LONDON -- Standing at 5:30 a.m. in the bowels of a London tube station accompanied by a set of golf clubs can cause even a sane man to question his state of mind.
I'd just abandoned my wife and two children on our first -- and probably only -- family golf vacation to Europe. Oh, what golfers will do for this sickness.
With rain looming, two hours of train travel waiting and strange looks from my fellow morning commuters, suddenly my decision didn't feel so right.
Funny thing is, I was the one questioning the sanity of others 12 hours later. Why aren't more Americans visiting London (or locals for that matter) making the relatively painless journey to the southeast coast of England to play golf in Kent?
My day playing magnificent sun-soaked rounds on two links that have hosted the Open Championship -- Royal St. George's Golf Club in Sandwich and Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club in Deal -- felt like a soul-cleansing experience. My only regret is I didn't stay longer. There's a third former Open Championship venue, the Prince's Golf Club, waiting for next time.
Links golf in Kent
Kent's three Open venues are closely knit together, just 74 miles from London.
Royal St. George's, host of 14 Open championships (behind only the Old Course at St. Andrews, Prestwick and Muirfield), runs adjacent to the 27-hole Prince's Golf Club, a Troon Golf-managed facility that hosted the 1932 Open Championship. Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club -- host to Opens in 1909 and 1920 -- is a mere 10 minutes away. "Deal," as it's called, continues to host top tournaments such as the 2013 British Amateur and Open qualifiers.
Royal St. George's -- ranked no. 66 in the world by Golf Digest -- is an all-men's club that prefers to stay out of the spotlight when the Open isn't around, much like Scotland's Muirfield. Both are reportedly reviewing their men's-only membership status. Both continue to cling to age-old traditions. A jacket and tie must be worn for lunch at each place, although a more casual approach is okay on the outdoor patio at Royal St. George's.
Its 7,204-yard, par-70 links, dating to 1887, has evolved into a twisting maze where holes scamper in all directions. The front nine roams through bigger dunes close to Pegwell Bay, especially the thrilling stretch from 4-6. The fourth tee shot stares into the abyss of the largest bunker in the United Kingdom, a merciless pit cut from a dune face.
It's the tougher back nine where titles are secured. Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, joined Harry Vardon (1899, 1911), Walter Hagen (1922, 1928), Greg Norman (1993) and others in hoisting the Claret Jug here. Perhaps the most famous round ever played at the club never happened at all: the match between James Bond and Auric Goldfinger written by author Ian Fleming, who was a club member in the days of his Bond books.
"It's quite a wild sense of space. There are no two holes the same," Club Secretary Tim Checketts said. "With fast greens, when you play well, you feel like it's a special day of golf as it was meant to be played."
Royal Cinque Ports, a traditional out-and-back links dating to 1892, is of similar caliber. The club was scheduled to host an Open qualifier this summer until severe storms last winter filled up low-lying areas and bunkers with water, forcing a change of venue until 2015-17. The 7,006-yard links has a history of flooding, although it was perfectly playable the day I visited in April. It lost Open Championships in 1938 and 1949 to a sea surge.
A large seawall built in the 1970s has protected it, but sadly blocks much of the scenery of the shore. A routing that's a riot to play makes up for it. Golfers hit shots from tees built atop the seawall over the years. Wild green complexes complicate matters on the scorecard. Architect aficionados hold "Deal" in such high regard that Royal Cinque Ports ranked 64th among the top 100 courses in the world in a survey of 240 course designers from 28 countries conducted by Golf Course Architecture magazine in 2013.
Where to stay
Lodging has improved since the Open invaded Sandwich in 2011. Royal St. George's has completely redone its nine dormie suites at the club (only men are allowed to stay). Prince's Golf Club has transformed its old clubhouse into the Lodge at Prince's with 12 rooms, a fine restaurant and commanding views across the English Channel. Two additional lodges add up to 38 total rooms.
If you don't want to stay the night, a 36-hole day trip from London is perfectly doable -- and unforgettable.
"I think we are an under-visited corner (of England)," said Keith Andrews, a Deal member since the 1990s. "If guys (playing golf) want to stay local, they can hire a car and go to France as well. If you bring the wives, they can go to London to shop and see a few shows at night. You can make it work.