This Thursday close to 7am, the first tee shot of the 149th Open Championship will be hit at Royal St George's along the Kent coastline. Who will become the first winner of the Open Championship at Royal St George's since Darren Clarke in 2011? The Northern Irishman was one of only 4 players that broke par that year. What makes Royal St George's such a difficult course?
The 4th hole at Royal St Georges. (Photo: Jason Livy)
When Royal St George's was founded in 1887, it was intended to be as good as St Andrew’s, but then in the South of England. Well over 100 years later, Royal St George's still is one of the Leading Courses in the world and it has a steady position on the Open Championship rota. It's actually quite a special place, for it was here in 1894, that the Open Championship was first played outside Scotland. Since then 14 editions of Golf's greatest tournament have been played at Royal St George's.
What’s interesting about Royal St. George’s, is that the layout is not one of a traditional links course. Both nine holes go out to return relatively near the clubhouse. The course, however, does play as a traditional links. Many holes feature blind or partially blind shots, fairways are tight, greens undulated and firm, the rough is severe and the wind is always a factor.
Bernard Darwin, one of Britain's greatest golf writers was a great fan of Royal St George's (Also known as Sandwich). In his book “The Golf Courses of the British Isles” he writes:
"One great characteristic-I think it is a beauty-of Sandwich is an extraordinary solitude that surrounds the individual player. We wind about in the dells and hollows among great hills, alone in the midst of a multitude, and hardly ever realize that there are others playing on the links until we meet them at luncheon. Thus, on the first tee, we may catch a glimpse of somebody playing the last hole, and another couple disappearing over the brow to the second, and that is all; the rest is sandhills and solitude."
The red cross of St George's features on the flags at Royal St George's. (Photo: Leadingcourses.com)
The difficulties of Royal St George's
So what makes Royal St George's such a difficult golf course? Basically, it's 3 things:
You can't see where you're going
The rough is really serious
The greens are difficult to read
The fact that you can't see large parts of the hole is one of the trademarks of Royal St Georges. It is also the main reason Jack Nicklaus never liked the course much as he always felt that hazards should be seen so that he could develop his playing strategies accordingly. Darwin however a might have found those allegations a bit mundane, a bit too matter of fact for the nuanced game of golf. Where's the fun without the occasional bad bounce or blind shot?
The rough at Royal St Georges - and many other links courses for that matter - is known for the serious rough. It's so severe that it led to Tiger Woods’ first lost ball of his professional career. He pushed his opening tee shot into the right rough and the sizable crowd was unable to locate it.
The greens at Royal St George's are so undulated, that even 3-time Open Championship winner Nick Faldo doesn't know how to approach them anymore: "When you see the greens, a large part is just missing sometimes. You've got this big green but they've got this small part in the back right that you can't see. And actually, all the slopes seem to get even more severe as you get older. Back in my day, I could handle them, but now when I look at them I think how on earth can you read that?"
And then there is the one thing that makes Royal St. George's even more difficult and that is the one thing nobody has no control over - the wind.
When the wind is out at Royal St George's, there's nothing you can do to stop it. (Photo: Guillem Mataro)