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Course Review: Royal St. George's (Sandwich, U.K.)

The rambling fifth hole at Royal St. George's.

The rambling fifth hole at Royal St. George's.

Course Review: Royal St. George’s

Location: Sandwich, UK

I’ve played all over Scotland, tried some of the best in Ireland, but until last week I had never played in England. That would change with Royal St. George’s, the first of my tour of English courses by train. The concept was relatively simple — with my wife working in London for a few days after a anniversary vacation that took us through Wales, I had the chance to sneak away for a couple of days of golf. Since we were staying in London — which features some of the worst traffic anywhere — I thought it would be intriguing to try to play without aid of an auto. So I investigated a train pass that would allow me to get to the courses without fighting gridlock from the wrong side of the road.

Picking a hotel in London that allowed easy access to the tube and the train was central to making my plans work. In this case it was suggested I stay at the Draycott Hotel, a boutique hotel located off a side street near Sloane Square in Chelsea. It was the perfect choice — especially since I’m not a fan of large hotels. With only 35 rooms — all apparently named after famed actors that worked in the London theatre — the Draycott was cozy and cool. It had old world charm and an all-world location, which was exactly what I was looking for.

The Draycott Hotel in Sloane Square.

The Draycott Hotel in Sloane Square.

That meant a short walk to the tube station for a quick trip to Waterloo Station on my first morning. Sandwich is about two hours away by train and the club agreed to send someone to the station to meet me and take me to the club. So everything was set.

Needless to say, among the morning commuters carrying their briefcases, a guy with golf clubs over his shoulder seems a little out of place. Anyway, I was so early on this day that getting through the subway and onto my train wasn’t an issue. In about a half hour I had my laptop out and was typing away as the train chugged through the English countryside.

I arrived at Sandwich on a bright, sharp day. The club sent its clubhouse manager to pick me up from the train station — something it does about a dozen times a year — and take me on the two minute drive to the course. Sandwich, for those not familiar with it, is on the South-east coast of the UK, and was the first course in England to host the British Open. Bobby Jones would captain the Walker Cup team there in 1930 and the last winner of the Open Championship at Sandwich was Ben Curtis. The course will host the championship again next year.

For starters, the club could not have been more accommodating.  I was told to make myself comfortable and head to the range when I felt like it — which was cool since most links I’m familiar with don’t have a range at all. I grabbed a cup of coffee and looked at the club’s  library “ which, as you might guess, was quite spectacular. Robert Hunters The Links, first edition copies of Art of Golf, Simpson and Wethered, and others dating back to the late 19th century. Super cool. Of course they were behind glass so I didnt bother anyone about them. Grabbed a coffee, changed out of the suit and tie (worn so I could have lunch in the restaurant), and hit the range, which was nice after a couple of weeks of not playing.

My second surprise was the openness of the club. Most Scottish links insist you play the “yellow” or visitor tees. I always thought this was ridiculous, especially since visitors foot a big part of their annual costs. If I arrive with a handicap card showing I’m a low handicapper, and I keep pace, why not allow me to play from a yardage where the hazards are actually in play? St. Andrews, btw, is terrible for this, forcing most guests to play from 6,000 yards, removing many of the bunkers from becoming part of the game, at least off the tee. That wasn’t the case at Sandwich, where I went to the first tee and was told by the caddie master that I could play any deck I wished. I chose the 6,700 yard deck, which seemed plenty for a par-70.

Like a lot of links, the first hole was just an opener. Not overly difficult nor particularly appealing. The course became interesting on the second, a par-4 with its inner angle protected by two pot bunkers. That also led to a theme for the course. The approach was slightly uphill, with parts of the greens were regularly obscured “ you werent entirely sure how much you could get away with. This would happen again and again — partial blindness. You knew where the green was, but on first glance it was often hard to see how far it extended.

I really loved the way the various architects (and everyone seems to have had a kick at this place) used visual elements throughout “ often giving you a clear look at part of a green, but not the whole green. Doug Carrick did that occasionally at Eagles Nest, but I think it is something we dont see often enough in modern architecture. It was common at places like Royal Portrush and Royal County Down — and really sets those two courses apart. It isnt blindness “ but maybe partial blindness. Fascinating.

The par-3 third, long regarded as one of the best at RSG.

The par-3 third, long regarded as one of the best at RSG.

 The third hole is much heralded “ but as a long three I thought it was good, but not exceptional. I really liked the next two holes “ a par-4 where the tee shot was a draw over two massive bunkers to a fairway that rumbled like Highlands Links. The next hole “ the fifth “ was tremendous, playing from an elevated tee down to a fairway that was bisected by a some rumpled mounds that obscured the green. Since it played into the wind, I was hitting 5-iron, and the goal of the tee shot was to be on the left side of the fairway to get a glimpse of the green. Of course that brought bunkers into play. That was one of the other themes I found “ bunkers were always placed near the spots you wanted to land your ball “ which is as it should be. I found the rest of the front nine to be similar “ the 8th had an amazing green site, with wild linksland in between the fairway and the green, and the ninth played into a neat valley with a great green.

The muscular 12th, a 240-yard par-3.

The muscular 12th, a 240-yard par-3.

The back nine is not perhaps as strong, but that’s largely because the land isn’t as fascinating as what appears earlier in the round. Ten played on the other side of the valley to a skyline green (with a neat bunker off to the right of the green that was hidden from the approach). The 11th was just another long three with a cool green,  while 12 had a great green site, with the right side once again obscured on the approach. The 13th hole was tough as nails, but I cant say it verwhelmed me as a hole and 14, the only five on the back nine, was straight forward, with an awkward burn running through at 330 yards. The finishing stretch was rock solid and exacting. The 15th was arguably the hardest hole on the course at 440 and into the wind. Of course the best angle for the approach was to the right “ which brought two small pot bunkers into play and the green sloped to the right, meaning you needed to hit an exacting shot to hold it, while also making the pitch difficult. The 16th was a cute little three, and a breather from the turmoil that was upcoming, while 17 had some wildly sloping fairways and 18 was a long, difficult finisher — which is what youd expect.

My Assessment? Super fair, and a pretty straight forward links. Comparison? Muirfield is the obvious one, for its exacting nature, but also for its relative simplicity. Both routings are intriguing (with Sandwich’s not quite as interesting as Muirfield), and both have brawny, challenging holes.

The closer at Royal St. George's

The closer at Royal St. George's

Interestingly the course is very strong and rugged, but never goes to the sea “ which is how I see Muirfield. Holes continually expect golfers to hit specific shots “ a cut off the first hole, a draw off the second, etc. — and the visual intimidation of not being able to see the entire green is a constant. Quite a course “ Id place it higher than Troon, and Cruden Bay, and while not as spectacular as Pacific Dunes, or Kingbarns, it is probably a better test of golf.

Top 20 in the world? Gotta be close (it in fact ranks nearer the bottom of the Top 50 in the world).

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Good review RT. Hope you had a chance to play Deal next door as well. The finishing holes are exceptional. Looking forward to your thoughts on Sunningdale.

  • If you have played in Scotland you have played in the UK.

    UK stands for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which consists of England, Scotland, Wales and not surprisingly Northern Ireland.

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