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  • Alistair Tait

The Open’s lost links

Royal Portrush’s return to the Open Championship rota last year must’ve had members of other former Open venues pining to see the game’s oldest and greatest championship return to their beloved fairways.

Two of the Open’s four lost links could provide a good test for the world’s best. Alas, that will probably never happen.

You only have to play Royal Cinque Ports or Prince’s to understand why the world’s best fought for the old claret jug over these layouts. They’re classic links. Unlike Prestwick and Musselburgh, the Open’s other two lost links, they’re still stiff enough challenges to test Rory and company.

Royal St George’s, where the Open was to be staged this week before coronavirus wrecked out world, is the jewel sitting in the middle of a three-pronged crown Kent crown. Yet while St George’s prepares to host its 15th Open next year, Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports are consigned to the history books.

Play Cinque Ports and you won’t be surprised it staged the 1909 and 1920 Opens, with JH Taylor and George Duncan taking the titles. What might surprise you is that these were the only two Opens at this venue.

As local historian David Dobby chronicled in two books – ‘Royal Cinque Ports – a Personal Record,’ and ‘Golf on the Kent Coast’ – Cinque Ports should have hosted the Open on four other occasions – 1915, 1938, 1942 and 1949.

Two World wars took care of two Cinque Port Opens. The other two floated out to sea. Winter flooding meant the 1938 and 1949 Championships, both defended by Henry Cotton, had to be moved to Royal St George’s.

The course flooded again in 1953. Planning an Open there was a gamble. There was no guarantee the course would be in good condition in July because it might have flooded the previous winter.

The R&A would have been justified in holding more championships at Royal Cinque Ports since it was one of the longest courses in the British Isles. It measured 7,077 yards in 1938.

More flooding affected the course in 1978, and in 1979 a sea wall was built to keep the water off the links. Cinque Ports lost nearly four hundred yards in length as a result.

New tees have been added to the sea wall, extending the course to 7,367 yards, plenty long enough for an Open Championship. These tees have been in play for Local Final Qualifying for the Open. More importantly, the club instituted an extensive reconditioning program to take the course back to its glory days after years of over watering and fertilising took away much of its links qualities.

Modern Opens requires such vast areas for the tented village, practice range, press facilities, TV compound, and Cinque Ports just can’t handle that. Besides, Royal St George’s is hard to access from a traffic standpoint, but Cinque Ports is even harder. LFQ is as close to the Open as Royal Cinque Ports is going to get.

Pity. As Tom Doak noted in his book 'The Confidential Guide':

“There are some outstanding features to the layout, from the beautiful undulations of the 2nd and 3rd to the ancient Roman track road which must be avoided at the 12th, and finally some of the most difficult par-4s (the above photo shows the 16th and 17th holes) in all of golf into the wind at the finish.”

Prince’s was the scene of Gene Sarazen’s 1932 Open Championship victory. It was some challenge, too, measuring over 7,200 yards. However, the course suffered during both world wars. In World War I it formed part of Britain’s coastal defence system. Then in World War II it was requisitioned and turned into a battle training area.

Prince’s has no problem with space. It consists of three nine-hole loops, so one loop could easily accommodate the tented village, press facilities and the TV compound. It is challenging, too. The club has made extensive renovations, including reshaping every bunker, giving the flattest of the trio of courses much more definition. (The photo below is of the 4th hole on the Himalayas nine.)

Access to Prince’s is difficult too, making it a no go for the Open.

There’s another dilemma for these two courses – they lie in the shadow of Royal St George’s. It possesses the best dune land of the three.

Former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson summed up perfectly why these two layouts have become two of the Open’s lost links. He said:

“My own view is that if we are going to that corner of Kent, then we are going to go to the best course. Perhaps if Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s were somewhere else then we might give them more consideration.”

More consideration? There is no question these two courses would stage an Open if they were in different locations with more favourable logistical circumstances.

They may be lost to the Open Championship, but not to ordinary golfers. They’re a joy at any time of the year.

I once played Cinque Ports on December 15th. It played as if it was the middle of July, apart from the temperature. It was fast and running, the greens slick, the wind blowing. Just the sort of elements that marked it out as a two-time Open Championship venue.

You have to experience links golf in the middle of winter to realise why golf began at the seaside. Our forebears weren’t so daft. They knew links turf is good all year round, not just when the summer sun is shining.

So, if you haven’t played these two courses then do. Get lost on the Open’s lost links.

(Thanks to Helen Heady of Heady PR and Visit Kent for the photographs.)

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