A (Very) Brief History of Royal St. George's

(The following article was originally published by the author for Waggleroom.com) This week marks perhaps the most popular professional golf event in the entire world as the best golfers on the planet prepare for The Open Championship (or “The British Open” for us Yankees).  The 2011 rendition of the longest-running tournament in golf will be once again held at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England. The last time the Open was held at this course was in 2003 when Ben Curtis from the United States captured the Claret Jug by making a 20-foot par putt on the 72nd hole.  However, there have been many Open championships decided on this course since 1894, a few years after the course was simply known as “a hilly stretch in Sandwich”.

                Since 1894, Royal St. George’s would host 14 total championships. England’s JH Taylor won the first Open championship at the course that year at the age of 23 (he would also win the following Open championship in 1895, although not held in Sandwich). Harry Vardon also managed to win a pair of Open titles at the course, while Walter Hagen secured two of his four British major titles in Sandwich between world wars. Henry Cotton would win the first of his three Open titles at Royal St. George’s in 1934.  Sandy Lyle would be the first British-born player in 16 years to hoist the Claret Jug here in 1985, nearly beating the late and great Payne Stewart by a shot.  Greg Norman would eventually win his second a final major here in 1993.

                According to the official Open Championship website, the track of land that would eventually become Royal St. George’s was discovered by Dr. Laidlaw Purves, an eminent surgeon and Scotsman who learned the game of golf on Bruntsfield Links. According to lore, Dr. Purves is said to have stood atop St Clement’s Church in the village of Sandwich, cast his eyes over the surrounding countryside, and exclaimed: “By George, what a place for a golf course!”

                Dr. Purves had come to this location on England’s south coast with his brother, Alexander, to research the landing spot of Roman Emperor Claudius in the year 43 A.D.  What was originally meant to be a research-laden trip for the two brothers turned into the beginning of an architectural project to build one of the more unique golf courses in the world. From there the brothers would seek the assistance and talents of another well-known Scottish architect, Ramsay Hunter. Unfortunately, the brothers eventually learned that Hunter had absolutely no golf course design experience.  As such, Purves and Hunter would work together to map out a course that was almost entirely based on every natural contour, hill, and natural feature that the Sandwich landscape offered. No hills were moved, nothing was dug out, and the result was a golf course that many believed to be “too difficult” or “oddly designed”, including numerous blind tee-shots and landing areas.

                The stories behind the christening of the course’s name are unclear and debatable. Some accounts explain that the name pertained to Purves’ aforementioned exclamation on the church roof, while others suggest that it was a nod to St Andrews and the eponymous patron saint. But regardless, by May 1887, 88 founding members had subscribed to St George’s, soon to become one of the golfing world’s most celebrated clubs. Within the following five years word would spread throughout England of the new golf club, eventually driving numerous patrons and paying members to the area. In 1892, Royal St. George’s would host the Amateur Championship. Having provided first-class golfers with the sternest of tests, it would, just two summers later, become only the fifth club to host The Open Championship, and the first to do so outside Scotland.

                Over time, the world’s economy would fluctuate to the point where entries into the Open Championship faltered considerably. As a result, the Royal and Ancient “negotiated specially reduced rail fares to encourage Scottish professionals to undertake the long journey south. Only 14 took advantage of the offer, but another 21 Scots based at English clubs increased the starting field to 94, a new record for the Championship, beating the previous highest entry of 82 at St Andrews”, according to the Open Championship’s website.

                Many names of golfing legend have graced the fairways, tall grasses, and impossible bunkers at Royal St. George’s throughout the years. In 2011, this drastically difficult course surrounded by church steeples will host its 14th Open Championship, which will undoubtedly offer fans another moment in major tournament history.

For more on the Open Championship, visit: http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/07/12/open-championship-up-for-grabs/