Golf Course Review of Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club (Old)
Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Course
Reviewed by Ed Battye -
Quick Summary: A brilliantly natural golf course without a bunker
Our 5 Star Rating: 4.2
Royal Ashdown Forest is home to two fine golf courses; the Old and the West.
It’s a distinguished traditional members club in East Sussex that has been used by the R&A as an Open Championship Regional Qualifying venue as well as hosting several national amateur championships.
My visit in July 2014 involved playing the highly regarded Old course which 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. Over the next dozen holes it borders on the sublime and hardly ever takes its foot off the gas.
Throughout this magical run you experience an undeniable charm with holes that are not only appealing on the eye but have real strategy and unique challenges to them. There is seamless integration with the surrounds as you venture firstly through enclosed woodland, then open heathland, before returning to the more tranquil and tree-lined part of the property. Throughout this time you traverse rolling ground with sloping fairways and well-guarded green complexes the main highlights.
Despite the wooded areas providing entrancing golf it’s good to hear that the club are actively working alongside the Board of Conservators for Ashdown Forest and DEFRA to redress the balance and return both courses to their original heathland character.
The seventh has a sweeping and rising fairway with a lone tree on the near side suggesting that players drive to the left but at the same time tempting longer hitters to go to the right before you play up to a fine green at the top of the hill.
Unusually in the space of ten holes from the 5th to the 14th only two par fours are encountered. This encourages exiting, at times sporty, golf with a wide variety of shots required; some of which you may never face again on any other course.
Three par fives in just five holes (8, 10 and 12) epitomise how well Royal Ashdown Forest uses the natural landscape and contours. Each provides challenges that manufactured courses simply cannot come close to emulating. Each of the three are very different but complement each other excellently with the heroic 12th being my personal favourite.
The ninth, played over a large swathe of heather to a brilliantly tilted green, the epic 11th that requires a long straight shot from a wonderful high tee on the most spacious part of the property, and the deceiving downhill 14th are all par threes and each with their merits.
As for the par fours you will find some real challenges towards the end of your round. The 15th and 16th dovetail particularly well; the former is a short par four that might just be driveable on a good day but, with patches of heather and other shrubbery close to the putting surface, leaving a pitch into a green that falls away from you is probably the wisest decision. The latter is a strong uphill hole of 407 yards but plays much longer than the yardage may suggest, especially into a head wind.
The climax of the round is reached at the penultimate hole where a semi-blind drive eventually brings into view the most wonderful green setting, cast in shadow by tall trees on our visit as evening began to draw in. This is arguably the finest approach shot on the course, certainly Royal Ashdown Forest’s masterpiece, and one that will stay in the memory for a long time.
This fine stretch of holes, each with its own individuality, has a special character and exudes a wonderful ambience as you walk in almost isolation over the impressive layout. Not only is it a visually rewarding experience but skill and sound decision making are required to play the holes well.
It’s a shame that the curious 18th hole doesn’t quite reach the same heights of greatness that the previous 11 holes have achieved but it can be forgiven this because in its own way the final hole fits the charisma of Royal Ashdown Forest perfectly. It’s easy to see why this stunning course has cemented its place as one of the best in the British Isles.
The beauty of Royal Ashdown Forest is that it doesn’t have, nor does it require, any sand bunkers. Alternatively it uses uncontrived natural features to create the hazards and produce shots that very few other courses can muster. Its main defence around the greens are swales, dips, hollows and mounds of heather, bracken and fern. Meanwhile, instead of fairway bunkering there are often protrusions of heathery ground that break up the play.
Many argue that the course would be ‘easier’ with bunkers but they are not permitted by law; an act of Parliament prevents them due to the location within Ashdown Forest. Others say it would be ‘better’ with bunkers but I’m not inclined to agree. I think it would lose some of its identity and ultimately this is what makes it such a wonderful place to golf.
There are some long walks from tee to green and the undulating nature of the terrain means that you often drive from an elevated tee to a fairway separated by a valley but the sheer beauty of the estate ensures that you keep a spring in your step to the conclusion of your round.
The greens looked smooth and immaculate on our visit but putted slower than they appeared. However, I can imagine when they are up to competition speed they add an extra dimension to the course in terms of difficulty.
The olde-worlde clubhouse is an extension of the course in terms of character and feel. The view from the balcony overlooking the opening and closing holes is a real treat and one not to be missed.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to play the West course on our trip but this gem was voted the best golf course in the UK of under 6,000 yards by Golf World in 2013 and, from the few holes we saw on the drive into the club, there’s nothing to suggest this more woodland course wouldn’t present an equally enjoyable 18 holes.
Royal Ashdown Forest is certainly a place where a day’s golf can be enjoyed in pure, unspoilt and natural surroundings across the challenge of two fine courses.
Royal Ashdown Forest is featured in the National Club Golfer Top 100 under £100 Golf Courses of Great Britain.
Club Website: www.royalashdown.co.uk
Tournaments: Open golf competitions at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club.