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.
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.
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.