole, Sahara, has an enormously large bunker on the right side of the hole. You hit from an elevated tee to a fairway that is wildly undulating and the green is even wilder. If you hit long past the green you are in the backyard of a local resident. Definitely a unique hole.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
It would be redundant for me to add a review of the course itself, given the illustrious history and pedigree of the club. Plenty of eloquent laudations out there. Bottom line is, within a couple hrs drive from Central London, it is the best golf to be had. Try and pick a windy day to play it for the full links experience, for links golf without wind is like a dish seasoned without salt.
For those who are reading the review and ratings to decide to play it, I would encourage everyone to try and play it more than once, or with a caddy the first time if they want to score. There are many blind tee shots, hidden bunkers, and green designs requiring approaches that have to be aimed at the correct portion. Impossible to achieve on the first occasion, and it gets frustrating as it's easy to lose even a well-struck tee shot that's a bit offline, and also easy to end up three-putting from the wrong part of the green. Links golf indeed, but knowing the lines and greens is key to scoring.
My only (strenuous) gripe about the course is the poor state of the greens on the two occasions I visited it (August of 2015 and Oct 2016), which compelled me write the review. On both trips, the greens had been scarified, and had deep grooves running along virtually all of them. Putting near-parallel to the channels threw the balls offline like gutters, and putting across the grooves slowed the roll considerably as they bumped across the ridges. They were simply not running true, so impossible to score properly. This disappointment was compounded when after the first visit I made it a point to ask about the state of the greens when I booked my second trip, and was only told that the greens had been "over-seeded two weeks ago" but were otherwise in good condition. Not so--I consider scarified greens to be inadequate for true play. Unless the scarified grooves are a permanent fixture of the greens, the lack of transparency by the booking office bordered on disingenuity, or ignorance at the very least. My home club warns all visitors when bookings if the greens have been hollow-tined or in less than optimal condition. A club of RSG's stature should do the same, and either offer a discount when the greens are in suboptimal condition, or risk turning away some business. Despite my frustration, I didn’t bother to complain to the club—given that they had not provided adequate forewarning, I didn't expect a positive response to my complaint. I suppose most visitors would be spell-bound by the setting and rest of the course features, and overlook that aspect of the course.
Having grown up in Thanet and still never played it I finally made it - and it was even better than I hoped it would be.
LOVED the layout of the course, and the condition was superb.
The greens looked as if they had been painted green so vivid was the colour and they ran perfectly true and good speed.
I dont take all the moans I have heard over the years about the blind holes as this was mine and my playing partners first visit and we got round to handicap (cat 2) with only skycaddie and common sense.
Pro shop and starter very helpful and friendly.
Loved the day and the course and hope to return.
Unsure why - having already relieved us of a chunk of green fee - the Club was so reluctant to let us near a bar after though ???
played here on 25-7-2016. I know when I have had the pleasure of playing a good course as I immediately want to go back out there. Royal St George's falls into that category. This place is special and is golf in the "raw", how it was meant to be played. You stand on several tees and wonder how someone dreamed up the hole from the land in front of you, thankfully they did and what a great job they made of it. In truth the greens were not in the greatest condition on the day we played but still ran true and nicely paced so all is forgiven. This is a thinkers course of the highest order and I have played some good ones before, but none better than this.
I can't imagine what it is that you expect that is better than RSG. I played here for the first time in early August 2016 with my 16year-old, 3 handicap daughter. We had the services of a very obliging young caddy and we pretty much had the course to ourselves. I was struck by the unstuffy nature of the staff at RSG. From the professional to the lady behind the counter in the gloriously modest Snack Bar: modest in name but not in its surroundings, patrons nor its proper hearty fare.
And I think this is an important point to make: the experience at such a fine club starts before setting foot on the course and in this respect RSG far exceeds all lofty expectations that one may arrive armed with.
The course was in tip-top condition; greens cut with a manicure scissors had I not known otherwise. The routing of the course is almost without rival. Muirfield twists and turns in much the same way and I'd go so far as to say that RSG and Muirfield stand head and shoulders above anywhere else in the UK.
My daughter and I both played from the gents' daily tees and she coped admirably with the c 6,500 yards distance on the day registering among other scores a fine birdie 3 on the famous Himalayas 4th hole. A wonderful day's golf and somewhere that will remain firmly on the 'bucket-list venues that must be revisited.' A genuine 6-star golf course with staff to match. John H
The 4th is one of the best and most famous holes in British golf. Your drive needs to be a slight draw over the Maiden bunker or a slight fade left of the bunker. The fairway then doglegs left to an elevated green protected by a mound on the left side and out of bounds immediately behind.
Index 2 is the long par five 14th hole. There are three dangers here. Out of bounds runs close by the fairway for the whole length of the right side. There is a burn running across the fairway 330 yards from the tee. There are also two small bunkers in the centre of the fairway about sixty yards before the green.
Both the 17th and 18th are good long par fours where strong driving is the key. The large open spaces on the right of the last hole make it an ideal area for grandstands virtually from tee to green. The 18th green falls away on either side, with the hollow on the right known as “Duncan’s Hollow,” after George Duncan took three to get down from there when a par four on the last would have put him in a playoff with Hagen in the 1922 Open.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every English course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.