Golf / The Open Championship: Fairways few dare to mock: Robert Green, our new golf correspondent, on the course and leading contenders at Royal St George's

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be fair to say that many of the players in the Open Championship at Sandwich this week will not enjoy playing the course. Simply put, they do not think it is fair.

Never mind that Bernard Darwin, the venerable golf correspondent of The Times, wrote in 1910 that Royal St George's 'is as nearly my idea of Heaven as is to be attained on any earthly links' and never mind that in the fictional disguise of Royal St Mark's the course was the setting for James Bond's epic match against Auric Goldfinger. Such lyrical associations are not uppermost in the minds of modern aspirants to the Open title.

With its myriad humps and bumps, St George's crumpled look means it resembles a hastily exited duvet. Its fairways, meandering over and between the coastal sandhills, have the appearance of a storm-tossed sea, and are as hazardous for golfers to negotiate as the adjacent English Channel can be for sailors.

When asked to name his favourite course of the seven on the current Open rota, Jack Nicklaus listed St George's seventh. Diplomatically, he explained that, being in Kent, it just happened to be the furthest south. Also, Nicklaus just happened to shoot an 83 there in the 1981 Open, and in 1985 he missed the cut for the first time in 24 years of playing the championship.

When Seve Ballesteros first set unaccustomed eyes on this treeless site at the 1975 British PGA Championship, he was not sure it was a golf course at all. Since then he has won the PGA there, in 1983, and has come to give the old links a grudging respect. 'The course is good when it's soft,' he says. 'But if it's hard, the bounce means the ball can go anywhere.' In typically forthright fashion, David Feherty suggests: 'You hit your drive down the centre of the fairway and wonder which side to look for it in the rough.'

Nick Faldo, the defending champion, adds: 'On some holes, you can't see the bottom of the flag for the approach shot.' But at least the contemporary golfer can usually see the top of the flag, which was not the case in 1887 when the course was laid out with a plethora of blind shots. Purists might protest that the alterations to the original have been a case of the blind leading to the bland.

Down the ages, Royal St George's, justifiably or otherwise, has been seen as epitomising the exclusive British golf club. At least apocryphally, the signs once read 'No dogs, No women'; there are foursomes rather than fourballs and abundant card games and pink gins. Some may sneer at all this, but few would dare to mock the golf course.

Seven years after it opened, St George's became the first English course to host the Open. What is more, the legendary JH Taylor became the first English professional to win it. Apart from causing near-apoplexy in Scotland, this twin Sassenach breakthrough proved to be a precursor of Sandwich's role as both a mould-breaking and a trend-setting Open venue.

In its third Open, in 1904, James Braid's third round of 69 was the first sub-70 score in Open history. The record lasted a few hours, until Taylor shot a closing 68. But neither of them won. Jack White shot 296, the first time the winning total had been below 300.

In 1922, Walter Hagen presaged the first era of American domination of the title (11 wins in 12 years) by claiming his first Open. In 1934, Henry Cotton's spectacular victory, built on his famous second round of 65, ended that period and signalled a revival of British fortunes in the championship - largely because the Americans started to stay away.

In 1949, Bobby Locke, the South African, captured the first of his four Opens. He and Peter Thomson, of Australia, won eight of the next 10 between them.

The Open of 1949 was Royal St George's last for 32 years. With the subsequent growth in the scale of the championship in the 1960s, it seemed it might never get it back. Sandwich is a charming place, but its relatively remote location and claustrophobic streets meant it was harder to get into the town in two hours from London than it is to get on the 18th green in two shots. Also, the renewed stature of the Open had been achieved by enticing back the top American players, a process that could have been in jeopardy if they were forced to settle for comparatively spartan accommodation in Kentish boarding houses.

However, in 1981, new roads enabled the traffic to flow smoothly and an American, Bill Rogers, emerged the winner. His total of 276 was seven shots lower than any other previously shot in an Open at St George's.

But in 1985 normal scoring was resumed. In sporadically atrocious weather, Sandy Lyle's winning score was 282, two over par. That win, the first by a Briton for 16 years, heralded a fresh period of British excellence, with Faldo and Ian Woosnam going on to emulate Lyle by winning major championships.

Lyle's triumph was founded on opening rounds of 68 and 71, when the luck of the draw meant he avoided the worst of the weather on both Thursday and Friday. The elements frequently have a say in the destiny of the Open title. But then who said that golf was supposed to be fair?

----------------------------------------------------------------- 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 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)