GOLF IN KENT: THE CROWN JEWEL OF ENGLISH GOLF
By Mike May
World-class golf and tourism opportunities abound in England’s county of Kent. That’s the best way to summarize my trip to play golf in England’s country of Kent – located southeast of London. While in Kent, I played eight rounds of golf, visited two castles, saw one cathedral, toured Britain’s oldest brewery, and dined in a very, very old pub. It was an amazing trip that got better by the day.
While in Kent, three of the rounds were on championship links courses, which have all hosted past (British) Open Championships – Royal St. George’s (the site of The Open in 2020); Royal Cinque Ports (hosted The Open in 1909 and 1920); and Prince’s Golf Club (venue for The Open in 1932). A fourth course that I played – Littlestone Golf Club – is also a championship links course and has served as a qualifier for The Open.
I was welcomed with open arms in all parts of Kent during my visit, which began at the Hever Castle Golf Club in Edenbridge.
Golf arrived at Hever Castle in the 1920s when a private nine-hole course was built north of the Hever lakes where today’s championship course now lies. It was created for the personal enjoyment of the then American owners (the Astor family) their friends and business contacts.
The Hever Castle Golf Club, featuring an impressive Tudor-style clubhouse, is less than a mile from the entrance to the grounds of Hever Castle. The golf course features an 18-hole Championship Course, a nine-hole Princes course, and a nine-hole Express course, which is less than 800 yards long, which is geared to new golfers. The Championship Course, which opened in 1992, truly deserves the championship moniker.
There’s a certain amount of symmetry to the Championship Course at the Hever Castle Golf Club layout. This 18-hole, par-72 design opens and closes with a par four, while par fives mark the end of the front nine and the beginning of the back nine.
Combined, the 11th, 12th, and 13th holes are called ‘Amen Corner’ because water and slick greens are the focal point of three holes. If you can emerge from that trio of holes with three pars, it’s worth saying “Amen.”
The 11th hole at Hever Castle, a downhill par four measuring less than 400 yards from the tips, can best be described as tropically exotic. The presence of a greenside pond is accentuated by a variety of leafy trees and flowering plants which make it very appealing to the eye as you approach the putting surface.
The short par three 12th hole has the look and feel of the 12th at the Augusta National GC in Augusta, Georgia. Like its Georgia ‘cousin,’ reaching the putting surface at Hever Castle’s 12th requires a short iron shot to a shallow green whose protective sentry in front of the green is a small pond, very similar to Rae’s Creek that protects the entrance to the 12th green at Augusta National.
Water impacts play from the beginning to the end at the short, par four 13th hole. Avoid water along the left side of the hole on the tee shot. Your approach to the green must cross a small canal. Concentration, focus, and club selection are the keys to avoiding a watery grave in the final leg of Hever Castle’s own ‘Amen Corner.’
The actual Hever Castle was built in 1270. It was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII.
During my one night at Hever Castle, I slept in the Pippin Room of the Anne Boleyn Wing of Hever Castle.
While there, I was given a personal tour of Hever Castle and its majestic gardens. The entire experience, beginning with a first-class breakfast, was stunning from beginning to end.
When you take a tour through Hever Castle, you’ll get a chance to visit Ann Boleyn’s bedroom, as well as other parts of the castle where her family dined, read, slept, listened to music, and entertained guests.
While touring the gardens, make sure that you enjoy the fragrance from the 4,000+ roses in the Rose Garden, stroll through the Italian Garden, visit Blue Corner, allow your children to play in the Tudor Towers, and make the trek to the Japanese Tea House. But, please, don’t get lost in the 100-year-old Yew Maze.
On day two of my trip to Kent, I played nine holes at the nearby Leeds Castle Golf Club near Maidstone and I spent the night at the Stable Courtyard Bed & Breakfast at Leeds Castle, located next to 900-year-old Leeds Castle, known as “the loveliest castle in the world.” The castle and its vast moat sit adjacent to the 5th, 6th, and 7th holes of the Leeds Castle Golf Club. The view from the 5th tee downhill to the 5th green with Leeds Castle in the background is nothing short of stunning. It’s almost too good to be true. When you dine in the Castle View Restaurant, you’ll get spectacular views of the adjacent Leeds Castle.
On day three, I played 18 holes in the morning at Littlestone Golf Club near Romney Marsh and 18 holes in the afternoon at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, close to Deal.
Littlestone, which overlooks the nearby English Channel, was one of the final qualifying venues for the 2011 Open Championship. If you conjure up images of what a true links course would look and play like, Littlestone (www.littlestonegolfclub.org.uk) fits the bill. It’s a course that is as fun to play as it is demanding to handle. Opened in 1888, you sense the historic atmosphere at Littlestone, as soon as you step foot on its premises. -- one of England’s finest and most unheralded championship links courses. Littlestone’s current layout is a reflection of the design expertise of its three experienced golf course architects – the original architect William Laidlaw Purves, James Braid, and then Alistair McKenzie.
Royal Cinque Ports, located in the coastal community of Deal, hosted The Open Championship in 1909 and 1920.
At Royal Cinque Ports, all 18 holes are in close proximity to the English Channel, though you don’t get a full view of the sea until you step on the 4th tee to play the shortest par three on the course. The degree of difficulty of this mesmerizing layout is largely tied to the intensity and direction of the winds off the nearby English Channel. Yes, the wind is an ever-present component of the Royal Cinque Ports experience.
You won’t be disappointed at Royal Cinque Ports because it’s the real ‘deal.’
On day four, I experienced another 36-hole day, starting with Royal St. George’s Golf Club in the morning followed by 18 holes that afternoon at Prince’s Golf Club.
Royal St. George’s, the site of The Open Championship 2020, was founded in 1887. It is a mesmerizing golf course, as it offers stunning views over Pegwell Bay and the adjacent English Channel. The tallest and deepest bunker in Great Britain is located on the 4th hole at Royal St. George’s which has hosted more Open Championships (14 Opens to date) than any other golf course in England. I’m delighted to report that I avoided that massive trap on the 4th hole.
Playing Royal St. George’s with a caddie was an unforgettable experience. Before the round, Sean Meleady, the caddiemaster at Royal St. George’s, said our two-ball would play millionaire’s golf that day. By that, he meant nobody would be in front of us and nobody would be behind us. He was right.
Throughout the round, my caddie, Gary, who has been affiliated with Royal St. George’s for 50 years, shared his advice and stories about the course, which made it one of the most memorable rounds of golf that I have ever played. While standing on the 18th tee, Gary delivered the following message to me, “Mike, you need a (par) four to win The Open.” I did as I was told and made my par, but, sadly, there was no Claret Jug for me in the clubhouse, but I did feel like the Champion Golfer of the Year!
Prince’s, which hosted the British Amateur in 2013, boasts 27 holes of championship links golf in three nine-hole loops: The Shore, The Dunes and The Himalayas. Each loop has its own unique characteristics. The most famous of Prince’s many revetted bunkers is the now-famous Sarazen Bunker, which sits next to the 9th hole of The Himalayas.
While in Sandwich, I stayed in The Lodge at Prince’s – the ideal base for golfers playing Prince’s, Royal St. George’s, and Royal Cinque Ports. The Lodge, which overlooks both Prince’s and Royal St George’s, is also just a few miles from Royal Cinque Ports. The well-appointed Lodge has unobstructed views over the adjacent English Channel and offers a fine dining restaurant, The Brasserie on the Bay, on site.
Before departing The Lodge at Prince’s, I received a personal guided tour through The Gallery, located at The Lodge. The Gallery is a small museum which contains old letters, pictures, trophies, old clubs, and memorabilia that are connected to golf at Prince’s. The focal point of The Gallery is the original sand wedge which was created by Gene Sarazen, who won the ’32 Open at Prince’s. I was privileged to hold that sand wedge, but did not swing it.
While in Kent, make time to visit the Canterbury Cathedral, one of the oldest Christian structures in England, in the medieval city of Canterbury that oozes charm and quaintness.
On day five, I played 18 holes at the North Foreland Golf Club near Broadstairs. Founded in 1903, this clifftop gem, with its many views over the English Channel, is another course that has hosted final qualifying for The Open.
Breathtaking is the best way to describe the views of the Channel from the majority of the holes at North Foreland.
If you like drinking beer, set aside time for a tour of the Shepherd Neame Brewery in Faversham, home to Britain’s oldest brewer. Of course, at the end of the tour, you’ll get a chance to sample six different brews. That’s a fun way to spend half a day.
I then headed for the exclusive London Golf Club, located in northern Kent, which has the look and feel of an American country club. The club has two 18-hole golf courses – the Heritage and the International courses. The Heritage was designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus whilst the International was created by Ron Kirby, under the Jack Nicklaus Design banner. The London Golf Club has hosted numerous tournaments on the European PGA Tour.
I played the International course which was a true treat and provided wonderful views of the Kent countryside. Every par three at the International was a memory maker. Those one-shot sensation can also possibly be scorecard breakers. Ron Kirby designed a jewel.
During this trip, I dined at one of Kent’s top pubs, the George & Dragon in Sandwich. This ancient pub first opened for business in 1446, 46 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The George & Dragon – a traditional pub with an open fireplace, low beams, and a range of local ales – has great food and a wide variety of draft and bottled beers and ales.
In addition to staying in one castle (Hever Castle) and adjacent to another (Leeds Castle), I spent one night in an old-style seaside hotel, The Marine Hotel in Whitstable. It was clean, comfortable, and quiet. The views out to sea, while enjoying a delicious Full English Breakfast, were nothing short of jawdropping.
Once American golfers get to experience Golf in Kent (golfinkent.co.uk), the word will spread about the outstanding golf opportunities in this part of England.
Suffice it to say, it was not easy leaving Kent and its many golfing, dining, and tourism opportunities, but it will be easy making plans for a return trip to this strip of coastal England.