|Balls have a tendency to roll off on both sides of the greens at Royal St. George's Golf Club. (Courtesy of Clive Carpenter)|
SANDWICH, KENT, England -- Timing is crucial in golf and picking the right moment to play one of the greatest courses in the world, Royal St. George's Golf Club, is critical.
It is, of course, the venue for this year's British Open and if you go between now and the middle of June (after which the course is closed until after the championship), you will see the famous claret jug in the trophy cupboard inside the clubhouse.
Another reason for not delaying is the unusually benign state of the normally penal rough. Traditionally very thick and at its thickest in July (ask Tiger, whose opening tee shot in 2003 resulted in a lost ball), the rough right now is peculiarly sparse after the driest spring anyone can recall. No new growth has come through after the dead winter grasses were burnt off.
However, there's no reason to relax because even though one of its most effective defensive weapons has been blunted, Royal St. George's still presents a formidable challenge.
Freshly revetted, the fearsome bunkers are fiendishly difficult and so if you're looking for a straightforward strategy, simply avoiding them is a perfectly legitimate way to try and negotiate the course.
Incidentally, the third is the only par 3 on the British Open roster that doesn't have a bunker. At 239 yards off the championship tee, it doesn't need one.
Andrew Brooks, the club's golf professional, offers a slightly more considered strategy on how to play this most magnificent course. A former Walker Cup player who turned pro and enjoyed considerable success on the European Tour, he is only the seventh professional in the club's history, which stretches back more than 100 years. After nearly 17 years in the job, Brooks, 65, he will be retiring immediately after the Open.
"A great golf course requires you to hit every shot in the book," he explained. "Here, the fairways are hard to hit, and so the tee shot is vitally important. It's difficult to make par from out of the rough. Media critics call it a 'blind' course, but if you're on the correct line, you can see where to go.
"The greens are very tricky because the ball rolls off on both sides. What makes it even more difficult is when the pins are near the edge. To score well, you have to hit a lot of very good irons and then, of course, putt very well. It's not a resort course and is pretty unforgiving, but there's no doubt that it's a truly great course."
With towering dunes, delightfully springy turf, innumerable bumps and hollows, sea views and a constant breeze, Royal St George's has all the elements that make links golf the thrilling experience that it is.
Plus, of course, it has heaps of history. This will be the 14th time that the British Open has been staged here, which makes it the fourth most frequently used course on the British Open roster. True golf legends such as J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon have won here as have more recent heroes -- Bill Rogers, Sandy Lyle, Greg Norman and Ben Curtis.
There have been a few minor changes since Curtis upset the odds in 2003, including new tees at the third, seventh and 15th, which together stretch the golf course by about 100 yards. Rather perversely, par has dropped from 71 to 70 because the fourth is no longer a par five.
The green at the 14th has been shifted 43 yards further back and very few, if any, will get home on this par 5 in two, especially if the prevailing wind is whistling in from the west.
In 2003, Curtis was the only player under par, and if there's anything like a decent wind this time, few if any will be in red figures come Sunday afternoon.
Grandstands were already being erected in late April and there was a fair amount of British Open-related activity going on.
Royal St. George's member Clive Carpenter said having the Open Championship on its course was a source of great pride to the membership.
"Yes, the stands and the spectators do cause quite a bit of damage, but it's amazing how quickly the course recovers," he said. "Curiously, I quite like playing when the stands are there. Because there are no trees, it's quite difficult to judge distances. By providing some definition, the stands are quite helpful."
Royal St George's is what they call a two-ball course, which means you can play singles or foursomes. Three- and four-balls are allowed but only on Tuesdays and not in August. Visitors are genuinely welcomed on weekdays, but you must book in advance and not simply turn up hoping to play.
Okay, how much does it cost? As I said at the beginning, timing is crucial. Ordinarily, one round costs £150 but plunges to £90 in November, costs only £70 from December to February and then goes back to £90 in March. Thirty-six holes ordinarily cost £190 but rise to £300 in May and July, drop down to £130 in November, and are only £110 from December to February and reverts to £130 in March.
Of course, if you're lucky enough to qualify for the British Open, you don't have to pay a green fee!
Although obviously a "trophy course" that you can brag about having played when you're back home with your friends, Royal St. George's is also a glorious experience of links golf at its very best.
You'll lose a few balls, drop shots by the fistful and struggle for most of the way, but you will be thrilled the whole way round and love every minute.
May 9, 2011
Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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