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Ashdown Forest

A Little Slice of Heaven

By: Alister Nicol

Appeared in January/February 1997 LINKS

Gene Sarazen is generally credited with the invention of the sand wedge. But his invention has little use at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club: its 36 holes don’t have a single bunker. Nor will there ever be because excavations are forbidden in the 6,400-acre forest outside London in which author A. A. Milne set his enchantingly timeless Winnie-the-Pooh tales.               

Ashdown Forest and Tunbridge Wells Golf Club was established in 1888. Almost from its inception the club has been acutely aware of the local populace, and the artisan section, called the Cantelupe Club, is the second oldest of its type in England, having been formed in 1892. It has spawned many good players, including Alf Padgham, British Open champion in 1936, while another past member has an indelible place in golf’s rich history. The figure atop the Ryder Cup trophy is that of Abe Mitchell, an Ashdown artisan who became personal coach to English seed merchant Samuel Ryder.          

The club is not the easiest place to find without precise instructions from the nearest town, East Grinstead, but once you top the rise and head into the Forest from the village of Forest Row the visitor is greeted with an unforgettable sight. The views across the Weald to the Downs are spectacular. There is none of the intrusive hum of freeway traffic, the air is clear and clean, and even the jumbo jets headed in or out of Gatwick are more like toytown models than goliath people transporters.

The course itself is severely undulating. But do not be deterred. A few uphill treks are referred to by the membership as “coronaries,” but they are not nearly as life-threatening as they sound. Laid out over, through, up, down and across a delightful mixture of heath- and forestland, it soon becomes apparent that there is no need for bunkers. Nature itself provides sufficient hazards with heather, rough, mounds, streams, ponds and sloping fairways. There are not all that many flat lies for approach shots, many of which are deceiving.

The 1st and 18th holes share a fairway. The 1st at Royal Ashdown is a short par 4 of 332 yards. The tee is elevated and the drive has to carry a heathery bank to a fairway that slopes left-to-right. Behind the two-tiered green, down a steep slope, is an out of bounds roadway, so the approach must not be struck too boldly.

The 6th, called “the Island,” is one of the best-known holes on the course. Only 128 yards, the difficulty on this par 3 is the upturned-saucer green. No. 9 is a wonderful 143-yard hole. It plays from a sheltered tee to a green that slopes back to front and left to right. The slopes on this green are so severe that no member concedes a short putt; they have all seen too many missed here.

The 10th is a par 5 of 476 yards with a drinking pool for deer to the left of the green set in a bank. It is difficult to judge distance for either the uphill second for the long hitter or the pitch for the average player as there is a lot of dead ground in front of a flat green.

The 407-yard 16th is possibly one of the best par 4s in golf. About 270 yards out there is a belt of cross rough that must be avoided, and this green has as protection a lot of pimply bumps of heather and gorse in front of the putting surface. Again the green is above the player.

Golf at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club is a pleasurably unique experience and one not to be missed. Everything about the place is just a little old-fashioned but it remains a very warm and welcoming place.

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