Recently, some dodgy media types were invited to play Royal St George’s by Tim Dickson, the club captain. On a damp May morning we tackled the muscular links at Sandwich, Kent, where in 17 days competitors will tee off in the first round of the 15th Open Championship to be held there. It will be the 149th Open and the first since Shane Lowry won in front of a deliriously happy Northern Irish crowd at Royal Portrush in July 2019. Our visit emphasised one of golf’s blessings, namely that players of different abilities can play the same course.
It is good to report that none of us was in danger of missing their tee time as Bill Rogers had been on the Thursday morning of the 1981 Open. Rogers was still on the putting green when a vigilant journalist reminded him of his starting time. He got to the tee in the nick of time. Just as well. Three days later he won the Open.
Good to report, too, that from our motley crew no one repeated the wild drive with which Tiger Woods began his attempt to win the 2003 Open, one that cost him a 3-over-par 7. Woods’s drive soared to the right, over the fairway, over the rough, over the really thick rough and wasn’t seen again for some hours until it was found and sold to a tabloid newspaper.
St George’s is the most southerly of the ten courses in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland that currently stage the Open. Some of these can appear cramped when playing them. The Old Course at St Andrews with its criss-cross fairways and double greens being a notable example while others, such as Royal Lytham & St Anne’s, can be hidden from the eyes of passers-by 100 yards away.
Royal St George’s is not like these. It is big and brawny, sprawling across nearly 400 acres of Kent countryside, and is bounded on some holes by the English Channel. A previous secretary once told a visitor: “We’re on a hog’s back for space here. We could add another course if we wanted to.”
Having wiped out the 2020 Open, COVID-19 did its best to disrupt this year’s Open causing considerable uncertainty. The R&A announced on Saturday they were expecting up to 32,000 fans daily, which is not a full house but more than was expected two months ago.
Niall Cameron, the former professional at the club who is now a reinstated amateur, was my partner in the morning round. He was a wonderful source of St George’s lore, pointing out various old routings. In the afternoon I played with Chris Healy, a retired local doctor who is incoming Chairman of the Green. Healy hit the ball so hard and high I feared that if it wasn’t crushed into a thousand pieces it might pose a danger to low flying aircraft.
We noticed how light the rough was in parts and how often it was easy, even for us, to hit out of it. Its growth had hardly begun. Some sparse patches were roped off to encourage growth. By the time of the Open, the hope is it will be thick and penal. “If you saw the course now you’d be struck by how different it looks from the way it was when you were here two weeks ago,” Healy told me last week.
Certain parts of the course were being given special attention. On the second hole for example, big hitters might go over the bunkers on the left of the fairway thus shortening the hole. So, the rough in the landing area is being grown. On the third, though there is rough to the right and left of the green there is a relatively flat area beyond the back of the green. The grass is being grown there so that when the flagstick is at the back of the green it won’t be possible for players to hit over the green and putt back. Likewise, rough to the right of the fourth is being encouraged. “If a player hits his ball into the rough, we want there to be rough there,” Healy said.
As we approached our drives on the fifth hole Cameron pointed out Campbell’s table, the rectangle of fairway turf for which Bill Campbell, the American amateur, always aimed during the 1967 Walker Cup. And he remembered watching John Daly shortcut his way with a mighty, over-the-dunes drive to the green of this 416-yard hole in 1993.
A few days later Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R & A, made it clear that there would be no repeat at St George’s of the 72nd hole mad dash by spectators that had occurred at the PGA Championship.
“For the Open we will absolutely be holding spectators back behind the barriers that we have and let the players have the freedom to move and play the final hole,” Slumbers said. “It’s very important for us, specially as we might have to use it straight after if there’s a play-off. We’re very conscious about keeping that space safe and clear.”
Perhaps the biggest change since the 2011 Open is at nearby Sandwich railway station where £4m has been spent on two new platforms big enough to accommodate trains of 12 carriages. In 2011, trains of that length disgorged their passengers onto platforms big enough only for six carriages. Result: a lot of jostling by passengers. It was just one of the details that made getting to the course such a trek for so many spectators. The weather was another. The 2011 Open was one of the wetter Opens on record.
Of our group no one aced the 16th as Tony Jacklin had in the 1967 Dunlop Masters tournament, the first hole-in-one to be televised. None of us got stuck in the bunker to the right of the 16th green where Thomas Bjørn had three attempts to extricate his ball when leading the 2003 Open. None of us could reach the fifth in two strokes, never mind eagle it as Darren Clarke had on the Sunday of his victory in 2011.
But as we drove away from the testing links, by now bathed in a late afternoon sunshine, our thoughts were of the small pleasures golf can sometimes bestow in giving us such an opportunity and we looked forward to seeing how the top professionals would cope with the same course next month.
Top: The Claret Jug sitting above Royal St George's, host of next month's Open Championship