Can the glory days return for Kent’s other Open venue?
East Kent vies with the Lancashire coast and the Surrey/Berkshire heath as England’s best golf region. Both Lancashire and Kent boast three courses that have hosted the Open, but there is one key difference: while Birkdale, Lytham and Hoylake have been Open venues in the recent past, only Royal St Georges among the Kentish courses has held the championship since the Second World War.
Mentioning the war helps to explain why the Kentish coast’s golfing glory days have mostly been in the distant past. As the closest part of the UK to the Continent, Kent was inevitably massively affected by the threat of invasion. On many parts of the coast, the coastal defences are easy to see. And in the case of Prince’s, the war almost destroyed the golf course.
In the 1920s and 30s, many good judges felt that Prince’s was the best of the best. Gene Sarazen won the Open there in 1932, and Henry Longhurst, who represented Cambridge in a University match on the course, waxed lyrical about it. None of that, though, could save Prince’s when the German tanks sat only 25 miles away across the Channel, and the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above. The course was requisitioned and used as a training facility. Prince’s luminary ‘Laddie’ Lucas might almost have landed his crippled Spitfire on the course, but beyond that, it seemed destined for oblivion.
Prince’s was revived after the war, when Sir Guy Campbell and John Morrison were hired to recreate the golf course, but it was never the same place. From a position at the very top table, the course became just another of Britain’s fine links – a candidate for the second course should an Amateur championship go to Kent, but not really an option for the highest honours.
And so the course has remained. Privately owned since the war – something of an anomaly given that the vast majority of Britain’s best courses are run by their members – Prince’s has suffered from a lack of investment in recent years. It remains a glorious spot, with no noise from traffic given its location on the Sandwich Bay estate, but the old clubhouse, which sits derelict by the entrance, decaying further each year, seems rather a metaphor for the place as a whole: splendid it might be, but surely it was so much better in the past.
Now, though, Prince’s time may have come. Last year, the course’s owners, the McGurk family, hired management company Troon Golf to run the operation. To many of us in the golf business, this was something of a surprise. Fine company though Troon is, we generally associate it with resorts and new-build clubs, not venues with a century of history and an Open championship in their past. Yet Troon itself is changing – the company now manages Turnberry, for example – and, as the world’s largest golf course operator, it has a host of skills and people it can deploy.
Troon’s top brass made one very smart decision when they took on Prince’s: they persuaded veteran golf executive Michael Lovett to take the job as general manager. Lovett, who for many years ran Valderrama, is steeped in British golf, and recognises what a venue like Prince’s needs. He quickly realised the course needed attention, and persuaded the ownership to fund a rebunkering project, hiring architect Gary Johnston of European Golf Design to provide design input.
Although this project was initially small-scale, it has rapidly gathered impetus. Over the winter, under Johnston’s guidance, new greenkeeper Sean McLean and the grounds crew have rebuilt twenty-odd bunkers on the Shore and Dunes nines. More are to follow: the objective is now to complete a total rebunkering of the course before Prince’s serves as an Open final qualifying venue in July 2010 (when the championship returns to Royal St Georges, just over the fence).
Some of this bunkering work is quite exciting: the fifth hole on the Shore nine, for example, which plays to a green just over the fence from RSG’s thirteenth, has been given a dramatic tee shot, with deep pots on either side pinching the fairway exactly where a good drive should finish. What’s best of all is that the new bunkers fit perfectly into the existing landforms, and demand a definite decision from the golfer: taking driver now means hitting into a very narrow gap. A layup shot from the tee may be a far safer option!
Prince’s sits on an intriguing parcel of linksland. It doesn’t have the dramatic dunes that make Royal St Georges’ front nine so stunning, but it has tons of interest on a smaller scale. And, for all that the course may not match up to its pre-war brilliance, Campbell and Morrison did a fine job back in 1949. On many holes, greens are banked into lateral dune ridges, creating interesting strategies: take the par five sixth on the Dunes, for example, where a tee shot down the right side, to the corner of the dogleg, will shorten the hole and give a decent chance to get home, but will also leave a tough second because of the dune into which the green is built. The greens themselves are generally not heavily contoured, but they are full of interest because of their surrounds, and because most are elevated on one side at least.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see the limitations of the post-war 27 hole Prince’s. Routing-wise, in order to fit the holes onto the property, Campbell and Morrison made most of their holes essentially parallel to the seashore. A quick look at the plan of the pre-war course – which had only to fit 18 holes onto the same expansive piece of property – naturally show a more expansive feel, with more holes moving towards and away from the water.
Which raises an intriguing question: would it be possible to recreate the pre-war course? This can’t be an original thought: many, many people, looking at what Prince’s has become, must have asked the same question.
But Lovett and Troon have some big aspirations: perhaps a return to the Open rota is out of the question, but there are other high-profile events for which they would like to compete, and east Kent is a tough golf market, what with Royal St Georges, the revitalised Royal Cinque Ports, plus courses of the status of Littlestone and Rye only a short drive away. They need to do something dramatic; and what could be more dramatic than restoring a course that many thought among the best in the world?
Whether this can be done is another question. Maps exist showing what the course looked like, but explosives are unforgiving and it seems very unlikely the landforms that now exist match those there in 1938. Still, the prospect, for anyone who loves golf’s history, is an enticing one. Even if this cannot happen, Prince’s seems in safe hands, and if the future may not match the distant past, it should at least be brighter than the recent.
This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.