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England is Open Championship's unsung hero

Shane SharpBy Shane Sharp,
Royal St. George's Golf Club - Hole 5
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The fifth tee at Royal St. George's Golf Club provides a wonderful view of the sea and surrounding countryside. (Clive Agran/WorldGolf.com)

Consider yourself warned, Ireland. Watch your back, Scotland. Be wary, Wales. When it comes to the British Open - and golf in general - England has a score to settle. The one-time heavyweight military champion of the civilized (and not so civilized) world is not content sipping a spot of tea and waxing nostalgic about being the British Isles fourth best golf destination.

And you can take that to the pub.

Thing is, the English are a proud lot. They don't feel the need to defend their golfing honor. The country's collection of history-laden courses speaks for itself and speaks volumes, the natives reason. Case in point being the 2003 British Open Championship host course - Royal St. George's Golf Club in the postcard hamlet of Sandwich.

If the English won't tout this storied course or its made-for-water-color-painting setting within earshot of the famed White Cliffs of Dover - allow us. Royal St. George's was formed in 1887 by a group of disgruntled golfers from Wimbledon Common in suburban London. It has hosted 12 Open Championships, was home to Greg Norman's historic final-round 64 in 1993, and is widely considered one of the best links courses in the world.

"I would put it up against any of the great courses of Ireland and Scotland," says Mick Healy, golf specialist of Europe Golf Travel and an Irelander by birth.

Healy even goes a step further. England, he contends, is one of the world's true undiscovered golf destinations, if there is such a thing anymore. Where else can you play a solid sampling of some of the world's best courses, all within a country the size of Oregon? Exactly.

For starters, consider the tournament tested courses of the Lancashire coast: Royal Liverpool, home to more Open Championships than any other English course; Royal Birkdale, frequent Open and Ryder Cup host course; and Royal Lytham and St. Annes, one of the oldest courses in the world and site of the 2001 British Open. Shimmering fescue fields, bowling alley-fast playing surfaces, and gusty sea breezes define these storied, seaside links courses.

"England has as many (British) Open venues as Scotland and many of them are wide open for play," Healy says."Instead of 10,000 golfers floating around every day like you have in St. Andrews, it is wide open and you can play 36 holes a day."

No better place for 36-a-day, a pub and a bed than Sandwich and the scenic Southeastern coast. When it is not hosting the Open, Royal St. George's is typically teeming with traveling golfers looking for a taste of true links style golf (read: quirky). Elevated tee boxes, warehouse-sized landing areas and lush green fairways are nowhere to be found.

The original layout at Royal St. George's featured so many blind shots, the club implemented a system of flags to guide players around the course. Harry Colt, Hugh Alison and Alister MacKenzie all had a hand in improving the view sheds. Architects Donald Steele and John Salveson recently added 246 yards and a crop of new aiming bunkers. Still, there's more guess work at Royal St. George's than at a Salvador Dali gallery.

The first time Tiger Woods played the course he wasn't sure which direction to tee off on the seventh hole. According to a recent Associated Press report, Steve Flesch was so confounded over the line on the 381-yard, par-4 12th during a practice round, he asked a spectator for advice.

Average golfers have been known to card respectable numbers at St. Andrews when the wind lies down. Royal St. George's offers no such refuge for mid- and high-handicappers, regardless of conditions. Whereas the Old Course has adjoining fairways and greens, Royal St. George's golf links are separated by waist-high throngs of native grasses. Translation: if you have Phil Mickelson in the office pool, don't even bother.

For those golfers wishing to double the pleasure (or pain), the Prince's Golf Club is a mere rescue club shot away. It was there that the late Gene Sarazen won the 1932 Open using a new club he had wrought back in the states (the first sand wedge). The two courses are so intrinsically bound, a slice on the par-5 14th at Royal St. George's will usually end up at the Prince's. Local rules forbid playing through, however.

The only acceptable form of golf vacation in and around the South of England is an extended one. In nearby Deal, Royal Cinque (pronounced like the number five in French) is considered one of the best links courses the tourists don't know about. St. Augustine's Golf Club in Ramsgate and Etchinghill Golf Club in Folkestone are also must-plays when knocking around Kent.

A golf junket to the Kentish coast, or any English region for that matter, most likely will begin and end in London. Traveling golfers would be well advised to reserve time for the city's classic heathland courses. Sunningdale Golf Club (Old course), Walton Heath (Old course), and Wentworth (West course) are at the head of the class, with the Stoke Park Club in nearby Stoke Poges and Lambourne Club in Burnham not far behind.

Making it to Royal St. George's for the first tee time this Thursday is not an option for most. No worries - all of England awaits, year round, with a handsome collection of the world's greatest golf courses.

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Royal Birkdale golf course - No. 12

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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