The weekend was going to be special. Three days of golf in Sandwich in the south of England. The weather forecast was promising but in England, you never really know. It was April so there was a decent chance that we might escape the usual unpredictability of British climate but there’s no guarantee. We left Saturday morning for an afternoon tee time at our first venue in Sandwich-Royal Cinque Port Golf Club. The three hour drive down from London was pretty simple and we were pretty psyched for a three day weekend of golf in the South of England. We left Brian’s house around 9AM expecting to get to Kent by noon in plenty of time for our 1:30 tee time. We pulled into the Car Park where it all starts at a British private golf club where visitors are clearly viewed as outsiders and as the Japanese would say “gaijen” (anything but a customer). Car parks are littered with placards that tell you where you can park, what can you wear, slow play rules and on and on. Royal Cinque Ports (also known as Deal) in Kent was a standard bearer for the British private (members only) club. Brian and I had enough experience with all of this nonsense and proceeded to head to the Pro Shop to sign in and maybe hit some practice balls to warm up. This is when the fun began.
Brian sauntered up to the assistant professional to sign us in and pay the green fees for our impending round. Brian whipped out his credit card and the professional stated, “We don’t accept credit cards for payment of greens fees.” With a startled look on his face and slightly embarrassed, Brian proceeded to pull out one of his business cards and asked the professional to please bill his business for the greens fees. The professional looked at Brian as if he was from the planet Mars, “We don’t do that here.” Brian knew that this was customary throughout England and was incredulous at the attitude of the professional-so rude and unwelcoming. The professional blankly stared at Brian with a stale and stoic demeanor and said, “We only accept cash for green fees.” Brian was clearly livid and stated that I do not have that much cash on me–we probably needed about 300 pound sterling to cover the cost. Big shot expatriate American had no sterling in the wallet–only US dollars. “Well now what,” stated Brian to the professional. He replied, “I can’t really help you.” Does this mean that we can’t play this afternoon? (Brian), my friend here, is from America and he came all the way over here to play this course in Kent. The professional couldn’t have cared less and the only option we had now was for Brian to drive into town to use his ATM card and get the cash to pay the greens fees. I’m really helpful here…I didn’t have an ATM card and I don’t even have one today and I’m actually proud of it. Brian looked at his watch and knew that it would be close to tee time by time he returned with the cash. I was dumbfounded by the behavior of this club and had never had an experience like this in our lives. He made it and paid the fees to which the professional barely acknowledged his presence and what he had gone through to obtain the necessary cash. There would be no warm-up and we would be fortunate to just make it to the first tee. The final chapter of this heinous event is the coupe de grace.
We head out to the first tee and headed for the championship tee box so we could play the course at about 6,700 yards–what happened next was really unexpected. The entire pro shop staff including the Head Professional came flying out of the Pro Shop as if the place was hit by a World War II Luftwaffe–they were motoring out of that Pro Shop as fast as they could to protect what??? They all ran up to us as if we were to be arrested for grand larceny screaming, “You cannot use the championship tees, they can only be used for competitions and only for the members.” Wow, I thought, these guys have a few loose screws; we obeyed them and moved up to the gentler “tees of the day.” However on the second hole, out of the sight of the Professional’s Shop, we went back to the Professional Tees for the rest of the way. The course was okay and seemed very ordinary and didn’t make a lasting impression on either of us. Royal Cinque Port had a parting shot for us, we couldn’t use the bar or the restaurant as we didn’t have a jacket and tie. Our nerves were shot at the end of this round and things could only look up from here.
Day 2 was Sunday and things started nicely with brilliant sunshine offsetting the gray clouds and drizzle of our “wonderful” day in the gloom at Royal Cinque Ports. One thing was for sure and that was we couldn’t be treated any worse than we were treated at RCP. We arrived for our early afternoon tee time and it just seemed right away that things were going to be different. Many of the members had been out playing in the morning and were now joining their families for lunch on the veranda and/or dining room. Princes demonstrated a sense of calm, happiness, and general welcoming as compared to the calamity of the preceding day. Princes had 27 holes but we played two of the nines–Himalya and Prince. The pro shop had no trouble accepting Brian’s credit card for the green fees and we proceeded to play in a day that was as calm as the demeanor of the staff–we were actually treated like customers–what a concept! Princes had hosted the Open Championship in 1932 won by the legendary Gene Sarazen. The wonderful British commentator and former professional, Peter Alliss was a member and had made some changes to the courses in 1985. We both played stress-free golf in unusually prime conditions of sunshine, warmth, and little to no wind–no excuses and we both scored in the seventies.
Day 3, Monday, would be the day we came here for. The opportunity to play Royal St. Georges (RSG) would be a real treat but we really didn’t know what to expect–we had just had a Dr. Jekyl / Mr. Hyde experience this past weekend so we had some trepidation as to what would be in store for us as we appeared for early morning tee time at RSG. The weather was actually the median of the two days–we had cool, wind, and grey skies at Cinque Port and warm, sunny, and blue skies at Princes. Today it was patches of grey and blue skies, wind, and bouts of warmth and cold throughout the round at RSG. Great conditions to play an Open Championship venue along with spectacular views of the sea. We didn’t know what to expect when we went into the Pro Shop given what had occurred over the weekend. It was quiet this morning and we were the only players going out early as we would be driving back to London after the round. The Head Professional greeted us warmly and immediately the stress of our expectations ran completely out of our system. He encouraged us and stated that the course was in fine shape and was ready for us to take on. We asked about any restrictions and he chuckled and stated, “Go out and have a good time.” “What about tees,” we inquired, and the Professional said “Play whatever tees you like and play well.” He certainly need not apply for a job at Cinque Port.
We were psyched and started off playing pretty well. I hate to get off to a troubled start especially on a course like this and things went smoothly. We navigated the tricky par 3 but off to our right we could see the 4th and the huge bunker off in the distance. It was distracting and I almost started to fear what was coming next. We got to the fourth tee and our jaws dropped as to what was in front of us. Although we weren’t going to play this hole from the championship tee, it was easily an “all carry” 230-yard tee shot into the wind over a bunker that could have only be designed by the devil himself or herself depending on your gender preference for Beelzebub. There was no other choice but to drive the ball over this bunker as there is nothing but deep rough on both sides of the hole. Your drive either found the fairway or you were going to make an “other” on this hole. Brian calmly stepped and smacked the drive about 250 yards over the bunker into the fairway (hopefully) as the fairway is completely blind from the tee. It was now my turn and I gulped and hit one of the best tee shots in my golfing career sailing over the bunker and landing (hopefully) in the fairway. We trudged up the hill, in prayer, and behold both shots had found green grass-surnamed the Elysian Fields.
We had conquered the Himalaya bunker and waved it goodbye–after a couple of long iron shots of 180 yards we both found the green and two putted for a par and breathed a huge sign of relief. I was happy just to have conquered the bunker and anything else was a cherry on top of the sundae. This was best drive I had ever hit in England and bested my near miss for a hole in one at Royal Birkdale. We both played well in deafening and peaceful silence throughout the round as Saint George’s presents a number of interesting and different challenges along the way. Brian was the better man that day but the experience was terrific and worth the entire trip as memories of the prior two days instantly faded away. The 4th hole, for our skill level, was probably the most intimidating piece of real estate we had ever encountered in our golfing careers. The character of RSG is truly differentiating with its array of challenging holes, spectacular scenery, distinguished flags (cross of St. George) and the thatched roof shelters to protect you from the vagaries of the wind and rain that often are factors when playing links golf by the sea. Playing St. George’s seems to be like getting the best parts of all the other great venues in England, Scotland and Ireland. The fairways and heather remind me of Royal Port Marnock in Ireland. The solitude and quiet by the sea reminded me of playing Royal Troon where all we could hear was an occasional whir of a military jet landing in Prestwick, Airport. I think the Himalaya bunker ranks pretty close in penalty to the Road Hole bunker at St. Andrews.
The Open Championship returns to Royal St. Georges after a 20 year hiatus when Darrin Clarke won the 2001 championship. RSG has had the Open 14 times, which is more than any other venue in England. It’s a bit interesting why it has taken 20 years to bring the Open Championship back to Sandwich. The course brings the entire professional field into play not just those guys that bomb the ball. I remember John Daly hitting a 380 yard drive on one of the par 4’s at the 1993 Open, which was won by Greg Norman. The field is wide open witness the 2003 championship by the relatively unknown Ben Curtis. The professionals will have to think their way around this track, where the 7200 yardage will only be challenging if the coastal breezes become a factor in the event. I like Rory McIlroy’s chances here as he has to be highly motivated after his 2019 performance at his hometown course at Royal Portrush. Subtle changes have been to the course for the championship but I want to see the guys pump it 292 yards over the Himalaya on the 4th hole. In the last Open Championship, the average score on number 4 was 4.50.