Rowe, JH Taylor, Dodd, Pennink, Philip Russell Vick
Undulating heathland with heather and gorse, no sand bunkers
Nr Uckfield in East Sussex. Postcode: TN22 3XB
Phil Bonsall
01825 722033
Jason Partridge
Green Keeper
Matt Hutchinson
piltdown golf club,
piltdown golf club,
Piltdown sheep, golf club, finest courses
piltdown club house, golf club, finest courses
Access Policy:
Visitors always welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today


There are not many courses without sand-bunkers, hills or ravines and only 6,000 yards in length that are of a significant enough golfing challenge to give the FineGolf  ‘joy to be alive’ feeling but Piltdown is certainly one.

This club has never wanted to be as famous as its ‘Royal’ neighbour, Ashdown Forest GC, or indeed as controversial as the Piltdown Man, a fossil discovered locally in 1912 that fooled most of the world’s greatest experts for 40 years into believing that a combination of a human cranium and an ape’s jaw was feasible Darwinian proof of a direct link between mankind and the apes.

Piltdown's clubhouse

Piltdown’s clubhouse

The Club’s ethos is to encourage intimate, friendly and civilised golf in good company on a quality course supported by a charming but efficient clubhouse.

As so often was the case when golf was just starting to become popular in England in the Edwardian era, it was a local heath as common ground on which Piltdown Golf Club was established.

Jack Rowe, the professional at Ashdown, was paid £1 to lay out the original 10-hole course in 1904 and when J H Taylor, the five-time Open Champion, added a further eight holes in 1908 for a fee of two guineas, the local squirearchy had created a course which has continued to evolve.

henry cotton, piltdown golf club,

Frank Pennink and Sir Henry Cotton at Piltdown

Course changes were made in the 1930s by the secretary, George Dodd and by Frank Pennink in the 1960/70s, though the design and lay-out has remained broadly similar in essence, except that in the last fifty years, with a lack of grazing by cattle and sheep, the silver birch, that weed of the forest, grew up across the open heath.
The members, acquiring the freehold in 1938, have been careful in their husbandry. For example, they were reluctant until 1987 to invest in automatic watering, even though Jim Arthur, the leading agronomist, had recommended it earlier, following the hot dry summer of 1976.

A quote from the centenary book expresses a delightful attitude:
“This is neither a course that wants to look perfect, manicured, cosmetically cosseted and unnatural, nor is it wild exactly, rather unsophisticated. Here nature has been controlled but not dominated”.

piltdown golf club, renovated heather, finest courses

renovated heather

The experience of space and openness to the elements is the aspiration and since 2003 a vigorous programme of conservationist  heathland regeneration has been undertaken, led brilliantly by Philip Russell-Vick, the Director of Green until recently. Whole areas of the course that were colonised by silver birch have been opened up once more and much has been done to reinvigorate the heather that is such a major feature on almost all the  holes.

The fairways have quite a high content of fine fescue grass and it is quite easy to run-out of fairway and into the heather.

It is unlikely that the landscape of the course will ever revert fully to the original open heathland (unlike what has happened at, say, Walton Heath) as some of the trees have now become integral aspects of the design and also shield the roads that cut through the course and carry far more traffic than in the 1960s.

The new raised 6th green with mounds and run-offs

The membership are supportive of the rolling programme of undergrowth and tree clearance as they realise it is not a means of making holes easier. It is rather a means of returning the course to the firm and fast condition where the more difficult techniques of ‘fine running’ golf are needed in comparison with the boring and repetitive ‘target’ game.

In the last four years every green has been dug up being replaced with half a metre of new sand above gravel with herringbone drains to USGA specification, while at the same time building more movement into the design of the green complexes. There are still no sand bunkers on the course and some greens have been raised with more bumps and run-offs, whereas many of the original greens were a continuation of the fairways and aprons.

Hebridean sheep

Hebridean sheep

A fascinating sustainable experiment, using Hebridean sheep, penned within electrically-fenced areas that are then moved around, for the purpose of grazing the tussocks of purple moor grass that out-compete the heather, has been an outstanding success. Other clubs are asking advice about this conservationist-friendly way of cleaning heather areas.

It would take too long to mention all the dedicated servants of the club and players that have added much to the rich traditional atmosphere over the decades but one of the best and most popular 1890s lady champions, Lady Margaret Hamilton Russell, chose Piltdown as her home course – perhaps because the ladies have always been treated as full members.

Lady Margaret

Lady Margaret. click to enlarge

The clubhouse possesses a picture of Lady Margaret at the top of her swing showing a prodigiously long back swing, a feature described by Horace Hutchinson, the champion amateur and early golf writer from Royal North Devon , as “an example of the eccentricities in which genius now and again indulges itself”!

In contrast, the Club hopes there will be no recurrence of the hostilities of old with the commoners that created difficult relations for those who used the common as a recreational area. The common was once popular for the exercising of dogs, riding, playing other sports, courting, socialising and gossiping. Piltdown Pond had served as a swimming pool, boating lake and ice-rink and it is not difficult to imagine the local response when a bunch of posh outsiders turned this pleasure-ground into a golf course! Vandalism used to be a regular bane along with some well publicised court cases but a conciliatory approach by the Club has allowed time to cool the outrage once felt.

Perhaps also the wider public now recognise that commons need someone to take charge of them or they rapidly revert to scrubland and that in the hands of the Club the common at Piltdown is in far better shape than others in the area – much to the benefit of all.

Having no sand bunkers, Piltdown relies on heather and the need to play the running game, in order to defend itself.

The first hole is a gentle opener with a gully in front of the green and the second is the only par five on the course and gives the outside chance of a birdie.

The third and fourth are of much sterner stuff, the first of these having a sharp dogleg with the approach shot over a stream that feeds Piltdown Pond and up a slope to a raised green at a distance of 450 yards.

piltdown golf club,

The par three fourth with opened-up Piltdown Pond behind

The fourth, a full long iron played down the slope over thick heather to a sunken green, demands a bold stroke, with Piltdown Pond now able to be clearly seen in the background. Considered in modern parlance to be the ‘signature’ hole, it fairly allows those with less strength to bail out short and play it as a par four.

The next four holes have been opened up dramatically and are now proper heathland holes again.

There is a wish to return to the running game with the support of the membership and the agronomy on the greens is perhaps now up to some 25% browntop bent. I first played the course in the 1960s when it was a fast running heathland layout and after a period of surrendering to the fashion of overwatered ‘target-golf’ the Club is to be praised for beginning its journey back in the right direction. One recognises that the confidence in the Club to spend extra money to lay down 100% fine grassed greens, instead of using the turf from the previous annual meadow weed grass (Poa annua) dominated greens and then know how to manage a totally new agronomy, was not present and a half-way house to give a firm base for further progression was chosen.

The new double-tier 16th green

This is not a criticism of the greenkeeper or club but it does ask a question of the present national greenkeeper training. Should its present emphasis on managing Poa be re-balanced and more investment go into ‘Conservation Greenkeeper‘ training, particularly in the light of the increasing ban on the use of chemicals and the need to conserve water?
It is excellent that the Club, wanting to develop a running-golf course, also have a programme in place to replace the Poa annua in their aprons with perennial fine grasses to improve the firmness and the consistentcy of their bounce.

To quote Gordon Irvine, the heir to the greatest ever golf agronomist Jim Arthur: “The fine grass agronomy of the aprons is just as important as the fine grass agronomy of the greens”.

The wonderful work done to gain a more drying airflow across the greens and fairways may help to produce firmer conditions, otherwise the ease of holding one’s ball on the greens with a high ball using modern equipment, will reduce the challenge across this short course of 6,076 yards (Par 68 SSS 69).

The par three 15th

The regular advice at most holes that have gullies, hollows or heather in front of greens is to be bold with the approach.

The five short holes are balanced; two on the odd holes and three on the even and the second nine are 440 yards shorter than the front nine.

The fifteenth is a fine downhill par three of 158 yards with an interesting middle grass bunker with the best approach to its right and the ball will feed down to the left.

The twelfth and sixteenth are short par fours but both are testing with heather across the fairway blunting the long hitter’s advantage. Though a number of attempts have been made to make the seventeenth a par five, it is pleasing that it remains as a long par four and now with a re-designed green which welcomes a running approach from the right.

Pennink's par three 18th

Pennink’s par three 18th

The eighteenth has seen more change than any other hole here. It used to cross the first and in doing so created both safety hazards and time-wasting, so in 1979 Frank Pennink was invited to resite the green as a par three and much care was taken to give it sufficient drainage. The Club are proud of this hole as a much better finish to the round.

Two interesting old clubs hang above the bar in the listed cottage that acts as the quaint and comfortable clubhouse: one is a baffy (small-wooden-headed, steeply lofted, hickory shafted club) originally owned by Willie Park sen., who was a treble winner of The Open Championship including the first in 1860.

Willie Park sen.'s baffy

Willie Park sen.’s baffy

The other is a Bobby Locke putter. Locke, a South African who won The Open four times between 1949 and 1957, had a magical putting touch. Via a circuitous route, the putter is now the trophy for the annual match with the Sussex Martlets, which allows me to mention my own connection with this part of the world, having kept wicket for the Junior Cricket Martlets at the County ground in the 1960s and I proudly display their distinctive badge to this day.

This is an attractive course, with views of the high rolling South Downs, that is tougher than it appears on paper and gives a most delightful backdrop to a friendly day out that is remarkably good value and gives that FineGolf  joy-to-be-alive feeling.

See Piltdown Golf Club, 1904 – 2004 by Sir Michael Kerry & Dick Glynne-Jones whose thoughts I have much called upon.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2010 and updated in 2019.

Reader Comments

On April 14th, 2010 Melvyn Hunter Morrow said:

When I lived in Hastings some 20 odd years ago my little group of friends would often travel up to Piltdown for a day’s golf of 36 holes. My memories are of an enjoyable course and many happy trips up during the summers.

Enjoyed catch up and reading the article, has it really been that long since my last visit.

Thanks Lorne for reminding me of some great memories.


On October 5th, 2010 Terence Coghlin said:

This excellent and balanced review deserves posting somewhere in the Clubhouse.

My only reservations are:

1. The unfortunate hiding of our German roots

2. The mention of Pennick, who got the new 18th wrong, and silence about Russell-Vick, who put it (and some other weak holes) right.


Dear Terence,
It is a pleasure to post your informed comments. If the truth be told the German connection was so complicated that I felt within the space I could afford to give before readers become ‘bored’, it was best to leave it out! You are quite right, Philip should be mentioned, which has now been put right.
Best wishes

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