In a land far, far away, on the coastal margins between the Kentish towns of Ham and Sandwich, there lived a dragon with a smoke rating of 144.
In common with his northern brother Carnasty, whose infamous smoke rating was 145 and enough to bring grown men to tears, he spent most days slumbering amongst the deep, deep grass of the high dunes.
Yet on those days when the winds blew hard off the sea, he would awake and you’d feel the sting of his tail and hear his fire roaring in your ears. A local champion, S.T. George, was despatched to see him off and, armed with 14 various blades slung over his back, he approached the first neatly-trimmed grassy knoll at the edge of the town. Beyond him lay mountains of sand, valleys of rough and 18 randomly-placed sticks where locals would regularly make a sacrifice by placing a small white egg into a hole. Could George tame the dragon?
Every so often this den is cast open to the best players in the world and battle commences over one of the Championship’s toughest courses. Why do these links test the best? It was proclaimed to be a ‘St Andrews South’ in 1887, and within seven years it had become the first course outside Scotland to feature on the Open rota. Yet it is so unlike the Old Course in many ways: not out-and-back, its direction is ever-changing and its acreage is huge, particularly in comparison to the design of the flanking Open courses of Royal Cinque Port and Prince’s. There are areas in the middle of Royal St George’s that resemble a stormy rolling sea of fescue-clad hillocks and have rarely been seen by its members.
Club and ball technology have played their part in attempting to pull the teeth from this dragon: JH Taylor’s inaugural four-round score of 326 contrasts with Greg Norman’s 267, but the numbers hide a tale: bar the Australian’s win, all the other champions who have sought to tame these fiery links have finished at best 5-under… or worse. Jack Nicklaus carded his worst score at an Open here, and Tiger’s first ball off the first tee of his first major famously brought to mind the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem as the young golfer stalked the knee-high grass looking for his Nike 1. He was indeed burning bright … you could feel the heat as he was driven back to the first tee to reload.
Arriving at Royal St George’s to play is to embrace everything that is traditional about the game. If it’s summer, and you’re pre-disposed to shorts, the rule is still knee-length socks for gents. Arrive in the Clubhouse after 11am: jacket and tie, and appropriately similar for ladies. Visitors can find fixed times to play on weekdays only, and two-ball (singles or foursomes) golf is the normal format on all days except Tuesday. This format keeps the pace up, reduces wear and tear on the course and creates tension in any game as the plaintive shout of “sorry” repeatedly echoes across the normally peaceful links.
The course may look underwhelming at first glance, but it soon grabs your attention by the second hole when you’re lying low behind the fairway bunkers seeking a perfect, blind, second shot on this dogleg to a domed, hogsback green. Passing the very last tree on the course at the par-3 third, the stories of the course’s signature fourth hole play heavily on your decision on the tee. What can you see? The Himalaya bunker. Its wide mouth gaping, laughing almost, at what you are hoping to achieve. There are many high dunes around the course, but this is the tallest full sand bunker in the UK, and looks like a small quarry. Longer hitters will try to fly over it, praying to miss the field of rough behind, those shorter hitters will play left, but for both the fairway slithers and twists like a serpent to the green through the safety of the St Andrews-inspired Elysian Fields.
A series of dog-legs, plateau’d fairways, perilous par-4s and pot bunkers that feel like entrances to mine shafts take you out to the corner of the course near the beach and the Lodge at Prince’s. A lingering look at the sea and you turn inland to seek the safe landing zone on the fourteenth before the Suez Canal ditch, aptly named for its size. The wider, safer route on this 50-yard-wide fairway seems left but that strategy demands you take on four bunkers that protect this two-tier, dropping green. Right, and tickling the OOB, gives a better chance of using the contours to your advantage. Walk off with a bogey and you’ll talk about it for years to come.
The par-3 and two par-4s of Royal St George’s closing stretch flip the wind direction ninety-degrees. Seven pot bunkers to miss with a 7-iron on the sixteenth and a tight, distant fairway that will inevitably leave you with a sloping lie and a long iron in your hand to reach the green at seventeen. This course rewards good driving, and no more so than on eighteen where the landing zone off the tee is domed and, if not perfectly hit, the ball can fall away to some skilfully-positioned deep bunkers. At the green’s left, Duncan’s Hollow plays like the Valley of Sin and Sandy Lyle must have felt like any Saturday golfer as he watched his ball trickle back down the slope towards him before winning here in 1985.
The more you play links courses, the better you understand them and, for the lower-handicap golfer, choosing to play a round at Royal St George’s will work out at around the price of an Americano per shot. Higher handicappers invariably get more value for their money of course, but golfers of all levels regularly enjoy pitting themselves against an historical roller-coaster of a course that punishes poor shots and applauds perfection. As Bruce Lee would say…
Words - Murray Bothwell
Photography - Stuart Currie
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