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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.
Firstly the weather was perfect, bright sunny day and merely a hint of a breeze, to be fair we played the course in very benign conditions so the challenge was nowhere near as demanding as it should have been as it’s my understanding the wind here can be fierce at times, not that I was complaining! The clubhouse is unassuming from the outside but once you walk in you get an immediate feel for the history of the club with gloriously high ceilinged rooms and walls etched with pictures, honours boards and memorabilia spanning the last hundred years and more. The locker rooms were surprisingly large with excellent changing facilities and the full English breakfast buffet was both plentiful and delicious.
The pro shop is suitably stocked and the range facilities are excellent as are the chipping and putting areas located just off the first tee. We were unable to play the course from the tips but this in no way lessened the challenge ahead, having not played the course before we were at times undecided about where our tee shots should be aimed. However, what is clear was that the course was playing completely differently to how it will do in The Open next year, for a start my tee shot went right on the first towards the place Tiger Woods lost his ball. The rough was very short so I found my ball first time (as I did many times after straying off the fairways) so I will be interested to see just how much more penal the rough will be next year for The Open as I don’t doubt I would have lost several balls during my round otherwise.
The greens had just been seeded and hollow tined so they weren’t playing at their best and were a little bumpy, we weren’t complaining as they were still relatively firm and true and the undulations on some greens made 2 putts extremely difficult. The overall conditioning of the course was excellent and the par 4 4th over ‘Hells Bunker’ is a lovely hole with hugely undulating fairways which looked amazing.
One thing that struck me was how fantastic all the par 3’s were, I loved all of them and the bunkering on each of them (no bunkers on par 3 3rd to be fair) was brilliant and really made you think about where to place your tee shot, I don’t think I have enjoyed playing par 3’s as much anywhere else.
This is definitely a drivers course though and it pays be to relatively straight although as mentioned earlier the rough wasn’t anywhere near as penal as it would be for The Open, you also need to be pretty handy with your long irons too. I loved RSG and there are so many holes I remember fondly, the welcome from the starter and pro shop was lovely and we pretty much had the course to ourselves too so we played at a pleasurable pace and we’re able to really take it all in. We have vowed to go back next year after The Open to play the course at it’s peak (along with hundreds of other people no doubt!) but also because we simply loved the place and it has given me a real enthusiasm to go and play as many links courses as I can now over the next few years.
RSG deserves its place in the top echelon of courses in this country, any serious golfer will appreciate the blind shots, the sometimes unfair bounces on the fairways, the deep faced bunkers and the undulating greens – it’s a proper test and one I can’t wait to repeat! I just wish I didn’t hit driver on the 18th as I ended up in the fairway cross bunkers 300 yards away and my Dad laid up and managed to halve our match, not that I am bitter of course!
The 1st eases you in to your round, but still demands an accurate approach if you are to score well. Then comes the short 2nd with a blind tee shot, if you dare, over two bunkers. Another accurate approach is required to a large sloping green. The 3rd hole is a magnificent par 3 with no bunkers. With the pin at the back it was stretched to 215 yards, the green surrounded on all sides by ominous and imposing dunes. Playing off 11 and with three pars to my name I was obviously on cloud nine as I stepped on to the 4th tee. Off the medal tees the line is slightly left of THE bunker. However, it just gets in your head and, although none of our fourball went anywhere near it, neither did we trouble the fairway. Again the approach is uphill to a raised green which has severe undulations and run offs ready to gobble up poorly hit shots.
The 5th is quite possibly the best hole on the course and requires another accurate drive (this is definitely a recurring theme around RSG, as is the use of the big dog) to find the fairway and avoid the six or seven fairway bunkers down the left hand side. The approach could well be played blind or semi blind depending on how well you did with your tee shot, and has to be played either through a gap between two dunes or over either one of them if you’ve strayed off the fairway. Once over/through the dunes there are no hazards within 80 yards of the green, although the run off areas will again scoff anything not hit into the heart of the green. The 6th is the second of what I believe must be a serious contender for the accolade of the finest collection of par 3’s on any course. Although it is SI 17 it is invariably played back into the wind, and when this wind is as strong as I mentioned earlier you have one tricky hole in front of you. Add the four cavernous sand traps and the narrow green into the equation and you could be forgiven at having a double take at the SI. Walk off with a par and be delighted. You’ve done better than I if you achieve this. The 7th is the first genuine birdie chance for us mere mortals. A 490 yard par 5 lies ahead, although a well struck drive over dunes is again required. If you can keep it fairly straight then you should be rewarded with a long iron approach to the green to leave you with an eagle opportunity if you hit a good ‘un. Don’t three putt, like I did. You won’t make birdie like that!! After a brief respite the 8th is an absolutely brute. A dogleg right of 419 yards, back into the wind, and with a carry of about 150 yards over rough to get to the green. A bogey five truly is an excellent score here as this is a genuine SI 1 hole. The 9th is another short par 4 but once again a good tee shot is required. Even a good shot may be made to look ordinary as it catches one of the steep banks that encourages your ball to topple away off the fairway and leave you with a blind approach. If this is the case then it’ll be more about luck than judgement if your little white friend comes to rest on the dancefloor as the humps, bumps and borrows on the green are almost as severe as further back towards the tee. A good shot only needs to catch one of these and it’ll be a very tricky up and down.
You’d better hope that you have scored well during your adventures through the dunes, as when you walk to start the back nine things start to get really brutal. The 10th is a rival to the 5th for the best hole on the course and, although it appears short at 371 yards, it is played uphill, slightly into the wind and the green is perched right on top of a dune. I smashed a driver and a 5 iron to the front of the green and managed to make my par. Others in my group who hadn’t quite hit their approach as well as me ended up 30 yards left of the green and about 30 feet below the putting surface, purely because of the severe slopes. In reality, they were fortunate to be there as the alternative would have been at the bottom of one of a pair of absolute chasms of bunkers that stand sentry at the front left. These are the sort of bunkers that require a step ladder to get in and out of. The 11th is the next of the fabulous par 3’s. Although it plays downhill and downwind, the pin was eeked out right at the back of the green and measured 231 yards. Needless to say I was delighted to see my 5 iron come to rest 12 feet behind the hole. Also needless to say, I was not so delighted when I missed the putt. And here’s the thing with the greens; they are slick and very very true, but don’t read too much into them. Instead, just pick your line and commit to hit. If you hit a positive putt it often appears that there is very little break, but if you hit a weak putt then the breaks that you thought could be there seem to be accentuated. I hope this makes sense. If not, I suppose the only way to see what I mean is to go and try it for yourself…….go on, you’ll love it!!
Twelve is a short dogleg right par 4. Along with the 16th this is probably the best protected green as it is surrounded by no fewer than six bunkers. One of these bunkers provided me with the opportunity to play what is the best shot I have ever played. Admittedly I shouldn’t have been in there in the first place as I ruined my cracking drive by fatting my approach straight into the biggest and deepest of the bunkers that guard the front of the green. When I walked up and found the ball plugged in the sand about a foot from the face I began to think that I may be in there for the rest of the day. Two of my playing partners suggested the only possible way out was to play sideways to the left. However, that would only have put me in another bunker next door. Therefore, I decided to be brave and aim straight at the flag, which was still the best part of 20 yards away. The shot demanded being struck as hard as possible with the club face wide open in order to get the ball to travel up six feet whilst only going two feet forward. If I could manage this I’d be out. So away we went……smash……sand everywhere…….pain ripping through my left arm as the impact of the club into the bunker face took it’s toll…….and then there was the ball……soaring through the air having almost lodged itself up my left nostril……it’s still flying……still flying…….it might make the green……it’s on the dancefloor ready to boogie……hang on, not only is it on there but it’s only 12 feet away and pin high. I thankyou!!! I think everyone can guess what happened next – yep, I missed the putt!!! Apologies for dwelling on that for so long, but I still can’t quite believe I managed to achieve such a result.
Anyway, moving on……. The 13th is the longest par 4 on the course but, like the 7th, is played downwind and should allow an approach with a mid to short iron if a well struck drive is played. The problem is the line, as it is another blind drive to a fairway that is not visible at all from the tee. This makes the fairway bunkers all the more hazardous. The green is split in two by a trench that runs through the middle of it. It’ll be a good two putt if your ball ends up on the opposite side of the trench to the flag. This green is also situated right next to the old clubhouse at Prince’s which was burnt down in 2008. The 14th is a monster of a par 5 at 533 yards and played straight back into the wind again. This is where you really get to test your ball striking as anything hit with a slight push, fade and slice will end up out of bounds and on the Shore loop at Prince’s. The burn that runs across the fairway shouldn’t really come into play as if you’ve hit a good drive then there will be no problem getting over it with your second, and if your drive was not so good then just play sensible and lay up. The OOB continues all the way down to the green and the left hand side of the hole is well marshalled by intermittent bunkers. This is an exceptional hole, amongst a course packed full of them. Fifteen is another long par 4 with bunkers in play off the tee on either side of the fairway. The green complex is similar to the first in that anything short and/or right will run off and leave a tricky chip. And so to the 16th, the last of the one shotters, and a beautiful links hole to complete the set. Bunkers seem to be everywhere and the green appears to shrink before your eyes as you tee up your ball and the wind howls down at you as if mocking your chances of getting anywhere near the pin. Once again you may double take at the SI (this is number 18!). If you hit the green, then well done. Of course, if you are fortunate enough (or unfortunate, depending on how much of a test you want) to play here with little wind then this hole would be a prime example of one which would become infinitely easier.
Just as you think you’re almost there and that things may start to ease up, then you come to the fiendish 17th. Give it a mighty swipe off the tee, another mighty swipe from the undulating fairway (if you’re good enough to have found it), and then probably a short pitch to the smallest green on the course. Take two putts and be happy with a bogey. Eighteen, another long par 4, is perhaps the weakest hole on the course. However, on probably any other links course it would rank as one of the best, such is the supremacy of Royal St George’s. The fairway bunkers are not as well placed as others, but perhaps this is just because they are placed in fairer positions than on other holes, but they still attract any tee shot not hit in the right area (ie mine!). As others have said, to need a par here to win The Open would be a daunting prospect. Fair play to the man that manages that.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to sample the lunch in the dining room as it wasn’t open. However, I didn’t come here for the food. I came for the feast of golf, and I left having gorged like a pig!! To have played my best ever shot on the best course I have ever played made it even more memorable. Had that shot been played on any other course then I would have had real trouble in remembering a lot of the holes. However, the sheer quality and variety of the holes made each one memorable. On reflection, for me what makes Royal St George’s so good is the fact that it not only tests a tremendous variety of shots due to the routing, the way that the wind affects each hole differently, and the clever positioning and horrifying nature of the bunkers, but it also tests the player’s ability to replicate the same shot over and over again, most notably by hitting your driver almost immaculately. If you manage to accomplish all of this, then you have a chance. But if this is the case then what are you doing reading this, you should be warming up for Augusta next week!!! Anthony Daniels
It can be incredibly bleak, which is of course part of its charm but on a fine day, with the skylarks high in the air and a gentle breeze, it doesn't lose much to the other more scenic courses. George's is a big, big course. As others have said it is possible to play a round without encountering another soul and several of the tees will leave the first-timer wondering in which direction to hit the ball. This isolation is quite unique amongst the Open courses and provides the solitary player with a chance to commune with his game and the wild surroundings in perfect peace. It is a driver's course with many of the carries presenting a formidable challenge even for the accomplished ball-striker and quite impossible into the sort of wind not infrequently found in these parts. The turf is of the highest seaside quality and unlike Birkdale, for example, the dunes are used - and how! Only Lahinch & Belmullet have comparable undulations.
I will make brief mention of the clubhouse although once again this should not be a component of the course ranking. The smoke room is the very essence of an established English seaside golf club right down to the matches in the brick frog on the bar. It stands comparison with Brancaster. Lunch in the dining room is on a par with Muirfield. Those of you, like me, who are wondering why there could possibly be eight links courses above it in the rankings, need to commend it even more enthusiastically to our fellow links aficionados. NT
Like any good relationship it was not love at first sight. When on the practice ground, I was struck by the sparseness of the land. The dunes which become your playground on the front 9, were a distant but tempting view as a handful of members got underway. They turned out to be the only people that we saw that day, as myself and my playing partner spent a magical four and a half hours playing this wonderful links; pacing out yardages, stalking greens and generally treating the course as our own.
I'm tempted to say that the course starts slowly, but that's probably unfair on the 1st and 2nd, but the moment we stood on the par 3 3rd, the course really seemed to come alive. The run of holes which follows has so many highlights, it's like an episode of Match of the Day. My personal favorites were the par 4 5th, par 3 6th, the blind tee shot on the 7th. I could continue like this all the way to the brutal par 4 15th, which was playing into a slight crosswind which managed to stretch the hole even further.
I'm at pains to complain about the last 3 holes as I did really enjoy them and the challenge they provided, but I do feel that they suffer from the sparseness mentioned at the start of the review. However, when the stands are up, I'm certain that they would frame them better, helping to top off the holes which have gone before them. Whilst it's fair to say that the vistas beyond the course are not in the league of a Turnberry, the beauty within is simply stunning, and I found the lack of external 'eye candy' to be a positive, as it allowed me to focus on, what is in my eyes, a true 6 ball course.
Everything about my day here was more than I could have ever hoped it to be. The only negative being my concern that if I ever returned, how could I beat this experience? It's not for me to advise golfers to play here as I would presume it is on the list for 99% of golfers anyway. All I can say, is that I hope you enjoy it as much as myself and playing partner. One last thing, I would be interested to hear from people who have played here and Royal Birkdale, as RSG is lower than Royal Birkdale in the rankings. How much better is it, or are both courses in that top bracket, where truthfully the only thing separating them is a good honest debate over a pint?