Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club Old Course Review
GF £75-£120 per round; £90-£180 per day
Par 72, 6,537 yards
GM Verdict – A beautiful, bunkerless heathland course that rolls its way through the East Sussex countryside on the edge of the Ashdown Forest.
Favourite Hole – The tiny 6th may be but a wedge or 9-iron but the narrowness of the target can play havoc with the freedom of your swing.
Among the small, but perhaps surprising, number of bunkerless golf courses throughout the land, Royal Ashdown Forest's Old layout, one of the very best golf courses in Sussex, is the most famous of all, denied the privilege of sand traps due to the rules and regulations of the ‘conservators’ of this once dense forest landscape, devoted to deer-hunting a millennium ago. But don’t be seduced into believing this must surely render a course of relatively modest length defenceless and there for the taking, however woeful your bunker play.
Far from it! For what it lacks in sand it makes up for in countless other ways, on a wonderful heathland layout that flows beautifully across attractive terrain close to the borders of East Sussex, West Sussex and Kent. This is certainly one of the best heathland courses in the UK. Swathes of heather, gorse and bracken abound, aided and abetted by patches of woodland and sloping fairways that mean your ability to cope with testing sidehill, uphill and downhill lies will often be of considerably more benefit than brute force.
That said, the latter will certainly come to your aid on the 249-yard 11th, though its elevated tee and downhill landing zone mean you may be flatteringly surprised over how little club is required. And success on the long par-4 17th, which statistically plays way above its par, will only come if you can fire your drive fearlessly away over the heather that stares back at you defiantly and dauntingly from the tee.
But elsewhere, the test is more one of skill, finesse and shrewd course management, with the 6th epitomising the Ashdown challenge. Merely a wedge or 9-iron, it’s amazing how often even such short clubs become disobedient when the target is ‘must-hit’, as it most definitely is on this devilish tester with a narrow, tiered green and run-offs all round. Any miss left down into the stream will likely lead to a depressingly high return on a hole that looks so innocuous to the unknowing! Clever, short par 4s like the 3rd and 15th will also tempt many into unwise aggression, with more falling foul of this strategy than reaping its elusive but tantalising gains.
The four par 5s crammed into the middle part of the round at the 5th, 8th, 10th and 12th all make you feel like you have a chance, but there is often some awkwardly placed heather to contend with. In the case of the 5th, there is also a pretty stream just short of the green that you will need to factor into any decision to go for it in two if you've got a good drive away.
By the time you reach the 18th, which criss-crosses the 1st (make sure you play to the right green!) every facet of your game will have been tested - bar bunker play of course - which is perhaps why the course is so highly regarded by both those in the local know, and many more who have visited from further afield.
Abe Mitchell, who sits proudly atop the Ryder Cup, played his golf at Royal Ashdown Forest, while 1936 Open champion, Alf Padgham, was based here early in his professional career. There is also a shorter second course here - the West - that offers more of the same on a smaller scale, albeit with possibly the toughest finishing hole in all of Sussex and, by coincidence, another demandingly long par-3 11th hole that's slightly uphill, so tougher than the 11th on the Old course.
Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and even instruction despite his own somewhat iffy swing (he knows how to do it, but just can't do it himself). He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 89 of the Next 100. He has played well over 900 courses worldwide in 35 countries, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content. On his first trip to Abu Dhabi a decade ago he foolishly asked Paul Casey what sort of a record he had around the course there. "Well, I've won it twice if that's what you mean!" came the reply...
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