Only the dunes along Pegwell Bay dwarf the golfing royalty who have seen their fortunes rise and fall at Royal St. George’s. Known as one of the most difficult and unpredictable courses of the Open Championship rota, this legendary links is full of twists, turns and blind shots. And while the telecasts will focus on the picturesque sixth hole, No. 5 is a perfect encapsulation of the hazardous and historic essence of this English jewel.
“Where’s the golf course?”
Seve Ballesteros famously uttered those words upon exiting the red-tiled clubhouse on his first visit to Royal St. George’s for the 1981 Open Championship. The locals, just as famously, replied that it was right in front of him. It only got worse from there, as Ballesteros missed the cut in a flurry of lost balls and vowed never to return.
When the Open was held here again in 1985, Seve was back.
The push and pull of this remarkable swath of land has never wavered. Henry VIII vacationed here before a golf course was conjured from the ground. After William Laidlaw Purves created one, it dethroned Jack Nicklaus and hosted Darren Clarke’s fairy tale.
With the game developing in 1870s England, there were still only four courses of note in the country—Royal North Devon, Royal Blackheath, Royal Wimbledon and Royal Liverpool—and none could stand alongside the more established Scottish links. Step forward the Edinburgh-born Purves. A leading ophthalmic surgeon at Guy’s Hospital who had studied at the universities of Edinburgh, Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna, Utrecht and Paris, he had a vision to bring quality links golf closer to his London home and so set out on several years of coastal survey trips to find the perfect piece of land. Legend says he identified 350 acres of rumpled dune land in the Kent town of Sandwich while standing atop the tower of the nearby St. Clement’s church. This was to be the perfect location to build a southern rival to St. Andrews.
Raising the flag
After a near-decade of planning, the club was founded in 1887 and play started over the Purves-designed course that same year. In typical style of the Victorian era, the course featured heroic carries over dramatically named features such as the Unknown Sahara, Hades, the Himalayas and the Maiden. With many blind shots, a flag system was designed to support playing strategies from the tee, with a tall red flag placed on a dune indicating the ideal line for the scratch players and a blue flag guiding the lesser-skilled ones on a safer, yet more circuitous, route to the green. By taking the scratch route, an advantage was gained for the approach shots to the greens, which in turn were identified with tall white flags.
The course opened to immediate acclaim and within five years the club hosted its first major event, the 1892 Amateur Championship. The Open followed in 1894, the first of its 14 visits. The tournament was notable in that it was the first rendition to be held outside of Scotland and the first of J.H. Taylor’s five Open Championships.
The Open returns to Sandwich this summer, making it the fourth-most-visited of the rota venues. Today’s course remains largely true to the original Purves routing, albeit with changes over the years generally made to eliminate some of the blindness and to add length to combat the progression of equipment. Unlike the traditional links out-and-back layout, Sandwich meanders over a huge acreage, setting the standard of scale that the course itself fills in every aspect of its design. The landscape feels at times both expansive and yet incredibly secluded when in the dunes.
A view, and a choice
The opening four holes build toward the crescendo of No. 5. The first three head southeast from the clubhouse, with the dunes growing progressively, impossibly, larger. The tee shot on the fourth plays blind over the top of the great Himalaya bunkers to the relative serenity of the Elysian Fields beyond. Once navigated safely, the approach toward the southern border of the course plays to one of the best greens in the U.K. Benched into a dune, it tumbles left to right, creating an exhilarating challenge.
Leaving the green, you climb to the top of a dune to the fifth tee. Once there, you get the first proper glimpse of the sea and one of the best views in all of golf. The whole course stretches out to the left, with Pegwell Bay and the chalk cliffs of Ramsgate shining in the distance.
The original fifth hole was a par 3 of 212 yards, with a green at the foot of the famous Maiden dune. A few decades after opening and in order to minimize the blindness of the following par-3 sixth that played directly over the top of the 40-foot-high Maiden hazard, the sixth’s tees were moved to the north, allowing No. 5 to be extended into a par 4 that today plays at 416 yards as a right-to-left dogleg.
The desire to observe the total journey of one’s ball has seen most Victorian-era designs changed over the years, but, more so than all other Open rota courses, Sandwich retains a higher number of shots where a partial or totally obscured view is an added psychological hazard to be overcome. The fifth hole provides a simple yet challenging choice from the tee: In order to have a glimpse of the green with the approach shot, the tee shot must find a small terrace some 20 paces wide on the left half of the fairway, requiring an exacting shot of 240 to 260 yards. Immediately to the left of the terrace lurks a newly restored (by the design firm of Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert) sandy waste area and five avoid-at-all-costs pot bunkers.
The alternative route provides a safer passage down the right side of the hole, where the only real hazard is the rough hollow known as Lady Astor’s Fairway. (Nancy Astor was the first female member of Parliament and was a frequent early visitor to the links, building a large holiday home near the hole.)
While avoiding the danger on the left, each yard to the right reduces visibility for the approach. Being unsighted for that final look up as you address the shot always proves to be more unnerving than it should. Can you overcome the uncertainty, pick a line on the horizon and execute a shot? The growing anticipation as you then walk to the top of the dune adds excitement to the day while flying in the face of the modern game’s search for fairness. It’s a small target, fraught with danger, yet I find the challenge is just intriguing enough for me to take it on every time I play it.
Once over the dune, the terrain settles to form 70 yards of relatively flat fairway. The green sits gracefully on the land, falling off on the left-hand side to a runoff area. Its orientation also encourages an approach from the left side that allows play up the central axis of the green, away from the slope. All of this is done with the sound of waves lapping a short distance away on the other side of the boundary fence: This strip of land provides Sandwich’s first meeting with the beach.
Bombs, and bogeys, away
A sad footnote to this beautiful strategic puzzle is that, depending on the prevailing wind conditions, we are likely to see a large proportion of this year’s Open field attempt the 305-yard carry over the flank of the Maiden dune, rendering all of its hazards irrelevant. Indeed, a young and mulleted John Daly began doing that very thing back in the practice rounds of the 1993 Open here.
That said, the fifth hole has proven noteworthy in several past Open Championships. In 1934, Henry Cotton made a careless double-bogey 6, starting a decline in fortunes on his way to a final-round 79. Despite the stumble, his lead was still large enough for him to easily win his first of three Opens. This was mostly on the strength of his famous second-round 65 that became immortalized with the naming of the Dunlop 65 ball.
Before American Ben Curtis stunned the golf world by winning the 2003 Open here in his first major start, Irishman Harry Bradshaw nearly used this same stage to become the Curtis of his era. In 1949, Sandwich was chosen again as host club for the Open—albeit as a last-minute change to replace neighboring Royal Cinque Ports, rendered unplayable thanks to flooding earlier in the year. Bradshaw eventually lost in a 36-hole playoff to the great South African Bobby Locke, but headlines of the day focused on an unfortunate incident on the fifth hole in his second round.
In a tie for second place after an opening 68, Bradshaw’s tee shot finished in a broken glass bottle. Rather than waiting for a ruling and delaying play, he chose to play the ball as it lay. The ensuing double bogey seemed to knock Bradshaw from his stride, leading to some erratic play during the rest of the round. He righted the ship in the third and fourth rounds and put a charge into Locke before finally succumbing. But had he awaited a ruling, he would have been able to take a free drop, potentially changing the course of the tournament and indeed his career.
It’s hard to imagine such a scene unfolding in the 2020 championship, but stranger things have certainly happened on this stretch of legendary land.