The county of Kent is divided from France by a mere 21-miles of English Channel. Ten thousand years ago there was no English Channel, just a wide, sandy expanse known as Doggerland. The melting waters of the Ice Age put an end to Doggerland and in a stroke gave the English 'Continental holidays' - and the game of golf!
As the ice melted and the enormous ice pressure lifted, Britain was separated from the rest of Europe and at the same time, the coastal margins rose to reveal long stretches of lovely sandy beach - just perfect for a game of golf. When London’s earliest courses such as Blackheath and the London Scottish Club in Wimbledon became overcrowded, the capital’s gentry looked for their nearest point of relief and lo & behold, down by the Kentish coastal villages of Deal and Sandwich was their newfound Shangri-La.
A Good Deal
The Open Championship was initially held Kent in 1894 when Royal St Georges became the first club outside Scotland to host the event. It returns in 2020 and the small town of Deal will be inundated with enthusiasts looking for room, board and a bite to eat. As I drove towards my hotel for the stay, ‘Sandwich’ read the roadside sign with ‘Deal’ directly below it. I wondered if a local Subway was doing a ‘Special’.
The town of Sandwich did indeed lend its name to the multi-tiered hunger-buster. John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich was an avid gambler and rather than take a break for a proper, sit-down meal, ordered some meat between two slices of bread. His fellow gamesters followed suit shouting out "the same as Sandwich!" and the rest is culinary history. Sandwich is one of the best preserved medieval towns in England and well worth a nose around. It’s also the gateway to the three most prestigious golf clubs in the area; Royal St Georges, the Princes Course and Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club.
Royal St Georges
Royal St Georges have clearly purloined the best chunk of real estate! These billowing, rucked-up links have hosted the Open Championship no less than 14 times and the Amateur Championship on 13 occasions. It was Scotsman, Dr William Laidlaw Purves who laid out the course in 1887 and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII – he who abdicated the throne for an American divorcee, tisk, tisk) gave the club his Royal seal of approval in 1902.
I must confess, I feel a bit uncomfortable at posh English golf clubs like St Georges. There’s a snooty air that I don’t encounter in the more celtic courses further north and across the sea in Ireland. American Walter Hagan did not take kindly to British class pretences either. There is a sign next to St Georges’ clubhouse entrance which reads ‘Motors Waiting must not remain on the drive by the Clubhouse - By Order of the Committee’. In the old days, golf professionals were not allowed inside clubhouses, a hallowed ‘Members Only’ domain! Arriving at Royal St Georges for the 1922 Open Championship, Hagen was informed he would have to use the rear entrance to access the professionals’ changing facilities. Flamboyant ‘Hage’, with a footman and driver in tow decided that his rented limo would do as his changing parlour, parked it right in front of the members’ entrance and steadfastly refused to move. To add insult to injury he went and won the event, the first American to do so.
The story doesn’t end there! After the final round, Hagen was invited into the clubhouse by none other than the Prince of Wales to take tea and tell tales of victory. On witnessing this outrageous, flagrant contravention of the esteemed club’s etiquette, the steward hurried forward and informed Mr Hagen that “his presence was not permitted within the clubhouse which was reserved exclusively for members”. The Royal patron quietly lent forward and enlightened the steward that the word ‘Royal’ could just as easily be removed as bestowed! Hage had the last laugh and came back in 1928 to win again, further rubbing salt in any remaining pique.
In more recent times, the Open last came to Royal St George’s in 2011 when Darren Clarke showed Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson just what links golf was all about. In 2003, the course had been lengthened and considerably toughened up for the event. A very dry summer produced baked-hard fairways almost devoid of grass which is what happens to a proper links during the summer. The conditions exaggerated the course’s pronounced humps and fiery-fast greens much to pampered parkland players’ frustrations. Ben Curtis, also from Kent, (Kent, Ohio) won the event. When the Open returns in 2020, who knows what we’ll get and that’s the beauty of links golf, it’s anything but predictable.
The Deal at Dunkerley’s
Dunkerley’s Hotel in Deal was my pied-à-terre and their real ales availed some fine ‘educational’ evenings. Kent is the hop-growing capital of England and offers a tour de force of real beers - Spitfire, Canterbury Jack and Bishops Finger to name but a tasty few. Over a pint or three, I got to know the boss/head chef, Ian Dunkerley. “I’ll get you out on my course,” he enthused. Walmer & Kingsdown is a headland track atop the famous White Cliffs. In golfing terms, it’s no luminary, just a pleasant add-on if you have the time - but it did have an interesting side-story. I had heard that Ian Fleming, author and wartime British Naval Intelligence officer lived in these parts and made numerous references to the area in his Bond books. Being a child of the 60’s and a big Bond fan, this was indeed of interest. “You’ll remember the book ‘Moonraker?” Ian asked. “This,” he pointed to a valley just beyond the golf course, “is where Sir Hugo Drax’s rocket installation was supposed to be.” Drax, the bounder! He was going to blow up London and this was his rocket base… It took me a minute to remember it was all fiction.
Fleming was himself a very keen golfer and played at both Sandwich and Deal on a weekly basis which was only a few minutes drive from his cottage in St Margaret’s Bay. Rumour has it that the author took his secret agent’s 007 number from the bus service that ran from London to Deal. However, the secretary at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club insisted that the club’s telephone number at the time was Deal 007…a number Fleming would have dialed at least twice a week.
Royal Cinque Ports
The name ‘Cinque Ports’ (pronounced "sink") refers to a series of coastal towns in Kent & Sussex brought together back in the mists of time for purposes of defence and trade. It also refers to Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, a traditional links that I found all at once terrifying and tantalising. The wind had picked up for my round here and it really made a huge difference a round on these open links. As I stood on the 1st with a fair old gust behind me, the contours seemed to reflect the turbulent sky above with me and my fragile game in between. Sometimes I don't like playing golf on my own. It can be a bit scary as it certainly was here today. Funnily enough, I didn't see all that many members tackling the links on a day like this. Many of the tees are elevated here to increase your exposure to the sea winds; the turf is tight, dry and unforgiving. This adds up to a lot of extra elements to factor in.
‘Deal’ as Royal Cinque Port is locally known, staged the 7th Open Championship to be held outside Scotland and the club assumed its Royal title in 1920 when King George V was a frequent visitor. There are some great holes; 3rd, 4th, 15th, 17th and 18th were to my mind the best covering the most undulating ground. The wind will always be a significant factor though; I doubt if there’s a round goes by without a stiff breeze.
Prince’s Golf Club
Nearby Prince’s Golf Club has hosted the Open Championship - just once! Is that a good or bad thing! It’s certainly good that in 1932 they had the honour. But how come it didn’t come back?
By way of research, I played the club’s three 9-hole sections. Prince’s is laid out on marginally more level ground than its neighbours but it’s still a fast and furious links. At the 9th of the Shore section, I stiffed it to about 3-feet from the hole for birdie, in front of the club secretary who’d come out to see how I was progressing. “You certainly seem to know what you’re doing,” he remarked clearly impressed. He wouldn’t be saying that if he’d seen the rest of my round. Prince’s is another sterling test with great improvements to the courses and clubhouse facilities in recent years including a 38-bedroom Dormie House. The Shore and the Dunes sections makeup Prince’s championship stretch and can play over 7200 yards! In a breeze, it’s definitely no slouch.
I’d covered the most famous of Kent’s courses and now it was time to explore a bit more of the area. The next morning, bright and breezy I arrived at Littlestone Golf Club. Tucked away between Romney Marshes and the English Channel, Littlestone is one of the unsung English golf heroes. This wide-open, rippling links has enjoyed the architectural attentions of James Braid and Dr Alister Mackenzie who both brought it on to become a very fine coastal course. It’s a wide-open seaside expanse with little artifice, plenty room off the tee but around the greens you find more typical links scenarios where it’s difficult to deliver approach shots and make them stay!
Scotch & Rye
I next crossed the border from Kent into East Sussex. I had arranged to meet with a golf-writing buddy, Clive ‘Silky Swing’ Agran who abides in these parts with the intention of a round at Rye Golf Club. It’s not an easy club to get a game at. You have to write a letter in advance and, if fortunate, slot in with their fairly limited number of visitor tee times. Rye exists for its members first & foremost, mainly barristers from London and would you believe there are lots of little rules and regulations, like wearing a jacket and tie for lunch. I think they like to keep the place to themselves and who can blame them! The routine for members is a brisk, alternate-shot foursomes in the morning followed by a 3-course lunch with a bottle of something fruity then another bracing race around the links to work it off. I could live with that! Clive and I relished the course but couldn’t believe how fast these guys play foursomes especially if they are behind you.
I spent my final night on England’s southeast coast at Strand House, a 15th century guesthouse complete with slanting floors, awkwardly-angled doors and ‘mind your head’ signs everywhere. It’s a fascinating place, like living in a Hobbit hole. Once I got the 15th century shower started it worked perfectly well - as did the Elizabethan television - with a bit of fiddling. Actually, this is a great place to stay, highly recommended and they do wonderful, home-cooked dinners and set-you-up-for-the-day breakfasts. The town of Rye is equally edifying; ancient cobbled streets whisk you back to the time of Charles Dickens. Meanwhile, I was being whisked back to London, a reasonably short drive back to the city and all its amenities with a bag full of great golfing memories of this cozy southeast corner of England.
For more information visit…www.golfinkent.co.uk
Where To Stay:
Dunkerley's Restaurant and Hotel
19 Beach Street, Deal, Kent, CT14 7AH
Tel: 01304 375016
Strand House Boutique Guesthouse
Tanyards Lane, Winchelsea nr. Rye,
East Sussex, TN36 4JT
Tel: 01797 226276