The Strange Beginnings of Royal St. George’s

Assorted insights into the early history of the 2021 Open Championship host


In the latest episode of The Fried Egg Podcast, Bob Crosby and I discuss the contentious early history of Royal St. George’s Golf Club, host of the upcoming Open Championship. When Royal St. George’s opened in the late 1880s, it embodied the Victorian principles of its designer, Laidlaw Purves. These principles revolved around a certain notion of fairness: well-struck shots should be rewarded with a good lie; poorly struck shots should be punished by a hazard. At the time, these ideas enjoyed near-unanimous approval.

Around the turn of the 20th century, however, Purves’s Victorian philosophy of golf course design came under fire from a new generation of writers and architects. This debate is the focus of my and Bob’s conversation.

We base our discussion on an array of historical sources, a few of which I’ve gathered below. This is not meant to be a full account of Royal St. George’s early history, just an assortment of intriguing materials and observations. My hope is just to give you something extra to think about as you watch this year’s Open.

The original Royal St. George’s

The second volume of The Golfing Annual, published in 1888, contains a beautiful map of the earliest iteration of the Sandwich links:

From The Golfing Annual, Vol. 2. Research credit: Simon Haines @hainesy76

The accompanying profile of the course details a flag system that guided players through Purves’s holes:

A tall red flag is placed at the spot beyond which a scratch player ought to place his tee shot, and shows the line of the bunker which should be carried from the tee by a well-struck ball…. For those who doubt their ability to carry the tee bunkers, a tall blue flag shows the spot for which the ball should be played. To arrive at this—the refuge—a hazard must be negotiated, and generally another hazard must be crossed from it. By carrying the scratch bunker from the tee a great advantage is gained, as in most instances the player who has sought the refuge cannot reach the green in the same number of strokes as he who has successfully negotiated the far bunker.

The lengths of the holes have been so arranged that one, two, or three fair drives are usually required to reach the greens, and thus any really badly driven ball will prevent a player reaching the putting green in the proper number of strokes. By this plan good driving is given a greater advantage than it secures on any other green with which the writer is acquainted. The tee shot having been successfully driven, the ball is either on the putting green or lying well, and one or two more shots are required to reach it, in both of which shots there are generally hazards to be avoided. The putting greens are shown in all cases by tall white flags, and the holes by short ones of the same colour.

The article also describes how Purves, in his pursuit of total fairness, even accounted for the vagaries of the wind:

As there is a hazard from every tee except one, varying in distance from 120 to 150 yards, and, as in a strong opposing wind some of these are too far for even the best drivers, two tees have been laid out at every hole—one (the usual backward one) being played from on calm days, or with a following wind, and the other (the forward tee), when there is a wind against the player.

Victorian golf course design

The original St. George’s exemplified the Victorian approach to golf architecture. Laidlaw Purves himself authored perhaps the most complete explanation of that philosophy.

(Thanks to Lee Patterson for tracking down and reprinting this excerpt from an 1890 article in the magazine Golf, a Weekly Record of Ye Royal and Ancient Game.)

1. Having obtained a large plan showing the boundaries of the ground on which the proposed course is to be made, all the places suitable for natural putting-greens are marked with flags of one colour, and the less suitable with flags of another colour.

2. All courses should, if possible, have 36 holes, or 18 capable of making good golfing holes played in both ways. The 18 hole course should be of such a length that the average scratch score will be about 90 strokes.

3. Avoid crossing, rather meet than cross.

4. There should be two tees for each medal hole, one for calm days and the wind with the player, the other when the wind is adverse.

5. Holes should be one or more drives in length, so that any badly driven ball prevents the player reaching the green in the same number of strokes as the player who had driven well. Where the length cannot be obtained, any badly played tee shot should meet a hazard, which will have the same effect.

6. Safe lies should be obtainable by all classes of drivers, but all should have hazards to negotiate to obtain these lies.

7. Avoid the drive and iron hole, and where this cannot be avoided, the hole should be placed so that, unless the tee-shot bunker is carried, the approach shot is more difficult than if the bunker be carried from the tee.

8. There should be a hazard from every tee, the carrying of which gives an advantage. A flag showing the line and distance to be carried is useful.

9. The bunkers should be visible, as far as possible, from the lie of the shots intended to carry them.

10. When any hazard is carried a good lie should be obtained.

11. The course proper ought to be bounded by hazards of some sort—long grass and bad lies—to prevent a player avoiding the recognised hazards, which should all be accurately laid down on the plan.

12. There should be a bunker in front of every green, which cannot be avoided without loss of distance and risk.

13. The putting-green should be undulating and large enough to allow a ball properly pitched across the bunker staying on the green. Where the size cannot be obtained, the putting-green should slope toward the player in approaching.

14. A typical hole is one having a hazard from the tee requiring a fair shot to carry it, a hazard for the shot through the green, the carrying of which hazard makes the player, and a drive into the putting green carrying the hazard in front of it. Where each of these shots is properly played, a good lie should be obtained.  

Today, many of these ideas seem rigid to the point of absurdity—a bunker in front of every green?—but we shouldn’t dismiss them as dumb or naive. Bob Crosby elaborated on that point in an email he sent me after we recorded the podcast:

Most people today see the old “steeplechase” courses as an early, crude type of golf course architecture—the kind you get when designers are just learning their craft. The opposite was true. The Victorian courses were the product of a sophisticated theory, one with clear views of how hazards should best function. At the time, they were thought to be the highest expression of the art of golf architecture, and there was not much dissent about that.

The reason I think this point is worth making is because when Victorian GCA is seen merely as a crude precursor to modern GCA, it reaffirms the common assumption that the history of golf is a gradualist one, and that minor changes occurred incrementally, leading us inevitably to where the game is today. 

But the rise of strategic golf course design was not gradual. As an idea, it arrived rather suddenly, and it was resisted bitterly, but when it prevailed (with some exceptions) it did so with astonishing rapidity. 

It is an example of why the history of golf is best understood as a series of debates. The history of golf is oppositional. Contrasting visions of what golf should be as a sport collided. And, as I am arguing in my book about John Low, the modern game arose when the framework was set for the most important of those arguments (over rules, GCA, and equipment, primarily—but other stuff, too). This establishing moment would go on to shape the game into modern times, and it happened over a remarkably short period around the turn of the 20th century. John Low, as it turns out, was an important figure in all of those seminal debates.

Rendered defenseless

Ultimately, the times caught up with Royal St. George’s. A fearsome test when it debuted, the course relied on carry hazards to challenge the game’s best players. But once the likes of Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, and James Braid became long enough to make the carries with ease, Laidlaw Purves’s monster lost its bite. The winning 72-hole scores at the first three Open Championships held at Sandwich tell the story:

1894: J.H. Taylor, 326

1899: Harry Vardon, 307

1904: Jack White, 296

Ten years, 30 strokes.

At the 1904 Open, hosted by Royal St. George’s in the midst of the Haskell-ball revolution, three players shot in the 60s on the second and final day of the championship: Braid (69), White (69), and Taylor (68). The previous 18-hole scoring record at the Open Championship had been 72.

This drop-off in scoring prompted a series of changes to St. George’s. The holes were not only lengthened but also brought more in line with the design principles of the anti-Victorian school of John Low, Harry Colt, and Alister MacKenzie. Over the 20th century, the course shed much of its initial character. Cross bunkers became clusters of pot bunkers, and the color-coded flags disappeared.

In addition, many of the course’s blind shots were eliminated. The most famous of these was at the 6th hole, the “Maiden,” which originally played over the tallest dune on the property.

Why do we not write poems about golf holes anymore? From The Golfing Annual, Vol. 2

By 1910, the 6th tee had been moved about 90 degrees counterclockwise to make way for a lengthened No. 5. The Maiden hole now ambled alongside the big dune instead of vaulting over it. In the tweet below, contrast the second map with the first and you’ll get an idea of how the 5th and 6th holes were reconfigured.

Bernard Darwin, for one, regretted the change. “There stands the Maiden,” he wrote, “steep, sandy, and terrible, with her face scarred and seamed with black timbers, but alas! we have no longer to drive over her crown: we hardly do more than skirt the fringe of her garment…. The present Maiden is but a shadow of its old self, and the splendour of it has in great measure departed.”

The GOAT golf writer weighs in

Speaking of Bernard Darwin, his landmark book The Golf Courses of the British Isles has the finest description of Royal St. George’s I’ve encountered. Darwin starts by summarizing the controversy around the course:

For a course that is still comparatively young—the club was instituted in 1887—Sandwich has had more than its share of ups and downs. It was heralded with much blowing of trumpets and without undergoing any period of probation, burst full-fledged into fame. For some time it would have ranked only a degree below blasphemy to have hinted at any imperfection. Then came a time when impious wretches, who had the temerity to think for themselves, began to whisper that there were faults at Sandwich, that it was nothing but a driver’s course, that the whole art of golf did not consist of hitting a ball over a sandhill and then running up to the top to see what had happened on the other side. Gradually the multitude caught up the cry of the few, till nobody, who wished to put forward a claim to a critical faculty, had a good word to say for the course. Then the club began to set its house in order, lengthening here and bunkering there, not without a somewhat bitter controversy between the moderates and the progressives, until the pendulum has begun to swing back, and poor Sandwich is coming to its own again.

Harry Rountree's painting of the Sahara 3rd hole at Royal St. George's, originally printed in Bernard Darwin's Golf Courses of the British Isles (1910)

While Darwin acknowledges the course’s faults, he remains an adamant St. George’s defender:

Throughout all this controversial warfare one fact has remained unchanged, namely, that, whatever they may think of its precise merits as a test of golf, most golfers unite in liking to play there. The humbler player frankly enjoys hitting over his sandhill largely because of the frequency with which he hits into it: the superior person may despise the sandhill and may be utterly bored with it anywhere else, but he retains a sneaking affection for it at Sandwich. It attracts him in spite of himself and his, as some people think them, tedious views.

Sandwich has a charm that belongs to itself, and I frankly own myself under the spell. The long strip of turf on the way to the seventh hole, that stretches between the sandhills and the sea; a fine spring day, with the larks singing as they seem to sing nowhere else; the sun shining on the waters of Pegwell Bay and lighting up the white cliffs in the distance; this is as nearly my idea of Heaven as is to be attained on any earthly links. “Confound their politics,” one feels disposed to cry, “frustrate their knavish tricks! Why do they want to alter this adorable place? I know they are perfectly right, and I have even agreed with them that this is a blind shot and that an indefensibly bad hole, but what does it all matter? This is perfect bliss.” Of course Sandwich is capable of improvement, and will doubtless be improved; whatever happens, the larks will continue to twitter, the sun will still be shining on Pegwell Bay: the charm can never be gone. It is at any rate very delightful now, and so let us go and play the first hole and enjoy ourselves without being too desperately critical.