Royal Cinque Ports: One of England’s Great Unsung Links

Though cut from the same cloth as Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, its more famous neighbor, Royal Cinque Ports (“RCP”) in southeast England, also known as Deal for the seaside town in which it is located, differs markedly in character. St. George’s has grandeur. RCP is humbler, more compact. In the words of Donald Steel, “this is not the prettiest corner of England,” adding that “Deal consists of a long row of unprepossessing houses creeping out to the edge of the links.” Here the crumpled, rolling fairways routinely pitch and toss the ball among its endless hillocks and swales. The links runs north and south on a narrow strip of land and is wedged between marshy grazing area on one side and a giant pebble wall on the other. (An earlier seawall had been broached repeatedly; the course has been flooded several times since it opened in 1892).

Royal Cinque Ports is a truly natural links

Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, RCP plays out in one direction, makes a loop, and then heads for home. This basic routing imposes a Jekyll and Hyde personality on the links. On the opening holes, golfers can fly shots high and far on the wings of a spinnaker wind. However, players are usually close-hauled on the incoming nine, where the toughest holes on the course, namely the final seven, are generally played into the teeth of a stiff wind. Of course, it is fully possible to play into the wind going out—and into the wind coming home. Such are the vagaries of seaside golf.

Despite the often capricious winds, the biggest obstacle to scoring at RCP are the humps and hollows in the fairway that force many awkward stances. The difficulty of striking the ball squarely from a lopsided stance was noted in the 1930s by the great English champion Henry Cotton, who said of RCP, “It is possible at nearly every hole to place a ball bang in the middle of the fairway and then find yourself in such an awkward position that a successful second shot can scarcely be played. What is more galling than that?” What indeed. The only flat stance one gets is on the tee.

As difficult and exasperating as the course can be, it does not smother the average golfer. There are no murderous carries from tee to fairway. The sand hills and revetted bunkers cater impartially to the amusement of all. A quintessential “fast track,” RCP rewards imagination and touch, not brute power. The greens, many of them exposed to the elements, are smooth, fast and very well kept. They are ranked among the best putting surfaces in Britain.

The soul of the course is its concluding four holes. These provide a heart-stopping, nerve-jangling finish on a course that can only be described as obdurate and old-fashioned. As early as 1903, a British golf publication commented, “The last four holes [at RCP], with the wind against, constitutes the most appalling test of accuracy, length and power. The 16th hole, in particular, should be written as one of the greatest in golf.”

Placement of the drive is all-important on the seemingly benign 507-yard, par-five 16th. After taking aim from the tee at an old wartime gun turret in the far distance, players tread a hummocky fairway that drops into a trough before ascending to a tiny green perched atop a steep dune. This green is replete with quirky slopes and “borrows,” as the British say. Reaching the green in regulation is no guarantee of par.

The last word on the course belongs to Jack Nicklaus, who tuned up at RCP prior to a long-ago Open Championship held down the road at Sandwich. “Deal is an outstanding links,” Jack said. “To sharpen my game there in preparation for…(the) Open was a privilege and a delight beyond words.”

After the round, visitors and members alike usually find their way to the verandah outside the upstairs bar in the clubhouse, where a brass telescope is mounted on the wooden railing. Through its lens can be sighted golfers at the far end of the course, shipping traffic in the Strait of Dover and—if the weather is clear—the distant coast of France.

A two-time Open Championship site (1909 and 1920), RCP will serve as a local qualifying venue for the 2011 Open Championship to be held at Royal St. George’s and will host the 2013 British Amateur. But it is best-known as the home since 1925 of the Halford Hewitt Challenge Cup, possibly the largest amateur tournament of its kind in the world. The last time I checked, 640 players in teams of 10 from 64 public schools had descended on the club for four days of competition in foursomes. Shields of the most famous public schools in England and Scotland adorn the walls of the upstairs bar.

Visiting golfers seeking a distinctive remembrance of their visit to RCP should try on for size a sweater  or vest emblazoned with the ancient arms of the Cinque Ports. The crest is of three demi-lions joined to three castellated ships’ hulls. The composite effect is of three satyrlike creatures, half beast and half vessel—perfect for summoning courage on a stark, treeless course that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great natural links of England.

The RCP crest

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