On the tee
The picturesque coastal town of Deal is the home of one of England’s true hidden gems and this week’s HotShotGolf course review. Royal Cinque Ports – whilst not as well-known as its neighbours Princes and Royal St Georges – it is widely considered to be one of the finest courses in the UK, as well as James Braid’s favourite course in England.
On a remarkably warm and calm October Sunday afternoon, we were lucky enough to be invited to play a round with a member at this historical links course. Unknown to most golf enthusiasts, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Course has hosted the Open Championship on two occasions, most recently in 1920 where George Duncan won his only major and collected a winner’s cheque for £75.
About 2 hours east of London, not too far away from Dover on the Kent coast, is where you will find the majestic links of Royal Cinque Ports, or “Deal” as it is called by its members. The grand old white clubhouse stands proud against the gently undulating links course and countryside beyond. Strangely, for a links course the sea is only visible a few times as you play the course; this is due to a substantial flood prevention sea wall thatwas been built up over the years to offer the course protection from salt-water flooding.
The course plays a hearty 6,501 yards (5,945m) and is a par-71. There are two challenging par-5s and three excellent par-3s, with the remaining holes aninteresting array of varied par-4s. The normally prevalent south-westerly breeze was not blowing on the day we played the course; in fact there was almost no wind for the entire round – perfect. Other than the first hole, the course is a very traditional in/out links layout with the front 9 traditionally played with the wind behind and back 9 traditionally played into the wind.
Genuinely immaculate throughout! The tee boxes were all very neatly mown and, being a championship course (Deal is used as an Open qualifying venue), there were a number of tee boxes for every hole. Further, there was substantial difference between the yellows, whites and championship tees on each hole. We played off the yellows as (in the words of the member we were playing with) “it’s already hard enough from there”.
The fairways had incredible undulations the likes of which you would expect from a top UK links course;, each carefully crafted so that cleverly positioned pot bunkers would gobble up any unlucky drives. The fairways were also excellently maintained and consistently short throughout. The first cut of rough was a fair deterrent and any shots more wayward were caught by the thick fescue. Whilst trimmed back from the summer growth, this rough was very punishing and it was still very easy to lose a ball if it landed directly in the thick stuff. Even if you find your ball, you should be pleased to chop it out onto the fairway, as the rough is very thick and claggy. This means performing a full swing, including follow-through, is almost impossible as the club head will get caught in the grass.
The bunkers were one of the highlights of the course with a good mix of traditional fairway bunkers and very, very deep fairway and greenside pot bunkers. These bunkers were in fantastic condition and a lot of investment has clearly been made in the course for it to look the way that it does. The sand in the bunkers was soft and provides an excellent opportunity to exit any bunker first time if a well-executed bunker shot was hit.
The greens were the absolute highlight for us however – they were very large, very well maintained and throughout the course, the roll was true and consistent. The speed of the greens were quick and consistent; therefore we would recommend warming up on the practice green ahead of your round. The undulations provided us with one of the most challenging afternoons of putting with each putt having two or sometimes three distinct breaks and often covering ground both up hill and downhill. Each putt required maximum concentration and planning and there was no escape from one that was poorly hit. However, a well-read and well-hit putt provided great satisfaction, particularly if you heard the ball clattering the bottom of the hole after watching the it snaking across the green and into the cup.
The first tee is always the most nerve-wracking shot of any golfer’s round. At Royal Cinque Ports, the first hole plays in front of the clubhouse and car park. Players who are prone to a severe slice or prone to shank the first tee shot should bear in mind that the cars in the car park are very much in range down the right hand side of the hole. To add insult to injury, the car park is also out of bounds.
The 14th hole is stroke index 15 and a par-3. At 212 yards it is relatively lengthy and in our opinion probably the hardest hole on the course. We were not playing into the normally prevalent southwesterly wind, and even still, we found this a very difficult hole. The 3 pot bunkers to the front right of the green mean that an approach over these bunkers is very risky and the topography of the hole makes it look very tight on the left. There is more space than there looks down the left and this should be used as the escape zone.
Playing the course for the first time was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, however I would advise trying to play with a member or downloading a yardage app/course guide before playing. A number of the holes have hidden bunkers and semi-blind tee shots that mean that a driver “straight down the middle” can often end up running out of fairway and into the rough. Having the knowledge in advance of hitting your shots is invaluable, and will make for a much more enjoyable round.
Better than most
The 3rd hole is stroke index 4 par-5 and at 486 yards (from the yellows) is the second longest hole on the course. The fairway is relatively tight and split about halfway down the hole by a strip of rough – long drivers beware that a well struck drive will end up in this thick stuff. A well-struck 2nd/3rd (depending on how aggressive you are/how far you can hit the ball) is played to a sunken long and narrow green. The green is one of the most entertaining to play on the entire course. The pin was situated on the back level, which was separated from the lower level by a steeply sloping bank. The elevation change on the green between lower and upper level was at least 1.5m and an under hit putt up the slope would come speeding back down – a very challenging green to 2 putt if you end up on the wrong level with your approach shot; but excellent fun to play.
In a similar way to the 3rd green, the 17th hole was also excellent fun – the fairway was perhaps one of the most undulated we have ever played on. The random undulations resulted in wild bounces and very lucky drives hitting a downslope can runan extra 10%. The crazy undulations continued right up to the green that sat in a hollow behind the final hill. The slopes again proving the difference between a good result and not so good result. One of our approach shots was well hit but landed just short of the summit of the final hill, just before the green, and rolled 25 yards back down, leaving a very difficult chip up onto the green. The other approach – almost identical but perhaps 2 yards longer – carried the summit and ended up no more than 10ft from the pin. – The thinnest of lines separates a good result from a bad result when playing links golf.
The 6th hole is stroke index 14 and the shortest par 4 on the course at 321 yards from the yellows. It is a dog leg right and the approach shot is to a small raised green. Distance is not the challenge on this hole in the usual sense – the real skill required to score well on this hole is to understand how much more club to take when hitting an approach shot to a green sitting almost 10m above the level of the fairway. The slope at the front of the green is severe and anything under hit will roll back down the fairway. If you select the right club (we went for 1.5 clubs extra to take care of the incline) then you are rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing your ball landing softly on the relatively flat green providing a good birdie opportunity.
Finally, playing down the 18th into the sunset was one of the best settings we have played golf in with the picturesque clubhouse on the right of the hole and the expanse of green and straw yellow links paradise on the left.. This is one of the best-looking golf courses that we have played, and the setting really does add to the whole experience of playing here.
One point worth mentioning is that if you are not able to play with a member and take advantage of the reduced green fee rate, the price of a weekend round is £175. Obviously, this is very expensive and we would normally struggle to justify spending this much on an individual round of golf. This course however is a rare treat and an absolute joy to play and experience and although £175 is an awful lot of money, we think any golfer would struggle to not enjoy a round at this incredible course. It is worth noting that the club offer a more than 50% discount for a twilight round (after 3pm) which in our opinion is excellent value, especially in the summer months.
This is without a doubt one of the best courses that we have played to date.
Weekday Round – £145
Weekend Round – £175
Twilight Round – £80
Members Guest – £25/£35
HotShotGolf Score – 87/100