The history of The Open in Kent

Sophie Hewitt

5th July 2021

Darren Clarke, Ben Curtis, Greg Norman, Sandy Lyle...the list of champions to have lifted the Claret Jug on Kent’s coast is a lengthy one (running to 17 names to be exact). With anticipation building over who this year’s champion will be, we’re taking a step back and looking at our glorious county’s long history in hosting The Open Championship.

With 14 Open Championships to its name, Royal St George’s has hosted the famous tournament more times than any other course outside of Scotland. But how did it all begin? In 1887 Scottish founder Dr William Laidlaw Purves’ dream of creating a rival course to the iconic St Andrews was finally realised. It’s said that Purves first spotted the land that was to become Royal St George’s from St Clement’s Church tower in Sandwich and, just a few years later, that very land staged the first Open Championship to be held outside of Scotland.

With reduced rail fairs negotiated to encourage Scottish pros to make the trip south, it’s safe to say there was a little uncertainty over the turnout for England’s inaugural staging, but with 94 starters, the event saw record numbers since the Championship began. But that wasn’t the only record of the week. After a close first couple of rounds between Douglas Rolland, Andrew Kirkaldy and John Henry Taylor, Taylor took the victory with a total tally of 326 shots, the highest to ever win The Open!

 

 

The nail-biting firsts continued for Royal St George’s, as the club cemented its place as one of the leading courses in the world. In 1904 professional Jack White went from strength-to-strength in his bid for the title. In a record-setting performance, White continuously improved his score with each round, breaking 300 over 72 holes for the first time in The Open’s history. But with James Braid close behind in the final round, things could have been very different for White if it wasn’t for a few misinformed spectators. With a tie in sight, Braid was told he only needed a four to match White, but after carding a 71, it turned out those well-meaning spectators were wrong – Braid had needed a three and ended just one shot short of White’s winning score!

1922 saw another close call as American, Walter Hagen, claimed the first of his four titles. In the third round Hagen took the lead with an impressive running total of 300 shots, so impressive in fact it was thought unbeatable, and several journalists notified the newspaper offices of Hagen’s impending win! Nevertheless, in the fourth round George Duncan made a remarkable comeback, closing just one short of Hagen. With a four needed on the 18th, Duncan’s approach rolled into a dip to the left of the green, ultimately costing him a tie and leading to Hagen’s victory. Nevertheless, Duncan’s name would still go down in history - to this very day the spot where his ill-fated approach ended up is
known as Duncan’s Hollow.

 

 

After hosting the Championship nine times up until 1938, The Open didn’t return to Sandwich for an astonishing 31 years. In fact, so many years had passed since Royal St George’s last staging, that a completely new roster of pros had been established, with little familiarity with the course. After winning the World Match Play at Wentworth, Bill Rogers had been persuaded by his friend Ben Crenshaw to compete at Royal St George’s. Rogers’ first day got off to a shaky start after misreading the starting list and nearly missing his tee time. In fact, if it hadn’t been for journalist John Whitbread raising the alarm to Rogers, the history books could have been very different! Luckily, what followed was a remarkable competition, as Jack Nicklaus recorded the worst score of his career on day one and Rogers swept to the top of the leader board, ultimately winning by four strokes to lift the Claret Jug.

It’s a tale told many times since, but Darren Clarke’s rise to victory in 2011 is the ultimate proof that all good things come to those who wait. After 19 appearances, Clarke took on the wet weather of the coast to win by three strokes – much to the delight of the watching world who came together to celebrate Clarke’s emotional victory. With a winter spent playing at Portrush in often challenging weather, this Irishman was well prepped for the conditions that met the pros in Sandwich that summer. Cool and windy weather was no match for a man who had grown up playing links golf on the Irish coast, leading to Clarke becoming the oldest Champion Golfer since Roberto De Vincenzo in 1967.

 

 

But Kent’s long-running Championship hosting history doesn’t end there; in fact, the Kent coast is home to not one but three courses to have staged The Open. In 1909, the eyes of the world turned to Royal Cinque Ports in Deal, just a few miles from Royal St George’s. After a fantastic first day, former winner JH Taylor endured a nervy second morning, culminating in a series of missed opportunities and a poor drive on the 16th hole. Despite this, Taylor managed to clinch the title, winning by six strokes and taking the title back nine years after his maiden success. The Open returned to Royal Cinque Ports again in 1920, when Duncan clinched the title in a famous turn of events that saw him take the
lead on the second day after purchasing a brand-new driver from the exhibition tent!

 

 

Another sensational course on the Kent coast, Prince’s hosted the Championship in 1932. American, Gene Sarazen, was the ultimate victor, becoming only the third Champion Golfer to hold the lead after every round of the Championship. Interestingly, it was also at the 1932 Championship in Sandwich that the newly invented sand wedge was first used in competition, helping Sarazen to achieve a new scoring record of just 283. That’s right, the sand wedge was
first used in Sandwich!

So, there you have it, a (very) brief look at Kent’s astonishing Open Championship history. With three top quality links courses, record-breaking scores, and unexpected twists, it’s been a nail-biting 134 years...And who knows what excitement this year’s Championship is ready to deliver!