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Lewes

Yardage
6253
Par
71
SSS
70
Built
1896
Architect(s)
Thomas Gilroy, Jack Rowe
Nature:
Hilly, open downland course with fine grasses, wind and the most tremendous views.
Location/Address:
Up Chapel Hill on south side of Lewes. BN7 2BB
https://www.lewesgolfclub.co.uk/
Secretary
Mandy Quick
Telephone
01273 483474
Professional
Tony Hilton
Green Keeper
Lawrie Tremlett
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcomed.
Open Meetings:
Mixed Open - May, Ladies and Senior Opens - Sept.
Fees in 1960s
38p
Fees today
£30 - 2018

Review

Although the finest running-golf in Sussex is probably to be found at the Rye links, the heathland West Sussex and Royal Ashdown Forest clubs, it is the open downland courses across the South Downs that cater most in numerical terms.

Seaford at East Blatchington and The Dyke, inland from Brighton, are both in Frank Pennink’s 1962 Golfers Companion (the fore-runner to FineGolf) as fine downlands, the former designed by JH Taylor (five times Open Champion) in 1907.

Double rainbow over 3rd green

But it is to Lewes that FineGolf turns first to review what is a quite outstanding example of hilly, downland golf as it should be, plus the finest 360-degree views anywhere. These stretch from the top of the iconic open downs, southwards to the sea and north across the Weald to the tree-covered North Downs in Surrey.

Not only does this course drain well through the chalk geology but it also catches every wind there is, thereby providing the natural dry environment for tight firm turf.

When we think of classic downland golf we think of side-shelf greens dug into the hill with undulating fairways. Here at Lewes, a course played around and over the Cliffe Hill, there is plenty of climbing and lies that are not flat. The golf is of the running variety where imagination is used creating approach shots that first bounce well short of, or above, greens so one’s ball then finds its way down on to the greens using the elevation of the ground to move this way or that. High shots attacking the pin will invariably bounce through the firm greens, with the exception of those at three of the par threes that are played directly uphill, at the Fourth, Sixth and Seventeenth holes.

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The twelth hole

There is talk of changing the layout of the seventeenth, so that it will play in the opposite direction to a new green, downhill, which will allow the Eighteenth to be extended into a par five and actually make the walking between holes shorter and more natural.

The fourth par three, the Twelfth hole is the best, needing a well-struck long iron to a narrow and long side-shelf green that with a degree of care can be run in from the right-hand slope.

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Fescue/browntop bent turf

What of course makes this so enjoyable and challenging is not so much the beauty of the design, as I for one have never really loved downland golf design, but the quality of the tight fairway turf and the firmness of the greens. These are predominantly fine fescues with some browntop bent and only a small amount of the inevitable weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua). This type of turf heightens the enjoyment of playing to the quirky green complexes and gives leadership to other clubs that are considering going down the conservationist fine perennial grasses greenkeeping route.

The fifth green

Having said that there are some very fine holes of varying length like the 335-yard, risk-and-reward Third along the side of the most glorious deep wide valley; the Fifth with a hump in the approach apron redolent of a subtle Willie Park Jnr design; the Eleventh an uphill dogleg across the side of the combe that needs a subtle pitch to a hidden tiny green down a front bank; the downhill dog-legged Fifteenth on to a difficult green with the whole of Lewes laid out as a backdrop; and the finest of all the 552-yard Ninth played away from Glyndebourne a few miles below us.

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Glynebourne subsidised turbine behind 7th green

This hole allows us to forget the monstrous, subsidised, intermittent, wind turbine despoiling the northern view across the Sussex Weald. The view here frames the back of the Eighth green that is so difficult to hold because it slopes away down a number of tiers, bumps and hollows.

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Approach to ninth green

The Ninth is a ’find you out’ hole, along the northern side of the course that tries to attract your faded drive that must be held up to the left side of the sloping fairway. Once achieved, this then leaves a blind second over a brow to a fairway cascading down across mounds guarding another tiered green sloping away, land that has not been touched since the Romans were encamped on the neighbouring hill, Mount Caburn. These smooth mounds, called tumuli, are burial grounds. Your bump-and-run approach is deviously difficult and fun to judge as are so many approaches on this course, all made possible by consistent bounce on firm aprons.

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Clubhouse in 1923

But let us supply some history to the sporting nature of Cliffe Hill, approached up a steep path called Chapel Hill. There is early reference to cricket being played as early as 1694 in Lewes and on Cliffe Hill in 1735. Around 1780 what is claimed to be the world’s oldest cricket ball was found sealed behind plaster work in a house in South Street below Cliffe Hill. The cricket pitch was likely sited around the relatively level area close to the present second green. However, the combe was within reach of a well-struck stroke. In the days when boundaries did not exist there is a report of the ball bouncing to the bottom of the combe and the batsmen taking runs to the point of exhaustion before it was retrieved.

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The 13th hole

Lewes is well known for its numerous Guy Fawkes Societies and the middle class Victorians were great socialisers. Golf was then in England an exclusive game and those possessing the social cachet of a golf club membership would invite friends and make useful social, political or business contacts.

During the late 1880s and 1890s Sussex experienced a boom in golf course building. The Brighton & Hove, Royal Eastbourne and Seaford (initially laid out across Seaford Head) courses, all downlands, were the first to be established in 1887 and Lewes the fifteenth in 1896.

A Mr John Morris was engaged to build the initial nine-hole course, employing Frank Penfold who continued to work for the Club for the following sixty years as the greenkeeper. The Club was helped in the design of the greens by Thomas Gilroy, the secretary at Seaford GC, an accomplished golfer and a member at Royal Portrush and Peacehaven.

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The dappled 16th green

The downland turf cropped by sheep was lifted where Gilroy wanted the greens, which were then excavated and the turf re-laid. An iron cylinder roller was acquired and delivered for £3 and the total cost for building the nine holes came to £25 (£7500 in today’s money). Twice round the course comprised a total of 4,480 yards and a bogey of 80.

Lewes’s acceptance of lady golfers in 1897 was at the time a fairly revolutionary act but it did bring in much needed extra money!

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Devastation after the 1987 storm leaving Mr Allport’s main clubhouse still standing.

The main clubhouse with its precarious cliff-top position was built in 1897 by a Mr Allport, who said he would not be prepared to give any guarantee of the building not being blown down. Yet exactly ninety years later, his building withstood the worst gale experienced by the country in over a century in October 1987 (forever famous as the Met Office’s Michael Fish’s storm), while all other more modern structures around the main Lewes clubhouse were torn to pieces and whole swathes of oak trees were devastated across the county. Mr Allport’s building continues to be at the heart of the present clubhouse, overlooking the eighteenth green.

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Jack Rowe

John (Jack) Rowe professional at Royal Ashdown (founded 1888) designed the extension of the course to incorporate the higher nine holes in 1898 and Lewes had the distinction of holding the first professional tournament in 1900 organised by the Sussex County Golf Union. This was at a time well before the PGA was thought of, and the winner was Jack White, the famous Seaford professional who became Open Champion in 1904.

In these Edwardian days the Club employed authorised caddies but Lloyd George, later to become Prime Minister, who was a member at Lewes, got into trouble in 1903 for using an unauthorised caddy from those who waited at the bottom of Chapel Hill. He later received a letter of admonition from the secretary.

From after the First World War the Club moved away from the attitude of social class consciousness, offering a warm welcome to people from all walks of life. In 1922 the Club held a match against the Artisan section of the Royal Eastbourne club.

The Club had financial struggles during and after the Second World War, brought to an end it says in the centenary history book, around 1970 when Tony Jacklin won The Open Championship and the US Open and the sport of golf enjoyed a surge of interest, many having seen his success for the first time on television. Membership at Lewes increased by 50% in just two years.

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Front cover of centenary history book

During the seventies the course was developed with new greens at One and Fourteen with the Sixth doubled in size. The Tenth hole (previously a long par three) was extended by 85 yards to become a par four of 317 yards with a two tier green.

Following the acquisition of its course-land by the Club in 1979, by 1990 it had a waiting list for membership and appointed their first professional head greenkeeper, Chris Allen, in 1989 and it was he who constructed two important new greens at Two and Fifteen and extended many tees.

The first automatic watering system was installed in the early 1990s and as is so often the case, this facility was over-used to the detriment of the agronomy at a time when lush, target-golf was particularly fashionable.

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2nd green and fairway

Lawrie Tremlett, the present course manager and a plus-handicap golfer himself, was appointed in the mid-1990s with the Club accepting his recommendation to return the course to fine grasses and running-golf with fairways mown like a links rather than a criss-cross parkland.

Fifty-one years after first playing at Lewes I returned in June 2017 with FineGolf’s proof-reader John Harris as a caddy. John is a golf historian of repute and has written and published the history of golf in Dunbar from 1616 onwards in his book Dunbar Golf, the story of the links at Hedderwick and Broxmouth as well as becoming a caddy, until he moved down to Seaford a couple of years ago.

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The hill top eight green

We had, in a normal twenty mph south-westerly wind, tremendous fun working out the movement in the greens. I used my Ping Eye 2 one iron more often than on any other occasion when playing on an inland course. I will forever remember the shot to the 397 yard Eight (stroke index 1) green, into the teeth of and under the wind, uphill to the highest part of the course.

We hung on to Lawrie’s coat-tails, having to fight at every hole, finally accomplishing an extremely satisfying halved match, after receiving more strokes than I have had for many days.

It is worth interrupting the golf here to mention, for readers with a green-keeping interest, that Lawrie’s Jim Arthur-style regime which has been so successful in delivering greens of predominantly fine fescue with some browntop bent, with

a simplicity and at low cost, that puts to conservationist shame many other more wealthy clubs.

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Jim Arthur

April; 30 tons of Fendress applied. (20/80 Fensoil/washed sand)
May; 14 to 16 bags of 8-0-0 dried blood/hoof & horn.
June/July; greens double groomed to keep as much of the bent at bay which seems to help the fescue to thrive.
May/June/July; Seaweed sprayed.
August: solid tined with tips cut-off for cleaner hole, over-sown with creeping fescue plus 40 tons of Fendress.
October to March; greens slit twice a month in the same direction and at different depths.
Autumn/winter; applications of iron sulphate and seaweed mix.
No pesticides, no inorganic fertiliser, minimum water from a smartphone controlled irrigation system upgraded in 2015. The greens are cut at 5mm and run-out smoothly at a speed of around nine foot in the summer.

Is this not true golf sustainablity (low inputs, low costs) to die for?

Anyway, back to the golf… There are eleven par fours, nine of which are less than 400 yards and only one of the three par fives is over 530 yards. From the back tees the course now measures 6,253 yards, par 71 and SSS 70, and this would suggest this is a birdie-able course. It certainly would be if the greens were soft, receptive annual meadow grass (Poa annua) and if there was no wind and if you are not distracted by the incredible views.

This is a course for all levels of golfer and provides a high ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling for what is a competitively priced green fee.

There may be other downland courses along the South Downs that are more precisely manicured and greener in colour but this is a challenging FineGolf course requiring subtle play rather than enormous slogging length where your favourite bump-and-run play can come to the fore. What’s not to enjoy!

Read: ‘The history of Lewes Golf Club 1896 to 1996’ by Graham White.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2018.

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