Legend has it that Mr Luck, a coastguard living in a cottage near the end of what is now the fifth fairway, laid out a few rudimentary holes and practised the game of golf. Then there is the one about a Sandwich schoolmaster who used to amuse himself by hitting a golf ball about at the end of the links nearest the town. At this point golf and Wimbledon make a connection.
Dr Laidlaw Purves, of the Royal Wimbledon Club, went in search of a site for a seaside course to serve the needs of Londoners. It was about 1886 when Purves, a stout figure prone to wearing a red jacket, black bow-tie and fawn cap, discovered a sea of great sand dunes, formed as the channel retreated from the ancient Cinque Port of Sandwich. Purves, a specialist in ophthalmology, a scratch golfer and a member of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, formed the Sandwich Golfing Association. Like Bobby Jones at Augusta National, Purves invited his friends along. By 1887 a prospectus was circulated to persons 'thought worthy to be members' and 88 people met in London to inaugurate the club.
They called it St George's, a London club 'having its green at the seaside', the capital's own links. Purves was the first captain, George Granville Leveson-Gower the first president. Earl Granville, the Liberal leader of the House of Lords, was Warden of the Cinque Ports. Granville had been born before the battle of Waterloo and to balance matters the Earl of Guilford, aged 10, was elected vice- president. His trustees had provided the land. The entrance fee was three guineas and the annual sub two guineas. The general direction of each hole remains the same.
The first competition in which visitors took part was the St George's Champion Grand Challenge Cup. A sign that the members were not short of a few bob is that the cup cost 400 guineas, then a massive sum. John Ball of Royal Liverpool, the Nick Faldo of his day, won and kept winning. St George's became England's answer to St Andrews. In 1892 the Amateur Championship was played in the south of England for the first time and two years later it hosted the Open Championship, the first time it had been held outside Scotland. It was won by J H Taylor, an English professional, with a score of 326.
Tomorrow the Open returns to Royal St George's for the 12th time. It has a habit here of producing a first- time winner. The only champion to break par over four rounds was the American Bill Rogers in 1981. The modern professionals regard Royal St George's as the toughest of the Open Championship courses. 'There is no question,' J H Taylor said, 'that the best greens are to be found at Sandwich. Nothing is left dependent upon chance. They are well and continually looked after and hence their excellence.'
The man responsible for this, Ramsay Hunter, green-keeper, club-maker and caddie superintendent, was treated abysmally by the crusty old members. Hunter had 'given way to his old failing'. Hunter kept a cow in a barn on the course and when a fire destroyed the building and the animal the committee denied him his request to keep a new cow. Then they dismissed him.
The club's first professional was Tom Vardon, brother of Harry 'The Grip' Vardon who won the Open at Sandwich in 1899 and 1911. In 1904 Royal appeared before the club's name, the honour being accorded by King Edward VII. The Amateur Championship that year was won by the American W J Travis who put it about that he had not been made welcome by the members.
Travis putted with the centre- shafted Schenectady putter which was subsequently banned by the R and A. An example of such a putter is on display in the clubhouse. Less visible are a number of the old feathery balls. They had been lying around the clubhouse, used as paper weights and so on until the committee read that a feathery was sold at auction for pounds 8,000. The club's collection was immediately locked in a cabinet.
Royal St George's was, and remains, an exclusively male club. There are 675 members drawn from all over the world and one of the many things they have in common is that they are all men. 'We have a lot of bad press about this,' Gerald Watts, the secretary, said, 'but women are always welcome here. It is a club rule that they must be accompanied by their husbands. There are no women members and the only way there could be is if the club rules were changed.' Eighty years ago a member was reprimanded for taking tea with his lady guests in the Ladies' Room.
In 1908 the club achieved another first. It was asked to manage the 'golf section' of the Olympic Games and, despite protests from the R and A that they should be involved, entries were received from half a dozen countries. The 'golf section' was cancelled because none of the British players had completed the entry form correctly. The only correct entry was from George Lyon, a Canadian who won the Olympic golf title in St Louis in 1904.
The club has a flagstaff and a flag code: the red club flag is flown on the masthead when play is restricted to members; the white club flag for major events; the Union Jack on the days prescribed by Government regulation and the St George's Cross on St George's Day. Visiting societies may, with the permission of the secretary, fly their flag but only at the yardarm. One of the biggest changes noticed at the centenary was the replacement of white tablecloths in the dining room with polished oak tables and mats.
Royal St George's is a course for heroes - and villains. It was, after all, the scene of Goldfinger's infamous match with James Bond. Naturally, 007 won the dollars 10,000 wager after exposing Goldfinger and his inscrutable caddie Oddjob as cheats. The choice of venue was no coincidence. Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond books, was a member of Royal St George's and was captain elect when he died.
------------------------------------------------------------------ OPEN CHAMPIONS AT ST GEORGE'S ------------------------------------------------------------------ 1894 J H Taylor 326 strokes 1899 Harry Vardon 310 1904 Jack White 296 1911 Harry Vardon 303 (bt Arnaud Massy in play-off) 1922 Walter Hagen 300 1928 Walter Hagen 292 1934 Henry Cotton 283 1938 Reg Whitcombe 295 1949 Bobby Locke 283 (bt Harry Bradshaw in play-off) 1981 Bill Rogers 276 1985 Sandy Lyle 282 ------------------------------------------------------------------
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