Laidlaw Purves, James Braid, Alister MacKenzie, Abercrombie, Frank Pennink, Donald Steel.
Classic flat links course with wonderful, all-year-round fescue/bent grass, green complexes
On Kent coast near New Romney. Postcode TN28 8RB
David Mills
01797 363355
James Cunliffe
Green Keeper
Chris Barnard

littlestone's fescue/browntop bent grassed green complexes give some of the finest performance quality in Britain.

Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
well behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
Romer Bowl - April,
Fees in 1960s
Fees today
£110 - 2022


Littlestone has some of the finest set of green complexes in England, enhanced by the firmness of the turf of both greens, aprons and run-offs.

The Club was founded in the same era (and with the renowned Laidlaw Purves from Royal Wimbledon GC involved too), as Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports, both being located some 30 miles further along the Kent coast.

The Railway had arrived at Littlestone in 1884, thereby reducing the journey from London to two hours and the Club instantly attracted many parliamentarians (by 1900, no less than 22 MPs were members) and City barristers. The result was that by 1905 90% of the golf club’s 600 members resided in the capital. 

Arthur Balfour, littlestone golf club, finest golf course review

Arthur Balfour, Club President 1888, became Prime Minister.

Arthur Balfour was the Club’s first President in 1888 and Herbert Asquith was captain in 1907, both being British Prime Ministers. 

The Club was first put on the golfing map by Laidlaw Purves bringing the Ladies Golf Championship to the course in 1894, though it was not until much later that ladies were permitted to become full members of the Club! 

Miss Gloria Minoprio, renowned as the first lady to wear trousers on a golf course, much to Henry Longhurst’s delight, was a member from 1931 to 39. 

I mention ladies at this juncture, as my first impression of the club was formed as a teenager when playing by myself with my mother walking round. I caught up a ladies four-ball who had no inclination to let me through and indeed when, entirely by mistake, I drove beyond them after they had taken their third shots(!), one of them promptly hit my ball back at me. Luckily the course is laid out so I was able to dodge over to another hole and play the earlier loop later!

My subsequent experiences at Littlestone have been very much more welcoming, indeed having played it many times over subsequent years I have found it to have an enjoyable relaxed feel among members and club officials have been most supportive of FineGolf‘s attitude to the traditional ‘running-golf’ game.

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18th green and clubhouse

The Club’s entrepreneurial founder, Mr H. T. Tubbs, gradually acquired more parts of the Romney Marsh warren and the course was extended to 18 holes in 1892. Laidlaw Purves then designed an amended course, opened in 1899 and James Braid (member of the Triumvirate with J H Taylor and Harry Vardon who dominated Edwardian professional golf) improved and strengthened the bunkering. 

The early holes lie on flattish ground, and with a ‘penal-type’ of design philosophy in the ascendancy in the 1890s, there were various blind shots to increase interest. 

From early days the green complexes have been small with fine fescue and browntop bent turf and have always been the highlight of this course, tending to throw off any inexactly thought-out or executed shots. 




As with, say, the Luffness New course, if you can’t walk off Littlestone without a good putting stroke then perhaps you should consider another sport! 

the approach to the second green

All of the preceding is not to say that the course’s design is in any way old fashioned. No less than the brilliant golf course architects Dr Alister Mackenzie and Mr Abercrombie were involved in the 1920s, Frank Pennink in the 1960s, Donald Steel in the 1990s, and Martin Ebert more recently, each adding their contribution to the ‘strategic’ nature of the golf challenge.

These changes were typified by opening up the blind shots and placing the drive bunkering where the ‘not quite perfect’ shot of the scratch player will land, rather than trying to catch the ‘foozled’ shot of the high handicapper, as was the original ‘penal’ design policy in the 1890s.

This is a course that gives every level of golfer enjoyment, though there is, a bit like another course with beautiful fescue/bent greens, St Anne’s Old Links near Royal Lytham, an impression of  flatness in some areas of the course along its northern inland edge and apart from the famous sixteenth and seventeenth holes, it has lacked photogenic beauty though Ebert with new ragged bunkering has given greater definition.

I concur with the verdict of the 1983 course improvement plan led by John Armitage (who the club can thank for bringing the course through the era when ‘target style’ golf was fashionable in the 1980/90s, without succumbing to its dangers of over watering and fertilising) that considered holes eight, ten, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen as outstanding, while holes two and eighteen as strong and the other three short holes (six, nine and fourteen) as exceptional.

New drive bunkers on the 3rd hole.

As Donald Steel said in his report at the end of the 1990s, “in order that players gain maximum benefit or position on a particular hole, they should have to skirt a bunker or bunkers to achieve that maximum advantage”. The greater the risk, the greater the reward!

He continued: “Littlestone has stood the test of time superbly, particularly the short holes. The design, size, angling and contouring of the greens represent a model of how interest, cunning and challenge can be introduced in this way – a much more desirable feature than raw length. They also allow a range of options in the playing of approach shots to them. To their cost, most modern courses deny that variety of choice”.

I might add that, had the automatic sprinklers to greens and tees, which were added in the early 1980s (but still not to fairways as next-door Rye has recently done) not been used sparingly, the greens might have reverted to soft Poa annua puddings and Littlestone’s challenge would have been significantly reduced and the enjoyable, subtle differences between each hole would have disappeared, as golfers fired dart board shots stopping by the pin. 

This is a true ‘running’ course where the greens have to be carefully ‘sought out’ depending on the direction and force of the wind, employing creative shots bumped in with ideally back-spin, across firm aprons to true greens. 

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The very fine par three 6th hole

John Armitage wanted Littlestone to be described as “possibly the only ancient links which successfully combines top modern playing values with the pleasure of traditional links/seaside golf”; clearly a visionary ambition. 

The new sand scrape to the left of the eighth hole

A weakness of Littlestone has always been its lack of definition and visual character apart from the outstanding sixteenth and seventeenth holes. Martin Ebert has recently helped develop a wildness to the bunkering edges, which has also tightened up a number of holes and along with some new sand scrapes has much improved the scenic feel of the course. We will have to wait to see if when the wind gets up whether the sand stays in these new bunkers!

Since 1981 the course has been used as a final qualifying course when The Open Championship has been at Royal St George’s and has always been a challenging test to the professionals, measuring 6,676 yards off the blue tees and incorporating new back tees at holes four, seven, nine, eleven and twelve. 

All top ranked courses have stretchy, challenging finishes and Littlestone’s final five holes needed no lengthening. The fifteenth, at only 363 yards, is a right-to-left dogleg and has a shape and contour to the green that creates the reward/risk from a drive near to the bunkers/hillocks on the corner and offers no easy birdie. A new sand scrape on the corner protects from the tiger’s length.

Mackenzie moved the tee on the sixteenth up on to a dune, thereby creating a thrilling dogleg hole with the drive needing to be long and drawn – threading its way between two well placed bunkers onto a sloping ridge. There next follows a demanding second shot into the prevailing wind to a handsome, but slippery, green perched away in the distance and backed by a view of the iconic water tower. To normal mortals this hole is a par five, with a heavily bunkered ridge to negotiate on the second shot. A truly great hole. 

The seventeenth hole with deep left hand front bunker

The seventeenth used to be a blind short hole over the dune on which Mackenzie’s green is now placed. It is played from a high tee across a valley and calls for a faded ball to a green falling off on three sides. Much satisfaction is gained if the 180 yards is covered safely. 

Mark Rylance is photographed in the bunker

It was at this hole that the Mark Rylance film ‘Phantom of The Open’ of the true story of a shipyard crane driver fooling the R&A authorities in the 1970s and being allowed to play his first ever round of golf in the 1976 Open Championship, was partly filmed. The rascle was shown unable to extract his ball from the bunker at Mackenzie’s famous seventeenth par three and with his caddy giving the game away, there was an ensuing chase across the links!

The eighteenth initially looks too flat from the tee but Frank Pennink’s pot bunker on the front right of the raised green has a hypnotic effect and dominates the mind from the very onset of the hole. The risk/reward drive bunker on the left corner must be flirted with by any ‘tiger’ player if they are to be up in two. 

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Dexter at pond on the 10th

Another hazard that has a hypnotic effect is the small pond on the tenth, where the green pokes round a high, right-hand-side dune and must be approached from the left. Yet how many times does the fairway gather the not-quite-perfectly-hit drive down to the right and deliver it into the pond! 

Mackenzie’s thirteenth at Augusta is said to be modelled from the eleventh at Littlestone. It tickles the mind because one wants to approach the green from as close to the left-hand- side ditch as possible and it is a question of how much one elects to bite off while driving across the ditch at echelon to the line. 

Most of the fairways are of a generous width but the rough is tougher here than at Rye and Deal (with whom it has occasionally shared a propensity to flood, though not in the last 25 years), having been reclaimed from the sea in Roman times. Perhaps this is one reason for the abundance of wild life with ground nesting birds, skylarks, lapwings and many others. 

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The par three fourteenth hole

Lying between ‘Royalty’ at Sandwich/Deal and Rye, it is not surprising that Littlestone sometimes is overlooked. It does though have a ‘social’ history just as prominent, with the likes of Noel Coward, Bill Deedes of The Times, Lord Clark of TV ‘Civilisation’ fame and Sir Philip Sassoon of the Port Lympne Set being members here. Winston Churchill once observed that to have Sassoon in the party was like adding a Pullman Car to the train. 

Viscount Castlerosse, whose ‘Londoner’s Log’ in the Sunday Express from 1926 to 39 was perhaps the most widely read and discussed column of the period, is said to have flouted, scandalised and animated the social life of his time! His handicap was two for many years at Littlestone and he was always accompanied by a servant bearing a jug of whisky from which, from time to time, he would fill a tumbler and instantly drain. He also built the parkland Killarney GC in South West Ireland on his estate there. 

The whole feel of Littlestone has an enthusiasm, quality, subtlety and rawness that provides the FineGolf  ‘joy to be alive’ feeling and it has the advantage of not being dominated by a cacophony of wind turbines that so spoils the view from Rye golf club further along the Romney marsh coast!

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The view of wind turbines from Rye GC

The Halford Hewitt teams play for the Peter Kenyon Bowl here and since 1963, when Rye happened to be snowed off, it has always been available for the playing of the January ‘President’s Putter’ event. Indeed Littlestone has staged half of the first round since 1996, offering similarly gorgeous winter greens to the participants! 

The relationships between these clubs is kept close, while Littlestone also enjoys visits from the Green Jackets, the Seniors Golfing Society, Royal Blackheath (a relationship initiated by Roy Jefferies, another colourful character), the Old Marlburians, Old Tonbridgians, Old Carthusians and, from the earliest days, the Bar Association. 

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The fifteenth green

It is extraordinary to me that with Littlestone’s reputation dependent so much on the agronomic quality of its green complexes, there is hardly a mention of the recent greenkeepers in the well written and enjoyable millennium edition of the Club’s history. 

David Herd, the appointed professional in 1897 until retiring in 1940, was responsible for the upkeep of the course, while also being a well regarded club maker. His brother Sandy became the first man to win The Open with a Haskell ball at the 1902 Open, and another brother, Fred, won the US Open in 1898. 

Recently retired Malcolm Grand, elder brother to Garth at Rye and Simon at North Foreland, was the course manager for thirty four years and set his brothers the very highest agronomic standard to follow.

It would be completely wrong to judge Malcolm’s brilliant tenure by his coming under pressure from R&A agronomists to unfortunately over-seed with supposedly dwarf ryegrass mixed with fescue to achieve grass cover quickly on a couple of dusty, leather jacket attacked, fairways on the Romney Marsh inland side of the course, for the short term purpose to make it easier for the players of a tournament that the club officials wanted to attract.

The second half of the par five fifth fairway gives a good example of how the surface of ryegrass should never have been contemplated if the members’ interest in the running game had been the priority.

Playing it in June 2022 in an easterly wind, my partner allowed me, after I had played my ball from about seventy yards out with a high approach on to the raised green, to play another practice ball in the way that I would normally have taken from a fescue/browntop bent fairway. This was to pitch the ball short and run it up the slope on to the green, in the manner of the running game.  What happened when the ball pitched in the ryegrass? It stuck and died, well short of the green approach.

Malcolm’s finest agronomic green complexes in England, will hopefully stand as his true heritage.

I am assured the new greenkeeper Chris Barnard will never again allow use of ryegrass at Littlestone, but it is difficult to stand up to tournament organisers using agronomists with the brand of The R&A behind them!

The damage has been done and let us see how long it takes for this newly marketed ryegrass to be replaced by the fescue grasses that are supposed to come through from the over-seed mix. Seeds on the stalks of the ryegrass can get scattered over the course from golfers shoes.

The selective herbicide ‘Rescue’ that kills ryegrass and Yorkshire fog, used so successfully up the coast at Royal St George’s, might have helped but it has now been withdrawn from the market and though a new chemical called ‘Laser’ is now available its use I am told is restricted to use on green complexes of only some courses that have been certified by the ‘authorities’.

John Bambury managed eradication of ryegrass from the fairways at Trump Aberdeen but he told me he had used an ‘annual’ ryegrass mix with fescues to give grass cover after The Donald demanded the course be opened too soon. John stopped the annual ryegrass from seeding by very close mowing for the next two years and so their fairways are now fine fescue with the ryegrass disappeared. Their paths are well watered dark coloured ryegrass, while friends reported to me in the dry summer of 2022 surprisingly the fairways were lush and the greens gave deep pitch-marks unlike nearby Cruden Bay that was firm, browned-off and running.

Is any independent research being done on the performance of these new ryegrasses?

FineGolf seems to be the only golf media platform asking questions about the efficacy of their use on running-golf course playing areas but this is based on anecdotal evidence and though that comes from a good number of courses played across GB&I, it can hardly be called scientific!

Littlestone has always given first class golf in a congenial atmosphere and the second course ‘Littlestone Warren’, fully developed in the 1990s, has expanded the enjoyment yet further.

See ‘Littlestone Golf Club, the millenium edition 1888 – 2000‘ by I.H.Masson, D.F.C. and M.H.Hill. 

Reader Comments

On January 21st, 2014 Roger Tidyman said:

Lorne, As ever well researched and written. If I may correct a minor error, the ladies you drove into would have been playing foursomes. Littlestone is still predominantly a two ball course and all play would have been two ball when you were a boy.
This leads to quick play and sociable golf. Visitors are warmly welcomed, can play off any tee and never experience any temporaries.
There are no better green complexes in England and few if any elsewhere as attested by The R and A Agronomist’s last visit.
I look forward to welcoming you again later this year

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