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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.
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?