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Why Royal St. George’s, Site of 2021 British Open, is a Course Design Straight From the Old World

The 2021 British Open venue bewitches with blind shots, bad bounces and questionable out of bounds.
At Royal St George's, unexpected bad bounces and confounding lies are often the norm. 

At Royal St George's, unexpected bad bounces and confounding lies are often the norm. 

With the Open Championship (aka the British Open) returning to England’s Royal St. George’s Golf Club for the 15th time, the debate resumes as to whether the course is deserving of its place on the R&A’s championship rota. If you savor quirky features, you’ll be enamored with Sandwich, as it’s known locally. If you prefer maximum visibility and predictability, you scratch your head at Royal St. George’s appeal.

Jack Nicklaus is oft-quoted as stating that Open venues “get worse the farther south you travel.” Royal St. George’s is the southernmost of all Open sites. It didn’t help that he posted his worst-ever score in a major there, a first-round 83 in the 1981 Open.

In 2003, Tiger Woods observed, “(These are) probably the most severe fairways we’re going to play, as far as bounces go. Not too often do you hit the ball down the middle and you end up in the bunker or the rough because of the bounces.”

Related: A Trio of Great (and Quirky) Courses Across the Pond

Echoed England’s Ian Poulter in 2011, “It’s not my favorite in the rotation … You can hit a lot of great golf shots off the tee and get some bad bounces. It amazes me how you can keep the ball on the hogback 17th fairway. I thought I hit a perfect drive and it was in the left rough.”

His countryman, Justin Rose agreed. “It’s the kind of course where there are more blind shots than most good golf courses have and there are some quirky bumps and hollows,” he said.

Memorable holes — for every reason — abound. Veteran broadcaster Peter Alliss called the 491-yard, par-4 4th hole “a frightener.” It’s easy to see why. A par 5 until 2011, the 4th asks for a drive that flirts with the most terrifying bunker on the Open rota, a gigantic, gaping mountain of sand to the right, while the approach must ascend a 4-foot-high false front to a severely sloping green atop a plateau. As if that weren’t enough challenge, out of bounds edges the back of the green. The same OB fate awaits an overly aggressive approach to the par-4 13th.

An apparent birdie opportunity resides at the 547-yard, par-5 14th, which is known as “Suez,” named for the canal that bisects the fairway 200 yards from the green. In the wind, however, it’s easy to miss the narrowest fairway on the course, as did Bernhard Langer in 1993, when he was one back of eventual winner Greg Norman. Langer flared his drive to the right, beyond the out-of-bounds stakes that separates Royal St. George’s from Prince’s Golf Club. In 2011, Dustin Johnson emulated Langer, shoving his 2-iron second shot OB while two shots behind playing partner and eventual winner Darren Clarke.

A century ago, unpredictability on a links was de rigueuer. Writing in The Spirit of St. Andrews (1934), Dr. Alister MacKenzie stated, “The majority of amateurs are sportsmen and welcome anything that increases the sporting and dramatic elements of the game. There are some of the best players, however, who look upon golf in the card and pencil spirit, and resent anything which interferes, as they think, with their steady stream of threes and fours.”

At least one golfer embraces that Old World perspective — five-time Open champion Tom Watson. Asked in 2011 at Royal St. George’s if links golf is too much of a crap shoot, Watson responded, “No, that’s what makes links golf links golf. … You have to play the luck of the bounce. Sometimes the imagination comes into play big time in links golf. That’s the beauty of it.”

Some golfers are OK with quirky features, such as blind shots, hidden pot bunkers, or severely rumpled terrain while others despise anything remotely unfair. I understand why Tour pros playing for cash and trophies crave certainty. That’s not what stokes my fires, however. To me, the key to superior design is variety — memorable shots and memorable holes. Orthodoxy and textbook design might sell real estate, but individuality — Sandwich-style — moves the golfer’s spirit.   

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