- Alistair Tait
Quintessential Links Golf
Stand on the hill to the left of the par-3, 6th hole, The Maiden, at Royal St George’s and behold. Stretched before you, seemingly as far as the eye can see, is arguably the most glorious stretch of links land you’ve ever seen.
Don’t be in a hurry to get off that mound. You’ll want to sit there and soak in the views for as long as possible.
I like to think it was from this spot that Dr Laidlaw Purves scanned the linksland in 1884 and decided it was the perfect spot for a golf course. Actually, stand on that dune and it looks as though five golf courses could fit into the land and still leave plenty of room for the sort of infrastructure needed to host a modern Open Championship. And that doesn’t include the nearby links of Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports golf clubs.
According to Royal St George’s club history, A course for Heroes, Purves first envisioned the course thanks to a bit of divine intervention: he eyed the links from the roof of a Sandwich church in 1884. E W Swanton writes:
“The doctor’s brother, Alexander Pattison Purves WS, was no great shakes as a golfer but, it seems, he had an abiding passion for archaeology – particularly of the Roman civilisation of Britain. On a visit to his brother in London he proposed that they should go down to Sandwich and have a look at the place where Claudius landed in AD 43. The top of the tower of St Clements church seemed a good place from which to survey the surrounding countryside, from so much of which the sea had receded since Roman times. ‘By George, what a place for a golf course’ was the Doctor’s sacrilegious exclamation at the sight of the huge expanse of sand-dunes.”
Thus, Royal St George’s was born.
Arguably no links on the Open rota fits the idea of quintessential links golf as The Open’s most southerly venue. Ironically, many rate St George’s as the least liked of the Open’s great links because of that.
There are blind shots, but gone are the really blind shots of the old third and sixth holes, but the rub of the green features strongly. Jack Nicklaus is famous for once saying something along the lines of, The Open courses get worse the further south you go.
Brooks Koepka is playing his first Open at St George’s and is not impressed. He says:
“It's not my favourite venue that we've played. Quite a few blind tee shots. Fairways are quite undulating. Portrush was, I don't know, I love that place. I thought that was just such a good Open. This one, it's just not as exciting.”
The late Dave Musgrove caddied for Sandy Lyle at Royal St George’s when the Scot won the first of his two majors. (Musgrove was also on Lyle’s bag for the 1988 Masters.) I once asked Musgrove why St George’s wasn't everyone’s cup of tea.
“The humped fairways shed balls into the rough,” said Musgrove, who died in 2017 aged 74. “Players can hit good tee shots and think they’re in the middle of the fairway only to find themselves in the rough or a bunker. It frustrates a lot of them.”
It’s no Royal Birkdale with holes set in glorious dune land but with relatively flat fairways.
That’s perhaps why Nicklaus didn’t like the golf course. Like all good drivers of the ball, his skill at finding fairways was greatly reduced at Royal St George’s. He had less chance winning here than any of the other links that hold The Open. In his three Opens at St George's, he was 23rd in 1981, and missed the cut in 1985 and 1993.
Tom Doak makes the comparison with Royal Birkdale in his book The Confidential Guide.
“It is hard to fathom the bad reputation that Sandwich got in the Opens of 1981 and 1985," Doak writes. "Certainly, it is a difficult course to get to know at first glance … But in any other circumstance the scenery and scale of the course are inspiring. … I vastly prefer this approach to that of Birkdale, where the holes are all confined to the valleys and the dunes are no more than elaborately shaped backdrops.”
St George’s harks back to a time when there was no machinery to carve out fairways and green complexes. Purves just used the natural contours of the land. If that meant fairways that featured humps and hollows and shed balls into the rough, so be it. Thankfully, Alister MacKenzie and Frank Pennick kept true to Purves’ vision when they made alterations.
Rub of the green arguably comes into play more at Royal St George’s than another links that stages the game’s greatest championship. No wonder so many pampered pros who expect a perfect, flat lie on every fairway don’t take to it.
Who cares what they think? Besides, golf was never meant to be fair. Royal St George’s is quintessential links golf at its best.
#JustSaying: “(Royal St George’s is) as nearly my idea of heaven as is to be attained on any earthly links.” Bernard Darwin