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Royal Ashdown Forest is a real treat, but don't be fooled, it's a real test

By John Vinicombe,

SUSSEX, England - A golf course of championship quality and possessing holes to chill theblood, yet without a single bunker, is a rarity. But Royal Ashdown Forest in East Sussex and only35 miles from London can claim to be unique.

While nearby Piltdown, scene of the notorious Piltdown Man hoax of the early 20th century doesnot have a single sand trap, it is not the fearsome test posed by Royal Ashdown. Both are laid outon common land and, in the case of Royal Ashdown, the club is bound by the rules and regulations ofthe Conservators of the Forest.

This body does not permit any artificial hazard to be constructed. But there is no need asstreams, pits and sandy roads penalise bad shots as heavily as any bunkers. Yet Royal Ashdownmerits a place among the top 40 in the British Isles.

Many famous golfers have pitted their skills against the heather and gorse and been foundwanting. There is water at no fewer than eight holes and, if there is a weakness, it lies in theshortness of several par-4s and the length from the back tees, which is 6,463 yards and short by21st century standards.

For this reason, but not entirely so, no major national championship has been played there,although in 2004 it is the venue for one round in the Open qualifying. In July the eight or ninelowest scores from a field of 128 will go forward.

Yet there has been an English title contested at Forest Row. That was in the 1930s on theseparate ladies' course.

During WW2 much of those 18 holes was left to run to wilderness and the remnants turned intonine holes. Then, in the 1960s, a revival brought the full 18 into play again and today it ispackaged as the West Course as distinct from the Old.

The latter was founded in 1888 when a clergyman hit the first ball on Christmas Eve. The Rev. ATScott could never have envisaged what his inaugural shot had set in motion. When the clubhouse wasbuilt in 1893 the club was known as the Ashdown Forest and Tunbridge Wells GC.

In May that year Queen Victoria reviewed her troops under the command of the Duke of Cambridgein the forest. In full regalia of cocked hat with plumes, tight blue coat and sword, the FieldMarshal drove a ball from the first tee.

Possibly he did not carry the stream and the queen did not see the stroke, but certainly theoutcome was that the club then became "Royal".

The army were in the forest for manoeuvres and the officers accorded temporary membership.General Lord William Seymour was elected Field Marshal of the club. The title appears to haveoriginated at Royal Blackheath early in the 19th century to distinguish an officer of the club whotoday would be called the president, his function being to, "marshal the field" when stroke playwas first introduced.

Some idea of the ceremonial on that occasion at newly christened Royal Ashdown may be gleanedfrom General Seymour being handed a club from John Rowe, the professional, who had it madespecially for him. Apparently the general sent his shot 60 yards - quite good for his firstattempt.

Shortly afterwards, the club designed a crest consisting of the obligatory crossed golf clubssurmounted by a Tudor crown and below the motto, "Per Tot Discrimina Rerum." The translation being,"Through so many different types of difficulty." It is particularly apt.

In that founding year of 1888, the first club in the United States, the St Andrews club in NewYork, was opened, but not by a general in full fig. Interestingly, before 1860 only two clubsappear to have been established in England: Royal Blackheath and Old Manchester, founded in 1608and 1818 respectively, although there is no written evidence to prove either claim accurate.

However, a life of 116 years places Royal Ashdown among the very early clubs in England andeverything about the course and clubhouse breathes tradition.

Every hole has a secret that must be unravelled with a cunning eye and firm hand. A perfectlylevel lie is a rarity over the undulating heathland with long carries from all tees. It isemphatically not a course for beginners.

Bernard Darwin, the founding father of golfing journalism in Britain, once likened the lumps andbumps short and left of the 12th green to a cemetery for old ladies' pet dogs, adding it was onlyat the end of a round that, "we realise with a pleasurable shock that there is not a single hideousrampart on the course, or so much as a pot bunker."

Of all the fine holes in this supremely natural setting quite the most celebrated is the endowedsixth or "Island". Only 128 yards, it is surrounded on three sides by two streams. Aless-than-perfect tee shot is in great danger of rolling off the shaven shoulders of the longnarrow double-terraced green and into the clear gurgling water - or hang suspended on a tuftybank.

The hole was endowed many years ago with £5, with compound interest in perpetuity foranyone holing in one in a competition. Only rarely has the money been won. The benefaction datesback to 1902 when a frequent visitor to the club, Lionel Redpath, who was so enchanted by the hole,that he arranged for it to to be endowed with the sum of £5, interest on the same toaccumulate at the rate of 5 per cent per annum and this interest to be paid to the member holinghis tee shot at the easter, whitsun or autumn meetings.

This feat was not achieved until 1947 at the spring meeting when David Richardson received£35 for his skill. A few weeks later, at the whitsun meeting, Charles Frazer, a formercaptain, also holed in one but his reward was only a few coppers.

Now, to make matters more equitable, the club pays any member £50, plus the freedom of theclub for a day, if they succeed during any medal competition.

The long holes are first-class with a variety of punchbowl greens while the golfer favouring alow trajectory will find trouble from the tee as the carries over heather and streams areconsiderable.

Royal Ashdown is not a big club in terms of membership, but it is exclusive. It is doubtful ifmore than 500 in all categories belong and there is a long waiting list. The Victorian clubhousecould never be described as beautiful, but it is functional and comfortable and full of memorabiliaincluding an ancient wooden contraption once used for blackballing undesirable applicants formembership.

The Big Room with its magnificent views over the forest and the 1st and 18th holes, is a featureand the men's bar - a small room with benches round the walls - is a Dickensian snug of Pickwickiancharrm.

Old photographs testify to illustrious names either brought up at Royal Ashdown or who playedthe course and couldn't stay away. It was the home of several English greats including Alf Padgham,the 1936 Open champion, and Ryder Cup stalwart Abe Mitchell. Both were born in humble cottages onthe forest.

Bobby Locke, the South African, played there before WW2 as an amateur before going on to win theOpen four times.

Overseas visitors are very welcome at Royal Ashdown and a telephone call to Douglas Neave, thesecretary, before arriving will ensure a warm greeting - although he will advise that handicapsover 18 might not enjoy the course and would probably he happier on the New.

Where to stay

Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club
Wych Cross,
Nr Forest Row,
East Sussex RH18 5JR
Tel: (0044) 1342 824988
Set in 186 acres of beautifully landscaped Sussex countryside the hotel - based around an oldcountry mansion house - possesses its own acclaimed restaurant.

The Chequers Inn Hotel
The Square,
Forest Row,
RH18 5ES
Tel: (0044) 1342 823333
A delightful 15th century Posting Inn built approximately 1452.

The Roebuck
Wych Cross,
Forest Row,
RH18 5JL
Tel: (0044) 1342 823811
This charming 17th century country house hotel includes the Antlers restaurant with its low oakbeams and leaded windows.

Dining Out

Try any of the hotels mentioned above.

The Verdict

History at your fingertips - it's hard not to appreciate the nostalgia. Far removed from the sanitised parkland golf resorts, but a real treat nonetheless.

Not a place for the beginner, however.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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