The River Tweed marks the physical boundary between Scotland and England but it also represents a rather deeper and more long-seated division. The Scots and the English have a history of ill-ease between them that has sometimes run as cold as the water under the fourteen arches of the Old Berwick Bridge itself.
Until the dying embers of the 19th century, the Open Championship, with already more than 30 names of winners recorded on the Belt and the old claret jug, had never crossed the Tweed into England, although in fairness that had more to do with the fact that Scotland and Scottish players still dominated the game.
However, in 1894 all that changed; the Open went on a long journey south in response to the influence of English professionals who had begun to make their presence felt, turning the lessons learned from their Scottish brethren against them. Old Caledonia’s grip on the game was beginning to loosen.
And so it was in June of that year that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club took the championship to Royal St. George’s for its debut on English soil. Set in the old town of Sandwich on the southernmost tip of rural England, this was as far away from “headquarters” in St. Andrews as possible to go without falling into the English Channel.
So far south indeed that some purists have offered the opinion that Royal St. George’s is “too close to the equator to host the Open.” Mostly such opinion is delivered with a Scottish brogue and a twinkle in the eye, but there is no denying that the Open Championship, when played this far from its historic beginnings, has an altogether different atmosphere than when it is played on Scottish links like St. Andrews, Carnoustie, or Muirfield. It even feels different from those at Royal Birkdale, Hoylake, or Royal Lytham & St. Annes, located not far across the Scottish border in the very northwest corner of England.
Royal St. George’s is the quintessential English golf club despite the fact that it was a Scotsman, Dr. Laidlaw Purves, who first spied the land on which the course would be built. Purves, an eminent eye specialist, is reported to have stood on top of the tower at St. Clement’s Church in the village of Sandwich and gazed across the mighty sandhills and crumpled ground.
Legend has it that the good doctor, overcome by the vista before him, cried out, “By George, what a place for a golf course.” Whether it was from this emotional outburst that the club took its name historians remain divided, but if it weren’t true then it should have been.
It is the very “Englishness” of Royal St. George’s that gives the Open here more of a garden party luster; a hint of Wimbledon or Ascot perhaps, where, for a goodly section of the gallery, it would be a close choice between the Bollinger tent and the urge to scramble over the great sandhills to follow Tiger’s brush with the Suez Canal hole or the famous Maiden bunker at the 4th.
But any such cadences, real or imagined, have no bearing on the quality of the challenge of this famous old links. It is true that there are many critics who balk at the number of blind shots or the need to constantly adjust to stances that are seldom if ever flat, but of such things are authentic links composed, and a good old-fashioned links is what we find here.
Soon after Ramsay Hunter, a little known Scottish greenkeeper, was brought down from the north by Purves to fashion the course, the St. George’s Club began to make a name for itself for the sternness of its challenge. Hunter used the land cleverly, producing a layout around and over the great sandhills, using narrow valleys for fairways with greens in hollows or perched on plateaus and demanding often-severe carries from the tee. There were blind holes aplenty then, as there still are today.
The R&A took the Amateur Championship there in 1892, with John Ball from Hoylake the almost predictable winner. These were the days when the Amateur commanded higher billing than the Open and the gentlemen players were more than a match for the still emerging professionals.
So it was hardly a surprise that the Open would soon follow the Amateur to the fringes of southern England where the eye doctor from Edinburgh, now based in London, had developed a more than worthy challenger to the mighty links of the north.
Fittingly, it was an Englishman and a professional, J. H. Taylor from Westward Ho!, who won the first Open on English soil, putting down the marker that the domination of the Scottish professionals was over. It was also the opening salvo from what would become known as the Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, James Braid, and J.H. himself. Taylor won the following year back at St. Andrews before Vardon emerged on the scene at Muirfield to set the Triumvirate juggernaut really moving. Vardon himself was to win at St. George’s in the last year of the 19th century and soon afterwards the club was elevated to “Royal” status under King Edward VII, a seal of approval that enhanced its reputation even further.
It was said from very early on that St. George’s was a driver’s golf course, and certainly fine drivers of the golf ball have found success here but they have not all been long. Short-hitting Bill Rogers managed to win here in 1981, while in 1949 Bobby Locke’s slinging hook wouldn’t seem the most likely vehicle for negotiating a course known for its unpredictable bounces—but it was.
Locke might not have won at all if Harry Bradshaw’s ball hadn’t found the infamous glass bottle, an incident that inevitably surfaces during any discussion on the Open and St. George’s. The Irishman chose to play it as it lay rather than take the free drop he was probably entitled to and it cost him a stroke. But what most discussions on the subject overlook is that the bottle shot happened early in the second round and in truth could hardly account for his failure to beat Locke in a 36-hole playoff.
St. George’s went missing from the Open rota after Locke’s victory, a victim of gathering criticism. Changes made in the fallow years helped restore its reputation and it was welcomed back after a 32-year exile when Rogers scored a surprise victory. Since then, Sandy Lyle, Greg Norman, and Ben Curtis have raised the claret jug there.
For the 2011 Championship only 100 yards have been added to the course, but the par has been reduced from 71 to 70, with the 4th hole being changed from a 497-yard par 5 to a 495-yard par 4. Four holes have been lengthened, most notably the par-4 15th which will now play 496 yards.
So, what of St. George’s in its present day guise as it prepares to welcome the stripeless Tiger and his cohorts to face the vagaries of the bounce? Will they back the Walter Hagen view that the first nine are “tremendous fun but not very good golf” and the second nine “tremendous golf, but no fun at all”?
I rather defer to Bernard Darwin who, in his own inimitable prose, delivered the key address for the defense: “The long strip of turf on the way to the seventh hole, that stretches between the sandhills and the sea; a fine spring day, with the larks singing as they seem to sing nowhere else; the sun shining on the waters of Pegwell Bay and lighting up the white cliffs in the distance; this is as nearly my idea of Heaven as to be attained on any earthly links.”
And if truth were told, we puritans from north of the Tweed may even be persuaded to forgive its geographic impropriety.