Is Rye Old the UK’s best par sub-70 golf course? If so, it would likely make it the best sub-70 golf course in the world. There are several others in the United Kingdom to consider: Swinley Forest, St. Enodoc Church, Royal St. Davids, West Sussex, The Addington, New Zealand, and Aldeburgh. I have yet to play West Sussex, The Addington and Aldeburgh. I have St. Enodoc Church as the best but it is a difficult decision between Swinley Forest and Rye Old.
The best holes at Rye are better than the best holes at Swinley Forest yet the weak holes at Rye are weaker than Swinley Forest. Swinley Forest is more consistent and might have the slightly better greens. Although the routing through the terrain changes at Swinley Forest are excellent, the land movements at Rye Old are more striking. At Rye, one feels like they are often battling the elements of links golf due to the wind whereas at Swinley Forest it can be so quiet and still one feels as if they are playing a game of golf on their own in an arboretum. A final difference is that Rye Old has more challenge due to the slightly longer length of its par 4’s while the two par 5’s at Swinley Forest are relatively easy golf holes.
The net of this is that I have Rye Old just slightly above Swinley Forest due to Rye demanding slightly more commitment to both the choice of club and the required shot. They are very close in my ranking even though the courses are very different other than they share a common trait of excellent greens and green complexes. Both courses take full advantage of the terrain with brilliant routings. I find the par 3’s a bit more memorable at Swinley Forest mainly because of the beauty of the setting in addition to the quality of the holes. This comment does not mean that the par 3’s are better at Swinley Forest; it is that I could stand on any of the par 3 tees at Swinley Forest and look at the hole for quite a while before playing them. I find the par 4’s and 5’s more interesting at Rye Old. My ranking is based on playing Rye only once whereas at Swinley Forest we played it twice the same day. While New Zealand and Royal St. Davids are very fine golf courses, for me there is a noticeable gap in consistency of good golf holes at these two courses in areas such as variety of required shots, bunkering and the greens.
My recommendation is to settle this debate with more golf at all of them followed by some good conversation over a post-round beverage on either’s one patio. It is one of the better debates in golf as there is no wrong answer. For me, I cannot wait to play the The Addington, Aldeburgh, and West Sussex.
We had a beautiful, warm sunny day in mid-July, 2018 when we played Rye, the first design by a young Harry Colt. We played the back tees of 6503 after asking if it was fine as we were visitors. It was windy at the start of the round with the wind disappearing on the tenth only to come back on the sixteenth.
Rye Old reminds me of Burnham and Berrow’s Championship course in that many people have worked on the course over the years to improve it to the fabulous courses that they are today. In Rye’s case some of the changes were forced on it due to the building of the road to Camber. The opening nine holes at Rye Old is about as good as golf can get. The back nine is slightly more uneven as the first three holes are weaker.
There are five par 3’s at Rye. One can take their pick as to which one is the best. The par 3’s are holes:
2- 181, 5 – 174, 7-158, 14-185 and 17 – 243
I favored the fifth as my favorite par 3 followed by the fourteenth which I think gets overlooked, then the seventh, seventeenth and the second. The second hole lacks visual definition as it feels very wide open despite the six bunkers framing the green. I loved the setting for the fifth as well as the shape and the size of the green. It is a splendid feeling being on the fifth tee and contemplating the required shot over the hollow in those dunes knowing if one comes up short or goes right you are likely left with a blind recovery shot. Many favor the seventh which is a wonderful short par 3 but plays slightly longer to the elevated green with two bunkers to avoid but I found the setting not quite as interesting as the fifth and fourteenth. You must hit beyond the front of the seventh green or it will roll back down the steep hill. The fourteenth is set at the bottom of the ridge line and has four bunkers expertly placed for those to consider if they are trying to run their ball onto the green as well as trying to bring a ball in from the left. The ryebrow on the right I recall as the longest one on the course, resembling a 35 feet long snake. The seventeenth’s length is the primary obstacle although the green complex is very good due to the two bunkers on the left. On many courses either of the five par 3’s would likely be the best par 3 on the course.
As for the famous Ryebows, I do not know (I am certain others do) whether they were placed there for stability purposes to prevent the shifting of dunes or added for defense purposes. They are unique but I did not feel they added much in terms of being a hindrance. I suppose a ball could end up close enough to them to create a tough or unplayable shot, but it would be truly rare to not have enough room to slide a wedge under them to get back to the green.
The fourth hole, a par 4 of 442 yards placed at the top of the ridge, with a bit of shelter from the higher dunes on the left side, is one of the finest holes I have ever played. I made par here and consider it to be on of my all-time highlights in golf so magnificent is the golf hole. It offers everything one could ever want in terms of looks, taking advantage of the terrain to create drama. It has superior defenses both left and right for the tee shot as well as the nearer the green. The highest point of the dunes on the left is preceded by a deep valley. Anywhere left is likely a punch out back to the fairway. If one misses the fairway to the right then they are likely down the hill with a blind recovery shot out of heavy grass. The fourth has a wonderful pitched green back to front with fall-offs steeply right and behind it. If there is a definition of a perfect golf hole for the average player, then this hole is it. It has no bunkers nor does it need it given the defenses posed by the land itself. There is room to lengthen the hole another 30 yards for the longer hitters but I think the hole is perfect as it is.
The contrasts at Rye are terrific. Compare the longer par 4 fourth hole to the short ninth hole, a par 4 of 300 yards. The ninth plays from an elevated tee to a hole bending to the right with a ridge line on the right that actually does not play too difficult yet one tries to avoid it and risks going into three bunkers on the left. Driving the ball straight at the green brings a series of deep swales/valleys and ripples fronting the long and narrow green. The green tilts to the left a bit but for those trying to play to the right side there are two deep bunkers awaiting them. These two bunkers are at the one-third and two-thirds sections of the green. There are fall-offs front and left at the green. It is a marvelous short par 4 where a par should almost always be a given, but often is not if one finds any trouble.
Adding to the contrasts are two par 4’s with blind shots at the sixth and the second shot on the thirteenth. The sixth is a long par 4 of 468 yards with a blind tee shot playing over a marker post that is angled to one’s right. The reward for hitting a good drive is a long second shot to a terrific green complex with four bunkers fronting the green starting about 30 yards out. There is a small gap between these bunkers for those trying to run a ball onto the green. The hidden green on the thirteen thankfully has no bunkers. It is a quirky hole with length at 433 yards but it certainly fits in well with the rest of the golf course as it takes full advantage of the terrain to increase the challenge of trusting one’s swing.
The beginning at Rye Old is a short par 5 with a fairway wider than it looks. As it is the first shot of the round and the road is on the left and dunes on the right, the fairway can look much tighter especially if the wind is in your face. It is only 482 yards and the yellow tees are only 457 yards with no bunkers but if one does not find the fairway and draws a bad lie, a bogey or worse is possible. Should the club ever change this to a par 4 then Rye Old would certainly be the world’s best par 67 golf course.
I liked the third hole, the last hole before one plays on or along the ridge line. The fairway has a single bunker with a nice gentle rise in it eventually ending at a large, slightly raised green. At 432 yards it is not an easy par 4, but anything above a bogey should be unlikely.
The eighth is another longer par 4 at 444 yards and is rated the third hardest on the front nine. This dogleg right is a splendid hole with the ridge line on the right coming into play. For the length of the hole and the look from the tee, one can get a feeling of being inadequate for the challenge of the hole.
Walking past the clubhouse through the car park one arrives at the tenth hole with the road to Camber on the right. Although it is a dogleg right, thankfully the fairway is positioned to have one hit away from the road even if the straighter line is parallel to the busy road. While the tee shot is fun, the rest of this long par 4 is uninteresting as one realizes they are leaving the dunes.
I did not care for the eleventh. One almost wishes the club would figure out a different routing to eliminate the pond on the right. I hit the bank and went into the pond but that is not why I did not like the hole. Being out of those remarkable holes in the dunes from 4-9 is a letdown, but having this body of water is disappointing as is the length of the hole at only 322 yards. I felt uninspired on the tee of this hole. Although the green is placed at a really nice location it did not make me think differently of the hole.
Since I had played the first ten holes well, and felt I had blown my round on the eleventh, I decided to blow my score even more on the twelfth, which is a longer par 4 of 457. After waiting a bit for a series of cars, I hit way right into the tall grass, could not get out and had my second consecutive double. Despite my score I did like the hole due to the excellent bunkering throughout. It has seven well-placed bunkers. It is not in the class of the holes on the front nine because it is a flat hole, but put this hole on almost any other course and it would be both memorable and fit right in. I almost felt as if this hole should have been on Muirfield.
From fourteen on in Rye Old returns to the glory of the front nine.
I previously discussed the wonderful par 3 fourteenth and the par 3 seventeenth. Fifteen and sixteen are long par 4’s of 464 and 434 yards. Both fairways have mounds, swales and ripples throughout making it difficult to find a level stance on holes where one is hitting to relatively small greens for the length of the hole. The fifteenth’s ripples are more pronounced. The fifteen bends slightly right while the sixteenth bends to the left. Each hole has two bunkers. The sixteenth’s fairway bunker on the left requires a long drive to clear it for those attempting to shorten the hole. The sixteenth green might be the most undulated one on the course.
The eighteenth is a fitting end to a wonderful golf course. It is a longer par 4 of 437 yards playing from an elevated tee to another rippling fairway. It is a slight dogleg right with a green sitting up on the same rise as the nearby clubhouse. The back side of the green has a fall off if one is too bold. It has a nicely sloped green. It is an excellent golf hole on its own even if it were not the final hole.
Rye Old is a golf course that on a calm day the average index player would have a chance to break 80 but it is not a guarantee given the sss of 72/71/69. On a windy day one should not even care about a score, but instead enjoy it for everything the course has on offer. It has splendid par 3’s. It has a great variety of short and long par 4’s. It has variation in holes on top of the dunes, along the ridges or on flat ground. It does have a couple holes that do not quite fit which is why it is unlikely to ever be a top 50 golf course in the world unless the club decides to change the routing once again. I am sure they could and the course would move up a few spots.
Rye Old is a golf course I could play for a week and never tire of it due to the excellence of the greens, the challenges and the loveliness of the setting. It is near perfection to finish a round, sit on the terrace, and recall the holes.
Date: January 07, 2020