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 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.
This course is blessed with such grand rolling topography that, on numerous occasions, the views from the elevated tee boxes is quite something special. Some reviewers suggest that the course gets off to a slow start, which I personally disagree with – as I feel that people underestimate the strength of shorter holes when played on bulging hills. Put the pin on the upper shelf on the left side of the elevated first green and count how many people make birdie – my guess is that you won’t run out of fingers.
A blind tee shot on the 2nd, following by an approach shot over a hazard to a strongly pitched green is no pushover either. While the 3rd and 4th holes are relatively short on paper, playing into angles or up the hills is not easy and will ultimately test your distance control. You’ll need a minute to catch your breath when you reach the summit of the 5th tee and behold the magnificent par 5 that tumbles all the way back down to a green protected by a creek. A glorious short par 3 6th hole fraught with surrounding danger of humps and bumps is a delight to play. A novice playing the 6th won’t realise how close the hazards are to the edge of the green.
The uphill par 4 7th hole is the index 1 (which currently is debatable) and requires a careful drive to find the best angle for the second shot. The tee shot on the 7th is the most difficult shot on the opening half as the fairway pitches from left to right and you must get past some vegetation down the right-hand side. A new green 40 yards behind the existing green on higher land will add tremendous challenge and make it a real index 1. The 8th hole is a reachable par 5, but the green is so protected with huge landforms that the entrance to the green feels quite narrow. It’s a great visual down to the green. I found the par 3 9th hole to be the most disappointing on the course. From the current tee box level, there’s no real visual off the tee other than overgrown vegetation between the tee and the green, and only the top half of the flag is visible. I’m confident the club will address the bracken and heather soon in addition to raising the medal tee.
An observation throughout the course are the number of concrete paths directly in your line of sight that need repair. I look forward to the paths being either repaired, repositioned or grassed where feasible.
The back nine is quite brilliant starting with the par 5 10th which has a sublime green setting framed so nicely. It’s breathtaking to reach another summit and take in the beautiful surroundings in addition to appreciating how natural the routing is. The holes just sit perfectly on the grand landscape and you can see the journey ahead.
Local knowledge is required for the tee shot on the long par 3 downhill 11th especially with firm conditions. You simply must use your shot-making skill to land the ball in the right spot to allow for release and a few kicks. It’s a gorgeous walk down the slope on the par 5 12th but the challenge immediately returns with the daunting uphill 13th which is a very difficult walk. You should use a trolley! Like every hole at Royal Ashdown Forest, your club selection off the tee is paramount given how severe the land can be in places – and remember, nothing rolls like a ball.
On the 13th, you need to get it as far up the hill as you can, but then need to be careful as there is longer grass and heather waiting for you. I love how the course constantly asks you to hit heroic shots, and I’ve no doubt a low handicap player at Royal Ashdown Forest will do well at almost any other course given the challenges they face.
An appropriate homage to Abe Mitchell will greet you on the spectacular downhill par 3 14th which requires a long carry over tough gorse near the green. The closing stretch continues the uphill and downhill nature of the topography which is almost relentless. The holes are so uniquely memorable and ooze with personality. The lack of bunkers is a brilliant design, and just goes to show how natural landforms can be just as challenging and extraordinary.
The Old course stands out among its peers in the area for many reasons and you’ll want to play it multiple times just to soak in all the features you won’t see anywhere else. Make the effort to get out of London for a day, and be sure to tour the clubhouse to take in the history and the wonderful hospitality.
I must say that I was very intrigued to play this course after hearing that there were 0 bunkers across the entire 18 holes. However with the thick rough and heather that you can find around the greens and either side of the fairway, you don’t have any sighs of relief with no bunkers in your way!
This is a unique golf course which no other golf course is like, and that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed my round here. Although there are no bunkers you do not even realise this and the course still plays pretty tough as you must plot your way round to shoot well. The greens were fantastic although they were very undulated. I found them tough to get the right pace but thats not a huge surprise considering its hard to find a flat putt on most of the greens.
Now to the course itself. The front 9 plays much shorter than the back 9 and although the start is short, that does not mean its easy as accuracy is very much required. Some of my favourites would have to be the par 4 2nd, which has a beautiful approach shot towards the green with a ditch that you must hit over. The par 3 6th is also a lovely short hole with a very narrow green to hit towards. The par 5 8th is a beautiful par 5 with plenty of heather and thick rough on the right hand side, ready to eat up any wayward approach shot. The par 3 11th is brutally long, but has a stunning backdrop, making the tee shot a lot more appealing. My favourite hole would have to be the par 4 17th, a 486 yard par 4 which was straight into the wind for us, the approach shot is awesome and very beautiful with the trees around the green making it a very picturesque hole.
Although it was a good day, I don’t feel that I cab give it 5 balls as in my opinion it isn’t quite as good as many other courses that I have played and a few holes felt a bit bland and unenjoyable. However, overall I enjoyed my round at Royal Ashdown Forest and would be keen to return there again soon as it is definitely one of the best golf courses in the area!
I liked Royal Ashdown Forest from the very moment we arrived at the parking lot through the driveway to the club.
The clubhouse is elegant and simple, and perhaps these virtues define what is the club itself and the course that I had the pleasure of enjoying, the Old Course.
I was attracted long ago by the idea of playing a course without bunkers, in order to see how the designer had compensated for the absence of these hazards, both from a strategic and visual point of view.
Well, by way of advance I have to say that I was surprised of the result, and that the abundant features of the course made me not to miss the sand traps. In this sense, it is exemplary how other obstacles are used, such as heather, moguls, slopes, streams and tilted greens.
The start of the round is as simple as well resolved: a short hole, with a wide fairway and a green with a considerable slope: just a gentle start to the round.
The following holes are a kind of warm-up for what will come next, since, from the 5th hole, the challenge and beauty of the course begins to raise its tone.
I particularly liked the 6th hole, maybe the most iconic of the course, a devilish par 3 despite its short length (I only managed a bogey despite hitting the green), but I also loved the 7th, a dog leg with a steep uphill second shot, the par 5 8th, a beauty of a hole on the side of a hill and with an exceptionally well protected green, the long and photogenic par 3 11th, the par 5 12th, the 13th, another tough par 4, and the 17th, one of the most complicated par 4´s that I have had to face.
In short, and regardless of the virtues of some holes or other, I was impressed by the aesthetics of the course and the intelligent use of all kinds of obstacles and hazards.
Finally, there is another issue that, in my opinion, has to be praised, which is the limitation to matches of 2 balls. In this way, despite being our first contact with the course, we managed to finish the round in 3 and a half hours, time that I still consider something excessive taking into account the pace of play of the locals but which let us time to enjoy a lunch before our flight back home.
If this policy were applied in the clubs of Spain, at least at certain times of the day, players like me would not have so many problems to reconcile the game of golf with family life.
Unfortunately, the admin on our booking to play the course was not well handled but after a delay, we were able to proceed to the course. Others have commented that it is a quirky layout beginning with the first hole that shares a fairway with the 18th. But this is a wonderfully natural golf course with some memorable holes. The opening five offers wide fairways and playable approaches and gets you into your round. The club prides itself on the short 6th, claiming it to be reminiscent of the famous Postage Stamp at Troon… not sure about that but a nice little hole nonetheless. Moving through into the second nine, I wished I had purchased a stroke saver as some of the natural hazards are not always seen from the fairway. Play the par-3s well, and you have a chance to come in with a decent score here… all the short holes were great fun. We found the greenkeeping a bit lax to be frank, and the clubhouse somewhat dog-eared, but neither that nor the errors on our booking took away from a wonderful day at the cusp of three counties.
Royal Ashdown Forest is a very nice, hilly, bunkerless, friendly course with unique quirks set amongst towering trees.
The first opens up with a hugely sloping fairway from left to right and is a relatively short par 4. The second is a blind tee shot from down below to an extremely raised fairway and although there is a very visible marker, you have no idea where to go which adds to the thrill. Once you are over the crest, you are greeted with a stunning approach shot to a green which has a wooden slatted front to it giving the impression there might be a little moat preceding it, but there isn't. One of the many quirks. The green slopes quite steeply from back to front and makes for a difficult hole.
On the 4th we were greeted by a couple of friendly dogs on the green which was something I had never experienced before, but was a welcome distraction. As our round progressed we realised that there were lots of dog walkers about and it was refreshing to see such a relaxed atmosphere at the course.
The 5th hole is a lovely par 5 which meanders downhill with ditches and streams running across the fairways, demanding you select the right club and strategy for the hole. The 6th is a great little par 3 with danger surrounding a thin but long green. The 7th is a daunting tee shot up a steep slope with a dogleg left to right and a tree which looks like an impassable magnet for balls. The green is a steep slope from back to front. There is a glorious visual approach to the 8th green which is protected by natural heather-clad mounds and in keeping with the surroundings of the area.
The 10th is a longish straight par 5 potentially reachable in 2 and eminently scoreable. The 11th is a brutish 250 yard downhill par 3 which requires nothing other than a straight shot off the tee. Ironically I had thought that it was a reachable par 4 and then proceeded to hit a 3 wood out of the screws to the back lip of the green. Thinking I had an eagle putt, I proceeded to 3-putt for a bogey and take the gloss off a great tee shot.
The 14th is a cracking par 3 downhill to a green surrounded by heather and general trouble and little furrows that could leave your ball unplayable. The 17th hole for me was the most majestic hole on the course. A long sweeping par 4 downhill fairway doglegging from right to left from a semi-blind tee shot to a green which seems like a small landing pad way down below. Visually, the approach shot begs you to find the green to feel that elation only a golfer could enjoy.
The last isn't a bad finishing hole hitting down onto the shared fairway with the 1st and then back up to an elevated green making for a tricky final club selection. We played Royal Ashdown Forest on a day when it was playing very firm and the greens were very quick.
I feel as though Royal Ashdown Forest is what you might call a 'grower' of a course, in that the more you play it, the more you'd grow to like it and appreciate it's subtleties. In saying that, we thoroughly enjoyed the course and it is certainly a test of golf illustrating that you don't necessarily have to have bunkers.
Everyone was very friendly and the clubhouse superb. I can't wait to return and improve on my score!
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.