Feature Interview with Robert McGuirk
1. Prince’s was laid out in the early 1900s by amateur architect Harry Mallaby-Deeley. Tom MacWood was a huge fan and explained why in his piece on GolfClubAtlas entitled “The Early Architects: Beyond Old Tom.” MacWood even quotes the editor of American Golfer who proclaimed HMD ‘the finest amateur golf architect in the world’ in 1914. Does the club possess much historical information about the course’s early roots and HMD?
We are fortunate to have a number of documents from the early days at Prince’s. The name Prince’s has been traced back to two sporting clubs located in Knightsbridge, London. These clubs were owned by brothers George and James Prince, whom had a rather chequered past with convictions for fraud and embezzlement. One of these clubs is now known as ‘Queens Club’ the famous tennis club. HMD involvement with the Prince brothers is not known nor is it clear how involved they were in Prince’s Mitcham which HMD purchased in 1898/99. At that time Prince’s Mitcham’s membership was made up of the elite of London Society and most importantly the political class. HMD vision was of a weekend retreat by the sea with quality golf and hotel for the London elite. This vision became reality when HMD negotiated a 40 year lease to cover the course, clubhouse and hotel in close proximity with the Earl of Guilford. The Championship course would be built to counteract the new Haskell Ball but also to accommodate families which was in contrast to Prince’s neighbours, Royal Cinque Ports and Royal St George’s. The course would provide a stern challenge for the ‘tiger’ but also provide alternative routing for the ‘Rabbit’. The new Prince’s links were laid out by HMD, Percy Lucas, Twice Open Champion H H Hilton, Herbert Fowler, J.L.Low and Cecil Hutchinson. Although it is reported that HMD and Percy Lucas were the main contributors to the design of Prince’s, Sir Guy Campbell noted in a Golf Illustrated article, “the terrain over which it stretched rather than spread, is not as mountainous as most of St George’s, nor so jumbled and short and steep as much as Deal” It is more a blending of the two, a mixture of features of charming character and killing subtlety. Construction started in 1904 but was halted halfway through 1905 as the course was being routed too much inland. Hutchinson and Lucas felt Prince’s should be a true links course and their love of Formby, Hoylake and Machrihanish prompted them to change the design by 40% from the original. The course was officially opened in 1907 by A.J.Balfour Captain of the R&A 1894 and Prime Minister 1902 – 1905.
2. The aerial in MacWood’s piece shows a course with large scale bunkers, many of which are down the middle of holes leaving no doubt that it was a very special course at that time. That was just before World War I. What occurred to the course during The Great War?
During The Great War Prince’s was commandeered by the renowned Argyll and Southern Highlanders. The course became a training ground with barbed wire erected along the foreshore and anti-aircraft guns stationed at intervals along the course. As for the golf course, a few of the older greenkeepers were retained to keep the course in sufficient shape although the horse-drawn gang mowers were hindered by shrapnel and bomb casings. The Lucas family made their own contribution by hand mowing the greens whenever possible. This basic greenkeeping allowed the locals to play the holes between the Clubhouse and Shingle End from time to time. The fact the course was playable owed a lot to the Argyll and Scotland Highlanders who believed that golf was a national game and that normality would return and war would be forgotten.
3. How does today’s course compare to the one on which Gene Sarazen won the 1932 Open Championship?
Unfortunately Prince’s was obliterated during the Second World War. The course was commandeered by the Wiltshire Regiment who had little interest in golf and used the greens for target practice which led Lord Brabazon to remark “Its like throwing darts at a Rembrandt”. The remainder of the site became a training area for the tank division. Churchill feared that Pegwell Bay would be an ideal spot for an invasion and set oil pipelines along the foreshore and planned to set these alight on invasion. With all this destruction the pre-war course barely compares to what we have today although Morrison and Campbell retained 14 of the 18 greens when they redesigned the course in 1949.
4. Tell us about Laddie Lucas. We gather he was a hero, golfer and more.
Laddie Lucas was born in the Clubhouse in 1915 (the ‘nickname’ was given to him by the soldiers of Argyle & Southern Highlanders who were billeted there). Laddie went on to succeed his father as a Cambridge Blue and on graduating from Cambridge he was interviewed by Lord Beaverbrook who gave Laddie a job as sports writer for the Daily Express, a position he held until the breakout of World War II. Lucas’ golf was of such a high standard that he played all four rounds of The Open Championship at Muirfield and went on to play in The Walker Cup before captaining the GB&I team in 1949 at Winged Foot.
In July 1942, Lucas was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The citation read:
Acting Squadron Leader Percy Belgrave LUCAS (100626), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 249 Squadron:
In July, 1942, Squadron Leader Lucas displayed great courage in an engagement against 3 bombers escorted by 14 fighters. He unhesitatingly led his squadron through the enemy’s fighter escort and diving down, they destroyed all 3 bombers, 2 of them falling in flames. Squadron Leader Lucas had destroyed 3 hostile aircraft and damaged 7 others. Wing Commander Lucas DSO saw action multiple times over Northern France and on one occasion force landed his damaged Spitfire on his beloved Prince’s. Gliding in and keeping the clubhouse as a marker, he missed the 2nd, 4th, 12th, 8th and 9th to land belly-up out of bounds just short of the River Stour. He recalled being very unhappy at the state of the greens. This landing prompted long time pal Henry Longhurst to send him a telegram which read “ Driven out of bounds again Lucas”
His memory is continued to this day with the Laddie Lucas Spoon junior event now in its 25th year that attracts junior golfers from throughout the UK & Europe; past competitors include Justin Rose and Paul Casey. The Gallery Museum situated in The Lodge highlights not only his life but also the contribution that 3 generations of the Lucas family have made to Prince’s Golf Club.
5. When did the course and club get back on its feet?
Sir Aynsley Bridgland purchased both Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports Golf Clubs in 1948 (Royal Cinque Ports was later sold to the members on Sir Aynsley’s death in 1967). The plan was to create 27 holes with a centrally located clubhouse at Shingle End, halfway between the existing clubhouse and Bloody Point. Due to post war planning restrictions this was unfortunately rejected and it was not until 1952 before the course re-opened.
6. Who did the work on the course in the 1950s?
The plan to renovate the war torn links started in 1948. Sir Aynsley commissioned John Morrison and Sir Guy Campbell to re-design the 18 hole Championship Links turning Prince’s into 27 holes. The instruction was for Morrison and Campbell to design an 18 hole course and a 9 hole course, not three 9 hole courses which we have today. We are fortunate to have John Morrison’s hand written notes and Morrison states that he designed 14 holes and Sir Guy Campbell 13 holes. Morrison wrote that the course was unrecognisable with barely a blade of grass on the greens although thankfully little sign of weeds. Work commenced on July 4th 1949 the day after The Open Championship started at Royal St George’s. The plans were affirmed by Sir Aynsley Bridgland, JB Beck former Walker Cup Captain, Sir Geoffrey Howard a past Captain of Royal St George’s and S.V. Denne committee member of Royal Cinque Ports. The Red and Blue courses were ready for play on May 11th 1951 with holes made up of land previously used for golf. The remaining 9 holes were set on the land between the original course and the sea. Morrison and Campbell constructed many large teeing grounds meaning that the course could be lengthened or shortened depending on wind direction. Morrison mentioned that like St. Andrews, these teeing grounds could provide short carries to the fairway and would give the ‘duffer’ as much enjoyment as the scratch player. Morrison and Campbell managed to integrate 14 of the 18 original greens (greens 4, 12, 14 & 16 were discarded). The 6th blue (2nd Himalayas) which teed off from the same tee as the old 3rd would now dogleg left to a green situated under a sand dune instead of a blind shot over the Himalayas bunkers to the double green. It was also decided that the many obsolete bunkers would be removed from the original course meaning that only 11 of the 27 holes at the time had green side bunkers but it was felt that large run offs would test the recovery of the player.
7. We understand that holes were reconfigured with some going in different and even opposite directions from their precursors? Is that accurate? Wonder why the decision was made to move so far away from HMD’s design?
The decision to move away from HMD design was taken by Sir Aynsley. Bridgland detested blind holes and with this in mind Campbell and Morrison were instructed to design a course where all hazards were visible both from the tee and for approach shots.
8. The ‘new’ 27 holes that emerged post-war were well received as witnessed by 1956 Curtis Cup being played there. Tell us more about the Brits’ win over the American ladies.
In the Gallery (clubhouse museum) I believe we have the earliest film of Curtis Cup golf and as can be seen on the film the weather throughout the tournament was awful. We also have a transcript from the USGA who collated interviews with the US team. Their journey took the best part of a week through terrible weather. Landing on June 2nd, a welcome party was held at Rest Harrow in Sandwich Bay the home of Lady Astor the first women to be seated in the House of Commons. It was a lively party hosted by the woman famed for remarking to Winston Churchill “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee”. To which Churchill replied “If I were your husband, I’d drink it”. The match began on 8th June in atrocious weather with 45 mph winds but even in these challenging conditions the Americans battled through to lead 2-1. The next day as the weather abated the teams faced six grueling 36 hole singles matches. GB&I won three of the first five matches which left The Curtis Cup finely balanced at 4-4 with the remaining pair playing the last hole. Polly Riley and Bunty Stephens-Smith teed off in front of the large gallery and after Riley sliced her approach Stephens-Smith struck an excellent iron shot to within 8 feet from where she two putted to secure only the second victory in The Curtis Cup for GB&I.
9. What was your first exposure to the course? What are your recollections? Favourite holes back then?
I started playing golf around the age of 4 or 5 spending a lot of time on the putting green outside the clubhouse where The Lodge now resides. My earliest memory of being on the course would be in the early 80’s; we had a great junior section run by our junior organiser, Joan Piper. Every August the club would put on a junior open week with a variety of competitions which was great for getting families together. As a junior I would spend hours chipping and putting on the holes with the best green complexes. My favourites Holes /ike 5 Shore, 6 Dunes and 7 Himalayas all had huge run offs, and I would often take a dozen or so balls down to these greens and practice a number of different short game shots.
10. When did you and your family take ownership of the club?
My family took ownership of the club in 1976.
11. More to the point, why did you and your family take ownership?
In part, clearly you think golf/golf courses are a good investment. My father had purchased some land at Port Richborough which is just outside Sandwich when he became aware that Prince’s had come up for sale. It was relatively inexpensive considering the size of the land and although he had no connection with golf at this point, the history of Prince’s intrigued him.
12. Recently, you employed Ebert & McKenzie. Please talk about the hiring process. Did you speak with others and what made you select them?
We did discuss other designers but Martin Ebert was our first choice. The works carried out at Turnberry and Royal Portrush by Martin were seen as a huge success. Another factor is that we host or co-host a significant number of R&A tournaments (10 from 2011-2021) and Martin was their “go to” architect, we felt that his appointment would be the best option. Martin and Mike Howard spend a significant amount of time investigating the club’s history and look to restore past features which was something we were very much in favour of.
13. Several past versions of Prince’s exist so … what are their marching orders?
For his work to the Himalayas we basically gave Martin a blank canvas. We had spoken to numerous course raters and the overwhelming feedback was that we had not used the duneland to give views of the sea, we had no holes facing the sea, no risk and reward holes and that our par three holes were all similar lengths. All of these comments have been addressed and the new feedback from our guests has exceeded expectations.
14. What is the schedule of work? When will it finish? What’s been done?
We opened the Himalayas on May 1st and the course has bedded in very nicely. Works have now moved onto Shore/Dunes and the plan will be to remove obsolete/poorly positioned bunkers, renovate and reappoint tee positions, and integrate grass paths to improve the flow of the course. We have plans to build a new par 3 on the Shore to overcome a pinch point between 7 Shore and 1 Dunes, this hole will face the sea but will have a different green complex to “Bloody Point” the par 3 added to the Himalayas. The works will be completed by the end of February.
15. What is an example of a poor or indifferent hole that you think will significantly be improved?
It was felt the weakest hole on the 27 was the 8th Himalayas. It was a straight away par 4 around 400 yards. The only redeeming feature was that it ended at the only double green at Prince’s. We moved the tee up on the dune to enable views of the sea and carved out wetlands both left and on the carry to the green. The holes measure around 300 yards but if you take on the green it plays more like 260 yards. The hole can be played a number of different ways from a 7 iron lay up of the cross bunker, a long iron aimed at a lone fir in the distance (we took down 400 trees on the new Himalayas) or a drive at the green. Martin lowered the swale on the left and the green falls away by around 2 meters on the right. Out of all the holes that have been re-designed this hole has been best received.
16. Being so near Sandwich, Rye and Deal is the equivalent of Shinnecock, NGLA and Maidstone on Long Island – a tough neighborhood! Prince’s needs to have great holes. What is an example of a hole that you think will rival the quality of some of the famous ones along the Channel?
We feel being surrounded by great courses is a positive, Royal St George’s is one of my favourite courses and I am fortunate to play there with members on occasion. Prince’s greatest attribute is its location. We are set right on the shore line unlike our neighbours and with the recently upgraded Himalayas course we have great views of the sea. One aspect about Prince’s is that we have no weak holes now that the Himalayas has been upgraded and in my opinion the 7th Himalayas is a brilliant hole. This par 3 can play anything from a wedge to a driver depending on wind and has huge run off areas right and left of the green.
17. How will Prince’s standout as a place to join? One differentiator is that you offer modern, comfortable on-site lodging. Can guests book rooms or only members?
There are many reasons to join Prince’s. We have a great history, being one of only 14 clubs to host The Open Championship notwithstanding the fact that Gene Sarazen used the first sand wedge to win the tournament. We are very relaxed allowing 4 ball golf at all times and we have competitions for our members every weekend. The practice facilities are amongst the best in the UK and we have a number of arrangements with clubs locally and abroad for our membership. Prince’s is located only 1hr and 20 minutes from London by train and our weather is generally warmer than anywhere else in the UK.
The Lodge is open to all, both members and visitors. Members receive a preferential rate in The Lodge as do visitors when they book a golf package.
18. The British private club model differs from the U.S. in that non-members are allowed to play unaccompanied at certain times. How much does your business model rely on outside play?
Here in the UK we only have a handful of what you would call private golf clubs which you can only be played with a member. At Prince’s we strike a balance among members, daily fee and hotel guests. We only have 400 members but they constitute 40% of the rounds played. Lodge golf and daily fee make up the rest and these percentages work well for us. Having 27 holes is a huge bonus as it is very rare that you cannot get on the course.
19. What would you like to tell golfers who are coming to the region?
We have a great stretch of golf in the South East with Prince’s, Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports all within 5 miles of each other. The fact that all three clubs accept visitors including set 4 ball days makes the courses accessible. Prince’s is the perfect location to stay and we can arrange transport to and from the courses making the stay hassle free. The weather in the South East of England is normally better than both Scotland and Ireland plus we are only 1hr 45 minutes from Heathrow and 1hr 20 minutes from central London by train, so it’s easy to visit!