Now I’m not sure if you are like me, but often just the name of a golf club, a photograph, or simply watching a tournament on tv gives me an unquenchable desire to play a certain course. This trip was the result of several of these triggers. The region of Kent is located in the south-east of England and is home to some of the best golf courses in the world.
The first time I heard the name Royal Cinque Ports I knew that sooner or later I would end up playing it. I don’t know why exactly, I guess I was just caught by the name. And I first developed the ambition to play Royal St. George’s when I saw Darren Clarke holding the claret jug in 2011. I haven’t gotten it out of my mind since. So the time finally came when I could bring all of my wishes together and plan a trip to play the best golf courses in Kent.
The Kent Loop
After landing at Heathrow on a Sunday afternoon, I drove the rental car straight to Deal just in time to have dinner and a good sleep. I usually take the first day off from the course to settle down and visit the surrounding area. Kent is known for more than just its golf courses so I had a whole day planned. I visited The White Cliffs of Dover, Folkestone, Dungeness National Nature Reserve, Rye and the imposing Dover Castle.
The next morning I visited the beautiful medieval town of Sandwich, as a warm up for the incoming golf. Upon planning the trip I came across a deal called the ‘3 courses package’. This consisted of green fees for three golf courses in Kent: Royal Cinque Ports, Royal St. George’s and The Prince’s Club as well as 2 nights at the Prince’s Lodge.
The Prince’s Lodge
This lodge is set right in the middle of the path that separates two prestigious Kent golf courses: Royal St. George’s and Prince’s, an absolutely perfect location! While having breakfast or dinner, you are provided with views of the 13th green at St. George’s and the 5th green at Prince’s. One full courtesy dinner is also included in this deal. I highly recommend this option if you’re planning to play the Sandwich area. The room at Prince’s Lodge was huge, and all of the staff were so friendly and helpful too. A truly pleasant experience.
Another option would be to book one of the small hotels in Sandwich itself. You’re still 5 minutes away from the courses and there are a couple of pubs to visit in the town. On a separate trip we actually stayed at The Bell Hotel. This a nice place in the center of town with an excellent choice of gin & tonics and a great English Breakfast.
If You Can, Book a Caddie
Something I always do when playing in the United Kingdom or Ireland, is to play with caddie.
You can just mail the course after booking a tee time, and request a caddie online. I just love the caddie culture and I highly recommend it! To me playing with a caddie is one of the best experiences and makes the whole thing much more enjoyable. He/she is so helpful when playing a course that you’ve never played before. From giving lines from the tee, breaks of the putts (sometimes very hard to do for me), searching for lost balls (they always know where to search)…etc.
They are also good when you travel alone like I do. You can spend the round chatting and learning more about the place you’re playing. They can also give you good advice for restaurants or pubs after the round as well.
Royal Cinque Ports
Royal Cinque Ports was established in 1892. The first thing you see when approaching the golf course is the magnificent 19th century clubhouse. White, isolated and just lovely. This puts you in the state of mind for a round straight away.
If you happen to play in the summertime or when it’s hot enough to wear shorts, you’ll have to play with knee-length socks. But don’t worry if you don’t have them, there are lots for sale at the Pro Shop. I suddenly felt like a schoolboy again with this uniform in the middle of putting green.
Besides the dress code, there are some very nice traditions at RCP. The yearly Halford Hewitt Cup tournament for instance. A four-day tournament which is played mainly on the RCP course as well as it’s neighbours Royal St. George’s and Prince’s. It started in 1925 and is considered the largest amateur tournament in the world. Over 600 players made their way to the Kent golf course last year, comprising of various school teams from all over England.
When I played the course it was pretty dry and the ball tended to roll a lot. This made it a really fun links to play. However, some unpredictable rebounds and less than accurate tee shots made it a “beach day” – I was in most of the bunkers.
Sometimes when I wasn’t in the sand, I was in the heavy rough! But these are the challenges links golf throws at you, I suppose.
In general however, the course is not too tough and has some good sea views from the back nine. The shape of the bunkers is one of the things that I really like most about links courses. That and their extremely good positioning on most of the holes.
The course is basically a long and narrow strip of land with a traditional 9 holes OUT and 9 holes IN. I especially liked the 16th and 18th tee shot with the clubhouse in full view.
I found Royal Cinque Ports to be such a relaxing place to play. It was almost completely flat, easy to walk and so quiet too (not busy that day at 13:00).
After the round, the reward of having a drink at the bar on the first floor of the clubhouse is fantastic. You can go out to the terrace in front of the 1st fairway/18th green and watch members play with a pint in your hand.
Royal St. George’s
It was difficult to hold back the excitement of playing one of the best golf courses in Kent, and the one that will play host to the 149th Open Championship. I arrived 2 hours before my tee time and it was just starting to rain – a light rain at least. The forecast for the day didn’t look great, so I went to the Pro shop to do some of my usual shopping before it started raining cats and dogs.
The guys from the Pro shop noticed my concerned face and took me to visit the caddie master who also happens to be the weather-man. In a very British manner (serious but with a smile under his nose) he told me that it would stop raining 30 minutes before my tee time. He also cheerfully mentioned that it should stay dry the whole rest of the day. I really wanted to trust him.
They suggested to go and explore the clubhouse while I waited. Before 11 AM you can get in without jacket and tie and I couldn’t let that chance go passed. I personally never travel with jacket or tie, but they let me know that there are some available for the visitors, just in case.
The first thing that shocked me was the smell of leather armchairs and old books in the library. To me that is the smell of history and I just stood planted, taking in all the details. Just trying to realize how many things had happened inside these four walls was almost incomprehensible. The impressive wooden panels with Captain’s names and previous Open Champions (the first one in 1894) can be seen on the walls. As well as the trophy cabinets along the corridor accompanied by historic and famous pictures. It really was an honor to be there.
One of the more notable members in the history of Royal St. George’s was Ian Fleming, the creator and author of James Bond. He spent a lot of time here in the 1930’s playing golf with his colleagues from Eton. The National Express bus that travels from London to Sandwich has the number 007, so if you’ve ever wondered where that number comes from, now you know. In 1964, Fleming actually got a heart attack and died on the course at Royal St. George’s.
Almost Time to Play!
I soon realised there was self-service coffee available, so I sat in silence for another while enjoying what to me, was kind of a mystical experience.
All that took me to 30 minutes til tee time. Just as the caddie master had predicted, it stopped raining. I didn’t know whether to be more amazed or happy, but either way it was now golfing time!
I met my caddie John, a friendly and talkative man, who walked me to the first tee. There, I just found one of the most simple but marvellous starter cottages I’ve ever seen. I had the feeling that if they put a bed and wifi inside, I could live there with no problems at all.
The tee box markers here are some kind of red bin baskets which are simple and beautiful. The one on the first tee also has a wooden red structure in the shape of a rail. John told me that it is the way to know which member is playing next. As they arrive, players put a ball in the rail and it’s like forming a proper queue. Interesting.
At this course, I realised that there is the feeling of something more (like all Open venues I’ve played). Whether it’s the fairways, the shape of the bunkers, the different cuts of the rough or the different colours. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a feeling that separates a good course from a really great course.
I particularly enjoyed the loop from hole 3 to 5. What’s interesting at Royal St. George’s, is that the layout is not one of a traditional links course. As you can see from the positioning above, the wind direction changes on almost every hole. This makes the course a lot more challenging during tournaments. Especially during The Open as they don’t want the course to be overrun by modern golf and equipment.
The 3rd hole is a 195 yard, bunker free par 3 that played into the wind. John told me that it was the only bunker free hole in the whole Open rotation. The 4th, a 415 yd. par 4 where the tee shot must fly over the most iconic bunker of the course, the Himalaya bunker. You’ll then find an extremely sloped and tricky green. There is a beautiful tee shot on the 5th, which is a 416 yd. par 4. You are facing the sea from the tee box, followed by a blind second shot. That was the hole I liked the most in the course.
The Journey Back
The course provides some excellent holes all the way through the back 9. I also liked the 10th a lot. A straight uphill 371 yd. par 4, with an elevated green and some serious bunkers protecting it. The 13th hole is also wonderful with the Prince’s Lodge in full view just behind the green. Hole 14 is a 533 yd. par 5 with out of bounds all the right side and a creek crossing the fairway. The creek can be reached with the tee shot but there is very good bunkering defending against the second shot.
When I reached the 16th hole, a 161 yd. par 3, a certain image came into my mind. It was that of Thomas Björn losing an Open in a particular bunker on the right side of the green. Again, I was in the middle of golfing history. From there, the return to the 18th and the clubhouse was to me, one of the most memorable golfing journeys ever.
I must mention that it was my only bunker free round at a links course ever. I finished with a good 83 in pretty windy conditions. Happy out!
Prince’s Golf Club
The Prince’s Golf Club is just a 2 minute drive away from the Lodge and right next to St. George’s. When I arrived, I could immediately see how different it was from the other two golf courses in this area of Kent. Despite being just a par 3 away from RSG, everything was far drier and more sandy. The clubhouse was quite modern compared to the previous two. It wasn’t really what I had in mind, but the practice areas were better than the ones in the older clubs.
In Prince’s Golf Club there are 3 nine holes routes. That day I played the ‘Shores’ & the ‘Himalayas’. I played Shores as front nine and there’s not much that I can say? A pure links loop of 9 holes with nothing really special to take away except from maybe the 9th fairway due to its bumpiness. Either way, playing a links course is always a challenge and poses difficulties nonetheless. The day was very windy which always makes it interesting and more fun.
An Enjoyable Round
The Himalayas are quite different. Without losing the links spirit, the holes are wilder with huge waste areas. To retain the shape of the bunkers, they have placed wooden sleepers along the sides. They looked great to me.
There are some good holes here for me. For example the 2nd (11th for me), a 577 yd. par 5 dogleg left was very exciting. The 3rd (12th) is a 381 yd. par 4, which had strong wind pushing me all the way to the green with the tee shot. I felt like a superhero!
Probably one of the best however, is the 5th (14th). A ‘new’ 125 yd. par 3 which is really beautiful but not that easy with the cross wind. It will most likely become the iconic hole of the course.
At the end of the round, I got another portion of history – the very last bunker of the course. It’s called Sarazen’s bunker. This is because in the 1932 Open, he holed the ball from that bunker to win the championship.
So at the end of the day, I enjoyed my time. If I’m honest it was not the best of the 3 Kent courses that I played, but the weather was good for golf and the club is definitely worth a visit.
A Few Free Days
After three intense days of golf, I was in need of some rest. Although I didn’t mention it above, I had surgery on my knee a month ago, and it was becoming painful. I also wanted to do see the area!
My choice was to settle at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge in the heart of the charming, medieval town of Canterbury. The Cathedral is very impressive and the river tour was enjoyable. However, it was great to simply walk around the town and explore all the corners.
The next day, I visited the lovely Faversham market. I was also able to make my way around the beautiful seaside town of Whitstable, Tankerton beach with its lovely small beach houses and the interesting Herne Bay with its Pier and Neptune’s arm. It’s great as these attractions are all within close range of each other and perfect if you fancy seeing the British seaside. I visited the twin towers of the medieval church at Reculver too. Built against Saxon raids on the ‘Saxon Shore’, this was one of the earliest Roman forts. To conclude a packed day, I managed to cram in a visit to Botany Bay’s white stones by the sea, and finally Ramsgate before resting for the night.
On Sunday, I took the car to drive to Leeds Castle, the town of Aylesford and finally to Tonbridge. In Tonbridge there was a medieval fair with knights, fights and dancing which I thoroughly enjoyed.
A Great Trip
I can safely say that the experience was a great one. The golf courses in Kent went above and beyond my expectations. A combination of top quality golf, compelling history and the fine weather helped to make my golfing adventure most enjoyable. The towns, seaside and surrounding areas were also delightful. I would highly recommend a trip to one or all of these courses in the near future. So, go and find out yourself!