Friday, June 30, 2006

Royal St. George's - Sandwich

Sandwich Bunker

Bond. James Bond. The famous golf match between James Bond and Auric Goldfinger is set at the fictional stand in for the Royal St. George's Golf Club (ranked #33 in the world) - Royal St. Mark's in the book. Ian Fleming served as captain of the club.

Royal St. George's Golf Club is near the town of Sandwich, which is historically what the club has been known as. The course is located about 2 1/2 hours southeast of London. When reading the autobiographies of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen or early golf books, Sandwich is referred to often as it has always been a championship quality links course.

I rate it overall as the best golf course in England. I have never been a fan of the out and back layout and Sandwich is not one; it provides a superior routing of holes. There are no parallel holes and a constant change in hole direction, which is very important when the wind is up, which it often is.

The day I played at Royal St. George's, the wind was up. The temperature was roughly 50 degrees and the wind was blowing at a sustained 25 mph with higher gusts. We arrived and were greeted by the Caddie Master who was right out of central casting. A giant of a man, he was wearing shorts and long socks. Many golf clubs in Great Britain frown upon the wearing of shorts unless you have on 'long socks'. Many courses in Britain send you a list of rules when you make your booking and they tell you whether or not you have to wear a jacket and tie, admonish you to play fast and stipulate the minimum handicap required to play the course (generally between 18 and 24). And usually lurking somewhere in the rules is a long sock rule. The long sock rule says that if you wear shorts, which they don't really want you to do, then your socks must come up above your knee. He was very accommodating and warned us it would be a difficult day. We then went into the pro shop and had a nice discussion with the head professional, Andrew Brooks, who said at least four times 'it will be difficult today with this wind'. Although it was late May, the temperature with the wind chill was in the low 40s. I have found that generally in the British Isles the locals downplay the weather and wind specifically, saying it is a 'gentle breeze' or 'nothing'. When the understated English tell you the wind will be ferocious, it is time to panic. A hearty man indeed wears shorts in this weather.


Well, the pro and caddie master were right. It was a very difficult days golf. Never-the-less, the greatness of the course came through and it was a very enjoyable day indeed. We enjoyed lunch in the members dining room with the requisite jacket and tie. We had a drink served in their signature silver tankard and lunch was a very classy affair. Muirfield has a deserved reputation for a good lunch and a lot of history but Royal St. Georges's gives it a run for the money on both fronts.

The English have a great sense of tradition and respect for rules and authority, especially among the upper crust. After lunch as we were changing out of our jacket and tie into our four layers of clothing that would be necessary to keep warm, I noticed the accents in the locker room were more polished that those I have heard throughout Scotland and England. No cockney accents at Royal St. George's. Think Prince Charles. The smoking room has a wooden board up above the fireplace listing previous club Presidents and it confirms Royal St. George's place among the connected in English society. Among the Presidents there were four Right Honourables, A Most Honourable, two Sirs and a Lord. The abbreviations after the names includes Knights, members of the Orders of Chivalry and military decorations: K.G. (Knight of the Garter), C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), K.T. (Knight of the Thistle), M.C. (Military Cross), D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order), K.C.M.G. (Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George), T.D. (Territorial Decoration), D.L. (Deputy Lieutenant) and a K.B.E. (Knight Commander of the British Empire).

I can't say enough about how grateful I am to clubs like Royal St. George's for being so accommodating for visitors. Luckily the tradition of being open and accessible to visitors is greatly appreciated and they make you truly feel welcomed (Royal Troon take note).

I found three holes at Royal St. George's to be particularly good. The par five 14th hole, "Suez Canal" (pictured below) has out of bounds down the entire right side and a burn/swale in play off the tee. You can't just whale at your second shot, since short of the green there are bunkers on the left side of the fairway and the fairway narrows to about 25 yards. Yet, if you can thread the needle and land in that area you will likely be rewarded with a birdie; otherwise you will pay the price. The fairway bunkers 80 yards short of the green will penalize you if you try to get the ball to the green. Even this close to the hole, you have to just get the ball out as your first priority. It is a hole you really have to use your head to play well.

The #1 handicap hole, the eighth, is a dogleg right and has a very interesting and challenging green complex that is artfully bunkered. Your second shot to the green plays downhill and usually downwind. Very tricky.

The fourth hole, Sahara, has an enormously large bunker on the right side of the hole. You hit from an elevated tee to a fairway that is wildly undulating and the green is even wilder. If you hit long past the green you are in the backyard of a local resident. Definitely a unique hole.

RSG Great Par 5

Henry David Thereau once said the most men lead lives of quiet desperation and he was right. Although at one of the best golf courses in the world, for a few holes the wheels really came off due to the wind. Wind destroys a golfer's tempo and gets in your head. I much prefer playing in the rain to playing in a strong wind. Try losing your swing in a four club wind in the middle of a golf trip to play the championship courses of England. 3,500 miles from home, you begin to doubt everything.

Sports psychologists will tell you that you will play your best when you don't have any swing thoughts. Pick a target and hit to the target. Your mind should be uncluttered. A zen-like state is best, you should be focused in the present. I was in the opposite state. At this point in time, my stream of consciousness was something like what follows: What am I doing out here? Why am I not home with my wife and children? Why did I take up this game in the first place? I am a complete dumb-ass. My handicap is too high to be trying this. I should go to church more often. I should call my mother more often. I should really floss more often. I really should have put on clean underwear this morning. I left the office for a week with a lot of dysfunction and people taking shots behind my back. I could be back sucking up to my boss. As the top 100 course located closest to a nuclear reactor it is only fitting that I had a core meltdown at Royal St. George's.

The normal solitude and peacefulness of a golf course is turned into your enemy and not your friend. As you may have guessed, someone who is crazy enough to take on this journey might be a bit compulsive and obsessive. So you extrapolate your bad game infinitely into the future. You'll never be able to hit the ball again. I walked four holes with my head down and my chin on my chest and lost a disproportionate amount of balls in a short period of time.

One of the things I love about this great game is what it teaches you about yourself and about life. Never give up; keep persevering; forge ahead. I didn't walk in. I didn't give up, I played on and got my swing back. Like life, golf forces you to keep reinventing yourself. The swing you had two years ago it probably not the swing you have today. Mine changes often but thanks to the pro at my course, we always seem to be able to cobble something together again no matter how bad the wheels fall off. Life, like golf, is not easy. It is a constant struggle. Just when you think you have it figured out, it reaches up and bites you.

In a nice touch, the pin flags at Royal St. George's are the English (not British) flag. It took me a while to figure out but it makes sense when you learn that the English flag, which is a white background with a red cross, is called St. George's cross.

The course is so good that even the distant views of the nuclear cooling towers can't spoil Royal St. George's. I am putting Royal St. George's on my short list of courses to return to, to play again; hopefully, next time with the wind down.

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