Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin had many adventures here in the dark and mysterious Ashdown Forest. Winnie invented “Poohsticks” on the edge of the Forest, a game we reckon is even more popular than golf! Oh, and by the way, watch out for bouncing Tigger.
The Ashdown Forest & Tunbridge Wells Golf Club (as it was originally called) was founded in 1888 and the course opened for play the following year. We are not entirely sure who designed it, but we know that the club’s founder, Archdeacon Scott, was involved. Queen Victoria bestowed royal patronage in 1893 and in 1901, “Tunbridge Wells” was dropped from its name and the club became known simply as Royal Ashdown Forest.
It was originally a short course, measuring only 4,900 yards. Between 1910 and 1920, it was gradually lengthened to its present 6,400 plus yards. Little has changed since. The tremendous golfer, Abe Mitchell, was a member of the Cantelupe Club, Royal Ashdown Forest’s Artisan section. Mitchell had the 1920 Open at Royal Cinque Ports in his grasp, but he lost to his greatest rival, George Duncan.
In his book, Golf Courses of the British Isles, Bernard Darwin wrote: “It is only at the end of a round that we realise with pleasurable shock that there is not a single hideous rampart or so much as a pot bunker”. The only bunkers here are natural grassy pits. In fact, the whole course is natural. The challenge comes from the undulating land, streams, heather, bracken and, of course, the many trees.
The Ashdown Forest is protected by Acts of Parliament – no alterations are allowed to the terrain without the conservators’ approval. It is doubtful that the course would have remained so naturally beautiful without having these restrictions in place.
The 6th, the “Island Hole”, is one of the best short holes anywhere. It’s only 125 yards long from the medal tees, but it’s fraught with danger, surrounded by a deep stream and a gully. If you hit the green, well done, but two-putting is not easy. There is a ridge running right across the middle of the green. The 17th is a captivating downhill par four, measuring 480 yards from the back tees. A decent drive, with a bit of draw (for the right-hander), will leave a long second that needs to carry across gorse, bracken and a path!
The setting is really stunning, affording glorious views from the high parts of the course across the forest and the rolling Sussex countryside. The resident professionals obviously like it here too. In Royal Ashdown Forest’s long history there have been only five head pros.
I’d been looking forward to my round at Royal Ashdown Forest for some time. The clubhouse oozes old-school charm and the knowledge that there are no bunkers on the course starts the intrigue. This sets you up nicely for your first tee shot which is a gentle but scenic opener. A wide fairway welcomes you from a raised tee that will see a good drive placing you within easy reach of the green with a wedge. You’re then taken for a short
wander down the lane to the 2nd with its blind tee shot over a severe bank to the fairway and a ditch protecting the green. The course continues in the same vein, with the opening 6-7 holes being pleasant, but failing to partcularly excite.
There is the sense however that the course is starting to build up to something more striking as you climb the dogleg 7th and then go on to the short par five 8th which included one of my favourite approaches into a punchbowl green.
The course really gathers momentum thereafter with views of 4 counties from the back of the 10th green and the same on the tee of the 240 yard downhill par three 11th. The surrounding area at this point very reminiscent of the landscape you find at the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club in Dorset.
The back 9 continues to improve and I loved the feature of using heather, to quite devastating effect on some holes, splitting the fairway on the long par five 12th, creating a long area of carry on the 14th and bisecting the fairway from the green on the 15th and 16th making the golfer think of strategy for the best outcome on the hole. I also have to make a special mention of the 17th which was my favourite hole on the course. If you don’t have an objection to blind drives, a well struck shot to just right of the marker post will see your ball roll to the left into the middle of the fairway to set you up with what follows - an intimidating approach shot into another well mounded green with a severe drop off to the left that alleviates the need for any bunker protection.
Overall, the lack of bunkering is a suprisingly excellent architectural feature of the course. I personally struggled with my approaches to the greens early in the round as my eye took a while to adjust to the absence of bunkers meaning there were less points of reference. There’s a few course designers who could learn a thing or two from walking the course to find that greens can be well protected by more than just sand.
As for where the course rates? I’m happy to report that this website places it at about the right spot. If the whole course was like the back 9, it would be enough to place the course into the UK’s Top 50, but the round just takes a little too long to hit the heights to be ranked amongst the best in the country. I may be a little harsh to not give the course a 5-ball rating but I’d consider this a very strong 4-ball, just let down slightly by the earlier holes.
Whilst I agree that the course starts slowly I cannot accept that the par five fifth where big hitters have to take on a ford in front of the green to be on in two and the wonderful par three sixth, 'island' hole lets the course down.
Indeed the 125 yard, par three hole with its two tiered sloping green, surrounded on two slides by water and with nasty run-offs on the others averaged 4.2 strokes when the Open championship qualifying rounds were last held at the club. Any member is routinely delighted with a par on this hole.
This hole excites me every time I play it and is one of the finest short holes in the county.
Royal Ashdown Forest is an architectural example that modern architects could learn a lot from. Rarely will land like this become available but in my view this the best natural course in England that is devoid of any man-made features. Holes 5 thru 7 are three of the best in the world. #5 is a risk and reward par 5 but the stream in front of the green makes it a three-shot hole for most golfers. #6 is the best short par three in Sussex, perhaps England, where a snaking stream waits to catch anything offline and #7 is a wonderful sweeping dogleg right to left where a stream lies to the right of the fairway to catch those taking the tiger line.
#12 is one of my favourite driving holes and the longest hole at RAF and the approach shot at #17 is brilliant.
There’s no doubt that some holes lack definition which most other courses can resolve through bunkering. If only RAF could install a handful of strategically placed traps, it would be a world top 100 contender.
Royal Ashdown Forest is home to two fine golf courses; the Old and the West. It’s a distinguished traditional members club that has been used by the R&A as an Open Championship Regional Qualifying venue as well as hosting several national amateur championships.
The Old course eases you into the round before producing a quality stretch of holes that rivals anything you will find on a golf course of this calibre.
The first and 18th fairways criss-cross each other and, whilst some may not like the peculiarity of this, the opener is actually a good getaway hole with a lovely drive from an elevated tee and a double level green which is high to the left and low to the right; a steep tier running through the spine of it.
An intriguing blind drive over a bank of heather at the second reveals a more open vista than one might expect once the summit of the hill is crested and with a water hazard to cross just short of the green you must be on top of your game early here.
The course continues to bubble under the surface for the next few holes with superb green complexes at the inviting par five fifth and short sixth giving a glimpse of what is to come. A babbling brook comes into play at these two holes but sadly this natural hazard isn’t visible from the tee at the latter.
Then, from the seventh hole onwards (arguably the sixth green) Royal Ashdown Forest has all the elements of what make a truly great golf course.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Played Old Course first time yesterday. Very natural with lots of changes in elevation. Absence of bunkers does not detract from definition of course. Assessment of course from others is all fair. My view the 250 us 11th par 3 would be gimmicky if created today. The 17th may be playable with a prevailing westerly but a good drive and 3 wood not enough into the wind. Pro-shop welcoming, clubhouse throwback - men's changing has the feel of an old cricket pavilion - all good for me!! Overall a very nice day out but I agree it's a course on the fringes of Top 100.
I love heathland courses and this for me is a great one. The course allows you to get going on the 1st with an easy 3 wood off the tee my choice and then down the path to the 2nd you just have to trust your line, there is loads of room on the top.
For me though the course gets going on 5 a really inviting tee shot and the approach is great. After the short but pretty par 3 6th you just then seem to work your way up hill to the 10th green but in there are the great 8th and hard work 10th. Once at the top you have a 245 yard par 3 for the 11th with a fantastic view and then 12, 14 and the short but 'just trust your approach shot' 15th are great holes.
For me though my favourite hole comes on 17. At 467 yards it is a monster par 4 for your average golfer and while it is down hill after about 250 yards I was still holding a 5 iron with a down hill lie to the green, not easy.
18 crosses 1 and takes you up to the car park for a well earned after round drink.
For me this should be higher ranked it is at least as good as the three Ws in Surrey and probably on a par with Hankley.
Played the course today in a South East Golf Tour tournament. It was excellent in every sense. I was unsure what to expect from a course famed for its lack of bunkers but their absence was most welcomed. The natural defences on this course are heather (there's a lot of the spongey stuff but it's not overbearing on most holes) and elevation changes. And of course the wind. It was certainly quite hard to read the wind in such a forested environment, until we reached the higher holes.
The standout holes, for me, were the par 3s. They start off looking fairly innocuous on the scorecard. Number 6 is only 125 yards. It is devilishly difficult. Stay only slightly left and you are in a brook. Right and you run off. Short and it's water again. A cleverly testing little hole. Number 9 is 143 yards uphill over a valley of heathery sin. All short shots are doomed. The elevation changed ensures many suffer that fate I suspect. Clever, if you've not played the course before. But greater challenges follow. Number 11 offers the longest par 3 in Sussex and the longest I've ever played at 249 yards, downhill with heather lining the route to the green. Again the elevation change makes club selection hard. It plays short, but how short? Depends on the wind. Getting a 3 here is a great score. Finally number 14 is 202 yards long with trees left and right and heather surrounding the green. Who needs bunkers to make this downhill shot a real challenge? The elevation and heather plays a full part once again.
Of course it's now all par threes, I'll leave it to others to tell you about the par fours and fives. But to me, the par threes illustrate why this is a top notch course that when played will be cherished. I was truly impressed.
Finally, I thought the clubhouse was lovely. Reeking of history but not stuffy. Good food. Good service. Comfortable and welcoming. Everything a visitor like me could hope for but rarely finds. The range is good. You hit off mats with limited distance balls but it's enough for a warm up. The practice green and chipping area were in great condition, as indeed was the course. The turf on the fairways was a delight; the greens ran true and were well kept, and the heather was damned ubiquitous. The greenskeepers and staff should be commended. Many thanks to all.
Played 13 March 2017. The first 4 holes are ok but bear with it, the course ramps up significantly at the 5th which is a classic par 5, lay up or go for it, with 2 streams in the potential target areas. 6 and 7 are solid holes, whilst 8 and 9 are very scenic. 11 is a 249 yard par 3, which fortunately is down hill. A beautiful beast of a hole. I only hit 1 decent shot all round and hit driver to 20 feet. The par 5 12th is stunning, 13 and 14 are decent and 15 is a short but beautiful par 4, which has a very attractive green surround. 16 is a good solid medium length par 4. The 476 yard par 4, 17th is just wow, with as good a view at an approach shot as you will play. I have played 90 of current top 100 B&I courses and this is in my top 10 holes. Worth the green fee by itself. 18 shares the fairway with 1 so is a bit quirky. If 17 was the closing hole ........!!!! In summary, a very good golf course awaits you from 5th hole onwards with 17 the undoubted star. Cheers Oliver
You will be happy to know they are redoing the greens. 6 were laid in the autumn I believe last year and we couldn't tell which ones they have taken that quickly. They are doing he next 6 this autumn and the final 6 after that.