Rowe, JH Taylor, Dodd, Pennink
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
Access Policy:
Visitors always welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today


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

This club has never wanted to be as famous as its ‘Royal’ neighbour, Ashdown Forest GC, or indeed the controversial 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.

Course changes were made in the 1930s by the secretary, George Dodd and by Frank Pennink in the 1960/70s, though the design 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, has grown 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 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”.

renovated heather

renovated heather

The experience of space and openness to the elements is the aspiration and over the last ten years a vigorous programme of heathland regeneration has been undertaken, led brilliantly by Philip Russell-Vick. 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.

It is unlikely that the landscape of the course will ever revert fully to the original open heathland (unlike what is happening at, say, Walton Heath) as some of the trees have now become integral aspects of the design but if the membership are anything like those at Worplesdon Golf club they will support a rolling programme as they discover 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’ golf are needed in comparison with the boring and repetitive ‘target’ game.

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 eco-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

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, 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 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.

The par three 4th

The par three 4th

The fourth, a full three iron played down the slope over thick heather to a sunken green, demands a bold stroke, with Piltdown Pond now able to be glimpsed 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 two holes with trees tight to the landing areas require accurate drives to the side of the fairway to open up the greens. It is vital that your bump and run shot is working on this course, as most of the greens, with no sand bunkering, invite the running approach.

A major programme of improving the drainage and composition of the greens began in 2003 and the reduction of thatch (dead grass that holds water and softens greens) has been impressive. However, there has been little increase in the indigenous, finer, bent grasses and the greens are dominated by poa annua (meadow grass) with all the concomitant problems of disease, soft winter conditions and the requirement for expensive inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and of course extra water.

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 fairways and 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 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 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 with a formidable bank to be carried from the tee and rising ground for the approach shot.

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 and have revamped the green again recently.

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-headed, steeply lofted, wooden club, performing a similar function to a modern wedge) 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.

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.

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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