From the Golf Journal Archives - Return to Royal St. George’s

Jul 08, 2011

After 32 years, the British Open comes back to a course rich in golf history.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1981 issue of Golf Journal.)

by James W. Finegan

ABOUT 85 MILES down the A2 carriageway from London and a mere drive and a pitch up the English Channel from Dover lies that superb triumvirate of Kentish links – Royal Cinque Ports, Prince’s, and Royal St George’s. The three courses, which, taken together, cover a thousand acres of the finest duneland south of the Tweed, are very nearly contiguous. That’s why it is almost possible to hit your first shot at the clubhouse at Royal Cinque Ports (Deal) and keep right on swinging across the links onto Royal St. George’s (Sandwich), thence to Prince’s and on out to Shingle End, in Pegwell Bay, without ever leaving golfing ground.

This month, July 16 through 19, after an absence of more than three decades, the British Open will be contested at Royal St. George’s. It is cause for rejoicing.

A roll call of the great champions who have triumphed there is indeed impressive: J.H. Taylor, Harry Vardon, Walter Travis, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke. Add to this the number of firsts that Sandwich can lay claim to: the first course in England to be host to the British Open, the first course in England to be host to the Walker Cup, the scene of the first American triumph in the British Amateur, the scene of the first victory by a native-born American in the British Open.

Small wonder, then, that we approach this extraordinary links with something akin to reverence.

Like all the current venues except Turnberry, St. George’s is a lode of Open Championship lore. When, in 1894, J.H. Taylor carried off the first Open held there – the first of five Opens that would he his – he did it without ever breaking 80 (84-80-81-81). He still won by five strokes, and his 326 total has come down as the highest winning aggregate in the history of the competition. In 1899 Harry Vardon strolled home five strokes ahead of Jack White with 310 to capture the third of his record six Opens. In 1906, White’s winning score of 296, including a wonderful 69 in the final round, marked the first time that 300 was broken. Vardon’s fifth Open victory came at Sandwich in 1911, when a last round of 80 threw him into a tie with Arnaud Massy, whom he so soundly thrashed in the 36-hole playoff that the Frenchman conceded defeat and picked up his ball (he was 8 strokes down) as they approached the 35th green.

In 1922 Walter Hagen became the first native-born American to win the Championship, and in 1928, when the Open returned to Royal St. George’s, Hagen won again.

Try as one might, there is no reasonable way to infuse drama into the 1934 Open at Sandwich. Henry Cotton won it; his 283 was five strokes to the good and his 36-hole total of 132 (67-65) is a record that stands to this day.

After Cotton’s victory in 1934, the Open would be held only twice more at Royal St. George’s, in 1938 and in 1949. In 1938, Reg Whitcombe won by two strokes, with 295, despite four-putting twice on the final day, and in 1949, Bobby Locke beat Harry Bradshaw in a playoff.

THE POPULAR EXPLANATION for St. George’s bowing out of the Open rota is that, with the increased number of spectators and cars to be accommodated, the congestion in the town of Sandwich and on the quiet little country lane that actually leads to the club would have been nightmarish. True enough, as far as it goes, but not the whole story, for many knowledgeable observers had long complained of the blind holes and the freakish bounces characteristic of the links. Additionally, it was neither so long nor so challenging as they would have liked, especially under the assault of a strong Open field.

Frank Pennink, a former English Amateur champion and Walker Cup player and now a noted golf course architect, has made several important modifications in recent years, particularly on the first nine, so that the old criticisms are no longer valid. The course is still a bit on the short side – its 6,787 yards are only 114 yards longer than Royal Lytham, the shortest course in the rota, but its firm, fast greens and narrow, hard fairways should provide a worthy test for the Open contestants, many of whom – one thinks instinctively of Tom Watson, the defending champion, and of Lee Trevino – have never played there.

Not incidentally, one member of the American contingent not only has played at Sandwich, but has also won there. In 1959 Jack Nicklaus, still an amateur, carried off what is perhaps the single most important club trophy in the world, the Champion Grand Challenge Cup, or St. George’s Cup. The competition is a 36-hole fixture that dates to 1888 and counts among its holders the great John Ball himself, who won the British Amateur a record eight times (in 1892 at Sandwich) and the British Open once.

My own first encounter with Sandwich was in 1973, when I judged the first nine at Royal St. George’s to be my favorite first nine of all the courses I’d ever played. In the time that had passed I must have played 25 or 30 of the finest courses in the world, and I was now uncomfortably mindful of my earlier judgment. Was the outward half of this historic links really all that marvelous? As I stood there pulling on my glove and sticking a handful of tees into my pocket, I sincerely wished I had never put it on such a pedestal.

IT WAS 8:20 ON Monday morning. I had tried the door at the golf shop, but it was locked. There was no one about as I prepared to tee off, vowing to check in with Brigadier T.G. Walker, the club’s secretary, when I had completed the round. The morning was overcast and mild – the low 50s, I should think – and only the lightest of breezes blew in off Pegwell Bay.

Our round begins with two very good par 4s. On the first, 415 yards from the tiger tees, a necklace of three deep bunkers is draped carefully across the very front of the green. On the second, now measuring 391 yards from a lonely platform back in the long bents, two cross-bunkers menace the tee shot, the approach is blind, and the green undulates dramatically.

The third is a classic hole and a great hole: 216 yards from a slightly elevated tee over a broken no-man’s-land to a plateau green, nestled in the dunes. It is forthright, demanding (I had to play a driver: there is a swale immediately in front of the green), altogether honest. It is also new. Those of us fortunate enough to have played its predecessor, the old Sahara, understand the reasons for Frank Pennink’s changes here. It simply would not do – though, in truth, it had done for close to 90 years – to have a 228-yard blind one-shotter. That majestic creation had played across a wasteland of sand and over a high dune into a dell wherein lay the green. Precisely wherein would lie your ball, assuming you had cleared the sandhill, could not be known until you actually climbed to the crest and, like stout Cortez on a peak in Darien, gazed down upon this hidden harbor. Outrageous? I suppose, like the Himalayas at Prestwick. Whimsical? I daresay. So is the Dell at Lahinch. Mysterious, mischievous, maddening, monstrous – call it what you will, I thought it was grand and thrilling. But it is gone now and with it the bell you rang to signal that you had putted out.

I can sympathize with Bernard Darwin, who though recognizing the faults of Sandwich (its blind holes, its capricious bounces), nevertheless wrote: “Confound their politics? . . . frustrate their knavish tricks? Why do they want to alter this adorable place?”

Now we are in the country of the giant sandhills that have given Sandwich its renown. The drive at the fourth (466 yards) is played from an elevated tee across a veritable tower of dune into which have been cut two of the most ferocious bunkers on the planet. The face of the shallower one is only 18 feet high. The real horror, beside it, is closer to 30 feet. But your tee shot sails serenely over these diversions to disappear into the fairway beyond, which doglegs nicely left. The green is clearly in view for our long second shot (again I needed a spoon) and an imposing target it is: two-tiered, cut into a plateau, and with an out-of-bounds fence tight behind it. The shot must be kept well left, for both the green and the surrounding ground tend to kick the ball smartly right. A splendid hole every foot of the way.

But then one might well use exactly the same phrase to describe the fifth, which is the same length and which also doglegs left. The sandhills now begin to draw in upon us, and our drive – we are playing out to sea from a high tee, enjoying for the first time a view of the waters of Pegwell Bay – carries down into a rather narrow, dune-framed valley made to seem even narrower by a cluster of hidden bunkers at the left side of the landing area. As the professional at Dublin’s esteemed Portmarnock links, Harry Bradshaw, can testify, the problem here is the placement of the drive.

In 1949 at the end of 72 holes Bradshaw (68-77-68-70) and Bobby Locke (69-76-68-70) had tied for the Championship with aggregates of 283. Each had played three superlative rounds, one weak round. But the reason for Bradshaw’s poor second round has no parallel in the history of the Open.

A fine 68 in the first round had put Bradshaw into a tie for the lead with Roberto De Vicenzo, and the Irishman ran off a quartet of 4s to start the second round. On the 451-yard fifth he cut his drive into the rough only to find that it had come to rest in the bottom half of a broken beer bottle. Bradshaw was dismayed and nonplussed. Not sure if he had the right to declare his ball unplayable and, besides, not eager to incur the penalty for an unplayable lie, Bradshaw took his sand-wedge, shut his eyes to avoid being blinded, and swung. In an explosion of glass, the ball advanced only 25 or 30 yards. He missed the green on his next shot and was able to do no better than a double-bogey. It was at least six more holes until the shaken Bradshaw regained his composure, but by then it was too late to salvage the round. He finished with 77.

In the playoff, Bradshaw’s 147 – and no disgrace there – was simply not competitive as Locke reduced the wonderful old links to a croquet lawn with an incandescent 135 (67-68). This was the last Open at Royal St. George’s, and it will not easily be forgotten.

IF NONE OF THE remaining four holes on the outward nine has ever witnessed anything so eventful as Harry Bradshaw’s misfortune, each is still memorable in its own right: the 156-yard sixth, played with the sea at our backs to a long triple-tiered green ringed by deep bunkers and set with perfect naturalness in the dunes; the 488-yard seventh, played out to sea from high ground that looks straight over another giant sandhill scarred with three terrifying pits; a 426-yard two-shotter which starts just inland of the road along the beach to Prince’s and calls for a downhill iron to a well-bunkered green; and the 398-yard ninth, where a dangerous bunker eating into the right side of the fairway forces us to shy away from the ideal spot for playing our second to the narrow, elevated green.

I was pleased with my score, a 39 made up of three pars, five bogeys, one birdie, and I saw no reason to retreat from my original judgment. This was still my favorite first nine – not, you understand, the most difficult I’ve ever played (the palm here goes to Jupiter Hills, in Jupiter, Fla.), nor the most thrilling (surely that would have to be Pebble Beach), nor the most varied, nor the finest from the standpoint of shot values. Just my favorite, with all the subjectivity that phrase implies and which inevitably is shaped, to some degree, by such inconsequential things as the pins themselves, with flags displaying the cross of St. George – red on a white ground – and the benches – old, weathered, formal, roomy, a barely readable plaque commemorating some individual or golfing society – that offer a resting place on each tee.

Oh, make no mistake about it, the holes are good, quite good indeed, and sometimes, as in the case of the third and the fifth, they might fairly be termed great. And if, on the whole, the shots to the green frequently call for a wood or long iron, still there are a couple of interesting short pitches (the seventh, where I managed a birdie, is one) and a couple of very nice medium-irons. What’s more, though there are opportunities for 3s, there are also opportunities for 6s – and even more if we should find ourselves at the bottom of one or two of those mine shafts that masquerade as sand bunkers. No, if you will permit a poor pun, there is nothing cut and dried about this Sandwich.

Yet my affection for this wonderful first nine is not prompted primarily by these considerations. It is the topography itself that so delights me, this landscape of mountainous sandhills, with the holes, which run to every point of the compass, sometimes leaping off from atop the great grass-covered dunes, more often routed fascinatingly through them, and all of it so beautifully fitting, producing a combination of splendor and naturalness and solitude that I find utterly beguiling.

Perhaps I should explain the word solitude. One often feels sheltered, better yet, secluded, on the outgoing nine at Sandwich, more so than on any links I can think of, though, in truth, there is a lot of this cloistered quality at Royal Birkdale and on the back nine at Ireland’s Waterville links. The holes wind among the sandhills, leading us through charming hollows and protected dells. We walk on and on without ever being aware that others may be on the course. Are there no distractions? Only the lilt of the lark or the stunning seascape that confronts us when we climb from a dune-framed valley to stand on a high tee and gaze across Pegwell Bay to the white cliffs at Ramsgate. It is all delicious stuff, and we drink it down in great draughts.

AND WHAT, YOU MAY well wonder, about the second nine? While it provides a series of excellent holes, it is played over rather more level ground. There continues to be an admirable separateness about each hole – indeed, one can imagine a lifetime at Sandwich without once hearing the cry of “Fore!” – but this is generally the result of vast spaces between fairways rather than the walls of high dunes. It is simply not so private. Nor is it so dramatic, so majestic. But it is very, very good golf, it is enormously testing, and before long we realize that it is more heavily bunkered. Against some 40 bunkers on the outward half, the inbound nine has almost 70. And quite properly so, for the out nine has the great sandhills to lend character and challenge; the back nine needs more bunkers, and it has them.

I note on my card after the 13th hole a single word: “Impossible!” Frank Pennink calls it “one of the finest long two-shotters in golf.” No argument from me. It is 443 yards long, and a wind off the water can make this already formidable hole unplayable. Behind the green sits the clubhouse at Prince’s, and while this makes for a convenient sighting point, it does not help materially to solve our problem, which consists essentially of hitting two career woods, both arrow-straight and mightily long, the second one to a green with only a footpath cleaving between two substantial bunkers.

The 14th is quite famous, though not, I must insist, much of a challenge. A boundary fence on the right keeps you from playing to the green via Prince’s, but 508 yards is not very long, the breeze is often at your back, the “Suez Canal,” as the ditch is called, crosses the fairway at the safest of all possible points – some 300 yards out – and the green is merely a close-cropped extension of the fairway. Still, a head wind, especially if it is fierce, can transform this Jekyll into a Hyde.

That was the situation in 1938, when Henry Cotton’s valiant bid went a-glimmering here as his tee shot faded over the fence, and Reggie Whitcombe, who had finished second to Cotton the previous year at Carnoustie, joined the roster of Open champions amidst a gale of such ferocity as to make a mockery of the players’ most resolute efforts.

Four-putting was commonplace (indeed, there were instances of six-putt greens). Normally worthy par-4 holes were driven (Alf Padgham reached the 11th green, 380 yards away, with his tee shot and got the putt down for an eagle). On the other hand, par 5s could not be reached in four shots (into the teeth of the shrieking blasts on the Canal Hole, the same powerful Padgham swung four times with his driver and still failed to gain the putting surface!).

Of the top finishers, only three broke 80 in both morning and afternoon rounds, and, fittingly, those three were the first three: Whitcombe, James Adams, and Cotton. Reg Whitcombe, he of the short and mighty swing, won by two strokes, but his extraordinary total of 153 (75-78) on the last day was not the best. Cotton’s 151 (77-74) took that honor.

IT IS JUST POSSIBLE that the 15th is even harder than the 13th. The bunkering on both sides of the tee shot landing area on this 455-yard par 4 is merciless, and the punishingly long second shot must carry a trio of greenside bunkers. At the 16th, 165 yards, the green is set prettily in the dunes and ringed by bunkers – eight of them, to be precise. Seventeen and 18, at 427 and 442 yards, are strong finishing holes. Following a blind drive on the 17th, we play along a beautiful curving valley; again there are eight bunkers to keep us honest. (Incidentally, it was on the 17th at Royal St. George’s, thinly disguised by Ian Fleming as “Royal St. Marks,” that the wicked Goldfinger, who had pushed his drive “far out to the right into deep rough,” made a last desperate effort to cheat 007 of victory in their $10,000 grudge match in the James Bond spy novel Goldfinger.)

The home hole is long and straight, and there is enough room for the well-struck second shot to bounce onto the green if we can keep it solidly on line. But there is not much room if it should bounce up and over, for a boundary awaits hard behind the green.

For the record, I managed a 39 coming home against a par of 35 and finished with a total of 78. But remember: only the lightest of breezes was blowing, and the absence of wind is worth four to five strokes from the championship tees.

I went directly from the 18th green to the secretary’s office. Brigadier Walker and his assistant, W.J. Evans, were busy at their desks, a coal fire burning in the grate. I shook hands and explained that I had already played the round and that I had found this great links every bit as irresistible as I had remembered it.

Brigadier Walker and I talked briefly about the makeup of the club, which was founded in 1887. It turned out that a number of members are Londoners, somewhat more than is the case at Deal, were the great majority are from this corner of Kent. I said that, after Muirfield, I never expected to find again a club which provides a garage for golfers’ cars, but that here at Sandwich is that same rare amenity. Brigadier Walker smiled at this. It occurred to me then, though I did not mention it, that members of the Honourable Company and of Royal St. George’s would feel rather at home at each other’s clubs, where, in both cases, one finds a rambling and comfortable red-roofed Victorian clubhouse helping contribute to a palpable sense of privacy and serenity and order.

Now, explaining that they had made some changes since my visit in 1973, he took me over to a rather faded map tacked on the wall. I might have surprised him when I said I was frankly sorry to see the drastic revision at the third – a bit shorter and no longer blind. “Well,” he said, “it’s really quite a good hole now, very honest, I’m sure you’ll agree.” I agreed.

Then he pointed out the new championship tee at the second, which adds some 50 yards to what had been a very pleasant – and pleasantly short – two-shotter, and a new tee at the fourth, “squeezed to the left so that now you won’t hit directly over the great dune with its bunkers.” He also spoke of the new eighth: “It was felt that we should get rid of one of the 3s on this side and add a good par 4 – and this is a very good one: long enough, a bit of a dogleg, and the shot to the green downhill.” And of the new 11th he said: “It was felt that we needed another one-shotter on that back nine, to go with the 16th, though I must say that a great many people like the old 11th.”

“With these changes,” I said, “I would imagine that the course is now ready for the Open.”

“Yes,” he replied, “yes it is.” I sensed from the very simplicity of his answer that he felt nothing else need be said on that score.

The player at Royal St. George’s has a sweeping view of much of the course from atop The Maiden. (USGA Museum)

Huge bunkers are an intimidating sight from the fourth tee. A sliced shot may lead to a sandy fate. (USGA Museum)

The starting hut is adorned by a weathervane portraying St. George slaying a dragon. (USGA Museum)