In many ways, Royal St. George’s has changed little over the past century. The modest clubhouse—a model of English understatement in a game that has become so stridently overstated—is like a walk-through museum exhibit intended to show what a typical English golf club was like back in the day, when golf was a game of tweed and hickory; a place where time stands still, sepia-toned, perhaps with a hint of lingering pipe smoke from long-forgotten afternoons.
Above the fireplace is a board showing the names of all the captains of the men-only club, awash with Majors, Colonels, Brigadiers, Generals, Earls, Lords, Marquesses, Knights, Right Honourables, OBEs, CBEs, DSOs and even a future monarch: The Prince of Wales served in 1927-’28, before becoming King Edward VIII, only to abandon crown and country to marry Wallis Simpson, vacating the throne for his baby brother, stuttering George VI, who incidentally was the better player.
The golf course, too, has a timeless, immutable quality. Royal St. George’s, 11th on our list of the Top 50 Links of Great Britain & Ireland (see page 136), is sandwiched between two former Open venues—Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports—on a sublime five-mile stretch of linksland between the Stour Estuary and the English Channel. The course has more or less retained Purves’ basic routing throughout its nearly 125-year history, and it feels even older as you play here, among the tufty dunes and along the shingle beach, where, as Matthew Arnold memorably wrote, the slow, grating roar of sea and stone carries “the eternal note of sadness in.” There was no golf here when Julius Caesar landed at nearby Deal, in 55 B.C., but it’s easy to imagine there was.
FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN
In many significant ways, however, the Victorian links has been completely transformed. Behind and to the left of the sixth green, for example, is a vast dune, originally called Jungfrau, after the Swiss Alp. In the first iteration of the course, the Alp was much taller—“steep, sandy and terrible,” wrote future club president Bernard Darwin, “with her face scarred and seamed with black timbers”—and it stood directly between the tee and the green, presenting an immensely demanding blind shot of some 180 yards, usually into the prevailing westerly wind. It was one of the most notorious holes in the country—and a favorite of Purves. Gradually, the hole was softened, and the tee moved ever-northward such that today The Maiden plays perpendicular to the original, scenic but straightforward. The dune now provides the best seat in the house for Open spectators.
The modernization of the sixth hole is illustrative of Royal St. George’s overall metamorphosis that allows it to remain a contemporary test. Many of the blind shots have been reduced or eliminated, most of Purves’ beloved, draconian cross bunkers have been removed, and a lot of the quirks of the course have been smoothly erased—especially with the changes in the 1970s by Frank Pennink. Coupled with the building of a Sandwich bypass road, the changes helped the course return to the Open rota in 1981 for the first time in 32 years.
This is how America’s first Open champion, Walter Hagen, who won two of his four titles at Royal St. George’s, described the course in 1928: “The first nine holes—tremendous fun, not very good golf. Second nine holes—tremendous golf, no fun at all.” Nowadays the course is tremendous golf and tremendous fun throughout. Each hole has a vivid personality—there’s not a ho-hum dullard among them—and taken together, Royal St. George’s feels like considerably more than the sum of its considerable parts.
For this year’s championship—the 14th Open at Royal St. George’s—the course has been lengthened by 105 yards from the last visit, in 2003, mostly by stretching the third, seventh, ninth and 15th holes. (The course guide advises that the approach shot at the 15th “is, quite frankly, nearly impossible.”) Additionally, the fourth hole—with the famous bunker, at 40 feet possibly the United Kingdom’s tallest—has been changed from a par 5 to a brutal, 495-yard par 4.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson says that these changes are minor, and that the phenomenal distances top modern players hit the ball—potentially rendering many cherished championship venues obsolete—is not a cause for concern. “Driving distance is not increasing,” he insists. “Distances haven’t increased since the Open was last here.” In truth, Royal St. George’s—7,211 yards, par 70 this year—is generously laid out over such an expansive 400-acre tract that it could easily accommodate more lengthening should the need arise, though please, let’s hope it doesn’t.
TRYING TO SHAKE A REPUTATION
Despite all the changes over the decades, however, St. George’s has never quite shaken its reputation as a bit of a fluky, tricksy, unpredictable course. There are still some blind shots. There are unruly bounces; the fairways have the topography of an unmade bed, with every hump, lump and bump seemingly conspiring to deflect your ball violently away from fairway and green. An exceptionally dry spring this year meant that even in April, when I played a scouting round on a warm, sunny day, shots landing on the fairways would kick up little plumes of dust; come July the bad bounces could be quite lively. (In the 2003 Open, less than 30 percent of the field managed to hit the crowned fairways at the first, 17th and 18th holes. Those fairways have been widened this year.) The greens—eight of them original—are monstrous, billowing affairs, with vast swales, ridges, false fronts. In my round—a pitiful 93—I used the putter 47 times.
The aspersion of flukiness isn’t helped by the fact that at the 2003 Open, the course delivered as the champion the unassuming Hooters Tour graduate Ben Curtis, a man who’d never before played in a major championship, visited England, or played any links golf, and who is easily the lowliest player ever to win a major, ranked 396th in the world at the start of the week. Then there is the catalog of bizarre calamities that have befallen Open competitors at Royal St. George’s over the years. At the first hole, Tiger Woods lost his opening shot of the 2003 Open and made a triple bogey.
Jerry Kelly started his assault on the Open that year with an 11. At the fifth hole, in the 1949 Open, Harry Bradshaw’s drive rolled onto part of a broken bottle. He played the ball as it lay, advanced it about 20 yards, and made a double bogey. (He would lose a playoff to Bobby Locke.) On the 10th, Tom Kite arrived with a two-shot lead on the last day of the 1985 Open, only to fall afoul of the highly domed infinity green, making a double bogey and vanishing. At the par-5 14th, Bernhard Langer had taken an iron off the tee for safety in each round of the 1993 Open, except on the last day, when he sliced a driver over the out-of-bounds fence, onto the Prince’s course, took a 7 and relinquished the title to Greg Norman. (The hole has O.B. all down the right side, including just eight paces—downhill—from the edge of the green).
At the par-3 16th, in 2003, Thomas Bjorn, who’d made a quadruple-bogey 8 at the 17th in Round 1, was three ahead with four holes to play but took three shots to get out of a greenside bunker, handing the claret jug to Curtis. And at the 18th hole, Scottish pro George Duncan, who won the Open at Royal Cinque Ports in 1920, had a chip roll back to his feet from the left side of the green—now known as Duncan’s Hollow—to lose the ’22 Open to Hagen.
Then there are all the freaky record scores that Royal St. George’s has produced—both low and high. The first sub-70 round in the Open was here, in 1904, swiftly followed later the same day by J.H. Taylor’s 68, an Open record that would stand for a quarter century. In the 1934 Open, Henry Cotton opened with rounds of 67-65, the latter commemorated with the release of the famous “Dunlop 65” golf ball; Cotton’s record halfway total wasn’t bettered for 58 years.
In 1993, Ernie Els became the first man in the Open to shoot all four rounds in the 60s—followed 20 minutes later by winner Greg Norman, whose 267 is the lowest total in Open history. Conversely, the winning score in 1894 was the highest in championship history, 326. Bobby Jones once shot an 86 here. Jack Nicklaus in his prime opened with an 83 in 1981. Paul Casey opened with an 85 in 2003.
Royal St. George’s is at the mercy of the weather, and in some Opens it has been particularly ferocious. The last day of the 1938 event was perhaps the worst in the championship’s history. The exhibition tent was shredded and flattened, its contents blown to the sea. In the last round, only seven players broke 80. The wind was so strong that Cotton drove the 370-yard second hole and sank the putt for an eagle, as did Alf Padgham at the then-384-yard par-4 11th hole. “The ball quivered like a live thing on the greens,” according to one report, and Reg Whitcombe won the title despite twice four-putting that day.
Nicklaus said the Open venues “get worse the further south you travel,” and Royal St. George’s is so far south that from it, on a sunny day, you can see the white cliffs of France. Steve Elkington was asked where Royal St. George’s ranks among the nine British Open venues; “I’d say 10th” was his witty reply. Ian Poulter was asked on Twitter which hole on the course would be the best to watch the action. “None of them,” he tweeted, chirped, twerped. “It’s an average course at best.”
These concerns and complaints are misplaced. Royal St. George’s today is a magnificent golf course, not despite the bounces, the wild-ride greens, the unpredictability, the bizarre events that it has witnessed, the dramatic scores, the weather and Ben Curtis. It is magnificent because of all these things. This is links golf at its finest. If you don’t like it, then, by George, you don’t like golf.