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1 mile E of Sandwich
Contact in advance - not at the weekend
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.
"After the strategic school of golf architecture started to dominate thinking in the early 20th century, it became fashionable to criticize Sandwich as a big hitter's paradise, with too many blind shots," wrote Tom Doak in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. "After the First World War, some of the most famous holes were changed – the Maiden hole was re-oriented so one did not have to play up and over the famous dune, and greens like the 9th and 17th were moved from blind hollows to their present locations on grand plateaus, perhaps by Dr. MacKenzie himself."
In the mid 1970s, Frank Pennink was brought in to eliminate further blindness. Three new holes were built and tee changes were made to two other holes. Many, except for devout traditionalists, believe that these changes further improved the layout.
"Whatever petty criticisms have been leveled over the lack of visibility on some holes, or the need for good fortune to master its difficulties, Sandwich has the four prerequisites of great architecture, and it has them in spades," continues Tom Doak. "Challenging golf holes, beautifully crafted greens and bunkers, a character of its own, and stunning scenery."
Royal St George’s certainly 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.
It was then, I resolved to return with my clubs and walk the other side of the fence. Has ever an ephemeral day of golf lasted so long in the memory and so vividly as this? We arrived at dawn and were warmly welcomed into the heart of the club. Eyebrows were raised at my ten-year-old daughter accompanying as “caddy” due to childcare issues. Nevertheless a sympathetic ear acquiesced to my pleading eyes.
Take a while in the clubhouse. It is rich in history and atmosphere. On the terrace golfers gathered for a simple lunch and conversation spilled easily between the tables of guests, visitors and members.
There is enough land here for three golf courses. What impresses me is the scale of the course, the variety of the holes and the titanic challenge of besting any of them. It’s easy to become disorientated as the course twists and turns. Take a caddy if it is your first time. You will need one. JCB Lay
Royal St. George’s amazes me, as standing on the first tee you wonder if this site is not too flat to delivery a really interesting links experience however, this is nothing more than an optical illusion as seemingly out of nowhere come strong undulations and dunes, yet it still feels like when they start the level of the dunes descends below sea level as much as it rises above it. This too could be a bit of a visual trick but once on the course you certainly don’t have the feeling of being on a flat site. When the 4th hole arrives you are met with a massive bunker right of the fairway and a mostly blind drive. This famous hole is certainly my favorite on the course, not only spectacular off the tee but also one of the most dramatic greens you may ever see with a huge elevation change from front to back and a very steep ridge that seems like a false front and may well be but it’s mowed out as green so it left me wondering if they ever place the pin left front. In any case the approach is very challenging to a middle or back right pin position.
The par 4, 5th hole is also an excellent hole with a semi blind approach over dunes to a large lightly undulated green, another one of my favorites. My next favorite hole would be the par 4, 11th playing uphill to a plateau green and straight into the wind on our day. Called Himalayas it’s become a classic hole that’s often copied. A day at Royal St. George’s is not complete without partaking in the lunch festivities, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on a perfect classic links experience.
There are plenty of excellent hole by hole accounts below of what it’s like to play at RSG so I’m not going to repeat any of those. What I will say is this: for those who’ve played the Championship course at Carnoustie and think it’s a tough track, they really need to undergo a golfing reality check by playing at Royal St George’s because it’s an absolute beast in comparison to its Scottish cousin – even when there’s only a slight breeze blowing.
After the first five holes, the course routing became a bit random for me over the next half a dozen holes and I found this disorientation amongst the sand hills to be most disconcerting – a fact endorsed by the lowly Stableford scores in my scorecard over that stretch of holes!
Stray just a little from the fairways and you can forget about finding your ball; keeping the ball in play is essential, which is not an easy thing to do when playing blind shots at a number of the holes.
God knows how difficult it must be to get around here when the wind is up – let’s just say I’m glad I had only a light breeze to contend with last week. RSG is a must play for serious golfers of whatever handicap but don’t expect to find many, if any, favours on a very demanding layout that I’d classify as a “matchplay course” rather than a “strokeplay course” for the average amateur player like myself.