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Royal Cinque Ports

Yardage
7200
Par
71
SSS
73
Built
1892
Architect(s)
Harry Hunter, JH Taylor, James Braid, John Morrison, Guy Campbell, Donald Steel, Martin Ebert
Nature:
Open Championship standard undulating links with great green complexes. Famous tough finish.
Location/Address:
North end of the town of Deal on the Kent coast.
http://www.royalcinqueports.com
Secretary
James Leah
Telephone
01304 374007
Professional
Andrew Reynolds
Green Keeper
James Bledge
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome by arrangement
Dog Policy:
Well-behaved dogs welcomed
Open Meetings:
Various
Fees in 1960s
75p
Fees today
£130

Review

The history of Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club (pronounced as in ‘sink’ and usually called Deal) is dominated by two major themes; firstly by the Club’s long-running hosting of the ‘Halford Hewitt’ tournament and secondly by disastrous sea incursions which sadly forced The Open Championship there to be re-assigned to Royal St George’s (one mile up the coast) in both 1938 and 1949.

It is exhilarating to report that over the last ten years the Club has promised a return to the very highest standards that are the pinnacle of the running game and the R & A has awarded it The Amateur Championship in 2013 (last played here in 1923 and 1982) and it is one of four Final Qualifying courses for The Open Chamapionship.

If the issues of access and infrastructure around the modern hosting of The Open Championship can be resolved, will it return to what David Dobby, who has just published a definitive history of the Club, calls ‘England’s Finest Links’?

Carnoustie returned to The Open circuit in 1999 after a twenty-four year wait. Royal Liverpool at Hoylake achieved the same honour after a thirty-nine year wait when it presented a wonderful ‘brown’ running course in 2006. Is it possible that  the work the club has made over the past ten years in restoring fine, firm turf across the greens, will help a popular decision be made for The Open Championship to also return to Deal?

So many great amateur golfers and entrepreneurs have been involved with this club, since Laidlaw Purves first saw, back in the 1880s, the potential of the land that now boasts the three great links courses of Prince’s, Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports.

Halford Hewitt, finest golf courses

The Halford Hewitt wall

Halford Hewitt was the first great benefactor to this club, after whom the largest amateur golf competition in the world was named, with teams of 10 from 64 Public Schools’ playing knock-out scratch foursomes. It used to be said that the entire City of London decamped to Deal for a week in every April, and I was certainly pleased to have been a participant in this tremendous tournament on two occasions, even if it required a wait until I was 50 before I was good enough!

One of the quirks here at Deal is that all three short holes are even-numbered, which perhaps allows the partner driving odd-numbered holes to achieve a more regular rhythm to their game, for if any score is to be made on this challenging course, accurate driving is essential.

The course is a classic ‘out and back’ with a spine of sand dunes across which one is required to play, rather than ‘through’ them. Deal is not a dramatic course, but there is always ‘something in the way’ to ensure that one never has an easy shot. The fairways have sweeping undulations and flat stances are few. 

Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, finest golf courses

Dexter having a scratch next to the sunken 3rd green

Donald Steel (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel), who has been involved at Deal over some years, felt “Royal Cinque Ports is very much in the finest traditions of British golf, one of the best examples of true links. It is full of character, demanding a high level of cunning where shot-making skills are concerned. That is undoubtedly something to cherish. It rewards the good and punishes the bad. When you add the fact that the wind is invariably a potent force, the course does not require much artificial defence.”

Martin Ebert, who trained under Donald Steel and is one of the world’s up-and-coming golf course architects, and retained by Deal, has this to say: ”The back nine has always been one of the most testing stretches of holes in golf, just one par three and a series of tough fours along with the wonderful par five sixteenth add up to a very long inward half. Added to that, play from

Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, finest golf courses

The 17th green

the twelfth is invariably straight into the teeth of the wind. However, it is not the challenge of length that is the greatest attribute of the course, this emanates from the superb set of greens and surrounds; they are a match for any golfer in the world. Their undulations and to a certain extent, their quirkiness make them a wonderful example of classic seaside links greens. Golfers would be forgiven for wondering if they have just been mown out from existing levels without any reshaping at all, which is just as it should be. The overriding conclusion is that there is no doubt that the course at Deal is worthy of hosting any major amateur or professional event.”

Here is one more quote, from one of FineGolf’s founding influences, Frank Pennink, (champion golfer, golf scribe and architect) before I touch upon what so many golf architects forget to mention in today’s target-golf fashionability, as endorsed by television.

“Deal is a links of broken and undulating ground. I know of no other that has so few level and straightforward approaches to the green.

Royal Cinque Ports, finest golf courses,

The 10th green

The thought of the canal at the first worries the player even before he steps out the clubhouse. I consider the dogleg tenth to be the finest hole, and challenging to the greatest players. The finish at Deal has earned it reputation, for it is one of the toughest. The last hole is one of great majesty – long drive to the right and a long pitch onto a plateau green.”

The truth of each of the above quotes would be completely nullified if the composition of the green surfaces was such that golfers could hit a ‘through the air’ approach and stop the ball dead as we see so often on international ‘target-style’ courses, usually to the accompanying adulation of TV commentators.

The fineness of this course and the exquisite challenge it presents in how to play to its great green complexes, rely on firm, running surfaces.

The greens at both Hunstanton and Deal have been often quoted as the best in the land but through pressure from often low-handicap players for ever faster putting speed, their greens were cut progressively lower and lower, driving out the fine grasses and leaving greens dominated by annual meadow grass (Poa Annua). As this last-mentioned grass requires high inputs of fertiliser and water to feed its shallow roots, it can only offer ‘target golf’ conditions, particularly outside of the dry summer months.

Royal Cinque Ports golf club, finest golf courses,

Dexter on the par 3 fourteenth hole

Both of the above clubs luckily recognised the errors of pursuing soft, fertilised turf and the Board setting out its vision, gained support from the club’s membership and put in place a programme of renewal led by the leading European golf course consultant Gordon Irvine.

As fertilising and watering was reduced and the annual meadow grass (Poa Annua) put under stress, the course may not initially have looked pretty. However, with lots of aeration and overseeding of indigenous, deep-rooting, draught-resistant grasses, the performance of the greens returned to their former firmness, providing year-round trueness and speed, with the added economic benefit of costing less in water supply, fertiliser, pesticides and labour as the bent/fescue grasses require less mowing. There is still the need to replace the ryegrass-infested fairways but one has every confidence that the leadership of the club has  the necessary priorities and it will be achieved.

Royal cinque ports golf club, George Duncan Open champion,

George Duncan

The Open Championship has been awarded to Deal five times. In 1909, won by J H Taylor; in 1915 cancelled by the First World War; in 1920 won by George Duncan (after being 13 strokes behind Abe Mitchell with two rounds to go!) and in 1938 and 1949 when the event was transferred to Royal St George’s after the sea flooded the course.

The course again flooded in 1953 and 1978, which led to the embankment being constructed in 1979 to save the town of Deal from further flooding. This was much to the benefit of the course and hopefully ensuring no future encroachment. The downside to this high shingle bank is a reduction in some of the sea views though there are now three championship tees situated on top of the bank, from which the sparkling Pegwell Bay is viewed and increasing the back tees to 7200 yards.

There have been a large number of professional and amateur tournaments played at Deal while The Amateur Championship has a natural home here where Roger Wethered won in 1923 after knocking out the celebrated American Francis Ouimet in the semi-final. Nevertheless the event did not return until 1982 when in dry conditions Martin Thompson was the winner.

Royal cinque ports golf club, finest goilf courses

Peter approaching 16th green

The design of the course has been one of continuous evolution and small adjustments and to this day,  Martin Ebert has continued to tweak the bunkering and build new back tees. Nevertheless most would still agree with Bernard Darwin’s words of 1910: “The definition of Deal ought to begin with the last four holes, for they are its particular joy and pride. They make a spirited and exciting finish, for they need good play and – this with bated breath – good luck.”

It seems that the first greenkeeper and professional (1892 to 1935) Harry Hunter had the largest influence in setting out the initial nine holes although his brother, the greenkeeper at Royal St George’s, was also involved.

The course was extended to eighteen holes in 1897 and though devastated by sea flooding in 1898, soon attained championship and “Royal” status.

It was intended that Deal and its two neighbouring clubs would host golf for the 1908 Olympic Games but a row involving the R & A prevented it; not until 2016 is golf to be included in the Olympics again. Unfortunately, like the Ryder Cup, Olympic golf is likely to be played on an international, ‘target-style’ course instead of on one requiring the ‘fine running game’ where the amateur game was nurtured and where its heritage should be preserved.

John Morrison, a partner of England’s most prolific golf architect, Harry Colt and the winner of 31 out of 32 Halford Hewitt matches with his Carthusian partner and the man who created the art of good TV golf commentary, Henry Longhurst, was responsible for changing the par three fourth hole (Sandy Parlour) in readiness for the 1938 Open, from being a blind tee-shot to one using the present pulpit tee and plateau green.

Sir Aynsley Bridgland, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club,

Sir Aynsley Bridgland

The Club throughout its history has had financial troubles but has been extremely fortunate in having two kind benefactors over its last sixty years; the first being Sir Aynsley Bridgland who founded the Golf Society of Great Britain and owned Prince’s where he played most of his golf.

The second was Jack Aisher, chairman of the Marley Tiles Company. Both regularly put their hand in their pocket, often with an angelic lack of self interest. Bridgland, for example, hated the high plateau setting of the drive-and-pitch, dogleg sixth hole and refused to play it but the hole continues to this day.

Jack Aisher, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club,

Jack Aisher

There is an historical charm to the Deal clubhouse and nowhere is there a better position for a viewing gallery to enjoy a tight match going down the 19th than from its balcony. The well-mannered members and staff always make visitors welcome, particularly if they are interested in the wonderful history and the general air of nostalgia at a club that is resurgent and recapturing its place among the very finest in the land.

Moving with these commercial times four-ball golf has been granted on two days in the week but this club still predominantly favours two-ball play.

There are too many characters at the Club to mention them all but I love the story about ‘GC’ Taylor who decided for a while to change to taking whisky and water rather than his normal tipple as he calculated it would save him £1,800 per annum in tonic!

Let us be clear; it takes so much more skill to play the ball on, or near to, the firm ground than ‘through the air’ to receptive greens. It’s not about hitting the ball the furthest at Deal; you have to be accurate and plot your approaches into the Deal green complexes, always taking account of the movement in the ground and of wind. This course is one offering enjoyment to all classes of player.

Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, finest golf courses

The par 3 eighth

The Deal course is being restored to its former glory with firm, fast bent/fescue greens that can sustain 40,000 rounds of golf throughout the year.

Lets hope this finest of courses continues to pursue a path to the ‘fine running game’ and attracts The Open Championship again as its reward.

The most difficult, though exhilarating, form of golf is scratch foursomes where it is a curse to be made aware of the opponents’ handicaps. I finish this review by relating a sad personal tale of defeat on the eighteenth in a Halford Hewitt scratch foursomes match after despairingly watching the opposition’s impossible putted shot, played from the bank twenty yards short of the fifteenth green, drop into the cup!

My partner and I later discovered in the bar afterwards that between us our handicaps were eleven shots higher than the opposition’s. Both the occasion and the having to play level had raised our game and though we still lost, what more can one want from golf? 

See “England’s Finest Links” A recently published history of Royal Cinque Ports GC by David Dobby. This is not the usual centenary history book but many, many years of hard work and research have gone into creating a well written, erudite, beautifully illustrated and most enjoyable read. There is a lot of information about the changes to the course over the years as well as sympathetic pen portraits of all the great characters of the Club. It is available for £40 plus £5 p&p in the UK and £12 p&p Internationally and may be purchased from Broadside Publishing, P O Box 7272, Finton-on-Sea, Essex CO13 0BP, or direct from Royal Cinque Ports GC.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith  2011 and minimally updated 2016

Reader Comments

On April 22nd, 2013 Ian McDermid Said:

My wife and I paid a visit to your club recently and received a warm welcome. Alex in the pro’s shop was very obliging and a credit to the club.
We stayed for lunch which was to a very high standard at very reasonable cost. One of your members, Stuart I think his name was, he had just come back from skiing in Couchievalle in France , introduced himself and again was very welcoming. In today’s world we find it very easy to complain about poor service, but rarely summon the effort to congratulate when things go well. So well done to all.
Ian and Sharon McDermid (members of YorK Golf Club)

On July 14th, 2013 Martin Delaney Said:

I’m fortunate to have played on all 3 championship links on this stretch of land and I would take a round at Deal over both of it’s famous neighbours in Sandwich every time.
From the warm welcome in the pro shop to the convivial members, Deal is a joy to visit.
In the yardage guide it says that when you stand on the first tee you’re walking in the footsteps of champions and it certainly feels like it.
The links are a true test for the finest golfer (of which I’m not one, sadly) and knowing what’s to come, the walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee is one that fills me with both excitement and apprehension in equal measure.
I’m looking forward to going back soon.