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 “Tunbridge Wells” was dropped from its name in 1901 when 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 club installed new drainage on fourteen of the greens in 2016, as part of a process to improve course presentation. An investment was also made in new machinery to cut back invasive grasses and allow heather to regenerate, along with starting out on a 10-year tree clearing program, the early results of which are really encouraging on holes 3 to 6.
Make no mistake, the setting is gorgeous, affording long 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.
Martyn Landsborough (former Head Professional at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club) wrote the following article for us, which was published in our Top 100 Golf Courses of England book:
“If you go down to the woods today at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club the only surprise you will get is that after over 100 years of play very little has changed. The fact that the course has no sand bunkers at first seems to detract from the difficulty of the course but nothing could be further from the truth. The sloping fairways, well-protected greens and the heather infested rough immediately respect your attention.
Each hole is different, each memorable, each with its own challenge and each surrounded by the quiet magnificence of Ashdown Forest.”
What a great golf course! The Old course at Royal Ashdown is simply irresistible. One has a sense of being at one with nature, whilst being treated to some of the most exciting and dramatic golf holes around (most of them designed 140 years ago). It’s quite breath-taking that this course has been in existence since the 1800’s. I’m sure there has been some lengthening of holes and moving of land to get the course to what they have now, but, in saying that, the way the course meanders its way through the forest suggests there cannot have been major adjustments since the original layout. The land is similar to Surrey heathland. Humid heathland which promotes purple moor-grass and long rooted grasses. You’ll get good drainage in the winter and tight lies in the summer. Given there are no bunkers the green complexes are far from dull. Run offs and swales are here in abundance, meaning there is a premium on hitting greens. None more so than the par 3, 5th. There are many occasions when you wish you were a club member living in one of the many beautiful cottages that surround the course, with a couple of balls and pencil bag, having a chance to chip and putt around the greens in some of the most idyllic settings England has to offer. What I loved was the use of the land to encourage visualisation of the shots required. Whether it’s the 7th hole, 450 yard uphill dog leg right par 4 , to the 245 yard downhill par 3 on the 11th, this course is designed to favour the brave, whilst respecting the conservative golfers, with different options off the tee and for the approach. The par 5’s are all awesome… totally different and all inviting an attempt to reach in 2. The 17th is my favourite, a blind downhill drive leaving a mid-iron approach to a well-protected green. The best is saved till last, as the course presents an amazing crescendo from the par 3, 14th in. This is really a jewel in the English golfing crown and if you ever want to see inland golf at its purist I think a trip to Royal Ashdown is as close as many will get.
The Old Course at Royal Ashdown gets rave reviews and is consistently rated amongst the top courses in England. The first time I played the course I didn’t really see how this could be the case - to be honest I found it a bit of an uphill slog with a few good holes but too many average ones. The second time I played it this was confirmed! The 4th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 16th and 18th are all uphill or the approach is played to an uphill green. There are some good holes - the 5th and 6th are great , as is the 11th - and the condition of the course is good too but I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. This is a good course but it’s not a great one.
This place is a bunker-less masterpiece, and the course asks tough questions consistently. It’s extremely fun and strategic, and that is not all that it has in common with its namesake in St. Andrews, with the 1st & 18th fairways having a shared portion.
The second shines a light in how the course defends itself, with a riveted face short of the green. Heather is used as a cross hazard often, such as on the short 3rd, and also the 13th, this makes holes play longer than they are. There are a great set of par 3s here, starting with the 6th. This is a short hole, with a generous green, but if you miss it you are in a lot of trouble. The 7th has a ‘cape’ tee shot where players can choose as much as they want to cut off, and a subtly breaking green, another feature often seen here.
A favourite hole was definitely the 8th, a shortish par 5 with a brilliant green, very similar to the ‘bathtub’ green at Cruden Bay. The greens throughout are outstanding, I enjoyed the 15th, which slopes away from the player, an often-unused design feature.
I don’t often enjoy a long walk from a green to the next tee, but I will make an exception here, the walk from the 13th to 14th tee is a beauty, providing respite from the challenge of the course, as you walk through the forest.
The ground game is very much in play here, particularly the approach shots into the par 5 10th and long par 3 11th. All in all, Royal Ashdown is worth a visit, not for the novelty of no bunkers but for the course being a properly fun and interesting layout.
This is a real treat of a course. It’s exciting, interesting and beautiful and whilst there are some slightly weaker holes, overall, this place fits together wonderfully and I would fully recommend a visit here.
The 1st and 18th holes are very similar and share the same fairway but despite the relatively simple drive, both have their own difficulties which make them interesting. On 1, it is the tricky two tiered green with steep run offs to the right.
2 is a tricky dogleg right with a blind drive over the heather and a hard approach over a burn.
6 is a great short par 3 which is surrounded by trouble and 7 is a very tough but enjoyable hole. A severe dogleg right with an elevated green that slopes severely. Two very accurate shots are needed here!
8 is a great par 5 with heather on either side of the fairway and 9 is a semi blind par 3 with a green surrounded by heather.
Holes 10-12 are the pick for me. 10 is a great par 5 requiring a straight drive. 11 is a wonderful par 3. Comfortably over 200 yards - this hole requires a well struck wood (Or long iron if you’re a big hitter) to a green that sits in the distance down the hill. The elevated tee offers unparalleled views across the Sussex countryside.12 is another great par 5 with the ground sloping to the left, lots of heather to contend with and a burn or two.
14 is a lovely par 3 with a green surrounded by heather-covered humps and hollows and 15 is a great par 5 requiring a blind approach over the heather to a shallow green.
16 and 17 are both long and brilliant par 4s - 16 going up the hill and 17 coming back down spectacularly with a blind drive that sets your heart racing.
18 is the easiest tee shot on the course but the approach is severely uphill and is difficult to judge the distance because of that.
This course is a real gem and highly recommended to any serious golfer.
Royal Ashdown Forest (RAD) is quirky, fun, hilly, and not your ordinary course. To enjoy it you need to have an open mind, enjoy blind shots, and not be phased by the number of bunkers on the course - zero.
The course has a great mix of soup bowl Ross style greens, and punchbowl greens. The hole also vary from short to long and uphill to downhill. A stream that weaves its way through the front nine is the courses main hazard, along with the heather. If you weren't aware before you teed off, you would probably walk off the course not realising there are no bunkers. That's how well designed it is.
I have not played another eighteen-hole golf course that has zero bunkers. When I went to play Royal Ashdown Forest Old I was skeptical despite what I had read regarding the qualities of the golf course, the routing, the club’s history and the “association” of the area with the author A.A. Milne. I did have encouragement from an American who had previously been a member who spoke highly of the club and course describing the hilly land it is on, the beautiful views, and the unique challenges at the green sites.
As of now, Royal Ashdown Forest Old is the finest course I have played that does not have a bunker. That might change should I go back to Bandon Dunes for my fourth visit to play the Sheep Ranch course. Will the oceanside/cliffside setting of the Sheep Ranch move it ahead of Royal Ashdown Forest Old? Since I am not in the camp where I believe every course that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design is world-class, there is a good chance I will not change my opinion. After all, from what I can tell the Sheep Ranch lacks great terrain as it is primarily on flat land so it will be interesting to see what can be created while maintaining their “minimalist” philosophy of not moving earth while keeping to wide fairways and large greens.
Moreover, my comment about Royal Ashdown Forest Old being the best course I have played without a single bunker is not meant to be tongue-in-cheek or in the style of Gary Player: “the finest course of its kind.” Royal Ashdown Forest Old is an excellent golf course where one feels the joy of playing golf. Unless it is bucketing rain, I cannot envision a round here that does not leave one feeling both happy and blessed to play it, albeit possibly a bit tired from the hills. I do think the scratch golfers who hit it far will find the course lacking in suitable challenges on a fairly normal weather day, but for 97% of the lower index to higher index players, Royal Ashdown Forest’s Old course offers sufficient challenges and variety.
The quality of the land often determines the quality of a golf course. The Old course at Royal Ashdown Forest has good land, equal to some of the best golf courses in the United Kingdom, although obviously lacking the dunes of a links course. The land here provides an excellent foundation for the golf course with much of it reminding me of the up and down holes at St. George’s Hill. However, it is not the best land for an inland parkland or heathland golf course as Sunningdale and several others have more interesting land. But what Royal Ashdown Forest has in common with these other great courses is great movement in the land from elevation changes to mounds, swales, humps, small hollows, crevices, etc. It might be the most natural inland course one will find due to the original charter of the Royal Forest prohibiting any substantial moving of land in that area.
Royal Ashdown Forest does have man-made features because obviously that is how one creates the greens. The greens have to be shaped to make them smooth enough to be puttable while trying to stay true to the natural contours of the land. The result here is the greens are sloped, tilted, with tiers resulted in greens fairly undulating. A second “man-made” feature are the wooden plans propping up a side next to a stream on the second.
Without the ability to create man-made defenses through bunkers or moving dirt, the routing at Royal Ashdown Forest is fascinating in how cleverly it was laid out. The designers did find the best locations for the greens where the terrain creates natural tilts in the greens. The greens are located near natural mounds, hollows, and ridges to provide a mixture of defenses. Working backwards from these green sites, the designers determined the appropriate routing back to the tee to provide a challenge for the tee shot while taking advantage of the land to have uphill shots to a slightly hidden green, downhill shots that run out, and greens exposed to the wind.
If an architect’s job is to produce the maximum from the land to provide an appropriate mix of fun, challenge, strategy and interest, then one only has to look at Royal Ashdown Forest Old to see the architects succeeded. From the club’s website it seems as though there were four people primarily responsible for the design which is remarkable that the later designers could maintain the consistency with the first people to lay out the course. They created a course that is joyful to walk with an enormous variety in the holes. In addition, the vegetation here provides a very good mixture of penalty and beauty. I do not think the architects had to find any golfing corridors as it is uncertain as to whether many trees existed at the earliest time of building the course, but I could be mistaken. The trees only sometimes add to the challenge and strategy, but more often simply add to the beauty of the golf course.
I imagine the lack of bunkers and length hold it back from being ranked even higher as it can play relatively easy on a calm day particularly if the fairways are dry and the tee shots roll out. Yet on most days this is a golf course that one will appreciate for the balance it offers in terms of the variety of the holes on offer and the natural defenses of the land, tall grasses, heather, and gorse.
The first hole is relatively gentle as a short par 4 with a wider fairway sloping left to right ending with an elevated green with a tier to it with the higher part being on the left. It shares part of the fairway with the finishing hole. One cannot go long over the green due to out-of-bounds close behind.
After strolling down a wooded path, the second is a par 4 blind tee shot going steeply uphill immediately off the tee. The hole bends to the right but is sufficiently wide. This is a heavily tree-lined hole but they should not come into play. The approach shot has to carry the stream with the sleepers. You should not go long over the this green as the green is sharply tilted back to front. Even a putt from the side will have a big break.
The course is relatively flat for the next four holes which is nice given what awaits later.
Three is the second shortest par 4 on the course to another wide fairway and is a simple tee shot if one can stay out of the trees on the left and the heather on either side. It plays as a dogleg right. The green has a fall off on the left side with mounds fronting the green.
Four is another short par 4 slight dogleg right. The fairway is wide but the left side is preferred. The green lies uphill so another club might be required. The green slopes back to front and left to right and is out in the open.
The fifth hole offers the first of several lovely long views from the tee. It plays downhill with a narrower fairway. It is a true risk-reward short par 5 with a ditch to avoid for the shorter hitters second shot. There is a stream and a gully near the front of the green continuing down the left. The longer hitter faces a downhill lie if trying to hit the green in two while trying to stop the ball on the green. The hole does not feel complicated if one is on the fairway until one arrives at the shot to the green. However, if one misses the fairway on their second and is in the heather, trees on either side can block one’s view of the green likely meaning the safe shot is to play back to the fairway before all of the complications fronting the green. The green can be missed to the right with a good chance of recovery. This is a par 5 requiring clarity of thought.
The sixth is a wonderful short par 3 hole with a long, narrow green fronted by the stream that continues down the left. A ravine is on the right and back of the green creating an “island” effect. Adding to the difficulty of the hole is a spine running through the middle of the green. Even if one can find the green with a short wedge, there is no certainty of a par. Miss this green and saving a bogey might be at risk. I do not put this hole in the category of the best par 3’s I have ever played, but it is certainly is one of the better holes on the course, and one that takes perfect advantage of the land features.
Teeing off over the sixth green, seven is a shorter par 4 as a sharp dogleg right with gorse and a ditch on the right to be avoided. Two trees on the right pinch in towards the fairway. The fairway tilts left to right and the drive has to clear heather and taller grass on the right. The second shot requires an extra club on this uphill hole. Note: My second time playing here was before the green was relocated to add yardage and maintain this hole as the index one. I thought this is to be the best hole on the front nine, followed by six and five. It is a lovely stretch of golf.
At this point in the round the negatives I had were that every hole other than six had gone to the right and the course lacked length so lengthening seven is a good idea.
Eight comes with another splendid view from the tee and is another downhill par 5 and a birdie chance for the longer/better player. One has to avoid the right side due to thicker rough and heather. There are some lovely mounds nearer the green providing a lot of defense, while still providing a chance for recovery. The long, narrow punchbowl green sloped back to front makes recovery a bit easier than on some other holes if one judges the pace correctly.
Nine is a nice par 3 where the view of the green is hidden by the vegetation one has to carry. One has to trust they have chosen the right club and swing with confidence because anything hit fifteen yards short of the green is likely a lost ball or an unplayable lie. The green is actually out in the open and offers a decent chance at recovery should one miss it. The green slopes back left to right front. It is a very good green.
The tenth is a mid-length par 5 with a green surrounded by trees. This is another birdie/eagle chance for the longer/better player. The fairway narrows as you get closer. There is a false front on the green. Arriving at the green offers a great view of the countryside.
Other than five-seven, the best stretch of golf is from eleven to fourteen. Seventeen stands on its own.
From the elevated eleventh tee there is a wonderful long view of the surrounding Sussex countryside. One almost wants to let a few groups play through to admire the scale of the scenery and surroundings. This long par 3 plays downhill between heather and requires good judgment as to where to land the ball both on the right and short of the green to hold the green. Once the ball lands it is at the mercy of the bounce and roll.
Twelve is the longest hole on the course as a par 5 bending slightly left with both the tee shot and second shot having to contend with a steep right to left slope. This hole continues downhill. Both shots have to carry heather. The tee shot has to contend with trees on the right. The green is sited near ridges and has another good tilt to it. Heather is both right and left short of the green. There is a good chance of recovery if one misses the green only slightly. Longer hitters are perhaps as a disadvantage here given how far a ball can roll.
Thirteen turns back uphill bending slightly left. It has a very nice two-tiered green sloped back to front. Longer hitters have to avoid hitting into the heather crossing the fairway. The green is nicely framed by trees. I liked this hole.
After another walk down a wooded trail one arrives at the fourteenth which reverses course and goes downhill as a long par 3 which has a long carry over gorse and heather to the green. Dense trees are on the left with scattered trees on the right. The green has heather nearby and little crevices in the land. Missing this green could result in a nearly unplayable lie. This completes four very strong par 3’s.
Fifteen is the shortest par 4 that is likely driveable for the longer hitter on a dry day but there is a lot of heather near the green. The tee shot goes over the back half of the fourteenth green. The green is sloped front to back and is tiered being higher at the front. I felt this hole to be easier for the average player than the better player who might be tempted to hit it harder and find trouble.
Sixteen is a mid-length par 4 plays uphill so add another club or even two for the approach shot where there is a small gathering of heather just shy of the green.
Seventeen is my second favorite hole on the course as a long par 4 going downhill for most of it. Most likely consider it the best hole and perhaps even one of the best they will play. It turns right to left with a blind tee shot. The approach shot is likely from another uneven, sloping lie as the ground tilts right to left to yet another green beautifully surrounded by trees. There is a big fall off to the left of the green which is long and narrow. It is certainly the most difficult hole on the course but I did not like the visual as well as I did a few other holes.
Eighteen shares the fairway with the first as a short par 4 playing slightly downhill from an elevated tee and then up again, much like the first hole. It ends in a long, narrow, undulating green. The eighteenth is a slight letdown because much of the back nine is special.
The Old at Royal Ashdown Forest is a very nice golf course. If one is truly interested in golf architecture, it is a course that must be visited just to look at the green complexes.
On a relatively calm day it is a course that better players as well as players who hit their shots straight and think correctly, will do very well on. Courses that are fair yet require thinking are always going to be a better golf course. Combine that with undulating, tilted greens (albeit they could be a bit faster), many of which do offer a chance at recovery with a decent short game, and one is left with a very good golf course.
The par 3’s are the class of the golf course, followed by the par 5’s which all could be better if a couple of them were thirty yards longer but which does not look possible. Perhaps there are a few too many par 4’s that are both short and bending to the right although certainly seven and seventeen are very good.
One would be very happy to be a member here. One would also be very happy to play here at least once a year if living within a three-hour drive. If one is trying to complete a “bucket list” of good golf courses, this has to be on the list.
RAF GS..a little Gem. 9 of us travelled from Farnham, the Sands GC on Monday 30th Dec 2019 in the middle of the wettest Autumn / Winter we have seen for quite some time. They green fee on a Monday is just £45 but must be booked prior. Its worth every single penny. Ignore the yardage, by modern day courses its short but what a great course. Took driver out of my hands and I hit 3 wood, rescue and 4 irons to stay in play (I tried too). Gentle par 4 to start followed by the second A huge wall of turf as the fairway climbs in front of your very eyes. If you play driver you better hit it high otherwise its hitting the steep incline. After that the course flattens out through 3,4, 5 and 6. All nice holes with inviting tee shots. 7th is a 90 degree dog leg to the right. This part of the course was very wet and trying to cut the corner ruined my level par card! An 8 on the par 4! Simple enough par 3 and par 5 to finish the front 9. The back 9 is equally good with a 250 yd par 3 thrown in.. Enough of the statistics.. Its a classic heath-land course with no bunkers but is right out of the top draw. Stunning views and in great nick plus very playable for almost every one, 28 Hcap or more may struggle. For all that the best score we could muster were 3 x +2 rounds of strokeplay off 8(2) and 12. Clubhouse is very well appointed and the catering and bar staff looked after us superbly. Its a must and well worth travelling too, you wont be disappointed. Cant wait to go back in the Spring / Summer. Its a 4 1/2 simply because West Sussex is best in region! Report to follow from there on 14th May 2020 - cant wait!
Ive been fortunate to play this course a few times and is always a joy to play. Its a traditional heathland course with a very good variation of holes (none the same ) with undulating hills and panoramic views to enjoy as you make your way round. No bunkers which may appeal to some but a real thinkers course where your lines in to greens are important. A course with a great tradition, well presented and plenty of character.
When I went down to the woods today, for this my second time. We played a men’s open for experienced men, over 35 and now in their prime. Quite a delight, the inaugural flight, the weather was more than kind. Nevertheless, the course was a test and the far-reaching views. Sublime.
Ok, That’s enough of that. But there is something alluringly anachronistic about Sussex, It resists motorways and clings on to the past with national parks and aspic like few other counties.
So when it comes to changes, they can be forgiven for not getting it quite right.
I suspect it is far from their natural state and was not done lightly here at RAF, a palpable redoubt of Victorian origin and grandeur, constricted no doubt by covenants and history as they are.
They bravely have lengthened the 7th. In principle, I applaud the premise, but the execution has been a little too naively machined. It all needs roughing up a bit. Dragging back by hand with a shapers rake. To grant the work some organic idiosyncrasy and subtlety. A bit more RAF then.
Seen elsewhere too, at courses like Piltdown, Stoneham, Hindhead and Sunningdale. For Example. Its all a bit, telly tubby lumpy, and precise. In places around the 7th green. Ironic that the new work would have been better finished off by hand. But there we are. Some things we did better in the past then? Who knew?
I am sure they will get there on that. But it really is a matter of taste and the whole course is a special and fabulous delight. Every hole has its own story but flows from the same pen. Some of the pitched greens are brilliantly simple and elegant tests. Even armed with a new putter I didn’t manage many wins, from range, over my irritatingly trypophobic orb.
RAF is a proper journey and a robust walk with rewarding and challenging golf that gets the adrenalin going. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. For a warm welcome, first class hospitality and thrilling golf.
Played the old course on 23/09/19. Had originally booked the West course but were not told that there was a Charity match on when we arrived and were offered the Old course but with no discount which we thought was decidedly poor considering the distance we had travelled. Club house is nothing special - a bit of a labyrinth to be honest but changing rooms are nicely kept and I can't fault the staff. The course itself is excellent - not amazingly difficult I felt but I particularly liked the way each hole is different and the way they all blend seamlessly into the Forest surroundings. Having not played here before I did get caught out a few times by the "heather banks" that uniquely protect some greens. I thought the tee boxes, fairways (with possible exception of 16th that had grass cuttings all over it) and greens were excellent. Greens were not that quick but were in the middle of a treatment process which could explain. Best holes from my perspective were Par 3 6th and Par 4 17th (it's not often I birdie a 472 yard par 4). I assume the lack of tee boards, ball cleaners and yardage markers is down to the protected status of the course and if so, would totally accept that. A really pleasant day's golf - just a shame that the club couldn't have been a little more accommodating given their error in accepting our original booking. Will still play is again though.
I'd normally understand your frustration over not being given a discount but considering that the West Course is £40 per round and the Old Course is normally £100 per round, I'd suggest that you got yourself a pretty good deal.
Discount? They put you out on the better of the 2 courses!