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All Nature, No Bunkers

Trevor Ray Hart A different breed: member Simon Radcliffe and his playing partner Leo.

Photo: Trevor Ray Hart

One day some years ago, a foursome of German visitors to the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club in the south of England were waiting to begin their round when they noticed that the groups ahead of them had each gone off the first tee with a canine companion trotting alongside. Perplexed, one of the Germans inquired of a member, "Excuse me, sir, but we find this quite odd: What is the purpose of all these dogs?"

The Englishman sensed a chance to have a bit of fun with the guest. "Oh," he replied gravely. "Dogs are obligatory at this club, you see."

The visitor took this intelligence quite seriously. "And where might we find a dog for our game of golf?"

It was all the Ashdown member could do to keep a straight face. "Well, you can rent one at the professional's shop."

So they did. To the Englishman's surprise and delight, the visitors plodded off, back up the hill to the clubhouse, returning a few minutes later with a handsome retriever, rented from the pro for an undisclosed sum.

I hadn't been at Royal Ashdown Forest more than five minutes when I first heard the story. It was a perfect summer afternoon, and I had paused in the parking lot to take in the scene. I admired the modest Edwardian clubhouse and watched a group hit their approach shots to the first green. Two juniors practiced their chipping while a pair of dogs played in the shade nearby. I exchanged greetings with one of the dog owners, a club member, and no sooner had I remarked on how happy the tumbling canines looked than he told me the tale of the German visitors. The story sounds apocryphal, but that hardly matters. It was the perfect introduction to Royal Ashdown Forest.

"We're an old-fashioned club," said Douglas Neave, the club secretary. "And a very traditional one as well. But we try not to be too stuffy."

Of course, any club where one can take the family dog along during a match, any club where one might receive assistance in the search for a lost ball from a group of elderly hikers wearing Wellies, any club whose one-time warning to visitors referenced Winnie the Pooh ("beware of small bears and bouncing tigers"), cannot by any standard be classified as stuffy.

There are thirty-six holes at the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club, consisting of the Old course and the very underrated West course, a landmark in the history of women's golf. The Old course, for its part, has a single yet crucial point in common with a famed links of the same name—the Old Course at St. Andrews. They share the advantage of being laid out on common land—privately held property that can be crossed over by anyone. A few dozen courses in the United Kingdom share this provenance, and in bringing golfers and nongolfers together it has a positive effect on the spirit of a place, as anyone who has ever made a ten-footer for par on St. Andrews's home hole and drawn polite applause from the gallery knows. And like the original Old Course, Royal Ashdown offers an incredibly rare type of pure, lay-of-the-land golf experience that is both thrilling to play and rewarding to study. Unlike the Old Course at St. Andrews, however, the one at Royal Ashdown has not a single sand bunker on its grounds. (It's not the only bunkerless course in the world, just the best of its kind.)

What it does have, in abundance, is available tee times and welcoming club members. Travelers might also be surprised to find how easy it is to reach this sleepy, picturesque corner of England—the village of Forest Row is only a twenty-minute drive from Gatwick Airport. Along with the golf, Ashdown Forest is absolutely brimming with activities, and it's a pleasure to discover the country pubs and the tea rooms, the gardens and the grand hotels.

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