Notebook: Open venue Royal St. George’s

The ninth hole at Royal St. George's

The ninth hole at Royal St. George's

SANDWICH, England – Royal St. George’s is everything that Congressional Country Club is not.

This charming gem of an English links, located on the Kent Coast along the North Sea, is a windswept, rollicking and occasionally maddening gathering of golf holes that defies aerial control.

In an era of target golf in which players are asked to parachute the ball onto carefully engineered segments of greens, Royal St. George’s requires an entirely different set of demands. The task here is to thrust and parry and work with the ground contours in hopes of keeping the ball in play. It’s not about ball flight but about control of the shot after it lands and rolls.

This is perhaps the toughest layout in the nine-course British Open rota for driving the ball. You need a thorough knowledge of each hillock and hummock on these fairways in order to direct the ball properly. It takes considerable skill – and a good measure of luck – to wind up in the right spot. From there, the greens tend to be readily visible and accessible. The trouble lies in holding them, because many of the greens are propped up, with subtle turtle-back shaping that causes the surfaces to relentlessly bleed off into surrounding hollows or bunkers.

The 103 bunkers work overtime, suctioning in golf balls through a whirlpool effect. On parkland courses, bunkers tend to be protected by tiny raised edges that keep water – and golf balls – from pouring in; the bulk of the sandy hazards at St. George’s draw in everything around them. Just ask Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, who was leading the 2003 British Open when he came to the par-3 16th hole and twice hit escape shots from a right greenside bunker well up onto the green, only to watch the ball roll back to his feet both times. He ended up taking three shots to get out, made a double-bogey 5 and lost the championship to surprise winner Ben Curtis (story, p18).

The most dramatic-looking hole at Royal St. George’s is surely the fourth, a 495-yard par 4. For some unfathomable reason, it played as a par 5 in 2003, but that mistake has been rectified. The trouble here starts with towering sand dunes on the right side that present one of the most frightening images in all of British golf: huge sand blow-outs, held in place by gravity-defying railroad sleepers. You have to miss it badly to reach these, but if you do, there is virtually no way out. The fairway landing area is one of those demented serpentine paths designed by the village idiot (to paraphrase Alister MacKenzie) who was asked to make it flat.

For drama and a wide range of scores, the 14th hole is compelling theater. This 547-yard par 5 often plays downwind thanks to a prevailing wind out of the east off Sandwich Bay. The hole’s name, “Suez,” derives from a canal that crosses the fairway, 324 yards from the back tee. It’s exactly 330 yards in the air to carry, which leads many players to back off with their tee shots.

Even a lay-up off the tee often leaves a second shot of 250-260 yards, and there’s enough bumpy mounding short to require a pinpoint approach. An out-of-bounds line runs the entire length of the hole on the right and is a considerable factor on the drive and second shot. This is one of those holes that yields an eagle at the risk of a double bogey.

Royal St. George’s exudes a stark, lunar intrigue, as if something ominous is about to interrupt the forlorn beauty of the site. The club grounds sit at the end of a winding, undersized road just two miles from the quaint, cobblestone streets of Sandwich. The clubhouse is a rambling, Edwardian cottage-style affair that’s textbook English upper class. And the thatched roof starter’s shed is something out of Shakespeare.

Longtime St. George’s member Ian Fleming, a 9-handicap who lived within walking distance of the club, set part of his James Bond novel “Goldfinger” here. Sadly, he died the morning after he was elected club captain in 1964 and never got to serve his term.

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Rater’s notebook: Royal St. George’s

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 9

Adjoining counterclockwise nines do not return to the clubhouse but are easily walkable, with the front nine winding through dramatic large dunes and the back nine traversing lower, crumpled ground. Constant change of direction; no two consecutive holes are within 45 degrees of each other.

2. Integrity of original design: 8

Stretched and rendered more amenable for tournament play, with long walks back to new tees but still quaint and compelling; course features slightly raised greens, plus bunkers that are drilled deep into the ground.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 10

Course spills out behind nodally located clubhouse and start/finish area. There’s massive space between holes; its 280 acres are the most for any British Open course.      

4. Interest of greens and surrounds: 7

This course proves that you don’t need “quadrants” for interesting greens. These surfaces seem simple, but the slight convex shape and rollouts into bunkers and low surrounds make ball control difficult in the wind. The bent/fescue greens are very firm and smooth but not fast (9.5 to 10 on the Stimpmeter).

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 9

Ideally varied in terms of direction and length, with steep greenside bunkers that shrink the landing areas and require control of the shots’ shape and weight.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 8

Very demanding off the tee, with plenty of personal choices depending upon wind, roll and the preference for length of the second shot. It’s not a simple choice of carry or not to carry off the tee.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 8

The interest here is definitely on the tee shots. The over-the-hill, cross-country, 564-yard seventh is especially elusive. Both par 5s require careful layups to avoid bunkers clustered short.

8. Basic conditioning: 9

Recent wet weather has broken a monthslong dry spell, which will mean thick, tall roughs against fast-running bent/fescue fairways.

9. Landscape and tree management: 10

The place is windswept to the extreme, with only a few specimen hardwoods by the clubhouse and a copse or two out of play on the golf grounds.

10. Walk in the park test: 8

There’s an eerie starkness to the site. Golf here is not picturesque, just demanding and compelling.

Overall: 8.7

Royal St. George’s deserves its No. 9 ranking on Golfweek’s Best list of Great Britain & Ireland’s Classic Courses and its place in the British Open rota.

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