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Royal St George’s

Yardage
7204
Par
70
SSS
74
Built
1887
Architect(s)
Laidlaw Purves, Ramsay Hunter, Frank Pennink
Nature:
Open Championship links on exciting duneland. Historic and fine club.
Location/Address:
On the coast near Sandwich, Kent
http://www.royalstgeorges.com
Secretary
Timothy Checketts
Telephone
44 (0)1304 613090
Professional
Justen Fiddler
Green Keeper
Paul Larsen

The surfaces of the green complexes are now dominated with fine fescues, the basis for 'running-golf ', rather than the weed grasses of 'target-golf ' character.

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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome weekdays. 4-balls on Tues.
Dog Policy:
Well-behaved dogs welcomed
Open Meetings:
SE of England links Championship - May
Fees in 1960s
50p
Fees today
£190 - 2017

Review

With such an illustrious history in both amateur and professional golf, it is delightful that Royal St George’s Golf Club goes about its business of setting the very highest standards with an ambition to be the finest of Clubs, in a very English, reserved and understated manner, led by secretary Tim Checketts.

It is particularly exciting that this Open Championship venue Club is now committed to a grass species change from a previous dominance of weed grasses to now fine grasses.

paul larsen, royal st george's,

Paul Larsen

Importantly, course manager Paul Larsen has had the support of previous and present Chair of Green Peter Cowell and Chris Healy, as well as various Captains and between them they have successfully communicated regularly with the membership, (that has a number of somewhat sceptical London based members who are more used to target-golf )  giving a clear vision for the future of a return to ‘a firm running-golf course all year round’.

Larsen has said ” that credit must go to my staff for being single minded & resolute in helping us in our challenge of re-establishing the fine fescue. Thus promoting the running game”.

FineGolf  would add that the speed with which his team has achieved this turn-round is in comparison to some other illustrious Open Championship courses that have taken much longer. His enthusiastic, breezy, optimistic approach has given motivating and thoughtful leadership and now with a successful 2017 Amateur Championship behind them when the course was set-up ‘brown and running’ and with the support of agronomist Alistair Beggs (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) the Club looks forward with confidence to setting the appropriate firm, running-challenge when The Open Championship returns in 2020.

Laidlaw Purves

The Scotsman Dr Laidlaw Purves, who was also involved in setting up Littlestone GC and the Ladies Golfing Union, founded this ‘London Club’ at Sandwich in 1887 with the help of some fellow members of Royal Wimbledon GC. He was a strong advocate for ‘Tom Dunn’ penal cross-hazards and critical of the new strategic design concepts pioneered by John Low of Woking GC, that accompanied the new rubber Haskell ball at the beginning of the 1900s.

With the re-design of the course over the years, much of the antiquated quirkiness has gone but unpredictable bounces and some blind shots are still retained that may annoy some of the more ‘journeyman’ modern professionals!  And yet without the odd bounce or the excitement of scurrying over a dune to see where the ball has finished, where would FineGolf  be?

The Club remains principally a two-ball club, but four-balls are played on Tuesdays.  Visitors are welcome from Mondays to Fridays and ladies are now welcomed as full members.

Fourteen Opens and fourteen Amateur championships have been played over these links, including the first Open to be played outside Scotland – in 1894 when won by J H Taylor – the first non-Scotsman to do so. It has hosted two Walker Cup matches plus many other important events, too many to mention.

Henry Cotton won The Open here in 1934, breaking an American run since 1923. One of Cotton’s rounds was a 65 with a Dunlop ball, thus giving rise to the renowned “Dunlop 65” ball. In his qualifying rounds he scored 66 at Royal St George’s and 75 at Royal Cinque Ports which gives some credence to a sometimes expressed opinion that Deal is the more difficult of these two neighbours, or it was in those days.

Map of the course

Map of the course

The wealthy American Walter Hagen twice won Opens here, generously giving the winning cheque to his caddy in 1928!

The Club was accorded the right to its Royal title in 1902 and in 1931 the pleasantly gaudy members’ tie of bright green with a white stripe and two narrow red stripes either side was adopted and has been proudly worn ever since.

1938 was the year of the great storm when tents were uprooted during The Open and Henry Longhurst described it as the strongest wind he had ever known. Frank Pennink, a course architect who had some influence on this course and the author of the “Golfers Companion”, the ancestor to this website, was at the height of his golfing prowess but incurred no less than four penalties after grounding his putter and the ball being blown to move on the green.

The R&A stopping play for a 40mph wind at the 2015 St Andrew’s Open is perhaps a reflection of the change in the balance of power, in how the authorities now give way quickly to the modern players whenever it gets a little difficult for them!

My early golf teacher at Portmarnock, Harry Bradshaw, famously was said to have lost the Open here in 1949 by one stroke when he played his ball that had rolled inside a broken glass bottle on the fifth hole of his second round. It is less well known that he had the ‘luck of the Irish’ when having topped his ball on the fourteenth, it hit a stone and leapt over the Suez Canal in his last round!

Royal St George’s was in 1932 the first British golf course to install a fairway watering system which was updated in the 1970s. Perhaps this had something to do with the Club unfortunately giving in to the fashion for target-golf style greens , with one member subsequently addressing a letter to the secretary at “Royal St George’s Park Golf Club”!

Of all The Open venues Sandwich has the lowest average rainfall and should be a haven of fine fescue grasses and firm greens. The new policy of putting their soft ‘target-golf’ greens behind them and developing a sward of fine Fescues, we can look forward to ever improving, firm putting surfaces all year round.

The club may not like to shout about it but the recent programme of suppressing the Yorkshire Fog and Rye weed-grasses on their greens and surrounds left some 60% of the grasses dead (which have now been Vredo slit over-seeded with fine fescues), shows that little had been done to these greens but cut, water and fertilise them for many years.

Royal Cinque Ports, a mile down the coast, started its resurrection of its own ‘Running-golf’ agronomy earlier soon after the millenium, managed by Barnie Barnard, the course manager (who is now doing great things at Le Touquet), with advice from Gordon Irvine  (who has also helped turn round Hunstanton and Notts Hollinwell and is another member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel).  With Prince’s (abutting Royal St George’s on the other side) under new management, all three course managers are co-operating and helping each other go down the ‘Running-golf ‘ route, which is exactly the right sort of competition to encourage between these three finest of clubs, which will drive continuous improvement to their greens, fairways and roughs.

1st Tee and clubhouse

1st Tee and clubhouse

After negotiating the quaint backstreets of ancient Sandwich, one approaches this club, that manages 440 acres, up a long drive between flat marshy fields that are now in the ownership of the Club, with a growing expectation of space and tranquillity, further enhanced by the long walk to the first tee with its famous pepper pot, thatched starter’s huts.

A number of people have influenced the course’s design but the routing has hardly changed, apart from at the sixth (Maiden), since first laid down in two loops of nine holes. The first nine used to be considerably shorter but, as a result of Frank Pennink’s changes in the 1970s, it is now more balanced and possesses fewer blind shots. The inevitable lengthening now sees it at over 7200 yards.

The first nine holes

A straightforward, though testing, opening hole has just enough room down the right to give a choice of avoiding the need to take on the cross bunkers with one’s approach. This hole saw Tiger Woods lose his ball in thick rough to the right in 2003 and should remind one that, with few holes being adjacent to each other, if you spray your ball, you will not find it on another fairway. An enormous amount of work is now being put in to clean-up areas of ‘cloggy’ rough and introduce the wispy fine fescue rough across the course.

Indeed ever since Freddie Tait of Luffness New GC, the public’s heart-throb, won the Amateur Championship in 1896, it has been called a “driver’s” course, though there are also a wide variety of second shots required.

Some will wish to take on the bunkers but there is no need at the shortish par four second hole to cut the dogleg corner, as the green, tilted back to front, will accept your short iron approach best from the flatness on the right of the fairway.

The par three third (Sahara) is the only par three possessing no bunkers on the entire Open Championship rota (though that will change after 2019 when Royal Portrush hosts The Open) but here playing across the prevailing wind, is no easier for that.

The 4th drive

The 4th drive

The fourth must be the iconic hole. It plays into the prevailing wind and the enormous, be-sleepered bunker threatening one’s drive requires firm nerves, as the approach to a green is best from the ‘Elysian fields’ on the right. It is so satisfying to get home over the enormous swale at the front of the green.

This green backs onto a row of fine houses, one of which is owned by a man to whom many golfers across the country owe a great debt for his behind-the-scenes administrative skills for amateur golf, that did not need the help of the internet. My early knowledge of Royal St George’s was derived from Halford Hewitt practice weekends in February which he gauleiter-like organised for some forty years.

The 5th drive

The 5th drive

Down the prevailing wind some may risk going for the green at the fifth (416 yards) with a carry that must be over 300 yards. For the rest of us mere mortals, made easier if the top shelf of the fairway is attained, a great long iron, played through the uprights of the Maiden dune can be taken on and will really get your confidence going if the open green is gained. As the words of ‘The World Atlas of Golf’ suggest, the connection with nature that the golfer feels while playing the fifth is strong.

The sixth, nestling among high dunes, is picturesque and gives a natural amphitheatre for viewing, as does the ridge on the left of the dogleg par five seventh.

Dexter & Jonathan on the 8th

Dexter & Jonathan on the 8th

I have always liked the new eighth, similar in feel to the thirteenth at Hunstanton, both requiring an approach over rough scrubland and hillocks into the prevailing wind from an elevated fairway. The green is in a dell surrounded by low dunes and a bunker on either side. The green has been redesigned twice in recent years and now has a rather complicated character that does not seem to fit the course wholeheartedly, though it is a tremendous hole, as is the following ninth (Corsets).

Here, playing along a valley fairway with deep swales, the medium iron approach is played to a high green with run-off over the back and right while a knoll has to be negotiated which bites into the mid-point of the green on the left. A well struck ball does tend to gather in to the flag but it is a notoriously difficult putting green.

The second nine holes

The 10th's "infinity" green

The 10th’s “infinity” green

The tenth is played in the opposite direction and is of similar length (under 400 yards), with a flat, high ‘infinity’ green, and is not difficult if your judgement of distance is good. It was made famous in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger as one that ‘had broken many hearts’. Tom Kite would agree with the verdict as he went from bunker to bunker in 1985, thus ruining his Open bid.

The short eleventh is a full shot to a simple-looking green but members don’t concede many putts here.

A typical rumbustuous Sandwich fairway awaits at the twelfth and can give an awkward lie for your short approach that must carry a nest of very deep bunkers at the front of a flattish green, offering one of the few birdie opportunities – though Tiger did four-putt here in 2003!

The next three holes are on flatter land than is typical at Sandwich but are of the finest challenge to the expert player.

From the old thirteenth tee one has a blind dogleg drive towards the old Prince’s Clubhouse (now at last redeveloped into a hotel) and numerous, interesting bunkers have to be negotiated that lie naturally in the undulations and gather anything not struck with exact precision. The new Open Championship tee perhaps helps crowd control but straightens and reduces in my mind the interest in the hole. The unusual green with a spine running its length will often cost a bogey after two magnificent shots to reach it.

Peter on the 14th

Peter on the 14th

When the fourteenth was played with hickories, the old-fashioned, penal ditch across the fairway, called ‘Suez Canal’, was a real hazard: now the focus has moved to the risk/reward of playing to the right of the two new bunkers in the middle of the fairway (that remind one of John Low’s historic central bunkers on the fourth hole at Woking GC). These bunkers are 70 yards shy of a new green, now moved further back and closer to the OOB that runs up the entire length of the hole, with the prevailing wind at all times trying to take your ball into Prince’s.

This is a tremendous, strategic hole but long par fours are always a more classic challenge than par fives, so the fifteenth with its newly tightened bunkers on the drive becomes a defining hole of the run-in at Royal St George’s.

The hole requires a similar approach as the eighteenth at Royal Cinque Ports, with a bank kicking your ball away right; many who play into the wind will lay up short of the cross-bunkers and hope for a pitch and putt, but to fly the ball to the saucer-shaped green, that was such a favourite of the well-respected golf architect Tom Simpson, is the winning shot.

The short sixteenth is famously now known for Thomas Bjorn’s double bogey taken from the right-hand bunker in losing the 2003 Open but today the sand level has been raised so we are unlikely to see a repeat of that disaster.

The 17th green

The 17th green

Two characterful par fours complete the finish and require straight driving and a steady nerve if ‘Duncan’s hollow’ is reached to the left of the eighteenth green. So called because, needing a four to tie with Walter Hagen in the 1922 Open, George Duncan was in the dip and failed to get up and down. As Donald Steel remarks in his classic book on links courses, it seems decidedly unjust that his one blemish is remembered when his near-miracle of almost catching Hagen is forgotten. Sandy Lyle also succumbed to ‘Duncan’s hollow’ but had a stroke in hand to be a popular winner of the 1985 Open.

I continue to maintain that historic Royal Liverpool at Hoylake is the finest golfing challenge in England and has a fine membership but, my goodness, Sandwich does run it close in terms of history, character and pure class. It is an enormously enjoyable club that reeks of ‘joy to be alive‘.

In the garden by Louise Pragnell

In the garden by Louise Pragnell

On returning to the comfortable and relaxed Clubhouse, one can enjoy the best showers I have ever experienced anywhere and, though there was much foreboding when the last cook retired, I am happy to report that Royal St George’s still gives the finest golf lunch in the British Isles and, when a match is being played, the choice often of six different roasts.

A new tryptich of paintings to celebrate the Club’s 125 years now hang in the dining room. Similar in style to the Lords paintings of famous cricketers, Louise Pragnell also seems to have captured the true likeness of the great and good of the Club.  There is one depiction of the fairer sex to perhaps remind us that the Club has recently voted strongly to welcome lady members.
Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2011 and updated in 2017.

Reader Comments

On April 28th, 2011 William Gifford Said:

Many thanks for the best report ever on Royal St. George’s!

William, thats very kind. Lorne

On May 5th, 2011 Tom Morris Said:

You are reviving many great memories of 40 years of British golf travels.

Thank you Tom, your comment is appreciated. Best wishes, Lorne