TRAVEL: KENT

The county of Kent is close to Heathrow, and its golf cour­ses vary from Open Cham­pi­onship links to one which was vis­ited by the Bea­tles.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - News - By Stu­art McLean

It’s close to Heathrow, and its cour­ses vary from Open links to one vis­ited by the Bea­tles.

When you’re pay­ing more than R20 to ac­quire just one pound, plan­ning a golf trip to the UK in 2016 is likely to mean a greater ex­pense than you would have in­curred up to now. Much as I like play­ing golf in Scot­land, I trimmed my travel bud­get this year by stay­ing closer to Heathrow Air­port and dis­cov­er­ing a won­der­ful se­lec­tion of golf cour­ses to play in the south-east cor­ner of Eng­land.

The county of Kent is home to three links that have hosted an Open Cham­pi­onship, plus sev­eral other at­trac­tive lay­outs to keep you en­ter­tained for a week. And they are just a couple of hours drive in a rental car from Heathrow. At least the rental car busi­ness still af­fords ex­cel­lent value in the UK, de­spite the ex­change rate.

And some­thing that comes for free is the warmer and gen­er­ally more set­tled weather in this part of the UK. Kent lies a mere 35 kilo­me­tres across the English Chan­nel from France, whereas St An­drews is di­rectly op­po­site the up­per half of Den­mark. This last sum­mer in the UK wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly good one, but we en­joyed mainly shirt-sleeve tem­per­a­tures in the south in July.

While there are some­thing like 90 golf cour­ses in Kent – you can look them up on the ex­ten­sive Golf in Kent web­site – they are of vary­ing qual­ity, and es­sen­tially the cour­ses worth play­ing can be ticked off in a week. Royal St Ge­orge’s, where Dar­ren Clarke won the Open in 2011, is the premier golf club of the re­gion, and the his­toric town of Sand­wich serves as an ex­cel­lent base for trav­ellers ex­plor­ing Kent.

Sand­wich might not be quite the southern equiv­a­lent of St An­drews, yet it does possess con­sid­er­able charm in its an­cient and nar­row streets, and there are three Open links close by.The area is soaked in golf­ing history. While not on the coast, Sand­wich has some­thing of a mar­itime feel. Yachts and boats are tied up on the river quay in the cen­tre of town, and there’s a buzz around the nu­mer­ous pubs and cafes. The Bell Ho­tel is an old his­toric land­mark worth vis­it­ing. I have stayed in Sand­wich for the Open, and my day al­ways started with a pleas­ant walk along the tow­path of the River Stour to Royal St Ge­orge’s. It pro­vided a respite from the traf­fic jams which can make this venue a try­ing Open in terms of spec­ta­tor ac­cess.

This trip, we stayed for two nights at The Lodge at Prince’s, an up­mar­ket dou­ble-storey es­tab­lish­ment on the shore of Sand­wich Bay with 38 rooms. A bit iso­lated from Sand­wich, but pop­u­lar with golf­ing groups. A pack­age of two rounds of golf at Prince’s, plus a night’s B&B is £160 each shar­ing a room. There was a crowd of male and fe­male golfers hav­ing a merry time in the pub and restau­rant on the evening we ar­rived. A very typ­i­cal Bri­tish overnight golf­ing out­ing. They didn’t look quite as cheer­ful over break­fast the next morn­ing as they has­tened to tee off at the Prince’s club­house a kilo­me­tre away, but the sunny and warm day must have com­pen­sated for the way they felt.

THE SUEZ CANAL HOLE

The bound­ary fence be­tween Prince’s, which has 27 holes, and Royal St Ge­orge’s, is di­rectly be­hind the lodge. On my first morn­ing I walked over to the fence, fas­ci­nated by the brisk ef­fi­ciency and har­mony of the Royal greens staff. A team of two ar­rived at a green, un­loaded a walk-be­hind mower from a trailer, and while one mowed the green, the other at­tended to the nearby tee and sur­rounds, fill­ing div­ots, and tidy­ing up. Some of the greens are vast, but they were quickly done and on their way.

This was the tee of one of the most fa­mous holes at Royal St Ge­orge’s, the par-5 14th, known for more than a cen­tury as the Suez Canal hole. The Suez Canal ref­er­ence has to do with the wa­tery ditch that runs across the fair­way, and then par­al­lel to it be­fore de­tour­ing into Prince’s. It’s a vis­ually in­tim­i­dat­ing hole, and proved the un­do­ing of Amer­i­can Dustin John­son in the fi­nal round of the 2011 Open, when he made a 7 while closely pur­su­ing Clarke. Like many golfers be­fore him, he fell vic­tim to the bound­ary fence which runs the en­tire length of the hole, on the right edge of the fair­way. John­son safely made the fair­way with his tee shot, but then semi-shanked a 2-iron over the canal and the fence.

Gene Sarazen won the 1932 Open at Prince’s, and it was there that he first in­tro­duced his version of the sand iron to golf, a fore­run­ner of the mod­ern sand wedge. The orig­i­nal links was vir­tu­ally de­stroyed by mil­i­tary train­ing ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the Sec­ond World War – Lord Brabazon likened the tar­get prac­tice to “throw­ing darts at a Rem­brandt” – and un­for­tu­nately the re­mod­elled Prince’s is thus lack­ing in clas­si­cally de­signed holes from the pre-war era. I found the Hi­malayas nine more in­ter­est­ing than the flat­ter Shore and Dunes nines, be­cause it ven­tures into an area where the old course used to have its best holes.

Prince’s is chal­leng­ing, no doubt about that, yet it’s miss­ing the vari­a­tion and quirk­i­ness you find at its neigh­bour­ing links, Royal St Ge­orge’s and Royal Cinque Ports, and the bold­ness of their greens com­plexes. The rough can be pe­nal though. I was at Prince’s in 2003 when South African tour

pro Brad­ford Vaughan and Ian Woos­nam con­tested a play­off for a qual­i­fy­ing spot in the Open. Walk­ing in thick rough on one hole I found my­self stand­ing on golf balls. A thor­ough search of the im­me­di­ate area re­vealed about 30 balls that had gone astray!

Bobby Locke won the 1954 Bri­tish Mas­ters at Prince’s, a nice cou­pling to have with his 1949 Open tri­umph at Royal St Ge­orge’s.

ROYAL CINQUE PORTS

There’s a one-lane toll road be­tween the towns of Sand­wich and Deal, where lies the links of Royal Cinque Ports.The toll was un­manned while we were there, so we took this short cut rather than drive the long way round. It’s also the eas­i­est way to find a golf course which is one of the best links in Bri­tain. Deal, as it is known, held its last Open back in 1920. It was due to hold an­other in 1938, but flood­ing (it was ex­posed to sea surges be­fore a high em­bank­ment was built to pro­tect the links) saw the Open moved to Royal St Ge­orge’s. Nowa­days it can’t be ac­cessed by big crowds.

It has 18 won­der­fully in­di­vid­ual holes, each of which has to be plot­ted and played with supreme care. Nu­mer­ous bunkers, de­press­ingly deep, are cru­elly placed on rum­pled fair­ways to en­trap any shot which wan­ders off the re­quired line of play. Its quirk­i­ness makes it fun to play, be­cause you are con­stantly hav­ing to be in­ven­tive. The links is con­tin­u­ally un­du­lat­ing, yet in ap­pear­ance it is al­most as flat as Prince’s.

The sixth hole is a ter­rific short par 4.You can play safe down the fair­way, and throw a pitch into an el­e­vated green, or you can go di­rectly for the green over a low sand dune. To score well at Deal you must have a good round go­ing through 11 holes.The last seven holes, usu­ally back into the wind to­wards the club­house, are gi­gan­tic! Six de­mand­ing par 4s and one long par 3. Keep­ing a six off your card is a chal­lenge.

The two Roy­als have re­tained all their his­toric tra­di­tions, both in their im­mac­u­lately pre­sented club­houses and pro shops, and on the cour­ses them­selves. Jacket and tie is re­quired in cer­tain rooms – a stew­ard is quick to ap­pre­hend the golfer who doesn’t know bet­ter – while Tues­day is the only day of the week where four­balls are al­lowed at Royal St Ge­orge’s. Twoball play is the norm. Very much an old school tie at­mos­phere. Mem­bers pitch up, of­ten with a dog in tow, and head off to the first tee know­ing they will have the course to them­selves.The club­house rooms are fas­ci­nat­ing to ex­plore, with so much golf­ing mem­o­ra­bilia to dis­cover. Cinque Ports is host each year to one of the big­gest gath­er­ing of pub­lic school old boys in the UK, at the Hal­ford He­witt, where 10-man teams rep­re­sent their schools. Nat­u­rally, four­somes match play is the for­mat.

Royal St Ge­orge’s has the best site of any of the links on this coast­line. The holes wan­der over a ter­rific col­lec­tion of dunes – en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists love the fact that golf cour­ses here have pre­served duneland habi­tats – and there is fab­u­lously bold fair­way move­ment. There are any num­ber of spe­cial holes, and you quickly gain the im­pres­sion that here is one of the premier cham­pi­onship lay­outs in the world. It has length, and chal­leng­ing ap­proach shots need to be played from the fair­way to have any hope of your ball stay­ing on the green. It’s one of the best tests on the Open rota.

CHARLES DICK­ENS

The two Roy­als are cour­ses which you should try and play more than once, but there is other links golf on of­fer. North

“LORD BRABAZON LIKENED THE TAR­GET PRAC­TICE (AT PRINCE’S) TO THROW­ING DARTS AT A REM­BRANDT.”

Fore­land is on the head­land of the same name at Broad­stairs, a town closely as­so­ci­ated with Charles Dick­ens, and where he wrote David Cop­per­field. On the south-east­ern­most tip of Kent, this is a fast-run­ning for­mer Open qual­i­fy­ing venue which of­fers value in terms of a green fee. Ad­join­ing the course is a Par 3 lay­out, such an im­por­tant fa­cil­ity to have to­day in terms of grow­ing the game among young­sters and fam­i­lies.

Fur­ther west is Lit­tle­stone, an­other Open qual­i­fier which lies be­tween the fa­mous Rom­ney Marsh and the English Chan­nel. We didn’t play it on this trip, but I re­call the links from an ear­lier visit as be­ing ex­cep­tion­ally firm and dry. Ev­i­dently it is in a unique mi­cro­cli­mate which makes it one of the dri­est places in Bri­tain.

Golf in Kent is mainly played in­land, and our re­turn trip to Heathrow in­cluded vis­its to Can­ter­bury Golf Club, a short drive from Sand­wich, and Knole Park. There are two Jack Nick­laus de­signs at the Lon--

don Golf Club, which have hosted Euro­pean Tour events, and Chart Hills is a Nick Faldo cre­ation, but the de­sign work of the great Harry Colt was of more in­ter­est to us. Colt’s name is at­tached to many clas­sic old cour­ses south of Lon­don, and while Can­ter­bury might not rank among his more fa­mous, it proved a sur­pris­ingly de­light­ful out­ing in a pretty English set­ting.

Can­ter­bury and Royal St Ge­orge’s might be rel­a­tively close as the crow flies, but they are worlds apart in the golf­ing king­dom. Friendly and wel­com­ing, it is more of a work­ing man’s club, and visi­tors can play for £25 af­ter 3pm in the sum­mer. That’s seven rounds at Can­ter­bury for the price of one at Royal. Twi­light rates are com­mon. As you can ex­pect, it was con­sid­er­ably busier than ei­ther of the Roy­als. If any­thing, the Colt holes are more ad­ven­tur­ous than those on the Open links. They flow up and down over a rolling for­est land­scape, and each one was greeted by an ex­cla­ma­tion from us when we emerged from a for­est walk on to the tee. The el­e­va­tions and con­toured fair­ways proved a con­stant chal­lenge.

Knole Park is at Sevenoaks, and this is a stun­ning old heath­land lay­out, ex­pan­sively spread out over the hilly grounds of a Na­tional Trust property. The fur­thest point of the course ap­pears miles away from the club­house. While Can­ter­bury hides its holes in a for­est, here you see much more of what’s on of­fer. Golfers have to share parts of the course not only with mem­bers of the pub­lic, out walk­ing on paths which in places bi­sect the holes, but also the Bea­tles, and a large herd of deer. In 1967, the Bea­tles – John Paul, Ringo and Ge­orge – did one of the very first mu­sic videos of their hit Straw­berry Fields on th­ese fair­ways. The Bea­tles are long gone, but the deer re­main, and on the day we were there many were laz­ing in the sun around the first tee. This 1920s de­sign by J F Aber­cromby be­gins with an up­hill par 3, which pro­vided great en­ter­tain­ment for us later in the day as we sat on the club­house ter­race drink­ing our beers.

From Sevenoaks it’s a short drive along the M25 to Heathrow, but leave your­self plenty of time to catch your flight home. On a rainy Fri­day af­ter­noon the mo­tor­way was grid­locked to the ex­tent where it took more than three hours to travel a dis­tance the equiv­a­lent of Joburg to Pre­to­ria.

The club­house at Royal St Ge­orge’s.

The club­house at North Fore­land.

The par-3 sixth hole at Royal St Ge­orge’s, known as The Maiden.

The club­house at Royal Cinque Ports.

The starters hut at Royal St Ge­orge’s.

A ru­ined cas­tle lies next to the fifth green at North Fore­land.

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