As I walk towards the 18th green at Royal St George’s Golf Club, through the funnel of Open Championship grandstands either side of me, I allow myself a moment to take it all in.
The magnificent lunar landscape of linksland here is exactly as I remember it. The vast dunes, verdant fairways and the deep blue of The English Channel are every bit as vivid – it’s a place of personal memories, magic and myth. Dr William Laidlaw Purves had set out to create an English rival to The Old Course at St Andrew’s.
From the top of the tower at St Clement’s Church, Sandwich he spotted land he felt could be the perfect canvas on which to realise his vision. The links he created in 1887 has hosted more Open Championships than any other golf club in England and its routing remains largely unchanged. As I stand there reflecting on everything which make this place special, my mind goes back to the last time I walked this wonderful golf course.
July 16, 2003
Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ is No 1 in the charts and Roger Federer has just won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Another school year is coming to an end and while our classmates gear up for the final week festivities, two 15-year-olds are excitedly heading south, not a lads’ holiday or to a music festival, but to the 132nd Open Championship at Royal St George’s Golf Club.
We’ve found the cheapest bunkbed in a 50-mile radius – a youth hostel in Margate. U18s get into The Open free, but only when accompanied by an adult so the first task early the next morning is to find two suitable grownups to get us in. Luckily, a couple of friendly South Africans fit the bill.
The sights and sounds of an opening morning at The Open are rich and familiar. Tangible anticipation, the sound of generators, big white tents, the smell of coffee and bacon rolls and overheard snippets of conversation about who might lift The Claret Jug come Sunday evening.
Once we catch sight of the course, though, all of that fades away. We’d been to other Open venues but there’s something different about Royal St George’s Golf Club – more undulating, more awesome.
Then the wind freshens, the temperature drops and the rain begins to fall – sideways – true links conditions on a pure links course. Even on a still day, there’s a chance a straight-ish drive might dive off the contours on the fast, firm fairways into a steep faced bunker or, worse, the thick rough. And the severity of the slopes on some of the greens are extraordinary. Challenging? It looked impossible.
On all our Open pilgrimages, one star shone more brightly than the rest. Tiger… it was always Tiger.
As the time ticks towards to his 9.10am tee time it feels like everyone is lining the 1st hole. We watch on, wearing clothing completely unsuitable for the increasingly wet and chilly conditions. Tiger’s opening tee-shot finds wet clingy rough to the right of the fairway. Despite the world watching, his ball is lost. A few minutes later Tiger gingerly makes his way back to the tee. He would open with a 7. His compatriot Jerry Kelly would card an 11 on the same hole. Impossible? Maybe it was.
Typically, Tiger fights back just as we fight our way through the masses to follow him. It’s tiring work across the dunes but worth every step. The golf course plays every bit as much of a starring role as Tiger. The vast towering bunker to the right of the 4th and the beautiful par-3 6th are two of the most vivid images that stick in the memory.
Royal Troon’s iconic ‘Postage Stamp’ takes much of the acclaim when it comes to The Open’s greatest par 3s but the 6th at Sandwich is every bit as good. It plays to a green cradled by dunes, the largest of which serves as a natural viewing point – perhaps the best vantage point of any course on The Open rota. After Tiger’s round, a battling 73 in the ever-increasing wind, we return to ‘The Maiden’ hill on the 6th, exhausted, but elated. We don’t move from that spot for the next six hours.
The opening day’s rain eventually gives way to drier conditions, but Royal St George’s would bare its teeth in what turned out to be a wild, weird but wonderful 132nd Open Championship.
Tiger charged on the final day only to fizzle out on the back 9. Thomas Bjorn squandered a three-shot lead with four holes to play, taking three to get out of a greenside bunker on the par-3 16th. All that allowed the unheralded Ben Curtis to step forward from the shadows. The 500-1 outsider from Ohio, playing in his first major, was the only man to break par to secure one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the sport.
What of us? After four days charging around the links, we made our way wearily back home – the sand dunes of Sandwich etched in our memories. Curtis was the winner but the golf course itself had stolen the show in my mind and I was already thinking about when I would return.
May 17, 2021
It’s 18 majors for Roger Federer, Ben Curtis remains on one. The care-free 15-year-old is now a 33-year-old new father-of-one with a golden ticket. An invitation to play Royal St George’s Golf Club.
This time the smell of coffee and bacon rolls is in the clubhouse. I glance right on entering the bar to see an honours board boasting the 14 winners of The Open here since 1894 – the first to be held outside Scotland. JH Taylor would post the highest winning score en-route to victory with four rounds in the 80s. Since then, Walter Hagen (twice), Bobby Locke, Sandy Lyle and Greg Norman have all triumphed here before the unexpected wins of Curtis and Darren Clarke in 2011. It seems there are virtually no prerequisites to prevalence here. Seasoned winners and first timers alike have a chance, which is good news for me as I head to the 1st tee. Today, like most at Royal St George’s Golf Club, it’s foursomes: alternate shot helps keep the speed of play up and ensures there’s plenty of time for a hearty lunch between our rounds. I volunteer to tee off on the odd holes and therefore the nervy 1st.
The large numbering on the side of the starters’ hut reads 10:00 as I tee my ball up. Thoughts turn to Tiger’s wayward drive 18 years earlier. This time the grandstands stand empty and my tee shot leaks slightly to the right of the fairway. But the ball is in sight and, in my mind, I’m 1-up on Tiger.
One of the great features here is that no two holes run in the same direction, leaving you constantly second guessing the wind direction. Combine that with the length of the rough and the bounce of firm links fairways and it all suggests bomb and gouge may not be the right approach here. Strategy, imagination and a little bit of patience might be, however.
The par-4 5th bears that out and also provides the first glimpse of the ocean. In 1949, the 78th Open, Harry Bradshaw entered Sandwich folklore when his drive here came to rest at the bottom of a broken beer bottle. With no rules’ official in sight, Bradshaw played his ball as it lay, sending glass everywhere. He carded a six and finished runner-up.
As we reach the par-3 6th, memories of 2003 come flooding back. I glance up to the spot where I sat as a fan and imagine spectators watching on. It’s every bit as perfect as I remember, even if a 10-footer for birdie comes up just short. An early highlight on the back 9 is the 242-yard par-3 11th – the only hole played directly towards the sea. Here it can feel here like there’s no club long enough to reach to green as the wind whips off the ocean. Anything from a 9 iron to driver could be right. The 12th brings us to ‘The Hut’ – which might just be the best ‘halfway house’ in golf (Although Sunningdale Golf Club may have something to say about that).
The 14th is the second of the two par-5s at Royal St George’s Golf Club and in many ways sums up the challenge of this course. Disaster awaits a wayward blow, but if you’re accurate, a birdie is on. From here beautiful Prince’s Golf Club – itself an Open venue – comes into view. Royal Cinque Ports, host to the 1909 and 1920 Opens is also nearby – it’s a spectacular hat-trick of historic links layouts.
What of the finishing stretch? The par-3 16th was where Tony Jacklin recorded the first televised hole-in-one in 1967. History shows this hole can bite too: to the right of this green is Bjorn’s infamous bunker. My foursomes partner hits a beauty to 15-foot, which I roll into the hole, to the rapturous acclaim of the imaginary galleries. On the magnificent raised tee on 18, you feel more goosebumps. Those iconic Open grandstands surround the green some 456 yards away. It’s a classic finishing hole at any time, but with it set up for the championship, the experience is elevated still further.
I wonder what it must be like to stand here as The Champion Golfer of the Year elect on Open Sunday. The walk up to the green is every bit as special as you’d expect.
I attempt to take it all in from the putting surface. It’s a brief moment but I make a quiet vow that it will not be another 18 years before I return. Because, by George, it’s a belter.