Perhaps unsurprisingly, the course which would be the first host of The Open Championship outside Scotland was discovered by a Scotsman. Dr Laidlaw Purves, an eminent surgeon, who had been born in Edinburgh and learnt to play golf on Bruntsfield Links, is said to have stood atop St Clement’s Church in the village of Sandwich, cast his eyes over the surrounding countryside, and exclaimed: “By George, what a place for a golf course!”
That he had come to this location on England’s south coast with his brother, Alexander, to survey the point where the Roman emperor Claudius had landed in AD43 was now of little consequence. Purves had decided that this stretch of untouched linksland would be the ideal site for a new golf club attached to a course of the highest quality, and he set about achieving that goal with characteristic zeal.
Ramsay Hunter, a Scottish greenkeeper, was brought down to help sculpt the course to the design of Purves, who, it seems, had no previous experience of anything approaching golf course architecture. Aided by terrain that naturally lent itself to the construction of a fine links layout, Purves got it right, producing a course which has, for well over a hundred years, welcomed golfers of all abilities with gnashing teeth, despite the technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The reasons behind the christening of the course are unclear. Some accounts explain that the name pertained to Purves’ exclamation on the church roof, others that it was a nod to St Andrews and the eponymous patron saint. But regardless, by 23 May 1887, 88 founding members had subscribed to St George’s, soon to become one of the golfing world’s most celebrated clubs.
Five short years later, news of the “extraordinary new course at Sandwich” had quickly spread, and, in 1892, St George’s was rewarded with the Amateur Championship. Having provided first-class golfers with the sternest of tests, it would, just two summers later, become only the fifth club to host The Open Championship, and the first to do so outside Scotland.
Fearing a reduced number of entries, The Royal and Ancient negotiated specially reduced rail fares to encourage Scottish professionals to undertake the long journey south. Only 14 took advantage of the offer, but another 21 Scots based at English clubs increased the starting field to 94, a new record for the Championship, beating the previous highest entry of 82 at St Andrews.
With its long carries from the tee and valley fairways winding through heavy rough and huge sand dunes, St George’s was truly daunting. Englishman JH Taylor, one-third of what would become known as the Great Triumvirate, signed for four rounds in the 80s for a total of 326 and a five-stroke victory. Unlikely to be surpassed in the future, it was, and still remains, the highest winning score in the history of The Open. It would be the first of Taylor’s five Open successes.
Fast-forward another half-a-decade, and it was another third of the Triumvirate’s time to triumph. Harry Vardon won his third Open Championship in 1899, the last to be held at St George’s. From 1902, it would forevermore be known as Royal St George’s, the magisterial prefix being bestowed by King Edward VII, when he accepted the invitation to become ‘Patron’ of the Club.
Another eight Opens would be decided over the Sandwich links over the coming half-century, the last of which was won by South Africa’s Bobby Locke in 1949. For a number of reasons, a 32-year hiatus followed, with golf’s oldest Major only returning to the south coast in 1981.
30 years and four Opens later, in 2011, Royal St George’s, this quintessentially English club and links, looks forward to hosting its 14th Open Championship, and what an occasion it will be.