The purpose of the Review of The Month feature is twofold. Top100GolfCourses has always aimed to salute and encourage those who are putting admirable effort into reviewing the world’s great golf courses. Moving forward, we are also looking to learn from these experts! We’ll be chatting with the month’s star authors and discussing topics such as golf in their area, what they like to see in a strong course review, and of course dig a little deeper into their own winning review.
April 2022’s Review of The Month comes from Robert Butlin, who gave readers a ground-level look at a course they’ve seen on TV, Royal St. George’s Golf Club.
1. Royal St. George's is (currently) ranked No. 22 in the world on Top100. Does that pose a challenge in finding something fresh to say while writing a review?
Yes, it does. As I hinted at in my review, and in the comments to the March review of the month, I try not to write the same type of review each time and I try to make my reviews flow from the others, which are already on this site, and indeed others (Fine Golf, for example). So for Royal St George’s I felt I needed to be more impressionistic as the course description existed elsewhere (and in reality, plenty of elsewheres). In any case, playing in a 40 mph northeasterly completely changes the course; “it was a drive and an eight iron” means nothing in a five club wind.
I thus felt a review which, instead of asking “what’s the course like,” sought to answer the questions “what is the course trying to be and does it succeed in that ask” might be better. So it’s trying to be a championship course (and has been forever). That explains the “space” elements of my review. It’s also trying to be a members course (and I know some members who are not great golfers). That explains the playability. I also, because we do play on grass, think we might delve a little bit into agronomy and praise the greenkeepers of this world.
2. You mention just how difficult it is to lose a ball while playing at Sandwich. Does such playability (if not scorability) contribute to its likability?
Absolutely. It’s been said by far more talented people than me that there should be a minimum of searching for lost balls – to which I would add that I like coming off a course thinking that I got defeated not because it was way past my skill level, but because the course deceived me into thinking I could do better. If that’s how I think then my first desire on finishing the 18th is to go out again and see if I can get it right. If my first thought is the pro shop to buy some more balls, I’m unlikely to come back with a joyful heart.
3. You mentioned that the infamous "Himalaya" bunker at No. 4 is less prescient than the hole's green, but let's be honest. It's a visually impressive hazard. Is your golf personality more "I'd be curious to see what a save out of there is like" or "keep me away from that monstrosity"?
Definitely keep me out. To me, the important point about the bunker (and more so the dune itself) is that it is a risk and reward shot. Get it right (straight over the middle is about right) gives a far better line in for one’s second. Avoid it and the green is virtually impossible (unless I’m playing foursomes with a scratch golfer, which I was).
Wanting to play out of a famous hazard seems like unnecessary masochism – after all, the aim of a round should be to take as few shots as possible. And that one would require a heck of a save. I do realise that a number of famous hazards are so well placed that they do trap the imperfect shot, but I’d be very happy to miss every bunker, cross every stream. Having a beer, or gunners and reminiscing over shots taken in a bunker feels like the Three Yorkshiremen sketch.
4. How do you balance the history of a celebrated club like Royal St. George's when analyzing the course itself?
The course should stand on its own, and I think it does. The history exists because we were all playing a version of the course on which some very famous golfers had trod, and won. We can see Morikawa’s card (and don’t need a jacket and tie to do so). However much we think we don’t, most of us see some value in celebrity, and a course with history brings that touch of stardust which simply doesn’t exist at a pleasant suburban course in South London. So while the course should be enough, it is not possible to separate the course from the history – the course was designed to be a championship venue, so it has the space which allowed the designers to create a great, and historic course.
5. Now that you're a celebrated "Review of The Month" winner, let us know what factors you appreciate in a strong golf course review!
As a site based on scoring courses, I do start by looking at whether the review feels to me to have justified the score given. Five balls requires flying in to play. That a very high bar; I’ve never flown anywhere to play golf!
Then I think the review needs to have a bit of the writer’s personality, together with a little hint of how they played. As courses get more famous, my desire for a blow-by-blow account fades. In addition, this isn’t a bucket list website – it’s a where-to-play-nice-golf website. Thus there will be courses where a description is needed. But I also want a little bit of analysis about why a course is good, less good or indifferent. To some extent that comes down to an impressionistic view, but there should also be room for some objective criteria; do the bunkers fit the course well? Does the water make a shot impossible or does it allow the clever golfer to score?
This brings me to one more point – a review needs to try to understand that a course needs to have a number of different ways to get the same result. There’s a review of West Sussex in which a father and son walked off with the same Stapleford Score. One went direct, one went round the side. I like a review to acknowledge that the really great courses offer options. More realistically, I want golf courses to offer risk and reward, and to be playable for those who hit it 150 yards and play off 22 as much as those who hit it 330 yards and play off +1.
6. What's one course that you'd love to write a review for during 2022 (or plan to)?
I’ve no specific plans for 2022. I know there will be plenty of other reviews, but there’s no bucket list. While you’ve highlighted a review of a famous course I do get pleasure in reviewing somewhere less well known, particularly, as with Copthorne recently, I can find lots of nice things to say about a place for which I had lower expectations. Nothing I write will persuade people to play, or not play, Royal St George’s; a nice review of Copthorne may just persuade those on their way to or from Gatwick airport to give it a go, and be pleasantly surprised.