The sleepy hamlets of Piltdown in East Sussex became famous the world over in 1912 when amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson, claimed to have found a 500,000-year-old skull, which proved the missing link between ape and man. Forty years later, it was established that the skull was an ingenious combination of a human cranium and an ape’s jaw.
Piltdown Golf Club was established in 1904, long before the Piltdown Man hoax was finally exposed. The club’s origins started with a German aristocrat, Count Alexander Münster, who wanted a course to rival Royal Ashdown Forest so he could tempt his visiting golfing friends and relatives to stay and play locally rather than heading to the seaside links.
“Royal Ashdown’s Professional, Jack Rowe, was engaged to lay out an 18-hole course for a fee of one pound plus expenses,” wrote Mike Berners Price in The Centurions of Golf. Farmer George Varnum, a tenant of Count Alexander Münster, who lived on the edge of the common, was employed to do the groundwork. “JH Taylor advised on early changes to Rowe’s layout,” continues Berners Price, “and the course now has no bunkers although they did feature in the original design. Despite the name, the club is not situated on downland.”
Piltdown was also featured in Frank Pennink's Choice of Golf Courses and the author commented that the course was: "Re-designed by G.M. Dodd in 1927... One of the most charming club's in the writer's experience, with a natural, bunkerless course."
Just like its neighbour on the other side of Ashdown Forest, Piltdown Golf Club is bunkerless, and the absence of sand traps somehow plays trickery with distances – ranges look longer than they really are. Today’s course measures only 6,055 yards from the back tees, so it’s not long on paper by modern standards. However, with six par fours measuring more than 400 yards and a lowly par of 68 (there’s only one par five at #2 for men), Piltdown is absolutely no pushover.
The 3rd hole is case in point and a brutal par four for men (par five for the ladies), which measures 453 yards from the tips. The hole doglegs right around the fisherman’s paradise known as Piltdown Pond and requires an accurate drive to the elbow, which will leave a long uphill approach over a swathe of heather, and a watery ditch, to a back to front sloping green. If you can mark a par on the card here, it will feel like a birdie.
There’s no letup at the 202-yard one-shot 4th which is played downhill over a ravine and two bands of tangly heather. It’s an intimidating par three that focuses the mind very early in the round. By contrast, the 149-yard par three 7th is a pretty little one shotter which requires an accurate shot to avoid a deep hollow fronting the right side of the green. According to legend, the hollow is thought to have been a burial pit for plague victims.
Gullies, heather-covered banks, grassy swales and dense swathes of heather (not to mention plenty of arboreal trouble) all combine to make a round at Piltdown very agreeable indeed. In fact Piltdown really is golf au naturel.
What’s more, Piltdown Golf Club is not resting on its laurels, but is investing heavily in the future. In recent years, more than half a million pounds has been spent on redesigning and rebuilding the greens. For example, the greensites on a trio of holes (9th to the 11th) have been altered dramatically to make a fabulous little test around the turn. The club is also working closely with Natural England to remove copses of trees in order to return the course to its heathland origins.
We’re confident therefore that this delightful centurion will remain an engaging golfing encounter for another 100 years.
Before playing I was wary of Piltdown. With no bunkers surely they make up for it in other ways? A modern clubhouse and range greet you, because the greens had recently been aired we were warned of this and given a cheaper rate. That was nice, not all courses point that out, let alone offer a discount. They played very well anyway.
A gentle couple of holes start, lulling me into a false sense of security. Piltdown bites back quickly and hard – 3 is an uphill dogleg with trees and a stream on three sides of the fairway, then the 4th is a big par 3 over heather. Once over the road to the far side of the course it reminded me a lot of Walton Heath, only a bit less rustic. It’s fairly flat, you can see a few fairways over but you 100% need a reliable ‘fairway finder’ or you will be punished, usually by the ample heather in play.
Perhaps because it was our last round of a busy golf weekend, we were beaten up mentally by Piltdown. Although welcoming, it’s a members’ course in that experience is essential to good scores – knowing where to land balls, which greens hold, and where not to take risks (most places really). At first glance it is not a long course but it has many dangerous par 4s, doglegs and lay ups which makes holes feel far longer than they are - for example there are holes where you must play an iron to an island fairway, except water doesn’t make the island, it’s heather. The fairways are wide and fair but in dry or windy conditions you have to be careful of your ball running out. There’s no semi rough, just short grass then the great ball eater – heather.
So yes, Piltdown more than makes up for having no bunkers. 13, 14 and 17 are nasty par 4s to finish, 17 being 420 yards uphill but you can’t hit a wood from the tee as the fairway’s cut short by you-know-what. I’m inexperienced with heathland and tough tracks; I always seemed stuck between a putt/bump or a chip/pitch, so I may have found it harder than some but that made it all the more rewarding. It was as fun as it was difficult, if you can play well here you’ll go well at most places.
I'd like to give it 4.5 out of six but given its nearly unique test and that I used every club in my bag, I’ll go for a five rather than four. It’s a relatively unknown course but given its condition, price and that you can play at weekends, it’s a worthy alternative to its famous heathland cousins in Surrey. Just take an extra ball or three as Big H is always hungry.
Given its modest length of just over 6,000 yards Piltdown packs a mighty punch in terms of challenge. There is just a solitary par-five on the par 68 layout, six two-shotters measuring 400-yards or more and not a single par-four less than 310-yards. You’re as likely to play every club in the bag here as you are anywhere and this is reflected in the SSS of 69.
The 18 holes play over excellent turf on Piltdown Common, flow really nicely and playing here is a joy, plus you’re likely to be round in less than 3 hours thanks to mostly short green-to-tee walks. The only exception to this is when you must cross a road to play holes five through to 11 which are on the opposite side.
In a similar way to nearby Royal Ashdown Forest you won’t find a single sand bunker at Piltdown. Heather lined fairways, grassy swales, gullies and heathery knobs, in close proximity to the greens, add to the charm and test. There are also a number of heather banks that will not only result in a nasty lie but also an awkward stance should your ball find one of them.
The collection of short holes, five of them all told, are all particularly attractive. The plethora of par-fours are no less impressive. Indeed you will find some really strong holes amongst them.
There is a nice consistency to Piltdown but if you look a little closer there are two sections to the course. Holes one to eight provide a demanding challenge, with some lovely driving holes, whilst from the ninth onwards the course is shorter but more interesting and a little whimsical.
In summary Piltdown is a lovely intimate golf course but at the same time gives a nice sense of space and requires some steadfast golf.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Piltdown has been on my to-play list for a while and I am annoyed that it has taken so long to put this right as the course is a beauty. Lots of comparisons with nearby Royal Ashdown Forest and Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, two reasons; fantastic natural land and also a bunker-less course. A round at Piltdown is one of those, that you just cannot help but smile all the way around – it is just a wonderful walk with many strong holes.
Arrival into the club car park is a little of throwback to yester-year with plenty of old fashion charm all around. A short walk across the village road and you are at the first hole; which is strong. Favour the left half of the fairway to approach the 370 yard opener. The run of holes to the end of the front nine are great to play with so much variety; the 2nd is the only par-5 on the course and pretty straight forward. The 3rd will be the choice of many as the toughest and favourite hole; a par-4 at 450 yards, dog-legging right after 220 yards and then uphill to a slim green. The first par-3 comes next, the 4th hole is a decent 200 yarder that really has be to carried as many natural humps and bumps protect just short of the green. The next seven holes are played across Shortbridge Road and are a collection short and long par-4’s and a couple of par-3 beauties at the 7th and 10th and all have the same theme, heather and mature trees everywhere, emphasising that wonderful walk feeling.
Piltdown, certainly does not have any weak holes but it does throw up many that are very good – on the home stretch these include the 410 yard 13th which has a false dog-leg to the left created by a huge expanse of heather and then the big 17th hole; a drive from a ‘trees funnel’ to a fairway that moves a little left and downhill, then uphill to an offset green – a brilliant hole. A par-3 finish ends the round – this hole has step in the green, so check pin position as the hole can play between 160-190 yards.
There does seem to be too much emphasis these days on course length and those of around 6000 yards seem not to be welcomed at the top table of rankings. For me, this is no great issue at all – plenty of sub 6500 yard courses are worthy of a decent ranking and many of those in this category are the most fun to play.
As far as a ranking, Piltdown at #9 in county is very low – The top 2 positions in Sussex are likely to be taken by West Sussex and Rye for many years but from 3rd onwards everything is up for grabs – Piltdown should be Top 5 at least – some may even put this above Crowborough Beacon and on a par with Royal Ashdown Forest – I certainly would.
Piltdown may be short in yardage but on the numerous occasions I’ve played here I’ve always found it tough to play to handicap due to its series of tough par fours that are often out of reach in two shots and its low par 68. #13 and #17 are two tough par fours with the former doglegging hard from right to left.
Old fashioned short par fours at 9 and 12 are definite birdie opportunities if you can stay out of the thick heather and I’m a fan of the one shotters that range from 200 yards to 130 yards – unusually there’s a par three to close.
I love the ground movement and the heather clad valleys. Piltdown isn’t quite in the same league as its bunkerless Ashdown Forest neighbour but it’s a course I always enjoy playing.