Appeared in November/December 2004 LINKS
No, it wasn’t a dream, and yes, the floorboards did creak as you checked into the Mermaid Inn on infamous Mermaid Street in the dead of night. Once a notorious haven for smugglers and Long John Silver types, this now-welcoming and exceedingly snug establishment was rebuilt in 1420. As you were searching for the inn, you passed through the Land Gate, an imposing stone structure that dates to the early 1300s. You also stumbled across St. Mary’s Church and its extraordinary clock that hasn’t missed a chime in some 450 years.
Across the narrow cobbled lane from the Mermaid, an equally quaint, black-and-white, timber-fronted building stares back. Its name is unusual, if a bit less imaginative: the House Opposite. Both the Mermaid Inn and the House Opposite are situated near the top of a hill that rises steeply through the old quarter of Rye, a wonderfully preserved town certain to fit the tourist’s image of Merry Olde England.
Because the links of the same name is located fully three miles off, it is easy for visiting golfers to bypass this storied little village. Even if they do, Rye’s golf links—no youngster itself—is equally fascinating and enchanting. Established in 1894, Rye Golf Club was the acknowledged favorite of Bernard Darwin, grandson of naturalist Charles Darwin and considered the father of all golf writers. Modern-day course designers and critics have also fallen under the spell. Scottish architect Donald Steel, for example, raves about Rye in his book, “Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.” “My golfing daydreams revolve most frequently around Rye,” Steel writes. “No other course can stand comparison with it in terms of character, setting and atmosphere.” And in his controversial-but-influential “Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” American architect Tom Doak ranks Rye ahead of any other English links, including the country’s Open venues.
Steel is correct in highlighting Rye’s unique atmosphere and character. Here is an unabashedly old-fashioned (some might say eccentric) golf club and an equally old-fashioned (some might say quirky) golf course. A sign en route to the first tee advises that three-ball and four-ball matches are permitted only by prior arrangement with the secretary. Singles and foursomes (i.e., alternate-shot team play) are the order of the day at Rye, an ostensibly private club whose members greatly prefer match play to medal. A round of golf here typically takes between two-and-a-half and three hours, with all idle chit-chat reserved for the 19th hole.
So Rye appeals to the traditionalist, but what makes the links itself so special? And why does it have a reputation for being one of Britain’s toughest challenges? The answer to that second question won’t be found on the scorecard, which reveals that from its tips Rye weighs in at less than 6,500 yards and plays to a par of 68. The recently lengthened first hole is the only three-shot and 500-yard-plus hole to go against five par-3s. But of the 12 par-4s, only four measure less than 419 yards, making for a grueling lineup of two-shotters.
Rye will never stage an Open Championship—but what of it? From start to finish the course is jam-packed with classic—indeed stunning—golf holes. If you want to conjure a mental image, think of a slightly scaled-down version of Royal St. George’s and mix it in with Lahinch: Picture humpy, hillocky fairways that twist and tumble among the sand hills, creating blind shots and awkward stances. Unlike at Birkdale, where the generally flat fairways are framed by towering dunes, here the holes careen headlong into them. Imagine an array of devilish pot bunkers, some so deep they require wooden steps to guide you down, and think of small, ultra-slick putting surfaces with green surrounds that encourage the running approach but reject (and often punish) all but the perfectly executed stroke. Now pray that the wind isn’t too fierce!
Of course, if you are competing in the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society tournament held annually at Rye, you can save your prayers. This four-day, mid-winter frolic, known as the President’s Putter, usually takes place amid winds icy enough to daunt a malamute. Darwin, a Cambridge man and frequent combatant in the 84-year-old event, once called it “a little red glowing jewel set in the cold waste of winter.”
A round of golf at Rye has a wonderful, almost seamless flow. This is remarkable, given that no single architect planned the course, and, on a couple of occasions prior to the Second World War, the initial layout was substantially tinkered with. Certainly, it helped that one of the original consultants and the two principal tinkerers happened to be brilliant course designers. It was Harry Colt, then a young (and presumably frustrated) solicitor who advised the club in its early days, and it was Tom Simpson and Sir Guy Campbell who were responsible for most of the major revisions. The product of their combined efforts greatly impressed Doak, who writes: “Its routing is ingenious, attacking the ridges in almost every possible configuration.” When the elements are stirred, as is usually the case at Rye, this ingenious routing ensures that the golfer is assaulted by the wind from every direction.
One of the finest sequences in links golf begins at the fourth hole, a brilliantly conceived and thoroughly intimidating par-4. You must drive from an elevated tee over a chasm of rough to find a painfully narrow hog’s-back fairway that runs in high-wire fashion along the crest of Rye’s largest sand hill. The distant green appears as a precipice.
The sixth is another demanding par-4, this one featuring a blind tee shot over a ridge and a second that must thread its way among a minefield of deep traps. The fifth and seventh, both superb par-3s, possess equal potential to wreck a promising score (and in so doing underline the preference for match-play golf). The fifth perfectly illustrates how a short hole needn’t rely on bunkering for its defense, while the seventh confirms just how destructive links-style pot bunkers can be. And when you walk from the seventh, chances are you’ll understand the club’s old adage that the toughest shots at Rye are the second shots to the par-3s.
Following a relatively benign stretch from 8 to 12, the drive at the 13th heralds a return to the sand hills. With its fully blind approach—typically a mid-iron that has to be struck up and over a large shaggy dune—here is a hole that wouldn’t look out of place at Prestwick or pre-war Sandwich. After a fairly modest par-3, a pair of strong par-4s await. No. 15 will tempt many to reach for the driver, but its pinched and marvelously crumpled fairway demands utmost precision. There is more room at the 16th, but its semi-blind tee shot can have a discouraging effect. The long par-3 17th, depending on the wind, can require anything from a 6-iron to a driver.
Finally, the 18th at Rye is somewhat reminiscent of the famous fourth in that it is played along the top of a ridge; however, in this instance a wayward shot has every chance of landing on the clubhouse roof—which, technically, is not out of bounds. This fact has prompted many a golfer (especially the chap who is one down with one to play) to mount the parapets and attempt the ultimate death-or-glory stroke—an act of defiance, or perhaps lunacy, that epitomizes the spirit of Rye.