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Keep your eye on the ball

The Goodwin Sands, a notorious shifting sandbank which sits just off the Kent coast at Deal, has played both villain and victor over the centuries. More than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked there, but the sandbank has also provided safe anchorage for fleets of ships from numerous stormy nor’easters since Nelson’s day. Leaving the anchorage via the highest tide was critical as in some places the sands sit only a few feet below the low water mark. Laterally, to help the sailors, the Victorians built a “Timeball Tower” in the town of Deal. Clearly visible from the sea, some four storeys above the streets below, a large black ball would be raised up a mast and dropped every day at 1pm, assisting mariners in accurately setting their chronometers. This enabled them to calculate the tidal height relative to 1pm and ensure accuracy on their impending arduous voyages. Get your timing wrong and it could have serious consequences for you and those around you. It’s where the expression “keep your eye on the ball” was born, and it’s been heard frequently on the links at Deal and at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club ever since.

This challenging, duned stretch of golfing beauty hugs a narrow strip of rippling land between the omnipresent beach and the aptly named Golf Road, tucking these 1892 links into a classic out-and-back format that uses small variations in direction, multiple tee boxes and tight fairways to test the golfer at every hole. Its 66 bunkers are cleverly located to offer a series of risk-and-reward shots and, with a number of difficult doglegs, the work of James Braid post-WW1 can be seen around the course. He must have had some fun here.

Like its neighbours, these links have hosted the Open Championship. In 1909 JH Taylor conquered its fairways with hickory and Haskell, his three 74s and a 73 an impressive achievement. The course lies below sea level in many places and as a result twice suffered flooding when the sea breached the dunes, which resulted in a new sea dyke being built the length of the course to protect against those nor’easters, but also saw the course’s removal from the rota. The quality of an Open Championship venue remains though: the picturesque, red-roofed and balconied white Clubhouse overlooking the 18th green; the manicured fairways and springy turf; the challenge of the unsighted approach shot. It's all there.

It's a short walk from the Clubhouse and past the Pro Shop to the first tee, where a hexagonal wooden hut with a weather vane on its top gives you some indication of how the breeze might assist (or not) your opening drive. The rolling, tumbling fairways are some distance away as the first fairway is relatively flat, but with OOB and thickish rough tight down your right plus a burn protecting the green just like the 1st at St Andrews, you understand quickly what this course is capable of.

On those days where the Championship tees are trimmed and the markers move backwards, Royal Cinque Ports demands the very best of you. Some holes, such as the 13th, require almost 200 yards of carry to reach the fairway. The 5th is the same, but your tee shot here has to avoid four huge bunkers en route to the relative safety of this par-5 fairway. Today’s back tees for the 7th, 9th and 11th holes have been positioned higher, just on the seaside of the coastal walk which runs straight along the top of the wide, spreading coastal defences. On a breezy day, with the high tide whipping dollops of foam across the tee, it’s not for the faint-hearted. A decent tee shot brings an admiring ripple of applause from passing spectators, out for a stroll along the beach wall. The home stretch is as demanding a set of holes as you will find anywhere. Seemingly ever-tighter fairways, defined by neatly-edged fields of fescue and marram-clad mounds, are epitomised by the par-5 16th where you have effectively three routes to the green, and two fairways to choose from, separated by a snaking ridge of penal rough and sandy hollows.

Punchbowl greens that defend themselves without the need for snarling bunkers, plateau greens with steep, sharp ledges that can kill the short approach shot and leave you with a blind chip to be nipped off the turf, and swaled greens with slopes so vast that they remind you of the rolling waves you hear breaking only yards away. This course has it all, and as a golfer’s club it rewards its members daily. For the visitor, golf in the Garden of England on a host course of the Open Championship is highly accessible, and will reward your concentration. Just remember to keep your eye on the ball though.

Words - Murray Bothwell

Photography - Graeme McCubbin

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