The first time I saw Royal Cinque Ports (Deal) was in 1994 on a family vacation when I had my wife and three young children wait in the car while I walked the length of the seawall between the course and the Sandwich Bay. I returned several years later to play it. I will not do a full review as I know from some of my American friends who have played it as well as from the club’s website that there have been some substantial and meaningful improvements. So, the point of this review is simply to sing the praises of the course and to encourage others to make the effort to play here.
I know many golfers who have played the most highly rated courses around the world who consider Royal Cinque Ports to be in the top 100 courses in the world as “naturalism” and links courses make a comeback against the more modern/manufactured course. The importance of a good ground game that was established when golf first started has returned to the forefront as opposed to target golf.
Even longer players who hit the ball a long way off the tee and do not really require much of a “ground game,” other than putting, sometimes have mixed feelings about links courses. For these players, many links and “links-like” courses are beautiful to see and fun due to the weather conditions and undulating terrain, but they consider them to lack challenge in both difficulty and strategy because the par 5’s are easily reached in two and the long par 4’s can be reached with a 8 iron or less. It takes a very compelling course for the longer/better players to praise a links course. When I lived in England and to this day, Deal is a links course that has earned the praise of players of all abilities. The additional length and changes added have likely continued to make it a compelling and challenging course.
For most of us who hit an average length or are a bit wayward at times, a course such as Royal Cinque Ports is a prime example of what one truly wants in a links golf course. We prefer a course where the ball will run, where there are multiple options available for recovery shots, and where the weather is either a blessing or likely an additional obstacle due to the natural contours of the course. We prefer a course that will hold our interest because it has so many “unknowns.” Deal has mysteries on nearly every hole.
I hope to return so that I can give a more detailed review but until then I will provide an overall assessment as well as highlight the holes at a high level.
Deal really does have it all from a setting and design standpoint. The strategy of the hole is apparent from the tee as the ground determines how to play it. The hazards are visible with a few exceptions. There is an unknown element to the lies on the fairway. The holes present the right mixture of challenge and fairness. There is “just enough” thoughtfulness in the routing that adds variety to the course. The greens offer diversity in how they are positioned and finished. Finally, there is only the course to consider from a visual perspective (the nearby housing is somewhat of an eyesore on the course but it gone quickly and there are a few walkers/runners on the wall).
While the topography is not nearly as dramatic as many other seaside courses as it lacks the big dunes of Rye Old or Royal St George’s, there is adequate subtle movement in the land on the fairways with mounds, hills, valleys, and swales off of some fairways or near the greens to make the course very compelling. One needs to know where to land one ball and where to miss if one is attempting to recover.
The history of the course begins with a nine hole course laid out in 1892 with eighteen holes finished in 1896. James Braid re-did the routing in 1919 while replacing the ninth and tenth holes. After WWII, Sir Guy Campbell and Henry Cotton restored the course. The Open Championship was held at Royal Cinque Ports in 1909 and 1920. It was scheduled to host the event again in both 1938 and 1949 but strong winds forced water over the embankment making it unplayable and therefore the event was moved to Royal St George’s. Deal has continued to be a qualifying site for the Open as well as hosting the top amateur events.
One memory from playing there is as we walked off after finishing, we paused to watch a twosome tee off the first. One was an elderly gentleman who had the most convoluted swing involving standing forward on his toes, rocking back, dipping, then swinging upwards, and three pauses in between. To this day it remains the oddest swing I have ever seen. Mind you, he did hit it right down the middle about 180 yards out. I was so taken with his swing, we watched him do it again to lay up perfectly in front of the burn.
Quick notes on the holes:
1 – much like the Old course at St. Andrews, the burn is fairly wide and difficult to see. Its best to be long. After playing the hole, you do not see the housing until the finish. I do not recall a bunker on the hole.
2 – this par 4 introduces the player to a primary feature of Royal Cinque Ports – the undulating fairway with mainly uneven lies and a pin that can be obscured by a low ridge.
3 – the fairway is undulating and rolling on this short par 5 with a sunken, punchbowl green almost invisible behind the final mounds. I like the separation of the fairway. It is one of my favorite holes.
4 – there is a lovely view of the white cliffs of Dover from an elevated tee on this short par 3. It did not have bunkers when I played it and I hope it still does not. The green looks very tempting as it is wide but however upon arrival one finds that it is not very deep.
6 – a lovely short par 4 sharp fishhook dogleg right with a gully fronting the green situated on higher ground.
5 – A long par 5 seemingly that never appears to get closer until you are within one hundred yards.
7 – a longer par 4 that reminds me of holes at Royal St George’s due to the high number of bunkers on both sides throughout the hole as well as the fall-off front left of the green.
8 – One of the only two holes running east and a heavily bunkered par 3. One of my favorite holes on the course.
9 – 11 If there is a flaw to the routing, one can point out the next three holes which all dogleg to the left, although the tenth is sharper. I found this to be the most difficult stretch of holes for people who hit a fade versus a draw as well as they are well-bunkered. Thankfully, the tenth is a shorter hole and only the second hole to go east. The eleventh starts the transition back to the clubhouse.
From 12-18 it is an excellent finish. The twelfth has another sunken green with sidewalls that can stop a ball from a bad outcome.
The thirteenth is a long par 4 dogleg right with bunkers on the right corner that have to be avoided even if it means lengthening an already long hole. There are cross bunkers on the hole. This is followed by bunkers on the left front of the green which can catch those who rely on their fade into the green but then hit a straighter shot than they normally do.
The fourteenth is a long par 3 well over 200 yards but is also uphill playing even longer with an excellent green that likely sends a lot of balls into the bunkers on the right or the hollow on the left.
Gary Player once described the four finishing holes “as the finest four consecutive holes on any course in the world.” It is hard to disagree although I think there are other rivals. I very much like the visual on par 5 sixteenth with a narrowing fairway and a large mound and bunker fronting the elevated green that seems to be on manufactured land such is its height. I know an alternative fairway has been added which would add to the strategy of the hole.
The mounding on 15-17 sometimes means you cannot see where your ball finishes in the fairway. There is another partially blind green on the seventeenth and it is excellently placed behind those large cross bunkers with substantial fall-offs at the green.
The eighteenth also finishes with a burn although this time crossing the fairway more in play for longer hitters or on a day with a bigger tailwind. This is another hole without bunkers to a crowned green which is angled off to the left.
The course has been lengthened considerably from when I played it which I am certain has only improved it. There are new tees, a new split fairway on sixteen, tees on the seawall, etc.
Although it has a relatively uninspiring setting, much like Royal St Davids or Royal Lytham & St Annes, it is a magnificent course. When I played it, I considered it to be one of the best courses I had ever played even though I was at the beginning of being fortunate to play many of the world’s very best courses. I have since played over four hundred courses ranked at one time in the top 100 in the world, or are certainly considered the best course in their region. Yet most of the them are not as good as Royal Cinque Ports was back then, and I know it is better now. Much like Silloth-on-Solway this was once a “hidden gem,” but now it is recognized as one of the world’s very best golf courses. Everyone should make the effort to play here. I intend to go back.
Date: June 15, 2020