Royal St George’s will stage its 15th Open Championship in July, 10 years on from Darren Clarke’s memorable triumph at the venue.
The Sandwich links has traditionally proven tough to score on. Of the last five Champion Golfers at Royal St George’s, Greg Norman is the only one to have recorded a winning total lower than five under par, posting a stunning 13-under aggregate of 267 in 1993 that remained a record score in the Championship for 23 years.
Ahead of this year’s Open, we take a hole-by-hole look at the challenge that awaits the world’s best golfers on a fascinating par-70 layout, which retains many elements of the original design created by Dr. Laidlaw Purves in 1887.
Royal St George’s opening hole is one of several on the course that has retained its original design from 1887. A challenging par 4 begins with a drive over a deep swale known as ‘the Kitchen’. A trio of bunkers stretch across the front of the green to gobble up any approach shots that come up short and left, while the putting surface slopes from front to back. Tiger Woods famously started with a seven on this hole in the 2003 Championship after losing his tee shot, while Jerry Kelly carded an 11 in 1993.
Known as ‘Hogsback’, the second sweeps from right to left, with two sand traps lurking on the corner of the dog leg. Providing those are avoided off the tee – either by driving over them or playing safe to the right – players face a relatively straightforward approach. Many will target the front of the green in order to leave an easier uphill putt.
One of two lengthy par 3s at Royal St George’s, along with the 11th, the third is a stiff test featuring a sizeable two-tiered green. Prior to Royal Portrush’s recent return to hosting duties, it was the only par 3 on the Open rota not to feature a bunker. The hole does contain a solitary tree – the only one to be found at Royal St George’s – in the form of a stunted blackthorn to the right of the green.
Avoiding the spectacularly tall ‘Himalaya’ bunker is the first priority off the tee at the fourth, one of Royal St George’s hardest holes. Those who clear the large dune with a straight drive will land on a flat area of fairway known as the ‘Elysian Fields’. The green is cut at an angle and players must avoid overshooting it, with out of bounds posts running perilously close to the back edge. The hole proved especially tough during the 1985 Championship, yielding a scoring average of 4.6.
A first view of the sea is on offer from the tee, where players face an interesting decision of which part of the split fairway to aim for. The bold will take on a carry in excess of 300 yards over bunkers, dunes and rough, with the aim of leaving a short approach to an unprotected green. However, a safer shot down the right-hand side with an iron often brings a more profitable result. Players who take the latter option will hope to find a small area of flat fairway known as Campbell’s Table, which earned its name after American Bill Campbell landed on the plateau four times in succession on his way to winning each of his matches in the 1967 Walker Cup.
An iconic par 3 with four bunkers surrounding a long two-tiered green, the sixth is known as ‘the Maiden’ and named after the towering dune to the left of the putting surface that reminded course designer Dr. Laidlaw Purves of the Jungfrau summit in the Swiss Alps. The original tee position resulted in a blind tee shot over the dune, but a more conventional test is now provided, one that was aced by Tom Watson in 2011. The five-time Champion Golfer recorded a hole-in-one in round two, to the delight of the many spectators gathered around the green.
One of only two par-5s at Royal St George’s, the ‘Strath’ provides a welcome opportunity to improve your score. Plenty of eagles have been recorded at the seventh in previous Opens, with eventual Champion Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson each making threes in the final round 10 years ago. The hole is not without its challenges, though. The crest of a hill hides the fairway from view off the tee, while three steep-sided bunkers guard the green and threaten to punish any errant approach shots.
If the seventh offers a degree of respite, the same cannot be said of the eighth, which has the name ‘Hades’. Traditionally the toughest hole in Championships at Royal St George’s, it was originally a par-3 but was rebuilt as part of the course changes that pre-empted the return of The Open in 1981. Tee shots should be kept left to avoid two cleverly placed bunkers, while accuracy is also essential with the approach – over a swathe of rough - to a contoured green nestled between dunes and protected by two front bunkers.
The second shot is key at the ninth, a par 4 known as ‘Corsets’ that has changed considerably over the years and used to be played along the ridge to the right of the current fairway. Any approaches that miss left run the risk of finding two deep bunkers. Finding the right part of the green is also important, given the undulating nature of the surface.
Much like the previous hole, the 10th demands a precise approach, with an elevated green tricky to hold due to the fact it falls away sharply on all sides. The fiendish slopes famously got the better of Tom Kite in the final round of the 1985 Open, as he conceded the lead with a double-bogey six. The hole used to be tougher still, with the original green located behind the present putting surface, meaning the second shot was totally blind.
Originally played as a par 4, the length of the 11th presents a significant challenge, particularly on a windy day. Five bunkers surround the green, with the three on the left likely to be regularly found due to the presence of a right-to-left slope. Any player would be happy to simply make three here and move on.
Low bump-and-run shots can often reap rewards on links courses, but they are unlikely to prove too effective at the par-4 12th, where five bunkers are positioned in front of the green and a huge ridge runs across the fairway. However, the fact this hole is Royal St George’s shortest par 4 means players can afford to take an iron from the tee and still have a lofted club in their hand for the approach. The original hole was known as ‘Lemonade or Gingerbeer’ from the days when refreshments were served on the tee by vendors from the Bay Road. Nowadays, the Halfway Hut is situated by the green.
A difficult stretch of closing holes begins with ‘Princes’, a long par 4 that runs down to a green besides the old clubhouse of Prince's Golf Club, a venue that itself staged The Open in 1932. Finding the narrow fairway is not easy, with four bunkers lying in wait for anything slightly off line. One of the traps was created by a jettisoned bomb in World War II. When it comes to the approach to the green, much will depend on whether a player can land their ball on the correct side of a ridge running the length of the putting surface. Anyone overshooting the green runs the risk of going out of bounds.
Par 5s often represent the best opportunities to pick up shots, but that cannot be said of Royal St George’s 14th. This hole has been responsible for three of the eight highest par-5 scoring averages in The Open since 1982. In 1985 and 2011, the average score on the 14th was 5.19 and 5.07 respectively, while it was a whopping 5.3 in 2003. Out of bounds down the right is a clear danger from tee to green, as Dustin Johnson found to his cost when attempting to chase down Darren Clarke 10 years ago. The strength and direction of any wind can make a huge difference on this hole, but in any circumstances you simply cannot miss right. The hole is called ‘Suez Canal’ due to the ditch crossing the fairway approximately 330 yards from the Championship tee.
Yet another hole where staying out of sand is far from straightforward. Five bunkers are in play off the tee, with three more positioned in front of the green at this long par four. The traps to the right of the fairway were named ‘the Marmalades’ in an apparent reference to Rex and Lister Hartley, members of the famous jam-making family. Anyone missing the green to the left at this long par 4 could face a sticky situation in the form of a challenging pitch over a bank.
The hole that proved the downfall of Thomas Bjorn in 2003. The Dane was firmly on course for victory until two successive shots from a bunker to the right of the green landed on the putting surface only to roll back into the sand. The painful scenes typified the danger posed by that particular trap, one of seven scattered around the green. Remarkably, there were three holes-in-one on the 16th in 1981, with Gordon J Brand, Roger Chapman and Sam Torrance all recording aces and the latter pair doing so in the final round. Fourteen years earlier, in the Dunlop Masters, Tony Jacklin achieved the first live televised hole-in-one here.
The penultimate hole is a gentle dog leg from right to left that features a fairway full of swales and humps. Distance control is crucial with the second shot. Under-hit approaches will be punished by a false front, while anyone who goes over the back will have their work cut out to get up and down. Bunkers lurk to the left and right as well, meaning there really is no margin for error when approaching the green.
One of the most fearsome finishing holes on The Open rota, the 18th at Royal St George’s played to an average of 4.62 in 1985. That was the year Sandy Lyle triumphed despite failing to get up and down from ‘Duncan’s Hollow’, the swale to the left of the green that got its name when George Duncan came to grief there in 1922 and lost to Walter Hagen. The approach to 18 has never been straightforward, while two bunkers make the tee shot tricky too. Defending a one-shot lead here on Sunday would be no easy feat.