By Jay Flemma, Special to PGA.com
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 of 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, in 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 60s 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 1993, 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.
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 him 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 McIlroy 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.Click here to read the rest of this story.