Stunning links doubles up as Open graveyard

NOT everyone has been as enamoured with this stretch of Kent coastline as William Laidlaw Purves was when he first envisaged a golf links on the humps and hillocks just outside Sandwich in the 1880s.

By 1887, the course had been opened and named in honour of England’s patron saint and seven years later it staged the first non-Scottish British Open, word having reached the Royal & Ancient up at St Andrews of an “extraordinary new course at Sandwich”.

St George’s proved a daunting test for the 94 competitors in 1894, a new record for the British Open Championship. Winner JH Taylor claimed the first of his five British Open titles with a record-high score of 326, following four rounds in the 80s.

And Royal St George’s has been the source of much griping among golfers since, the best put-down coming from Australia’s Steve Elkington, who, when asked to rank the course among the nine British Open venues, replied: “10th.”

And it’s easy to see why the links have gained their reputation as somewhat tricky and unpredictable, it’s undulating greens this week described as “funkadelic” by the tweeting former Masters champion Zach Johnson.

The last visit to Royal St George’s in 2003 produced plenty of thrills and spills before producing its unlikely champion in the unheralded American Ben Curtis.

Tournament favourite Tiger Woods came unstuck at the first tee, sending his driver 30 yards right into rough and losing his ball on the way to a triple-bogey seven, and fellow American Jerry Kelly fared worse, taking an 11 there.

They are not isolated moments of despair. That same opening day, on a hot and windy Thursday, defending champion Ernie Els carded a 78, Paul Casey had an 85 and only three players came home with sub-70 rounds, while back in 1981, Jack Nicklaus opened with an 83.

There has also been a catalogue of disasters at Sandwich to rival Woods’ and Kelly’s woes.

In 1985, Tom Kite walked onto the 10th with a two-shot lead in the final round but waged a losing battle with that hole’s domed green and double-bogeyed his way out of title contention. Eight years later, Bernhard Langer got to the par-five 14th in his final round and took driver off the tee for the first time that week, only to slice his shot out of bounds over the fence and into the Prince’s course next door. The German took a seven and lost to Greg Norman.

In 2003, it was Thomas Bjorn’s turn to suffer. The Dane was three shots clear with four to play, only to bogey the 15th and then take three shots to get out of a greenside bunker at the par-three 16th. The howler let Curtis in for the unlikely win.

The misfortune has also affected Irish hopes.

At the 1949 British Open, the first — this year playing as a par-four 444-yard hole — saw Wicklow’s Harry Bradshaw’s second round undone in bizarre circumstances when his tee shot into the semi-rough near the fifth fairway landed and lodged in the bottom half of a broken beer bottle.

The rules allowed Bradshaw a free drop but the Irishman found the wording ambiguous and without the guidance of a referee instantly available as there is today, he chose to blast the ball as it sat and with his eyes shut he sent shards of glass flying with his sand wedge and advanced the ball 30 yards out of trouble. Still distracted, Bradshaw took a double-bogey six and ended the tournament in a share of the lead, losing the play-off to Bobby Locke.

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