I have not been back to Royal S. George’s recently enough to write a “current review” as it has added length and new bunkering in advance of hosting the Open Championship, now postponed a year. I will try to play it sometime in the next two years…..so much golf, so little time. Upon my return, I want to again climb up the stairs to the tower of St. Clement’s church to take in the view of the small town of Sandwich with a wonderful panoramic, unobstructed view of Royal St George’s. I hope it is still open and there hasn’t been too much development as it is a fabulous view on a good weather day.
William Laidlaw Purves, a Scottish doctor, and his friend, Henry Lamb, were searching for land along the sea as a means to escape the over-crowded London courses. They began their search in the Bournemouth area, going eastwards. How they did not see the land that became Rye is a mystery. In Sandwich, they climbed to this tower and spied the land that would become Royal St George’s as they gazed at the vast, empty windswept dunes. I have read that Purves’ brother, an archaeologist, accompanied them as he wanted to see the area where Emperor Claudius landed in Britain in 43 AD.
The land was leased from the Earl of Guilford with a farmhouse serving as the first “clubhouse.” Mr. Lamb and William Robert Anderson joined Mr. Purves in recruiting members and building the course, essentially designed by Mr. Purves. An inaugural meeting was held at the Metropole Hotel, London in 1887 and a week later another meeting was held at the course which now had 130 members. In 1888, one of the new members, Tommy Mills, booked into The Bell hotel for a weekend and fell in love with the club and links so much that he stayed there until his death some 44 years later.
Mr. Purves was convinced his links could become the equivalent of the Old course at St. Andrews. In 1894, just seven years after its founding, it held the first Open championship conducted outside of Scotland, won by J.H. Taylor. Patronage was given in 1902 by King Edward VII, with aristocracy being a key to being the Captain/President of the club including Edward VIII. Later, Bernard Darwin became a captain.
Through all of the championships held here, equally impressive is the number of Walker Cup players from the club. Perhaps the most interesting story from an Open concerns Harry Bradshaw, who in 1949 on the fifth hole found his ball laying half in a bottle. Rather than wait for a ruling he played his ball and dropped two shots, resulting in a playoff with Bobby Locke, which he then lost.
With this review, I wanted to lend my voice to those singing the praises of Royal St. George’s as I know the routing is essentially unchanged as are the essential parts of the green complexes. I consider it to be the finest course in England consistent with the ranking of top100golfcourses. During the years I lived in England, Royal St. George’s was often listed out of the top fifteen courses in the British Isles. I could never understand that. Was it because it was less accessible for play? Was it because it was considered too difficult? Did some think it to be too unfair with its bunkering and quirky fairways? Was it because there are several out-of-bounds and the grass is kept high?
I first saw it as I attended the Sunday of Greg Norman’s victory in the Open in 1993. I was so taken with the course that I scarcely noticed that the drive back to Beaconsfield took nearly five hours due to traffic (should be less than two and a half hours). It was a beautiful sunny day when Greg Norman captured the Open championship when Bernard Langer finally hit an errant shot out-of-bounds on fourteen. Mr. Norman played splendidly and held it together to shoot 64 becoming the second person to break 70 in all four rounds of the Open after Ernie Els finished earlier having done the same. I witnessed Mr. Norman missing the 12” putt on seventeen but I don’t think he cared about not scoring a 63. I was captivated by the rolling fairways, the bunker on four, the approach shot through the high dunes on five, the splendid par 3 sixth hole, eight, ten, fourteen, and the three finishing holes. Adding to this are the near perfect placement of bunkers and how the holes constantly changed direction (once I finally got off the hill on the left side of the sixth green).
The greens are excellent. Ben Crenshaw has said that they are the finest greens of the courses hosting the Open. I would agree although Trump Turnberry’s greens are also very good.
I have played it four times. After the first day spent there, I remember saying to my playing partner on the drive back to London, “I could play this course every day and never tire of it.” I agree with what Bernard Darwin wrote years ago, “Sandwich has a charm that belongs to itself, and I frankly own myself under the spell. The long strip of turf on the way to the seventh hole, that stretches between the sandhills and the sea; a fine spring day, with the larks singing as they seem to sing nowhere else; the sun shining on the waters of Pegwell Bay and lighting up the white cliffs in the distance: this is as nearly my idea of heaven as it is to be attained on any earthly links.” To think Mr. Darwin wrote this when Royal St. George’s had a large number of blind shots!
While I like Royal Cinque Ports and Rye Old a lot and give them praise, for me Royal St George’s has everything.
I have been fortunate to only have good weather on my trips there. Like Bernard Darwin, I have seen the sun on the waves at Pegwell Bay, the white cliffs of Ramsgate shimmering far away, and have been there both with a first tee time and a late afternoon tee time with the only sounds being the birds chirping hidden in the tall grass, the clubs striking the ball, and our conversation. I have experienced the nice sea breeze keeping everything fresh. There is a sense of vastness here, other than in the corner of holes four and five. You feel golf has connected you with the land and the sea. On no other course in Ireland or the UK do I walk with such joy and spirit. At St. Andrews you feel the town and hotel and there are eyes on you on the first, seventeenth and eighteenth. At Old head you are often aware of the cliffs. At Ballybunion Old you start with a cemetery and the road for a while. At many other courses you feel as though you do not escape the view from the clubhouse or holes run too closely together. But at Royal St. George’s I feel as I am at Ballyneal or Sand Hills in near-perfect solitude.
While it does have several blind shots, they are much less than how the course played for many years. New holes were built to replace blind shots and holes too influenced by the dunes resulting in long forced carries. These “new’ holes are the third, eighth and eleventh. Numerous blind shots remained until the 1970’s’s when many of them were removed by Frank Pennink. However, I am thankful several blind shots remain as they add character to the golf course. I sort of wish there was one more.
The routing goes in all directions with a nice flow and vast views, with only holes four and five feeling a bit squeezed into the corner of the property. The holes constantly change direction. One has to “stretch’ it a bit to say that holes eleven to thirteen are heading the same way. The routing expertly takes advantage of the natural land forms as well as the rises and falls. Many of the fairways are naturally wonderfully undulating, sometimes almost crowned resulting in one’s ball running off the fairway to the edge of the rough. One will often have a stance with the ball either above or below one’s feet. The key to playing well at Royal St. George’s is to drive the ball well. Perhaps no other championship course requires accurate driving and finding the middle of fairways.
The bunkering is superb with most of them now in sight. However, there remain bunkers on the course that are hard to see as some are hidden behind slightly higher ground fronting them or they are almost even buried. There is an extensive use of cross-bunkers as well as the shorter holes have numerous bunkers making tee placement a more important consideration.
The one question I have always had is why more of the golf course is not closer to the sea as there is a sizeable acreage between the boundary of holes fourteen, sixteen and eighteen including the location of the driving range. Is this land too flat or is it too wet? The clubhouse could have easily been built closer to the sea as well. Yet that brings to mind one of the best qualities of Royal St. George’s which is the amount of space between the golf holes. No one would want to give up the final four holes of the course as they are so very splendid. I am also grateful that the clubhouse is at the starting hole and then the end so that its presence is not overwhelming despite its beauty which I find equal to Muirfield’s clubhouse.
In terms of holes I liked…well, all of them. They are all unique. The highlight holes are #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #13, #15, #16, #17, and #18. The others are good. Some would call out #14 but I think technology has lessened its challenge unless the wind is high.
The first is a near perfect opening hole with steeply faced cross bunkers near the green threatening the approach shot. It looks straight from the tee but it’s a slight dogleg and I seem to always be at the edge of the taller grass on the right if I carry the valley known as “the kitchen.” The approach shot will likely have an uneven stance to a green running slightly away to the back. The bunker in the fairway on the left side can come into play for longer hitters downwind on a dry day.
The second is a nice dogleg left with two bunkers on the left corner 200-250 yards out depending on the tee. This hole has been lengthened since I played it. The good news is that it can be lengthened possibly another two hundred yards. I hope we don’t get to 575-yard par 4’s for championships. The fairway has quite a lot of undulations to it. The two bunkers on the left corner of the second make it a tough driving hole. There is a large swale on the right before the green making it difficult to judge one’s approach to this raised green.
The third is the first par 3 and has no bunkers due to a forced carry over grass to a wonderful shelf for the green that has a decided tilt back to front. One can miss slightly to either side of the green due to the mounding with a good chance of recovery although the bottom half of the green is more difficult.
The fourth is a march up the hill after clearing the mountainous bunker hiding the fairway to perhaps the best contoured green on the course. If you clear the bunker you are left with an approach shot of 200 yards with a likely uneven stance going up having to clear the massive hollow fronting the green which almost resembles a wall. The hollow on the left is followed by a near four feet false front. Out of bounds comes quickly behind the green. I have been in the bunker off the tee and my ball stayed about 70% up the sand in a somewhat plugged line. After my attempt to get out, I lost my balance and down I tumbled. It’s great fun and I did not mind the jokes. This is one of the hardest holes I have ever played.
Five has a drive that must avoid the hidden, deep bunkers down the left with a second having to go through a valley between dunes. The fairway has a ridge that can send balls either left or right. From the tee one must find the correct section of the fairway to have a peak at the green. Out-of-bounds looms near the right side of the raised green which thankfully has not bunkers. This hole was originally a par 3 until equipment was used to create the opening between the dunes.
The sixth is a beautiful uphill par 3 ringed by higher dunes and four bunkers creating another dell green sat at an angle with two tiers. It is called the Maiden because the tee shot once had to go over the high dune on the left facing the green but teeing off from near the bunkers on the left fairway on five. Mr. Purves believed the hole to be a challenge similar to climbing the Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Now the green is completely in view and the hole is terrific.
The seventh has a beautiful view of Pegwell Bay and Ramsgate’s cliffs after the blind tee shot. You drive over the dunes and grass to a lovely, hidden expanse of fairway running to the green where one’s approach shot is heavily dependent on what the wind is doing. I recall a lot of bunkers on this par 5 at the right corner for the tee shot and the right side of the green. I believe this hole has also been lengthened since I last played it.
The eighth was previously a par 3 but Mr. Pennick changed it to a 4. It has a drive to a flattish fairway but then a forced carry over tall grass and broken ground to a plateau green that appears narrow. My second time playing the course we were allowed to play through the group ahead as we came down seven. On the eighth tee I hooked my tee shot and the ball whistled over the back left of the seventh green causing two players to duck of the foursome who had just allowed us through.. After the round I found out that it was Steve Wynn, the builder and owner of casinos, that I had come closest to hitting. I love the second shot into this green. I believe bunkers have been added to this hole.
The ninth is strategically bunkered down the length of it with two raised bunkers in a dune left of the green being the ones I have found to be the most difficult. The green is crowned with the wind taking balls to the right side off the green. Yet if one misses to the left of the green it lessens the chance for recovery due to the slope of the green away from you.
The tenth requires a march up the hill high on an exposed plateau with only the sky behind it. The green will send a ball hit too weakly at the front left into the bunkers on the left. There is a good chance of recovery on this hole if one is short in front as the surface is smooth. If one goes long, there is a substantial fall-off and making a bogey is a good score.
Eleven is an excellent long par 3 with bunkers surrounding a green that slopes quite a bit for a hole of this length. The slope is similar to a redan from front right to back left. This hole was previously a par 4 but changed by Mr. Pennink to provide a fourth par 3.
The twelfth goes around a sand ridge on the right to a green that is well protected. The bunkers are expertly placed with all the trouble before the green. Any score is possible on this hole.
Thirteen requires a diagonal drive to this dogleg left with a forced carry over tall grass. There were a lot of bunkers on this hole when I played it but I believe more have been added. The green is excellent with a big spine running through it creating a height difference of perhaps two feet. The lodging for Prince’s at the back of this green and fourteenth tee did not exist when I played the course. The lodging is good for Prince’s, not so good for Royal St George’s.
The fourteenth has perhaps the most nerve-wracking tee shot on the course with dunes to be carried and out-of-bounds hard on the right. Longer hitters have to determine whether to try to bounce it over the Suez Canal burn or lay-up. Prior to the 2011 Open, two small bunkers were added about 60 yards short of the green in the fairway which I did not have to play. But the two bunkers at the left side of the green I think are more of a problem since you do not want to avoid them so much that you go too far right out-of-bounds. Perhaps if I played this hole with a wind I might change my mind and include it as one of the highlight holes.
At the fifteenth there are more cross bunkers to carry and the narrow, elevated green is farther than it looks. Again, from when I played this hole, at least one bunker and length has been added. The green is angled left to right and has a sharp fall-off on the right.
Sixteen is ringed with sand and is a target shot where one must be even more precise than on the sixth. I have hit an 8 iron here as well as a 4 iron. For me this green with all of its run-offs deeper into the green than one realizes makes this the best par 3 on the golf course.
Seventeen has a hollow fronting the green and bunkers surrounding it making it difficult to run a ball onto the green. This is a very undulating fairway and a difficult hole.
The eighteenth has a slightly downhill, rippling, heaving fairway that is mounded sending balls to either side. There are beautifully placed greenside bunkers revealing a finishing hole more compelling than nearly any on the championship rota with perhaps only Carnoustie having a superior hole (if one ignores the fabulous town setting on the Old Course). It has the out-of-bounds to the right and the very tall grass to the left and another undulating green that seems to go in every direction with fall-offs on all sides. At the green on the right is a deep bunker and on the left is Duncan’s hollow, named after George Duncan who took three to get down and missed a playoff by a stroke in the 1922 Open. There is new bunkering to when I played the course.
Of the 725 courses I have played, I have Royal St George’s as the number one golf course in England, number six in UK & Ireland and number 16 overall. It is absolutely splendid. Now that Royal Portrush has eliminated their two weak holes, it has become the best course on the Open rota. For years I debated whether I preferred Muirfield or Royal St Georges as the number one course. It is very close between them. Although I visited long ago, every time I was at Royal St George’s we struck up a fun and informative conversation with members over lunch. The hospitality is welcoming, the clubhouse is fantastic, the grill room is a bonus, and the setting, location and golf course are magnificent.
Date: April 30, 2020