- Neil White
Royal Cinque Ports
“At half-way you will think you have the potential for a really good score. By the end, you may not be quite as pleased.”
The chap handing out the competition cards at Royal Cinque Ports didn’t need to be a clairvoyant – he had merely looked out of the window to see which way the wind was blowing.
This is a very traditional links and while the prevailing hoolie was going to be helpfully at our backs for much of the front nine, it was easy to predict it would cause havoc on the way home.
And so it proved. Rarely on our top 100 quest, have we bathed in three-pointers as much as we did early on. However, there were definitely no cigars and champagne by our round's end.
Royal Cinque Ports makes the very most of what appears to be a relatively small plot of land on the Kent coast. It provides links golf at its very best with its carpet-like fairways ascending and descending wildly.
We played there in a mixed open which was sensational value for money with a pre-game breakfast roll and two-course after-round lunch thrown in.
The welcome in its very traditional clubhouse was jocular - the locals telling us with a twinkle in their eyes of what they knew was ahead of us.
Their words of warning were still echoing when we took on the par-four first hole which runs alongside the road in front of the clubhouse.
This was against the wind and its perils were the out-of-bounds on the right and a stream directly in front of the green.
Fortunately, I hit a a decent opener and an approach with a fairway wood which skimmed over the water to 20 feet from the pin. It was the best shot I played all day.
Royal Cinque Ports has plenty of sand, tangly rough which devours wayward balls and green complexes which have mysterious borrows and fast run-offs.
It also has wonderfully quirky holes such as the par-five third alongside the sea barrier which was installed after easterly winds and high tides caused two Open championships to be moved at the last-minute to nearby Royal St. George's because of flooding.
Sadly, the Open has not returned since the last aborted championship in 1949, despite the course deserving its presence.
I digress. A tee-shot down the right-hand side of the third opens a gap between dunes through which I carved a three-wood, landing the ball only a yard from a dramatic bowl green.
I am a moderate hitter so the surprising length of my shots was partially down to the wind but also because of the terrific condition of the fairways which allowed the ball to run and run even at the end of October.
The par-threes are an exciting part of the course’s make-up but can also be a golfer's undoing. For example, the short fourth hole looks like a gimme but those who aim for the flag and don’t use the contours on the left of the green could well see their tee shots drift into swales.
No hole can be taken for granted at Royal Cinque Ports - even the short par-four sixth. Buoyed by success with the wind at my back I ignored my playing partner reading from his shot-saver that I should lay up down the left.
I took on a dune with my driver and suffice to say we counted Mrs W’s par on that hole.
We sat smugly over our delicious fruit cake at the halfway hut, our partners on 23 points and ourselves on 21, thinking that we would be arm-wrestling over the top prize during the homeward stretch.
Indeed, our opinion had not changed after the 10th which goes back out towards the sea and the 11th, a long par-four with a tee shot over sandy waste and a devilish second from the brow of the hill in between bunkers.
However, the course's razor teeth emerged on the 12th. At 433 yards off the yellow tees, straight into the breeze, possibly the most difficult stroke index 13 I have ever played.
As others lost balls, ballooned into the rough on the gusts, I kept on the fairway, I can and managed to record a five for the most hard-earned Stableford point in memory.
I said as much to the marshal who happened to be passing at that time and confirmed that I should be very pleased with my efforts.
Ditto, the 200-yard par-three 14th which was a stroke-index 15! I smashed a driver as hard as I could and was thrilled to have hit the putting surface.
However, these were mere preparations for the run-in which, in these conditions, must be one of the toughest in golf.
By statistics, the 15th is the hardest hole on the course with a fairway which gives an indication of the rollercoaster dunes to come. It demands the big-hitting which simply isn’t in my locker.
The 16th literally made me gasp. The club video describes it as “one of the great holes in British golf” and, having been lucky to have played many top courses, I have to agree.
The tee shot has a huge carry over rough and two bunkers which are adjacent to a Second World War defence shelter.
I thought I had reached the green of the par-five in regulation only to see my third shot roll down the steep bank in front of a fiendish raised green complex.
The 17th asked almost as many questions and is a stroke-index 17! The drive against the wind needs to be deadly accurate to avoid rough and, even for those lucky enough to find the fairway (I wasn’t), the second has to go over the deepest bunkers on the course to arrive at the green.
By now, the three-pointers were a distant memory and pencilling in ones or the occasional two was an achievement.
The 18th is a classic home hole. The ginormous bunker on the right shouldn’t come into play but has intimidation factor and rough on the left seems harmless off the tee but is a magnet for balls.
And then there is the decision about taking on the water in front of the green. By now I was in full chicken mode, laid up and was happy with a five.
Royal Cinque Ports doesn’t receive the praise associated with its illustrious Sandwich neighbour or the other Open courses, Royal Lytham and Royal Birkdale which I have played this summer.
But, in my opinion, its condition and the wonderful variety of holes means it should be considered in the same echelon.
Oh, and I haven’t even remarked that the views are as enchanting as any I have witnessed.
It is a course which we must play again.
Quest so far: England's top 100: 52
GB & Ireland's: 28
Continental Europe's: 0