The dunes on which Royal St George's is built have been likened to the surface of the moon
Goldfinger famously played against James Bond at Royal St George’s. Wretched, without mercy and universally despised, Royal St George’s is just off the A256 …”
A cheap joke, perhaps, but one earning nods in the locker room this week.
Take Brooks Koepka’s withering assessment here on Tuesday. “Quite a few blind tee shots, kind of hitting to nothing,” he said.
“Fairways are quite undulating. I don’t know, it’s not my favourite of the rotation, put it that way. I’m not too big a fan.”
Brutal, although the four-time major winner is hardly on his own in that opinion. Jack Nicklaus once said that “the Open courses get worse the further you go south” and as this Sandwich links picks up the mobile networks of France, that emphasises the point perfectly.
“Let’s be honest, St George’s is nobody’s favourite layout on the Open rota,” Rory McIlroy said. “Except perhaps, Clarkey.”
Clarkey is Darren Clarke, the genial Ulsterman who lifted the Claret Jug here in 2011. At 42, he was a 200-1 shot. The previous Open champion at St George’s was Ben Curtis, and he was a 500-1 shot.
In fairness, Clarke knows why his colleagues are not keen on the 1878 creation of Laidlaw Purves. “The fairways are more unpredictable than any other on the Open rota,” Clarke said. “It can drive a golfer mad as you can hit a ball straight down the middle of the fairway and you don’t know which rough to walk to – right or left. There are that many mounds.”
The 12th fairway at Royal St George's, where even the sweetest drives have the potential to find trouble
Credit: David Cannon collection
Curtis, meanwhile, once ranked Sandwich, the scene of his fairy tale, as “my fifth favourite Open course”. That is not too bad, considering there are 11 of them. “Erm, I’ve only played seven,” the American replied.
If Royal Birkdale, considered the fairest, is played between the dunes, then RGS is played straight through them. Over the years, the R & A and the club have sought to flatten the worst of the scorecard wreckers, with the 18th notably less bumpy. Yet uncertainty still reigns.
The greats have lined up to criticise over the years. Nicklaus said: “What I do know is I’ve never played particularly well at St George’s. I won a tournament there as an amateur, when I was 19, and never played a good round after that. It’s always been a hard course for me.”
Gary Player said: “It’s really not a great Open course. Should it stay on the Open rota? No, I don’t think so.”
Tom Watson said: “St George’s is a course you never really understand. There are at least a dozen places there where you hit the ball and you won’t know until you’re 50 yards from it whether it’s gone into a bunker, it’s in the rough or, glory be, it’s on the green.’
Who will stand up and protect its honour? Mike Clayton, the former European Tour winner turned respected course architect, believes the bellyaching says much about elite golfers.
“Sandwich is unloved because pros crave predictability and ‘fairness’,” the Australian said. “To be really interesting and fun – and frustrating – the game needs elements of both unpredictability and things that aren’t entirely ‘fair’ because dealing with those things is the game’s great mental challenge.
“Great courses also need world-class holes and it’s got them in abundance. There are some brilliant holes. Bernard Darwin called it ‘as nearly my idea of heaven as it is to be attained on any earthly links’. I’m on his side and believe it to be a brilliant place to play.”
Darwin, the celebrated golf writer who was the grandson of naturalist Charles Darwin, was actually fully understanding of the gripes. “I know they are perfectly right,” he wrote, “and I have even agreed with them that this is a blind shot and this an indefensibly bad hole.”
The Open Blind spots
And “there were faults at Sandwich, it was nothing but a driver’s course and the art of golf did not consist of hitting a ball over a sandhill and then running up to the top to see what happened on the other side. But what does any of this matter?” Darwin argued.
“The beauty of Sandwich is the extraordinary solitude that surrounds an individual player.”
Ian Fleming was a huge admirer of Darwin and St George’s and the peace it brought. In his book Goldfinger, Fleming chose to rename the course “Royal St Marks”, apparently because he did not want readers flocking there.
Lee Westwood is a fan, however.
Royal St. George's 4th hole featuring the 'Himalayan' bunker, seen to the right
Credit: Getty Images
“I’d rank it my No 1 [course of the Open rota] this week,” he said. “You’ve got to love it and get on with it. There’s no point in coming to a course and saying, ‘I don’t like this place’. You can mentally get in your own way straightaway. There are reasons why the R & A come back here and they should be respected.”
Indeed, there are obvious factors, not least that this was the first course outside of Scotland to host the Open in 1894 and has staged 14 more since.
There is also proximity to London, and pertinent to the sponsors, the fact that without it more than half of the UK would be cut off – Hoylake is the next furthest south and that is on the Wirral. “It’s better than it was, “McIlroy said. “It used to be a pinball machine.”