A championship links course with few, if any, superiors

Royal St. George's

Royal St. George's Golf Club

Royal St. George's Golf Club

Date Reviewed
May 12, 2017
Reviewed by Ed Battye
In my mind Royal St. George’s at Sandwich is a championship links golf course with few, if any, superiors.

Back in 2014 a trip to compete (I use that term very loosely) in the South-East of England Links Championship presented an opportunity for me to complete the playing of every Open Championship course in England.

I’m very sorry Hoylake, Birkdale and Lytham, you have wonderful golf courses, but personally Royal St. George’s is more than a cut above.

I have found over the years that whenever you go into a course with extremely high expectations there is always a chance that you will be left slightly underwhelmed after playing it. Not because the course is poor but simply because you were expecting so much. For me one sign of a truly great course is when you go in with a high expectancy and the course over-delivers. Royal St. George’s did just that and it continues to grow on me with every subsequent play, the most recent in May 2017.

Three years ago my two rounds consisted of completely contrasting weather conditions. An evening practice round in benign, almost dreamy, conditions was utter bliss. The tournament round in a howling wind and a 45 minute period that was probably the most difficult conditions I’ve ever experienced on a golf course, hail stones et al, showed what a brute the course can be. Again bliss! My two rounds were certainly a case of beauty and the beast. And that is perhaps a good analogy for this fascinating course.

In 2017 the weather played ball for both rounds but with two contrasting wind directions and this showcased just how special, memorable and phenomenal England's number one links is. It really is King of Links.

The reason why I think I like Royal St. George’s so much is that it captures everything I love about links golf. Yes, it is a demanding course, especially from the Open tees at 7,200, which requires drives and approaches to be executed almost perfectly for just a glimpse of a birdie putt. However, whilst it certainly has that aura of ‘championship’ links golf there is more than a hint of eccentricity and quirkiness, which for me is the perfect combination. Thankfully, the R&A haven't neutralised this venue too much.

Rather than giving a hole by hole account of the course I would simply like to highlight just a few of the shots and moments I find to be the highlights of my time at Royal St. George’s. I would also like to preface them by saying that this is undoubtedly a course that you could spend a lifetime playing and not come close to understanding all of its intricacies, subtleties and complexities.

The walk from the clubhouse towards the first tee, surrounded by pristine white railings and adjacent to the wonderful thatched starters hut, sets the pulse racing with anticipation and whilst the 'big sky' vista across the course from here isn’t exactly inspiring what follows over the next few hours most certainly is. There's a brilliant roominess here and a sense of space; the course has plenty of width and the turf is perfect.

It was also pleasing to see on my latest visit that the rough was very manageable and playable, however, the trueness of the greens wasn't as good as before; a cold dry Spring may be the reason for both of those conditions.

The approach to the first sets the tone where one must carry a trio of bunkers, most likely with a long iron, but then stop the ball quickly on the green or alternatively try and feed your shot in, skirting the bunkers, to a large green that falls away slightly on the side.

Throughout the round you have similar dilemmas and decisions to make. If time permitted shots to greens at both the second and third holes would be worthy of further elaboration. Indeed the variety of shots you have to play to all the greens at Royal St. George’s is impressive. Quite often a corner, or section, of the green will fall away and kick any ball not struck purely at the heart of the green away. The best green complexes, and there are many excellent ones, are the second, fourth, eighth, ninth, 10th, 12th, 15th and 17th. Nearly all the putting surfaces, their internal contours, are magnificent and arguably the best there is. Period.

The drive at the famous 4th hole over the intimidating, once sleeper-faced bunkers, is a thrilling shot without question but it was the approach to this green that made the hole for me. Long, partially-blind and to a green, with a large basin towards the front-left, and a bulge that runs at an angle to the right which will deflect anything hit too shyly, requires the utmost skill to find the putting surface.

The 5th may go under most people’s radar but the first time you stand on the fairway and realise you only have a small area to hit your tee-shot, from where the green is visible for your second shot, brings a wry smile to your face as you look out over Pegwell Bay for the first time in your round.

The drive at the 7th is an exciting one and you better make it a good one too as this is perhaps the best chance of a birdie you’ll have, especially when the wind blows from the South.

The approaches into holes 8, 9 and 10 as a sequence are utterly sublime. Each requires a slightly different type of shot but they are all exacting and if you miss in the wrong place you may well be chipping to avoid a double-bogey as opposed to trying to save par.

Standing in the middle of the 12th fairway from around 120 yards out and seeing the rippling fairway and cluster of bunkers short of the green is maybe my favourite view on the course.

Having played Prince’s on a number of occasions it was eerie how similar the 13th hole at Royal St. George’s felt and played to many on the neighbouring club’s course. The green here virtually backs onto the adjoining property. Incidentally Prince’s was a venue for The Open is 1932 whilst nearby Royal Cinque Ports at Deal hosted it in 1909 and 1920. For the record Royal St. George’s has hosted the championship no less than 14 times, the last in 2011 when Darren Clarke triumphed.

There’s no denying that the 14th is one of golf’s great par fives and is the start of a formidable closing stretch with the only respite coming at the short 16th. Hole 15 more than matches the challenge of the 4th and, although bunkers must be avoided on the drive, again it is the approach which sets this hole apart as one of the best in golf. Played over three bunkers, on an angle, to a small green only the perfect shot will set up a birdie opportunity. In reality it is a great half-par hole and there will certainly be more fives than fours here.

The routing of the course also keeps you on your toes throughout the full 18 holes. There are seldom consecutive holes where you continue to play in the same direction with each one twisting and turning all the time. It is effectively two loops of nine each played in a counter-clockwise direction but that is doing this clever routing a huge disservice as it imperiously works its way through the shallow dunes and at the same time hiding every hole from one another.

In effect every shot at Royal St. George’s is a highlight and whilst I don’t particularly like the phrase ‘must play course’ this unquestionably falls into that category.

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