Royal Ashdown Forest

Hilly, running heathland. Sand-bunkerless with heather. Frank Pennink's favourite club.
Near Forest Row, East Sussex. RH18 5LR
Neil Darnell
01342 822018
Tim Cowley
Green Keeper
Dominic Lewis
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome. Restrictions at W/Ends
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcomed.
Open Meetings:
Winkley Smith Open, Roger Le Fleming mixed 4-somes.
Fees in 1960s
Fees today
£79 - 2019


Royal Ashdown Forest was the home course of Frank Pennink (who was also an honorary member of nearby Piltdown and Crowborough Beacon) and the Club has had an illustrious membership down the years, both within its Artisan section – the Cantelupe – and the main and Ladies Club. The Club was granted its ‘Royal’ status in the 1890s for its ‘natural hospitality’ and this is happily still apparent today.

An example of the gracious nature of the Club is the use of benches around the walls of the bar which are said to ‘mix up the occupants’ more than the usual tables with four chairs found in most Clubs.

The upland 10th

The upland 10th

The Old course went through a number of design changes in its earlier years led by Archdeacon Scott but, being on common land, no excavations or alterations of the terrain are allowed by the conservators, which has given the blessing of no sand-bunkers or, as Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers, put it “it is only at the end of a round that we realize with a pleasurable shock that there is not a single hideous rampart, or so much as a pot-bunker”.

The course is as natural as any in inland Britain with heather abounding, gorse, streams, grassy pits and undulations (severe at times…) supplying difficulties enough across this rugged, hilly terrain.

The fairways are a mixture of Fescue and Bent grass and the greens predominantly Bents with some Annual Meadow grass (Poa annua), (which are cut at around 4mm), give a natural speed and bounce to the course, and have been kept in fine order by Chris Mitchell’s team. Chris who unfortunately died in early 2019 following a fall, was related to the famous Abe Mitchell of the Cantelupe Club, who was described by J H Taylor as “the finest player who never won The Open Championship” and whose figure tops the Ryder Cup trophy.

Chris had worked at the course for over 40 years and took over from his father, whose father also was greenkeeper! Chris’s brother David continues the family connection being the greenkeeping mechanic.

The 'weed of the woods' around the 5th

The ‘weed of the forest’ on 5th

A sustainable environment with minimal use of water, fertiliser and pesticides is the policy here with a gradual return to the heathland features lost through tree invasion by that ‘weed of the forest’, the Silver Birch.

An Environment Page on the Club’s website explains their visionary image for a fast running heathland course and is so well written that it has become the inspiration to FineGolf  in promoting a similar webpage to other fine running-golf club websites.

How much more enjoyable is the area around the 3rd and 4th holes now that it has been cleared out and much more is being done to allow a free circulation of air around some of the greens that had become crowded.

I sometimes feel the first and last holes that cross each other – and are fitted-in between the comfortable clubhouse and the course proper, are over-defended by Ashdown enthusiasts. These holes can only truthfully be described as a comparatively weak start and finish but every other hole has a strong character and tests the full range of clubs in the bag. The yardage, 6537 (par 72 SSS 72), is not overly long; nevertheless, the challenge is inspiring.

The Island 6th

The Island 6th

Probably the most famous hole on the course is the 125 yard 6th, “The island”. The professionals on the recent R&A Open regional qualifier did not tackle it well and forgot that there is less trouble at the back!

From the 8th to the 12th, the player is on dry uplands, with glorious views over the rolling Sussex countryside.

Rather like Northamptonshire County, Harry Colt’s beauty in the Midlands, you need to get below the hole on many greens, as there are few downhill putts given on this 2-ball course and certainly not on the short 9th!

The 240 yard 11th

The 240 yard 11th

As you contemplate the 240 yard Par three 11th, with the Weald of Sussex spread out before you, it may occur to you that this is Winnie The Pooh country and give you an even greater ‘joy to be alive’ feeling.

The 12th and particularly the 13th remind me of nearby Crowborough or The Addington but without an attractive high footbridge over the deep valley to save your puff!

Unfortunately I did not have the pleasure to play the loop of the 16th (named after Frank Pennink) or 17th recently, which are great finishing holes, giving the longer hitter an advantage, as both my am and pm games had finished by the 15th and lunch here was much too good to be put off a moment longer!

Early on the 17th

Early on the 17th

A review of this delightful Club (which also has a West course, with smaller greens and also helped recently with de-forestation, originally the ladies’, opened in 1932 and celebrated with a match between the brilliant Joyce Wethered and Cecil Leitch against Wanda Morgan and Diana Fishwick) would not be complete without mentioning Jack Rowe, born and brought up at Royal North Devon, Westward Ho! was the professional here for 55 years and a lifelong friend of James Braid.

Being elected Captain of the PGA in 1922 was a tribute to the esteem in which Jack was held by his fellow professionals but he had trouble with his putting. Determined to overcome this weakness, he practiced and mastered a new method which seemed to work at the time. That year he went up to James Braid at Walton Heath and declared excitedly “Jimmy, at last I’ve found the secret of putting”, to which Braid replied, sadly shaking his head, “Poor Johnny”.

Hector Padgham, cousin of the more famous Alf, who won The Open in 1936 at Hoylake, then served with distinction as professional from 1947 to 1989.

Ashdown’s thin topsoil based on Wealden clay is not very free draining and the greens are traditionally slow to warm up to a good growing temperature. To guarantee your utmost enjoyment, the best time to visit is from June until well into the winter. No water is used on the greens after August and so they stay firm, thereby continuing to give you that fine running golf condition for a longer period than at other Clubs dominated by weed Poa annua grass. This is not surprising, as renowned Jim Arthur was the consultant agronomist here until he retired.

The West Course which is a good introduction to heathland golf for higher handicappers and is a favourite with Visitors and Societies is regarded highly among courses of less than 6,000 yards.

An attractive centenary brochure of the history of the Club was published in 1988 by Henry Arnell. Colin Strachan has written an update for the 125 year celebrations.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2009 and updated in 2019

Reader Comments

On June 4th, 2009 robin brown said:

Lorne has written a really good precis of Royal Ashdown.
A very enjoyable and sporting course and I agree has similarities to Crowborough and The Addington although the latter is much more intimidating in degree of difficulty!

I agree with the comments re the 6th. A big reputation but disappointing on first visit. The 11th has one of the best settings in golf and the 17th is one of the toughest in the South.

Excellent and friendly clubhouse catering for appreciative golfers.

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