Area guide: Kent, England
The three Open-hosting links are the Kent golf courses that naturally receive the large majority of exposure, and planning a trip without playing at least two of these illustrious tracks of rare pedigree is unthinkable.
But they are far from the whole story in the ‘Garden of England’ because this county in the South East has as much depth to its courses as anywhere else in the country, except perhaps for Southport.
Adding to the appeal is the fact the key trio – Royal St George’s, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s are all located pleasingly close to each other – and that a couple of the other courses can be played on the way to or from the coast, to form a really strong two or three-day itinerary.
The presence of so many seaside courses means Kent is also one of the best domestic options over the winter; the links courses genuinely are in fabulous order all year round.
Kent golf courses: Royal St George’s
This golfer’s favourite course in England – and despite obviously strong competition, it isn’t even a particularly close contest. That’s how highly I rate Sandwich; there is no more characterful or character-building place to play in England.
It probably helps that I play the game for entertainment rather than for my living or even to be especially good at the game – which is why Sandwich is often criticised by professionals and amateurs who assiduously keep a scorecard.
But if you want fun, variety and eccentricity on a championship course, this is a far better option in my opinion than Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham et al.
Sandwich divides opinion by virtue of its topography, with the humps and hollows that lend it such character leading to occasional bad bounces and as a result mysteriously lost balls.
So it is easy to appreciate why this scenario makes Jack Nicklaus et al immune to its charms but for the rest of us it is surely a magical links.
Bring some imagination, insouciance and humour to Kent and you will love it; its uncertainties represent the essence of the links game.
While some of the original blind shots have been removed, enough still remain to enchant. Little of the uneven ground on which Sandwich was built has been softened.
It is not crazy golf on steroids though; beyond its madcap features lies a fearsome challenge that stretches beyond the 7,200-yard mark.
The bunkers, as Thomas Bjorn illustrated in 2003, are not to be taken lightly either.
Leave those tees to the pros though and it is playable even in a breeze. You don’t come here to be beaten up.
A lot of the amusement comes around the greens, full of slopes, nuance and character. It could be trying to negotiate the ridge that runs along the 9th green or trying to hold chips on these slippery surface.
Of course there is the enormous bunker, standing the height of a double-decker bus on the 4th tee, but Sandwich is about a lot more than remarkable one-off features.
This is a 18-hole fun journey for enlightened golfers.
Kent golf courses: Royal Cinque Ports
Royal Cinque Ports can safely be placed in the same bag as St Andrews (New), Western Gailes and Sunningdale (New), courses that would likely be more highly rated if they didn’t sit next to acknowleged superstars.
Because excuse the pun, Royal Cinque Ports is the real deal. You don’t need to take my word for it though, you can just look at the image above and marvel at the brilliance of the natural green complex. This is what ‘Deal’ is all about, just as Sandwich is; entertaining holes laid out on funky terrain.
It starts relatively quietly but soon warms up with a terrific par 5 at the 3rd, stretching to 509 yards and incorporating an exciting fairway that leads to a narrow green incorporating significant movement.
It is followed by a super short hole, played from an elevated tee to an angled green with steep run-offs on both sides. A fun hole, whatever the wind.
The rugged terrain and clever run-offs around undulating greens continue into the back nine, with one of the highlights the 16th, a par 5 where the elevated green is protected by a large dune.
A game at Deal also comes with considerable history, having hosted the Open 1909 and 1930. It was due to do so in 1949, but for the sea flooding the layout.
Kent golf courses: Knole Park
Knole Park is located within 1,000 acres of parkland so tranquil it is home to south-east England’s most populous deer herd.
National Trust property Knole House and the eponymous park are the elegant backdrops for this design collaboration between two greats; JF Abercromby and James Braid.
Founded in 1924, there are six lovely short holes – an ‘Aber’ trait – as well as a stellar par 5 at the 8th and wonderful two shotters such as the dogleg 11th among trees and bracken.
Kent golf courses: London Club
The London Club has two courses, the Heritage and International but only the latter can be played by visitors.
The International has a downland feel with fast-running undulating fairways and Jack Nicklaus’ design team has incorporated risk-and-reward tee shots over water. In super condition all year round despite being inland.
Kent golf courses: Prince’s
The topography at Prince’s isn’t quite as dramatic as that of its neighbours, but it does have an extra loop of nine and if it was anywhere else in the country save for Southport it would be even more highly regarded.
The Shore and Dunes nines – recently restored by Gary Johnstone of European Golf Design – have long been deemed the pick but following Martin Ebert’s renovation of the Himalayas there is now a very balanced offering here.
Its Open was in 1932, when Gene Sarazen won using the forerunner to the sand wedge, a club now on show in a clubhouse full of historical interest.
Related: Why Prince’s is getting a facelift
Standout holes include the 5th on the Shore, a par 4 that concludes on a sloping, domed green on the boundary with Sandwich and next to the Lodge accommodation.
It was the 18th in The Open. The next is another super par 4, with a ridge line running diagonally across the front of the green that makes your approach extremely exacting.
Kent golf courses: Littlestone
There is yet more high-class links in Kent; further down the coast towards the border with Sussex sits Littlestone – an Open qualifier yet with a strangely low profile given its pedigree and quality.
Founded in 1888, it is a traditional club that encourages visitors to get round in three hours as either a single, two-ball or foursomes. However, don’t mistake this for anything other than an exceptionally friendly club.
James Braid, Alastair MacKenzie and Donald Steel are among those to have had input in routing these fast-running fairways and slick greens. Sitting on the fringe of Romney Marshes means it is one of the driest places in the country.
Kent golf courses: Chart Hills
Finally to Chart Hills. Sir Nick Faldo’s American-style design is decorated by oaks, water and, famously, sand.
The ‘Anaconda’ bunker on the 5th which snakes for 200 yards up the left of the par 5 and the sand-strewn scene on the last fairway dominate visions of this inland course but in fact, there is usually lots of fairway to locate and we’ve always found the large but undulating greens its biggest defence.
Kent golf courses: Anything else?
North Foreland is a clifftop course of good fun and superb views is probably the ‘best of the rest’. You can see the sea from all tees and greens and the fairways are wide and forgiving – which is necessary given it is often breezy.
Travel essentials for your trip
When to go: Well it is pot luck really. However, it is definitely true that as far as GB&I trips go, this is a year-round destination; warmer and drier than most areas, even when it is wet and cold the links will categorically be in absolutely sensational condition. The stats suggest that spring is much drier than autumn but not as warm.
Price point: Sandwich is the key; play it and it is an expensive trip as it is £225. That said, Prince’s have a deal to play the three Open venues and stay in its Lodge. Or, from November to March you get one night in the Lodge, two rounds, breakfast, and a two-course dinner for £109pp, Sunday-Thursday, or £140 Friday-Sunday.
Accommodation: Easy – The Lodge at Prince’s. Opened in May 2012, it sits at the entrance to Prince’s, right on the boundary with Royal St George’s. There are 38 en-suite bedrooms with views across the links or the Bay of Sandwich. Breakfast is served downstairs, where there is also a bar and restaurant. Perfect in every respect.
The journey: You might automatically assume you need to drive to Kent no matter where you live in Britain. In fact, whether you do or not depends whether you choose a varied itinerary of links and inland courses or whether you simply head for the star-studded links. For the former, you can actually get the train from Charing Cross to Sandwich – because once there you can almost walk everywhere you need to go! Add in inland courses and you pick those off as you head down the M2 or M20.
Other GB golf trips
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