Royal St. Georges on the south-east Kent coast, and the host for this year’s British Open, is sandwiched among three wonderful golfing gems.
In a unique slice of golfing history that not even Scotland can match but all three have played host to golf’s oldest Major Championship.
And as www.golfbytourmiss.com discovered in attending this year’s Open Championship Royal St. Georges, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s are links golf at its best.
For the great many of those travelling to the south-east corner of England, it’s usually to travel to Dover to marvel at the famed White Cliffs or to board a ferry for crossing the English Channel to France.
But here on the Kent coastline is a unique slice of golfing history.
Nowhere in the world, not even Scotland where the ancient club and ball game was first played, is there three golf courses side-by-side that have played host to golf’s oldest Major Championship – the British Open.
Between Royal St. Georges, and venue for this year’s British Open, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s, the three seaside links courses have hosted 16 British Open’s.
The first British Open was held in 1860, over three rounds on the then 12-hole Prestwick course on the Scottish west coast, and it was not to 1894 that the championship was played outside of Scotland for a first time and that honour went to Royal St. George’s in the very south-east of the British mainland.
Legendary J H Taylor won the first of five British Open’s with an aggregate total of 326, and still the highest ever total to win the British Open.
Royal St. George’s again had the honour of hosting the British Open in 1899 when the great Harry Vardon won a second straight championship before Jack White defeated Taylor and James Braid by a shot to capture the 1904 title.
Also those familiar with the French language will understand ‘cinque’ in French means five, and while we’re singling out just three golf courses on Kent’s ‘Regal Coast’, there is in fact five links gems including Littlestone and Northcliffe to add to the region’s golfing pleasure.
Littlestone can lay claim to having hosted the first ever Ladies Championship in the world of golf while Northcliffe is close to the town of Broadstairs where the English Channel becomes the North Sea.
But back to the championship links gem of Royal St. George’s.
The course is located on the outskirts of seaside township of Sandwich.
It’s also to be found at the commencement of a unique stretch of British bitumen no more than about a car-and-a-half wide that runs for some five miles from a toll booth just a short distance from the entrance to Royal St. George’s and right past the Royal Cinque Ports course and to the outskirts of neighbouring Deal.
During the 1993 British Open at Royal St. George’s, and won by Australia’s own Greg Norman, there was a huge kafuffle when owners of the private road sought to charge those heading to the British Open.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and at some expense to the R & A, the road was thrown open to visitors.
There’s still a toll booth today but simply mention you’re off to play golf and the toll’s usually waived.
Also during that 1993 British Open, and witnessed by Alan Border’s Ashes winning Test side, Norman was handed the gleaming claret jug by Gene Sarazen who had won the 1932 British Open next door at Prince’s.
And reporting Norman’s victory was a Ben Bacon, golf correspondent for the UK’s red banner ‘Sun’ newspaper.
Hilariously for many observers, Bacon wrote his copy all that week with the by-line – Ben Bacon, Sandwich.
With its undulating fairways, expansive, sand dunes, and some hazards not clearly visible off the tees, good scoring is invariably tough. Added to this is the intimidating prospect of the UK’s tallest and deepest bunker cut into a huge sand dune to the right of the 4th fairway.
Royal St. George’s was established by Dr. Laidlaw Purves in 1887 and was called St. George’s as the English rival to Scotland’s St. Andrews. It was intended to serve the needs of London golfers, who were only able to play their golf on often crowded and unkept courses in the area.
Royal status was bestowed on the club by King Edward V11 in May 1902.
Many of golf’s most famous names have won tournaments here – Arnold Palmer won the PGA in 1975, reaching the 14th in two glorious blows with his driver on a stormy day while his nearest rivals were around 40 yards shorter.
Other winners of the British Open at Sandwich include Bill Rogers (1981), Sandy Lyle (1985) and Norman.
Royal St. George’s was the scene in 2003 when England’s Mark Roe and Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik were sensationally thrown out of the British Open for not exchanging score cards. Australia’s Stuart Appleby was in the very next group and had also not exchanged cards but aware of the drama, the Victorian had time to amend his error.
Of course, Roe, who now works for SKY Sports, is in demand in the lead-up to this year’s championship to relive that Saturday afternoon.
So too is Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn who blew the chance of victory at the 16th on the final day of that 2003 British Open and handing the claret jug to Ben Curtis.
Virtually next door to Royal St. Georges is Royal Cinque Ports.
Founded in 1892, and five years after Royal St. George’s, Royal Cinque Ports hosted its first British Open in 1909 when J H Taylor won with a score that was 31 shots fewer than in winning in 1894.
The first day of the 1909 championship was played in weather described as ‘raw, wet and rather windy’. Taylor won his fourth British Open by a massive six shots
That British Open could also lay claim to the longest tournament venue in the history of the championship with the course that year measuring 6,581 yards and more than 200 yards longer than Hoylake, the previous longest British Open venue.
In those years the rota read – 1909 Royal Cinque Ports, 1910 St. Andrews, 1911 Royal St.
Georges, 1912 Muirfield, 1913 Hoylake, 1914 Prestwick and 1915 Royal Cinque Ports.
With Britain at war, the British Open returned to Royal Cinque Ports in 1920 and it was the great Walter Hagen’s first appearance in the championship, and one to be remembered.
He arrived with footman, Rolls Royce and chauffer.
Also in those days professionals were banned from the clubhouse and so Hagen, not finding the caddies hut much to his liking, ordered his footman to act as caddy and duly arranged that his chauffeur park the Rolls Royce in front of the clubhouse.
He had his chauffeur serve him champagne and caviar on a linen tablecloth
Hagen also used the car as a changing room throughout the tournament much to annoyance of the Club Secretary.
George Duncan won the tournament with a score of 303.
But Hagen then got his revenge on the stiff upper British lip attitude in winning both the 1922 and 1928 British Open when it headed back to Royal St. George’s.
Royal Cinque Ports had been awarded the British Open a further four times but because of floods and war, the championship was shifted to Royal St. George’s.
On two occasions, 1915 and 1942 it was war that forced the cancellation of the British Open while in 1938 and 1949, flooding from high seas forced organisers to transfer the championship to Royal St. George’s.
Since then a large sea wall, constructed in the late 1970s, has successfully protected the course from the elements of the English Channel.
Royal Cinque Ports has played host to the Amateur Championship, the Carris Trophy, the Tillman Trophy and the Varsity Match to name but a few.
There’s a picture of a young looking Charl Schwartzel wearing a green jacket in 2002 in capturing the Brabazon Trophy.
It’s little wonder the great Bernard Darwin wrote of ‘a truly great course, more testing and severe of all championship courses of skylarks and white cliffs above Pegwell Bay and shipping viewed the long plate glass windows.
Many also would agree with Sir Peter Alliss when he wrote ‘if I had one last round to play on earth, it would surely be on the links at Deal’.
Originally designed by Henry Hunter, later assisted by James Braid, the course has long been ranked in the top-40 courses in the British Isles. On a calm spring or summer’s day it’s not an overly difficult course but like all links courses, wind is the defence.
The course offers dramatic views from the sea wall and it’s not uncommon on a weekend to see walkers and push bike rides abound.
On the first and last holes water ditches pose problems for the approach and drive respectively. In between, there’s rough covering the dunes and undulating greens. At the back of the 16th there’s also a reminder to the war years, a large bunker of the concrete kind,
Leading golf course architect Donald Steel summed up Royal Cinque Ports saying: “The course typifies classic links golf – a glorious sense of freedom and a wonderfully varied assortment of shots where, as Bernard Darwin once so aptly declared, the fives are likely to be many and the fours few.”
And if Royal Cinque Ports sounds familiar then it should as the honour of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was afforded Sir Robert Menzies in 1966 by the Queen in the years after he was Australia’s long-running Prime Minister.
There’s a lasting reminder of ‘Pig Iron Bob’ lying proudly in the trophy cabinet at the club – a silver boomerang.
In 1932, Prince’s was honoured as host of the British Open two years after the Prince of Wales became the Club President.
Qualifying that year was shared between both Princes and Royal St. George’s.
Sarazen crossed the Atlantic Ocean that year and led every round to win by five shots in a record score of 283. Prince’s has honoured Sarazen with pictures all about the clubhouse of the genial American.
That year, Cotton fortified himself with champagne to fight off a heavy cold. He made a good start to his first round only to slip down the field with a third round 77, and a total of 195.
Cotton had to wait just two more years to record his first British Open victory.
Prince’s hosting of the championship was rated a great success. Only 14 courses had ever had the honour of staging a British Open, and three of the golf’s ‘Grand Slam’ winners have since walked Prince’s fairways.
Unfortunately, before Princes could again host the British Open Britain was at war and the links and club premises were soon requisitioned by the military as a battle training ground.
The course was all but obliterated and used for target practice.
Lord Brabazon, who the Belfry’s championship course and Brabazon Trophy is named after, likened the takeover of Princes by the military as like ‘throwing darts at a Rembrandt’.
It wasn’t till 1949 that Prince’s could finally begin returning the course from a permanent firing range to a golf course.
In 1950 Sir Guy Campbell and John Morrison were engaged to redesign and restore the course to its former glory. Despite the wartime damage it was possible to incorporate 17 of the original greens into a new layout of 27 holes put two practice holes.
The course won the rights to host 1954 Dunlop Masters, won by Bobby Locke. Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s leading amateur and professional championships were held at Prince’s including the Curtis Cup, British Ladies Open and PGA Championship, with TV reporter legend Peter Alliss claiming two victories.
More recently, Prince’s hosted Final Qualifying for the British Open in 1985, 1993 and 2003. England’s Howard Clark won in 1993, while in 2003, Ian Woosnam chipped in for a birdie at the first hole in a five-hole play-off to secure a start in the British Open won by Curtis.
In 2006, Prince’s successfully hosted the British Amateur Championship, the Glenmuir Professional Championship, the Ladies British Open Amateur Stroke-Play Championship and the England Golf Union Championship Finals.
Prince’s boasts three loops of nine holes – Shore/Dunes at 7,275 yards, Dunes/Himalayas at 7,054 yards and Himalayas/Shore measuring 7,055 yards.
Prince’s again hosted Final Qualifying for this year’s Open.
And while the occasional relic and item of treasure is still to be found, its gems of another kind that’s bringing golfer’s to this corner of Kent.
So next time you thinking of crossing The Channel stop off and sample Kent’ regal golf coast.