Royal St. George’s Golf Club
Royal St. George‘s tends to polarise opinions. Several noted professional golfers including Jack Nicklaus cite it as their least favorite Open course while several of the game’s great chroniclers including Bernard Darwin place it on their short list of very favorites. How can there be such disparity?
The answer lies in one’s personal definition for the characteristics that define greatness. If you are Jack Nicklaus, you might argue for the merits of Muirfield over Royal St. George‘s as you believe that hazards should be seen so that playing strategies can be developed accordingly. If you are Bernard Darwin, perfect optics strike you as a bit mundane, a bit too matter of fact for the nuanced game of golf. Without the occasional bad bounce or blind shot, is the game nearly as fun?
To the author’s mind, Royal St. George‘s embodies the best of both worlds: big clean hitting is required across this expansive links while at the same time it retains a charm and quirk unlike all the other Open rota courses save for The Old Course at St. Andrews.
Royal St. George‘s has hosted the Open Championship thirteen times, in 1894, 1899, 1904, 1911, 1922, 1928, 1934, 1938, 1949, 1981, 1985, 1993 (!), and 2003. It is scheduled to host the 2011 Championship as well. As its holes have been markedly changed in order to continue to host golf’s most important event, Royal St. George‘s makes for a fascinating study in the development of golf course architecture for over a century. Understanding when, what and who drove certain changes to this historic links traces the evolution of the game as well. For instance, the shift from gutta-percha to the rubber core Haskell brought alterations to the course prior to hosting the 1911 Open. As golf course architecture became more defined during its Golden Age, the desire to balance the length of the two nines drove further changes. After World War II, blind shots became out of vogue and thus, the course fell from favor until modifications were made in the mid-1970s. Yet, throughout all its variations, Royal St. George‘s has remained true to its founder’s vision of being an epic test in one of the game’s great secluded settings, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 440 yards; Pat Ward-Thomas selected this as his ideal opening hole in the 1976 edition of The World Atlas of Golf. In particular, he wrote, ‘The paramount requirements for an opening hole is that it should enable play to flow from the outset… It should also whet the golfer’s appetite for the test ahead, a mission more easily accomplished should its prospect be instantly appealing.’The rumpled fairway lets the golfer know that this is real links golf, with allowances needing to be made for the stance and wind all round long. Interestingly enough, the bunkering scheme on the first is different to the initial one devised by Laidlaw Purves. Originally, he had one large bunker guarding the high left side of the green. Today, one finds a string of three bunkers cut into that same ridge just prior to the green, with the bunkers extending more across the front of the green than previously. Also, a bunker was later added seventy-five yards from the green in the middle of the fairway. Given that Laidlaw Purves was a huge fan of cross hazards, as articulated in his 1911 paper A Defence of Cross Hazards as a Test of the Game,no doubt he would approve.
Second hole, 415 yards; Royal St. George‘s has the ability to continue to host Open Championships in part because it has the luxury of space. Thus, its holes can grow in length and keep pace with the modern game. Here at the second is a fine example.When Laidlaw Purves laid it out in the days of hickories and gutta-percha balls, the hole measured just over 300 yards, calling for a drive and niblick.When steel shafts took over the game, the tee was moved to the right and back, bringing the hole to 375 yards. Then for the 2003 Championship, the same playing angles were preserved but the tee was stretched back another forty yards. Despite nearly 120 years of play to the same green site, golfers are still likely to play a driver/nine iron to this hole.
Third hole, 210 yards; Bernard Darwin dearly loved the old third, an unconventional hole in the 280 yard range that called for a blind shot toward a green tucked down in the dunes. After Bobby Locke’s Open win in1949, the hole sadly fell from favor, owing to its blind nature and its element of chance. Traditionalists such as Darwin never wavered in their support but the ‘new purists’ sniffed at its blindness. Because of this hole and a couple of other quirks, no invitation was forthcoming from the Royal & Ancient to host the Open again. By the early 1970s, eager to change that, the club brought in Frank Pennink. He made three significant changes to the course, with the first here and the other two at the eighth and eleventh as we see later.
Fourth hole, 495 yards; The ideal tee shot is over the second deepest bunker in England, behind only the sixth fairway bunker at St. Enodoc. However, the carry must be negotiated here with the driver as opposed to a shortish iron at St. Enodoc. Once accomplished, the approach shot is actually the harder of the two shots as it ascends to a heavily contoured green high on a dune. Many a double bogey and worse was scored here in the 1985 Open when it averaged 4.66 for the world’s best. The Royal & Ancient called it a par five for the 2003 Open, only so they wouldn’t have to listen to the professionals whine. For scale and for sheer exuberance, no hole on the current Open rota matches it.
Fifth hole, 420 yards; This hole and the next were par threes under Laidlaw Purves‘s initial routing. One reason is that the dune line down the left ran all the way to the property’s edge. Laidlaw Purves didn’t have the inclination, the equipment or the budget to alter the dun escape. However, all that changed within twenty-five years from the course’s opening. A gap was knocked into the dune some three hundred yards from the tee and a new, bunkerless green was built on the dune’s other (left) side. Thus, today’s striking par four was born.
Sixth hole, 170 yards; Curiously for a course with so many standout holes, the most famous one at Royal St. George‘s hasn’t existed for over seventy years! Laidlaw Purves first built The Maiden as a blind par three played over the top of the tallest dune on the property. Essentially, it played at a right angle to the hole of today (i.e. the tee was near the bunkers in the photograph above of the fifth hole). When St. George’s first opened, it was enormously difficult, given the number of blind shots combined with Laidlaw Purves‘s love of cross hazards. Case in point: the winning score for the 1894 Open was 326 (!). The change in the fifth hole from a par three to par four was done in conjunction with the desire to move this tee to the other side of the dune and build a more conventional par three. The sixth is still called the Maiden and it’s a fine hole, though not one of the best on the course.
Seventh hole, 530 yards; The land upon which the front nine is routed over is wild and tumbling; no wonder Laidlaw Purves settled upon it for building his ideal golf course. It would be nonsensical not to have at least one or two blind tee shots as otherwise, the holes simply would not be reflective of the land upon which they are on.Thus, traditionalists, more so than golfers with the card and pencil mentality, delight at the sight of the skyline fairway at the seventh. Though it has been massaged over the decades,the dune escape over which the fairway falls still presents the classic uncertainty of a blind tee ball.