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Royal St George's

After eight years, the British Open returns to Sandwich in 2011 with the course set to attract record galleries. Words by David Pritchard - Photography by Ady Kerry

Ever since it became the first club outside of Scotland to host The Open Championship more than a century ago, Royal St George’s has built a proud tradition of providing a southern challenge to golf’s spiritual heartland north of the border.

Although the picture has changed somewhat since holding its first Open in 1894, the course at Sandwich remains isolated geographically among the exclusive group of the championship’s hosts. Unlike its near neighbours Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports, whose brief moments in The Open’s spotlight faded before the Second World War, Royal St George’s remains on the current rotation. Of the nine clubs still regularly visited, it is the only one south of Merseyside.

The course is one of the few which has proved able to span both the tournament’s formative and modern eras. In between it even established its own place in literary folklore, with Ian Fleming setting part of the James Bond classic, Goldfinger at a course based on Royal St George’s.

Its enduring appeal moved renowned golf writer Bernard Darwin to write: “Sandwich has a charm that belongs to itself... The long strip of turf on the way to the seventh hole, that stretches between the sand-hills 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 the white cliffs in the distance; this is as nearly my idea of Heaven as is to be attained on any earthly links.”

Now preparations are well under way to welcome golf’s best players and an army of spectators when The Open makes its 14th pilgrimage to the east Kent course next summer. Christopher Gabbey, club secretary, believes the lack of other host courses nearby creates a feeling that Royal St George’s represents the whole region when the tournament comes to town.

“In many ways there is an argument to say it should come down this way slightly more often than elsewhere because we are the only one in the south,” he said.

“It means a lot to the county in general. I think everybody rather looks forward to it; there is a general buzz about The Open. It is almost the major sporting event of the year and when it’s in your neck of the woods, it’s terrific.”

SUN-DRENCHED

A repeat of 2003, The Open’s most recent visit to Kent, would do nicely. The sun-drenched course attracted record galleries approaching 190,000 across the four days. Those lucky enough to have tickets for the Sunday had the privilege of watching one of the championship’s most enthralling final days in living memory. A succession of big names faltered on the closing holes, allowing outsider Ben Curtis to win the title by a single shot.

It is hoped the tournament will mark another stride forward. With the help of new fast train connections to London and improved road access, galleries across the four days could exceed 200,000 for the first time in the course’s history.

For the likes of Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, who are all likely to tee-off at the famous Kent course next July, they will find Royal St George’s will play much the same way as it did in 2003, which had been significantly lengthened prior to the tournament.

The significant alterations for next summer are already complete, with five new tees adding an extra 100 yards, while subtle tweaks to the 18th fairway have made the closing hole more demanding. There have also been some changes to the deep rough, which famously claimed Tiger Woods’ opening tee shot in 2003, with the most impenetrable areas thinned out slightly to reduce the number of lost balls.

TEST THE PLAYERS

As well as looking immaculate, the aim has been to create a course that will test the players. Only three of the 13 previous Open winners at Royal St George’s have finished under par and the intention is for something similar next summer.

Gabbey said: “It’s not an easy golf course; you have to manage your way round. There are humps and bumps in the fairways and if you’re greedy and hit it too far, you’re quite likely to get a bounce that will take you into the rough. At the same time it’s a proper links course – we haven’t moved thousands of tonnes of earth to create something artificial.

“We want the place to look absolutely at its best and for the players to play really well. We want testing conditions, a bit of wind blowing and ideally it would change direction on different days because they will then appreciate the problems this course throws at you.”

A painstaking refurbishment programme of the course’s bunkers also continues to make sure it looks picture-perfect when the TV cameras arrive.

The club’s meticulous preparations will ensure the weather is the only aspect which will be left to chance. Rain or shine, whoever masters the dunes to lift the Claret Jug on July 17, 2011, will be a worthy champion and are likely to do so in front of record galleries at Royal St George’s.

Kent Garden of England

Reproduced with kind permission of KOS Media Ltd and Visit Kent. For further information, go to www.kentnews.co.uk and www.visitkent.co.uk

 

 








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