With the Open Championship having returned to Royal Liverpool for the first time in 40 years in 2006, attention has naturally been drawn to some of the other links that have hosted the championship in the past. A number of great links have slipped from the rota over the years – Princes, for example, never recovered its pre-war eminence after being used as an airfield, and Prestwick, the championship's original home, is now too short and quirky to receive consideration as a venue for top events.
Royal Cinque Ports (RCP), a near neighbour to Princes and Royal St Georges in Kent, might well be regarded as the unluckiest club to have fallen out of the rota. Twice host to the Open, in 1909 and 1920, it was awarded the championship on two more occasions.
But in both 1938 and 1949, major flooding prevented the event from taking place. The building of a giant sea wall during the 1960s saved the links from further flood damage, but it also changed the nature of several holes. And there the situation rested.
Deal is a classic links. Although the land on which the course sits is not huge, dramatic dunes, the humps and hollows left by centuries of erosion make for old fashioned golf of the highest order. Or at least they should, for, until very recently, poor conditioning has compromised the play of the golf course.
During the 1990s, Deal's conditioning – and for that matter its architecture – suffered from a misguided approach to course maintenance. The fine fescues that exemplify links turf were allowed to be swamped by coarse weed grasses, and indeed the weeds were encouraged – overseeding was with perennial ryegrass! Several new bunkers were installed, with both position and construction lacking in precision. Even now, it is easy to identify these new bunkers – they sit heavily on the land, with odd-looking man-made banks behind them, rather than being set into natural ridges where they would be less obtrusive.
Some years ago, the club realised its management was too capricious, and, instead of course changes being at the whim of officials serving for only a year, it instituted a standing Links Management Committee. Consultant superintendent Gordon Irvine began working with the club in 2004, and in the past three years has led a systematic attempt to return the golf course to the kind of conditions golfers would expect from a links of this stature.
Irvine, one of the first in his industry to achieve the Master Greenkeeper status, is a rigorous traditionalist.
Starving out the weed grasses is his central aim, and under his control the golf course has been dried out. The hot weather of summer 2006 did have a negative effect on the condition of the course, though. The weed grasses could not tolerate the heat and lack of water – so far, so good – but the returning fescues, being relatively young, also struggled to cope. This should be only a minor blip, however. Now, the club is turning its attention towards design tweaks.
Architect Donald Steel began consulting with the club in 2001, and since his retirement, his former associate Martin Ebert of Mackenzie & Ebert has continued the work.
Ebert's plans include some minor lengthening to the golf course. For the cancelled 1949 Open, Deal would have played to a massive length of almost 7,300 yards, but the construction of the sea wall shortened the course significantly. As a result, the front nine, which largely plays down the seafront, is noticeably shorter and easier than the legendary finishing holes – an issue made even more obvious by the fact that this side is usually played downwind.
However, the existence of the sea wall does provide an opportunity both to add length and create exciting new elevated tees for several of these holes.
The wonderful par five third hole, with its intimidating spectacles bunkers set into a ridge that must be carried with the second shot, is receiving particular attention. Given the existence of a public right of way down the right of the hole, the location of the tees, close to the sea wall, creates an unacceptable risk of injury. But here the proposed solution does not emasculate the hole. By moving the tees to the left of the second green, a wonderful tee shot, to a fairway that is slightly angled and contains many interesting landforms, would be created.
At 520 yards, up from 510 at the moment, it would remain a relatively short par five by modern standards, but it surrender birdies only to careful and accurate play.
New tees on the sea wall will add between 20 and 30 yards to the seventh and ninth holes. At this far end of the golf course, the land is plainer, with less undulations, and the fact that holes such as the short par four tenth and the difficult eleventh – which has already been stretched by way of a tee on the sea wall – are such good tests of golf is testimony to the quality of the underlying architecture.
Irvine and his team have also been able to recover substantial amounts of green surface area that had been lost. As a result, many new potential pin positions have been created (or perhaps one should say recreated), and architect Ebert points out that these positions are invariably among the most challenging places to cut the hole, being close to green edges or hazards. And, given the dramatic contours to be found on many of Deal's greens, the difficulty is only increased.
Changes to the back nine, and the finishing stretch from hole 12 onwards in particular, are to be less extensive. On the thirteenth hole, an extra 30 yards added by building a new tee will bring the huge carry bunkers back into play from the championship markers. A few alterations to various bunkers will tighten the course in places, while the continuing improvements in conditioning, in the true links style, mean that the hazards can act to gather shots, and thus punch above their apparent weight.
Clearly Royal Cinque Ports is among the very finest of English links. It has sheer brutal length to its finish, classic short par fours such as the glorious sixth, and tremendous par fives such as the third and sixteenth. If the par threes are perhaps not as good as the longer holes, it is only because of the company they keep. It seems highly likely that major representative golf will be heading back to Deal in the future – the club has aspirations to host events such as the Walker Cup or the Amateur Championship – and the return of this magnificent course to its true status among the best known and respected courses in the UK cannot come too soon.