Some 12 miles north of Dover, Royal St George’s opened in 1887, designed to be the English equivalent of St Andrews. So successful were the efforts of Dr Laidlaw Purves, of Royal Wimbledon, who both found the land and then designed the course, that just seven years later it became the first club outside of Scotland to host The Open. Dr Purves would doubtless be delighted to know that a sense of patriotism still pervades this corner of Kent, with the cross of England’s patron saint adorning the flag on each and every hole outside of Open week.
In all, 13 Opens have been held here, most recently in 2011 when an emotional Darren Clarke won his maiden major. Partly as a response to the low scoring during Sandwich Open’s in the late 20th century and partly because of the continued improvement in equipment since, the course sets up now slightly differently to how it did in the recent past, and is ready to host The Open once more in 2020.
In all there are nine new tees that add a total of 246 yards to the course. Most significantly, there is a new green at the par-five 14th, the Canal Hole, close to the out-of-bounds fence that runs down the right of the hole.
Meanwhile at the 4th, best known for the gargantuan Himalaya bunkers that conceal all of the fairway beyond, a new tee has been created that recreates the original angle of the hole, making it into a par five demanding a carry of some 260 yards to clear the bunkers.
Fortunately for mere mortals this intimidating tee is only in play during championships. The pros, for their part, will doubtless be happier that it has been turned into that rarest of species these days – a par five in a tournament under 500 yards.
Although St George’s features as many as seven blind tee shots – and there is not a single marker post on the course – at most holes driver is an option from the tee with only the occasional bunker threatening.
The real challenge comes closer to the greens where a combination of factors will put a great premium on the short game. Fairways often dissolve into rough hillocks, obligatory steep-faced bunkers gather shots from all around while severely sloped gullies tend to gather imprecise approaches.
These run-off areas are never more in evidence than at the short par-four 9th. What would otherwise be a straightforward hole features a plateau green that cruelly kicks away less than perfect shots in all four directions. Needless to say, subsequently saving par can be nigh on impossible. As with all links courses, judging the strength and direction of the wind will be critical.
All the more so here because, amazingly, no two successive holes run in the same direction. That should guarantee that one nine will not play significantly easier than the other, as well as demanding constant scrutiny from the players.
Fairways often dissolve into rough hillocks, obligatory steep-faced bunkers gather shots from all around while severely sloped gullies tend to gather imprecise approaches.
Because of the towering dunes and expanses of wasteland that cover much of the central ground on the course, there is a sense of isolation on many holes and it can be difficult to gain one’s bearings.
The first seven holes, with the exception of the short 6th, keep the boundary of the course roughly to their right but after that only the long 14th gives any sense of being close to the perimeter. The contrast with Lytham, walled in on all four sides, could not be more marked.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the shape of the links is from the high ground of the 5th tee from where it is possible to see several holes, each winding in its own distinct directions. From here, and then again on the par-five 7th, are to be found the best views of the English Channel and the resort of Margate, otherwise obscured by the dunes.
The key to success at Augusta is often said to lie in taking advantage of the par fives, at least two of which are reachable with a drive and an iron. Here all three of the par fives, apart from in extreme conditions, will be within range in two for most of the field.
The 14th will probably see the greatest range of scores, with out of bounds down the right and the Suez Canal running across the fairway some 330 yards from the tee but well within reach in dry conditions and depending on the wind.
At St George’s, how the four short holes are negotiated will be every bit as critical. Two are long and punishing while the others are more subtle but eminently capable of extracting a double bogey from the unwary.
From the tee at the 3rd, it seems there are only two possible destinations: the oasis of the narrow-looking green or the voracious rough that surrounds it on all sides. Uniquely among Open layouts, it is a par three without a single bunker. Nor does it need one. The long green, which is on two tiers, dictates that club selection will typically range between a three and a six iron.
The famous 6th, The Maiden, presents a different set of problems with the green subtly set at an angle to the tee and four bunkers each protecting the green on one side. And anyone who finds the 3rd a challenge, at 210 yards, will wince at the 11th, some 30 yards longer. At least at the latter there is more room for error, with a generous green awaiting.
Finally to the 16th, which is the shortest at 163 yards. However, by way of recompense it normally plays into the wind. With its eight bunkers, par is generally considered a good score. Like any Open venue, Sandwich also has its fair share of brutally-long par fours.
More often than not the 15th proves to be the toughest. Measuring 478 yards and with no less than five bunkers in play off the tee, it is sobering to note that the real difficulty lies nearer the green.
Three cross bunkers deceptively placed just short of the green obscure the player’s view to a green which falls away dramatically to the right. Plenty of approaches will finish down there come July and only those with the deftest of touches will be able to save their par.
Nor is the opening hole likely to yield many threes. A trio of hollows around driving distance can make the approach awkward and, at 441 yards, it is hardly a gentle start. If only because of the prevailing wind, the 2nd should offer some respite and with the 4th a short par five, a hot start is not out of the question.
In 1993 John Daly drove the 421-yard 5th, sending his wind-assisted drive across the corner of the dog-leg and beyond the huge dunes which separate what is intended to be the fairway from the approach to the green.
A quite exceptional hole, if the tee shot finds the right part of the fairway, it is possible to get a view of the flag between the dunes. Otherwise it demands a medium to long iron struck into what looks to be oblivion beyond the hillocks.
The tough 8th is another hole where the fairway is interrupted by uneven ground while the 9th can play much longer than its 389 yards would suggest and demands respect.
From this point, right in the heart of the course, the 10th travels relentlessly uphill to a green which falls away at the back. The 12th is all about finding the right position from the tee and will provide an opportunity to make up a shot which could well be lost again at the 13th, where a long second is almost inevitable.
The final two holes are every bit as difficult as they should be, with the 17th particularly dramatic, played to a crumpled fairway and eventually a slightly-raised green.
The 18th, a left-to-right dog-leg demanding a faded tee-shot which the wind should facilitate, features a narrow green with the famous Duncan’s Hollow gathering anything slightly left of target, including Sandy Lyle’s ball on his way to winning in 1985.