Hey waiter! Make my Open-faced Sandwich a double because I’m super-hungry for a four-day helping of Royal St. George’s! No course in England has hosted more Open Championships than ancient and storied St. George’s, hard by the sea in the quaint town of Sandwich, which dates back to the mid-seventh century and has a wonderfully colorful and bloody history. St. George’s – Sandwich to its friends – within sight of the stately, stoic white cliffs of Dover is so charming and inspiring in its authenticity as a true links, Shakespeare himself would hold his quill with a flawless Vardon grip and pause at the top of his pen strokes.
This year will mark the lucky 14th Open for St. George’s, which opened in 1887 and hosted its first Open in 1894. How’s that for staying power? But despite its venerable reputation as an outstanding and historic golf course, no other course in the Rota polarizes opinions like St. George’s. Jack Nicklaus may have infamously opined that British Open venues get worse the further south you go – which was his misguided way at having a backhanded slap at the strange bounces and corresponding random luck sometimes meted out by the rumpled fairways and topsy-turvy greens – but you know what? Winning 18 majors doesn’t mean you’re always right about golf course architecture. Frequently the opposite is true.
Nicklaus may have snubbed St. George’s but no less a personage than Bernard Darwin, one of the four greatest golf writers in history, (the others are Herbert Warren Wind, Grantland Rice, and Dan Jenkins), loved it, calling it one of his absolute favorites, and pondering why anyone would quibble with how much fun the occasional strange bounce or blind shot makes our grand old game. Or as golf course architecture expert Ran Morrissett writes, “It would be nonsensical not to have at least one or two blind tee shots as, otherwise, the holes simply would not be reflective of the land upon which they are on.”
Moreover, another well-decorated champion, Ben Crenshaw, told Morrissett in an interview, “I believe that Royal St. George’s has the finest set of greens of any of the Open courses. The variety found throughout all its greens is really exceptional.”
But one other famous and entertaining voice has a great deal to say about what makes Royal St. George’s such an outstanding venue for a golf competition – England’s iconic author Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007. While the epic movie golf battle between Goldfinger and Bond was filmed at Stoke Poges, in the book it takes place at Royal St. George’s or “St. Mark’s” as Fleming dubbed it, (for reasons best known to himself). We get not one chapter of the golf match between the two arch-nemeses but three, and many holes are lovingly detailed. But before we have Fleming break down St. George’s like a fraction, let’s first turn to the history of the course.
The course is named for St. George, the patron saint of England who was beheaded in the early fourth century for the capital offense of being a Christian. (There was a lot of that going around back then. Around the same time, St. Laurence got cooked to death on a grill by the Emperor Valerian. Legend has it, his last words were, “Turn me over, I’m done on that side.”)
The course was founded by an eye doctor named Laidlaw Purves. Angry that he couldn’t play on Sundays at Wimbledon, he decided to build his own course. Legend has it he climbed the tower of St. Clement’s Church and spied tumbling sand hills on the coast, perfect terrain for golf. However, one Old Salty Dog of a sportswriter who has covered decades of Open Championships doubts that story.
“I went up the church’s tower by this stone staircase, waiting for Errol Flynn to come down and shoot an arrow at me. I got to the steeple where Purves was, and I saw the course – over a mile away!” he raged. “The tower is only 100 feet tall. You can’t identify the features a piece of ground a mile away. I think it’s a quaint tale, but rubbish.”
Whatever the truth, Purves built a course that became the Gold Standard in England, hosting four Open championships in 15 years and nine in 55. Harry Vardon won there twice, (1899 and 1911). So did Walter Hagen, (1922 and 1928).
Bobby Locke won the ninth Open played at Sandwich in 1949, but by then, sadly, penal architecture and the doctrine of framing had begun to infiltrate the game, and St. George’s quirk, the source of so much of its charm and mystique, were vilified as “unfair,” so the course fell out of favor with the pros – which meant it fell out of favor with the R&A. Blind carries over sand dunes were particularly in vogue in 1887, but the pampered modern professional golfer can’t be bothered with having to think or being tested too severely. Besides, Royal Birkdale’s framing and flat fairways made things so much cleaner and easier to deal with, (***rolls eyes***). St. George’s fell by the wayside, along with Prestwick, Musselburgh, Deal, and Prince’s.
Happily for the golf world, a new by-pass to aid traffic to Kent and a mild Frank Penick softening of some blind features in the late ‘70s, along with a new third, eighth, and 11th holes gave Royal St. George’s a second chance, and in 1981 the “Renaissance Open” as it was dubbed was such a success, the course drew its next Open as early as 1985.
Two also-rans in the annals of golf history won those Opens. American Bill Rogers won his only major here in 1981 and people still asked him if he ran Olympic marathons. Mean, sour old boot Sandy Lyle of “Haggis for Champions Dinner at the Masters” and “Monty is a jerk” fame won in 1985 and people still apologize for it. But then in 1993, Royal St. George’s got its modern masterpiece.
That year, a soaking led to low scores and a star-studded leaderboard, a galaxy of international stars, but as the final round unfolded, it became an unforgettable duel between the top three players in the World – Faldo, Langer, and Norman.
In the end it was Norman who triumphed, closing with a 64, the lowest final round in Open Championship history, a round worthy of enshrinement in either the British Museum or Westminster Abbey. For a guy who could be as wild as Seve, he hit every fairway. He shot four rounds in the sixties and posted the lowest aggregate score in any major championship at that time, 267. (David Toms’s 265 at Atlanta Athletic Club eclipsed that mark at the 2001 PGA.)
Then in 2003, unheralded American rookie Ben Curtis, ranked 396th in the World came to St. George’s eager to play in his first major and -whaddya know! – he found the Claret Jug lying on the ground after Thomas Bjorn dropped it in a greenside bunker on 16. Happily, the kind-hearted, soft-spoken kid from Ohio got to keep it. He certainly earned it. In the final round, he may have bogeyed three holes late, but he birdied six holes early. It was his first pro victory and he topped Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love III, Kenny Perry, and Sergio Garcia. Talk about a great wedding present for his fiancé Candace, who gushed, “Oh Ben!!! This is so great!!” He just smiled, shrugged, and made everyone a fan with his grateful and poised acceptance speech.
Interestingly, at dinner the night before the final round Vijay told his wife something along the lines of watch out for ben Curtis, don’t rule out, he can really play, and hang around long enough to be ahead after 72 holes are over.
With the deepest bunkers in the Rota, plenty of wind and uneven lies that make you check your stance every shot, and cross hazards and diagonal carries, the course may have more in common with Prestwick than St. Andrews, meaning shot shapers do well here.
“Every time Tiger misses a major an Irishman wins!” observed Irish writer Brian Keogh, but although Rory may be hot, usually the pressure and obligations of a newly-minted major champion take a toll and the resulting hangover lasts a major or two. He may have a new driving iron, his “secret weapon,” but all the players are adding one this week to hold the fairways which have been baked far past the usual “biscuit brown” by one of the worst droughts in British history. If nothing else, St. George’s is a great equalizer. Quite simply, the best player this week will win.
But now, let’s take a close look at St. George’s through the eyes of Ian Fleming, or as Bond said to his caddie, “Let’s have a little fun with Mr. Goldfinger.”
[Author’s Note: The quotes are from Fleming]
“ROYAL ST. MARK’S”
One – “One central bunker to trap a mis-hit shot and a chain of bunkers guarding ¾ of the green to trap a well-hit one. At the unguarded quarter the fairway slopes to the right and you are more than likely to end up with a nasty first chip of the day out of the rough.” 1959 distance – 450 yards. Bond played it Driver – 4-wood, Goldfinger – Driver – spoon. Bond missed the green and lost the hole.
Two – “370 yard dog-leg left, with deep cross bunkers daring you to take the tiger’s line.” Bond cut the corner – Driver – wedge, Goldfinger played Driver – 5-iron. They halved.
Three – “A blind 240 yards, all carry, a difficult three.” Bond hit a 2-wood twenty feet from the pin, Goldfinger was short of the green by 20 yards with a Driver and in a nasty, cuppy lie in tufts of rough, but after cheating (flattening the rough after “jumping up to see the green” and flattening the rough behind the ball), he pitched it dead to the flag. Bond missed the putt and they halved the hole.
Four – 460 yards par-4 in 1959 – “You drive over the second tallest and deepest bunker in the United Kingdom,” (the biggest is at St. Enodoc,) “and then have a long second shot across an undulating, hilly fairway to a plateau green guarded by a final steep slope which makes it easier to take three putts than two.” Is that all? Driver – 3-wood left Goldfinger short of the green. Driver- 2-wood put Bond over the green against a boundary fence and they halved the hole in fives. As Ran Morrissett wrote, “For scale and for sheer exuberance, no hole on the current Open Rota matches it. From an uneven lie an uphill approach is demanded to rollicking green with a dramatic four foot false front. Both demanding and fun, this hole captures why links golf reigns supreme over all other forms.”
Five – “From the tee perched on the sand hills you can gaze at the glittering sea and faraway crescent of white cliffs beyond Pegwell Bay while visualizing the tennis court of turf which is the target. It’s a long carry, followed by Bond’s favourite second shot on the course – over bunkers and through a valley between high sand dunes to a distant taunting flag.” Bond popped up his drive after Goldfinger dropped his driver during Bond’s backswing, but hit the fairway in front of the green and made five. Goldfinger drove 220 yards, but topped a Brassie into what Fleming interestingly calls “Hell Bunker” and also scraped a five.
Six – The “Maiden” hole. “A narrow green almost ringed with bunkers, it can need anything from a two to an eight iron, depending on the wind.” After cheating again – he improved his lie in the left bunker with his feet – Goldfinger made a sleazy par. An irate Bond 3-putted from 20 feet for bogey. He lost the seventh and ninth as well to fall three behind at the turn, before getting a pep talk from Hawker, his lifelong caddie at St. George’s.
“Give me the bat and ball, Hawker. Somebody’s going to be second in this match and I’ll be damned if it’s going to be me,” he fumed.
By the way, nine and ten are both short par-4s, 410 and 412 this year, but although side by side, they play in opposite directions so the wind has a severe effect on how differently they will play.
Ten – “The tenth is the most dangerous hole on the course,” wrote Fleming. “The second shot, to the skiddy plateau green with cavernous bunkers right and left and a steep hill behind has broken many hearts,” and that was 26 years before Tom Kite played ping pong back and forth between the deadly greenside bunkers, taking triple-bogey seven and handing the Open to Bill Rogers. Philip Scrutton did exactly the same thing in a Gold Cup match, only he carded a 14. Short-hitting Goldfinger played the hole Driver-3-wood, two putts for a routine par, but Bond’s Driver-7-iron left him a 15-foot birdie putt which he made. Bond was 2-down.
Fleming glossed over holes 11 through 14, (though Bond won the 11th to close to just 1-down). It’s a shame, 13 has a great spine in the green and the back is two feet higher than the front. At 14 the “Suez Canal” that bisects the hole between 300 and 320 out, now affecting drives where it once threatened second shots.
Fifteen – A long par-4, 15 is “the only hole where the long hitter may hope to gain one clear shot.” Bond hit the green with Driver-Driver (from the fairway! Try doing that with a high-faced King Cobra 454 Composite…) Hawker called it one of the finest shots he’d seen in 30 years of caddying. The match was all square.
Sadly, Fleming also skipped the 16th, the hole that features the false front green falling off into a bunker which doomed Thomas Bjorn and catapulted Ben Curtis into major championship lore as one of the only golfers to ever win a major in his first attempt.
Anyone who has seen the movie knows the story of the last two holes – how Goldfinger cheated at the long par-4 17th by having his caddie drop a ball in the rough down his pant leg to avoid a lost ball penalty, but Bond tuned the tables on him by switching balls on the green and hanging a “wrong ball” penalty around Goldfinger’s neck like an albatross on the 18th green after Goldfinger thought he had won the match. Yet it was another observation that Fleming made that stands out as the most poignant: “The one that wins is usually the one with the least imagination.”
So it’s off to jolly old Sandwich for a celebration of all things English. It’s PG Tips for the best tea in the World, (made with the tips of the leaves!). It’s Bird’s custard, Bransten pickle, piccalilli, and Boodles gin. It’s Quadrophenia and The Wall performed at Earl’s Court, where they watch concerts sitting down, (sitting down??!!). It’s Oasis with a soccer pitch in their back yard, and the 93% tax bracket of the Wilson Labor government which chased the Rolling Stones off to France and resulted in Exile on Main Street.
And it’s the pros screaming like a bunch of Poncey hairdressers, an Australian having a nightmare, or Nancy Kerrigan that – Heaven forbid – their great drive rolled into the rough. But they have nothing to complain about. Everyone has a fair shot to win the Claret Jug and become the de facto World Champion.
Harry Vardon won there twice, Walter Hagen won there twice, and Bobby Locke as well…and those were all before the Penick changes smoothed many of the blind shots and uneven lies. Sure, Bill Rogers was strange, but Ben Curtis may have been the best prepared and most phlegmatic player in the field. Plus he’s won four tournaments – he’s no Van de Velde or Hamilton. And the year Norman won, he beat a “Who’s who in golf” of the age. Lots of low scores get posted at St. George’s too, so we stand a better than even chance of getting a great champion than we do a weirdo.
Is it predictable? Of course not. Will it be a more fun golf course to see than either Congressional or Atlanta? No question. So get ready – Royal St. George’s is back and will shine like the sparkling gem it is, materializing before our eyes like a reverie before vanishing into the mists of history once more to return and beguile us with her incomparable charm, just has she has for over a century.
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
WHAT BRAND AND NUMBER OF GOLF BALL DID GOLDFINGER PLAY IN THE MOVIE?
CAN YOU NAME ALL 14 COURSES TO HOST THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP?
The Old Course at St. Andrews
Royal St. George’s
Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s
Royal Cinque Ports (Deal)
Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
DID YOU KNOW?
One day, the Earl of Sandwich was in too much of a hurry to eat a sit-down meal, so he put some roast beef between two slices of bread and, in his haste, made an indelible contribution to world cuisine.
DID YOU ALSO KNOW?
A bloke named Reg Whitcombe won the 1938 British Open at Sandwich despite shooting a final round 78. According to legend, a maelstrom out of the pages of the Book of the Apocalypse raged through the course, thrilling King Lear, but tearing down an exhibition tent.
DID YOU KNOW 3 IN 3D?
Those three sloped towers off in the distance that look like Three Mile Island? That’s the Pfizer factory, where they used to make Viagra. Such a shame Tiger will miss that…