It is close to a century now since Royal Cinque Ports hosted the more recent of its two Open Championships. That was back in 1920, the first Open after the Great War, when George Duncan recovered from an opening pair of 80s to win his only Claret Jug. Since then this historic old links has hosted most amateur events of significance, including three British Amateurs and two Brabazon Trophies, as well as acting as a final qualifying venue whenever neighbouring Sandwich has hosted The Open.
But if the club achieves its ultimate aim, Royal Cinque Ports will once again play host to the game’s most historic tournament. Just a few years ago, they embarked on a plan that would “restore the course to its true links nature” and asked Donald Steel, the architect, to suggest possible amendments and improvements.
The aim was to produce a course sufficiently long and challenging to host a major event. Whether that comes in the form of a third Open Championship, a Walker Cup or a fourth British Amateur remains to be seen.
Given the safety issues presented by the sea wall that runs along one side of the course, and the complications that being an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) creates, hosting an Open could be problematic. But in terms of the length, difficulty and nature of the course, there would be no such doubts.
It was thought desirable to find a third English venue to match the trio of Scottish hosts and the choice came down to Westward Ho! and Deal. The latter was favoured, not least because it would be the longest course on the rota. Then, just as it is now, length was a sensitive issue.
JH Taylor won the last of his five Open titles in the first Deal Open and when the championship returned 11 years later it appeared to have become an established venue. But twice in the next 30 years, scheduled Opens had to be moved elsewhere at the last minute.
On both occasions, according the club’s history, “an abnormally high tide and easterly wind swept the sea over the course”. Curiously, Henry Cotton was the defending champion in each of the two years in question.
Since then Cinque Ports has continued to host prestigious events but it was felt the time had come to modernise the existing layout. The new changes will stretch it to well over 7,000 yards from the back tees, but the club are keen to stress they are also committed to providing their members with a truer, more authentic links for day-to-day play.
It was felt that the course had become too soft, due to a proliferation of rye and meadow grasses allied to over-watering. Also, the original greens had shrunk away from the bunkers over a period of years, meaning the sand was not as much in play as it should have been for better players and pin positions were more accessible.
It is the club’s aim that the chip-and-run and the putter from off the green will be shots restored to the golfer’s armoury. As for the building of new tees, that was largely a matter of choosing which holes would most benefit from extra yards.
Having hosted the Open twice in the pre-war era Royal Cinque Ports has the raw materials to do it again, with stunning views of the channel and a recently extended testing links set up.
Unlike many courses of its age – Deal was first opened as a nine-holer back in 1892 – space is not a problem. Built on a narrow but unusually long piece of land that gradually widens as it stretches from the outskirts of town almost all the way to Royal St George’s in neighbouring Sandwich, many holes could still be lengthened further.
But as those who have played here in any kind of a breeze can testify, that really isn’t necessary. The prevailing wind blows directly into the last seven holes, making them a fearsome proposition. Andrew Reynolds, the club’s long-serving professional, tells apocryphal stories about opening nines close to 30 being followed by inward halves nearer to 50.
Henry Hunter designed the original course and several of his holes still exist in some form today. James Braid, the great revisionist of course design, completed the 18 holes in 1919 and Guy Campbell, assisted by Cotton, restored the layout after the Second World War.
Steel’s work, therefore, will be, broadly speaking, Deal’s fourth incarnation. You sense it will be something of a labour of love for him to work with such a great links. The course gradually builds to a crescendo, though the front nine is not without highlights.
They come in the form of the par-five 3rd with its hidden, sunken green and the 4th, a classic point-to-point short hole named ‘Sandy Parlour’. The course is at its flattest, and therefore least distinguished, at the far end, but from the moment the golfer arrives on the 12th tee the holes are unrelenting and, almost without exception, great.
Three particularly stand out. On the 421-yard 13th, two bunkers protect the angle of the dogleg, tempting the long hitter to carry them and set up a straightforward approach.
Then there is the long 16th, which can be reachable in two but demands a brave, accurate drive. The green is one of those rare links delights, its particular shape and contours unique.
The tee shot at the 17th, meanwhile, is the easy part. It should finish in Vardon’s Parlour, a large hollow, from where you will be able to see the top of the flag beyond two yawning cross bunkers but little else.
Judging the distance is incredibly hard, as is taking into account the slopes and nuances of the green. During this final stretch, as Bernard Darwin once said of the course, “the fives are likely to be many and the fours few”. If The Open does ever return to Deal it would provide a stunning conclusion to the championship.