A year later than expected – and despite the best efforts of a global pandemic – the 149th Open Championship finally arrives back at Royal St George’s. We paid a visit to a true jewel on the Open Rota
What is so special about Royal St George’s? It’s the tranquility, it’s the space, it’s the freshness of the sea breeze, it’s the course, it’s so many things that, with an air of inadvertent charm, Royal St George’s just seems to get right.
Speak to its members and they mention words like ‘understated’, ‘civilised’ and ‘low key’. They look around, desperate to capture the one indefinable thing that makes them so attached to this small corner of south-eastern England.
Few of them can sum it up, but all of them can feel it. It’s a club where egos are left, not so much at the door, but somewhere on the A257 from Canterbury before you angle your way through the quaint little streets of Sandwich.
If this was a club in America, there’d be a big, bold sign informing passers-by that they were on the doorstep of sporting grandeur. ‘Royal St George’s’, it’d say, ‘First English course to host the Open Championship’. Instead, there’s just a small, unpretentious sign directing eagle-eyed visitors down a country lane between two fields.
Back in AD 43, there weren’t dunes here at all, just an expanse of water. By medieval times, Sandwich was the principal port of England – unbelievable when you look at it today. But, even then, sand spits and sand bars were building up as nature was busy fashioning one of the finest dune systems in the UK, creating the home of three superb links in Cinque Ports, Prince’s and Royal St George’s.
The latter was opened in 1887 and saw its first Open in 1894, won by JH Taylor, who took home the £30 first prize. But the impact on the community was little more than a nice story for the East Kent Mercury and nice pocket money for JH.
This time around it’s different. The R&A announced a £100,000 windfall from The Open Legacy
Fund for the redevelopment, among other things, of the market square in the town centre, while Sandwich Station has received a £4m refit to allow more passengers to dismount from the 12-carriage trains. Quite how many fans are able to alight is, for now, uncertain, with the R&A planning for a “full-scale” Open, but having contingency plans in place due to the pandemic. Spectator numbers may be limited or the event may be played behind closed doors, but whoever hoists the Claret Jug on July 18 will also walk away with significantly more than JH Taylor – the winner’s cheque is around £1.5m.
KITCHEN TO THE GRAVE
At St George’s you start in the Kitchen – where most good parties do – a strange, sunken portion of ground that sits 240 yards up the first fairway from the back tee. Ahead you cross the Sahara and the Himalayas, tread the Elysian Fields, court a
Maiden, squeeze between Corsets, gain passage through Suez and hope to avoid Duncan’s Hollow. That’s not to mention talk of Nancy’s Parlour, Marmalade bunkers and Kite’s Grave, the Table Mountain of a 10th green where challenges (notably Tom’s) and scorecards are regularly ruined.
The club’s history book is entitled A Course for Heroes and it’s evident very early and very often. The most obvious highlights include a towering bunker that used to be shored up by railway sleepers, which cuts into a huge dune known as Himalayas. It stares at you from the 4th tee like the open mouth of a shark and is famous for many moments of meltdown. One saw Reg Glading plug his ball in the top during a playoff in the quarterfinals of the English Amateur. Having climbed up, he attempted a pass at the ball, only to fall, somersaulting twice into a heap at the bottom. The ball then struck him and it was lights out, figuratively speaking.
It could be for that reason the fairway beyond is named Elysian Fields, which, in Greek mythology, is the land at the end of the Earth where certain favoured heroes were saved from death.
The left-curving par-4 5th is the hole where architect Martin Ebert has made his most discernible design tweak. It’s a fantastic hole for precision driving, setting up an approach that is blind over the dunes unless you land your ball in the perfect spot. To the left there used to be a fairly untidy expanse of rough and the odd bunker, but now, St George’s has its first ‘waste area’.
There are still some bunkers, but they are now set in an area of hardpan sand that is littered with tufts of brittle reed. Could this happen at St Andrews?
When you consider the link, through St George’s founder Laidlaw Purves and its Scottish inspiration, it’s not surprising that many of the names, such as Elysian Fields, can be found at both haunts. The Old Course has Hell bunker, while Sandwich used to have Hades on the right of the 8th. Ginger Beer is the 4th at the Home of Golf, while there is evidence that the 12th at St George’s has the same name. On a huge map in the locker room depicting the 1887 layout, the word Ginger Beer is etched here, possibly because a concession stand might have been set up on the bay road, just the other side of the fence from the tee.
Harry Vardon, who took £50 as the Open winner here in 1899, wrote six years later: “I am constantly asked which, in my opinion, is the best course in the world. Many considerations enter into such a reckoning, but, after making it carefully, and with full knowledge that my answer is at variance with many of the best authorities in the game, I say Sandwich.”
Reach the 13th tee and you begin a loop known as Trinity, because the next three fairways form an almost perfect equilateral triangle. The 14th is Suez, with out of bounds hugging the right from tee to green and 15 has the Marmalade bunkers on the right, originally placed there to catch the Hartley brothers, Rex and Lister, who used to fade their drives.
The 16th is where Thomas Bjorn waved goodbye to his Open hopes in 2003 as his deft bunker shot from the trap on the right proved too deft and rolled back into the sand.
For two years, pot bunkers on the left edge of the 17th green were trialled, but have since been replaced by a grassy swale – something the
‘THE R&A IS PLANNING FOR A ‘FULL-SCALE’ OPEN WITH PANDEMIC CONTINGENCY PLANS IN PLACE’
pros will be a lot less keen on. And they might now blink when they look at 18, which has undergone a sandy revamp. Bunkers used to cross the centre, but a gap has now been created for the fearless drive.
A strange incident took place on this final hole some years back, when a ball hit something hard in a bunker and ricocheted sideways. Bones were discovered and, after forensic analysis in Dover, the remains were confirmed as that of a large cow. St George’s has had a whole gaggle of animals through its past, including geese, sheep, horses and cows – the latter being burned in a fire. Could it have been buried on the course?
Such history, so many stories, such a culture, the like of which some people still fail to fathom.
“It’s so badly signposted, I got lost trying to find it,” complained one visitor recently. “Driving into the venue, signage at the entrance was shabby,” added another. But they both miss the point.
The thing about St George’s is that not everyone ‘gets it’. Part of the absolute joy is that the signpost on the country road that leads to the clubhouse is so understated that even a passing snail might miss it. You just need to know and, when you do, you become part of the fabric. And it’s a very fine fabric, warm and cosy.
A JACKET AND TIE
It’s 11 o’clock in the morning and just as the club president is about to regale me with a story of a memorable moment at the Maiden, there’s a tapping on my shoulder. Perhaps it’s being in the presence of a man of distinction – though I think that unlikely – but the manner is discretion personified. At 11 o’clock gentlemen need to wear a jacket and the reminder isn’t unsavoury, but open and friendly. If you don’t have a jacket borrow one of ours, he’s saying.
There doesn’t seem to be a member who fails to fall over themselves in singing the praises of the staff. “They always remember your name and even the names of your guests,” says one. “Nothing is ever too much trouble. They pick you up from town and drop you back,” says another.
One gentleman is also a member of a highly respected club closer to London. “Back there, they treat members better than they do guests,” he frowns. “I think that is bananas.”
There is a small porch leading into a hallway and as you walk in down a corridor, you’re inspected by a platoon of past captains who cast their eye over you as you head towards ‘The Smoking Room’.
There are no visitors’ changing rooms here because the philosophy is much the same as it would be in your own home. You wouldn’t send a guest to the outside loo if you had one indoors.
“When you arrive you leave your other life behind,” they say. For half of its members, St George’s is a second club. In hard times you’d expect some of them to be giving it up, but nobody does.
“While there are long established rules here, they are pretty much guidelines and you can get away with a lot of things if the occasion seems right,” smiles one. If you have to ask, ‘Why a jacket and tie?’, you probably don’t belong. If you want a regular tee time with your usual fourball, you could be in the wrong place. And if you want your name to be emblazoned on the walls for winning the Prince of Wales Challenge Cup, then you’re not going to be in luck either. Only Open and Amateur Championship winners have their names on an honours board, the members here are too modest to boast of past glories.
In 1968 there was an entry in the suggestion book that the club might consider buying a fruit machine. If you think that was a good idea, then you just don’t get it. It would be like importing the flashing lights of Las Vegas into the Sistine Chapel.
‘ONLY OPEN AND AMATEUR CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS HAVE THEIR NAMES ON AN HONOURS BOARD’