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.”
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.
Played RAF old course and west course this friday as a visiting fourball. Welcome is nice and club house is ok. We played the Old course as 2 x 2balls as RAF has a foursomes style similar to Muirfield and Royal St Georges.
(The members ahead of us promised it would be quick round given they were playing foursomes. Well it wasn't quick and took nearly 4 hours for the round!!)
The course is very nice and greens were very good. Fairways look to have been impacted by the recent wet weather. Rough is fair, but the heather is to be avoided at all costs.
1st and 18th holes are the least memorable, with in my opinion the best holes coming between 5-14.
We had a nice lunch after the round and then headed out on to the west course.
For £85 for two rounds with a county card is very good value for a course of this quality.
Would i rush back and play again next year? no. But would i come back in the future? yes definitely.
Royal Ashdown Forest is a splendid walk, indeed the course is worth walking even without clubs. Plenty of locals also think it’s worth a stroll. Some of them enjoy the occasional wait to cross fairways; I’m told a few don’t. And then there is the views, none than that looking back down the hill from the 11th tee, and the view up the hill when the heather is in flower is lovely as well. In fact there’s probably no better view on any course I’ve yet played (though Isle of Purbeck is to come).
Don’t be seduced by the views, there’s a seriously good golf course as well. I tend to agree that 5 to 17 are the course at its best, but 1 to 4 are not bad either. For 1 the trouble comes off the tee in making sure you have enough length, and on the second in avoiding the out of bounds at the back. Two has a blind tee shot and a very much not blind 2nd as you have to decide how close you want to be to the flag. Fat with your shot leaves you staring at wooden sleepers, long leaves you with a tough downhill put. Level leaves you with a big break.
5 is good as well, because after a good drive you are tempted to go for it. If you are a mere mortal don’t. Lay up, pitch on and hole your put. We both did. Net eagle beats gross birdie. 7 is about to become harder, as the green will be 40 yards further up the hill. My four handicap opponent did not expect to make it in two off the whites. It will be a proper stroke index 1.
I won’t continue to describe the holes, others have done so better than me. So what were the greens like, what were the fairways like? The greens are true; they are not fast. The former matters, the latter, to a degree, is vanity. The fairways are a lovely springy turf. The rough is less lovely, and the heather, though pretty in August, should be avoided.
I’ve played Ashdown 6 times now. I like it more now than I did the first time.
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.