The unique character of the Old course itself was also influenced by the common-land element. From the start, the Forest Conservators prohibited alterations of the natural terrain, the removal of mature trees (open areas for playing corridors already existed thanks to earlier timbering efforts) and the building of any "unnatural obstacles." Therefore, the course would not have a single sand bunker, much less any of the artificial features found in the playbook of modern architecture—no irrigation ponds, no cart paths, no visual clutter. A few antiquated mule-and-dragpan efforts do exist—the second green is bulkheaded to keep it from sliding into the nearby stream, and some small but suspicious-looking containment mounds appear behind the green of the long par-three eleventh—but one can imagine how easily the course could melt into the landscape, vanish without a trace, if it were left alone for a year or two. For any daydreaming golfer who plots imaginary holes over a piece of wild land, for anyone who wonders what the most natural course in the world might look like, Ashdown is essential.
One can reasonably ask, however, how such a course might provide either visual interest or strategic challenge. The answer, simply, is that the land is naturally superb—rolling green-brown hills with the sweeping contours of a glacial riverbed. Unlike Ashdown's sandy Surrey neighbors, the soil is clay-based, but high concentrations of sand and silt allow it to drain quite well, creating firm playing conditions. It has all the natural hazards one could wish for: The late golf course architect Frank Pennink, a former club member, wrote of the "heather bounding every fairway, and gorse, streams, grassy pits and undulations, severe at times, making hazards difficult enough." Pennink added, significantly, "The yardage bears no resemblance to the length the course plays."
Since the Old course measures only 6,463 yards from the back tees, carries the standard par of seventy-two and is bunkerless, it would seem the pros could surely rip this course to shreds. But history has proven otherwise. The course has hosted regional Open Championship qualifiers the past three years, and no one, in this age of 350-yard drives, has managed a round of less than sixty-seven. Said secretary Neave, "I guess the old girl can still defend herself well!"
The Old course's formidable defenses are largely the result of a design that hews so closely to the natural terrain that shot values are often just a shade unconventional. Some holes are plain in appearance, their challenges subtle. Others are belligerent and intimidating, demanding heroic carries, sure shots from tricky lies, or both at the same time. If it weren't for the tranquil heathland setting, this would be a difficult course to ever feel comfortable on.
Royal Ashdown Forest begins with a simple-looking short par four whose wide fairway inspires confidence. The approach, however, is a delicate operation, where a two-tiered green waits to spoil a perfect drive. By the second hole, the game is on, with a steeply uphill tee shot to a blind landing area followed by an all-carry second to a green fronted by a dangerous stream. The beguiling sixth, a tiny par three of 125 yards, is worth noting for its marvelous old-school "island" green: Surrounded on three sides by another stream, it looks almost as if a giant tortoise plunked down on the mossy banks and someday might just decide to crawl away.
As the round unfolds, it becomes apparent that the Old course is actually more difficult for its lack of bunkers. The purple heather lining the fairways has a nasty habit of gobbling up wayward shots, and those balls "lucky" enough to be found are usually lodged shin deep in some of the roughest stuff imaginable. And it's even worse when approach shots find the greenside heather: After a few hacks without the first clue of how the ball is going to come out, pot bunkers look like five-star resorts in comparison.
The modern design convention of balanced nines is also completely out the window at Ashdown. The front nine is a carefree walk in the park compared to what happens after the turn, where several jaw-dropping holes await. It's not every day one plays a 250-yard par three (the eleventh) that is exposed to heavy winds and bordered entirely by scrub. Or the bruising, uphill par-four thirteenth: Playing in a driving rain, my partner and I were almost giddy to find, after finishing the hole, a table set up beneath the trees bearing glasses of Stone's Green Ginger Wine. It was the perfect belly-warmer to fortify against the elements on the way in. We would need it to contend with the 486-yard par-four seventeenth, which has to be among the toughest two-shotters in England. After a blind tee shot, golfers reach the top of a ridge and enjoy a view of the tumbling fairway and, in the distance, a green benched gracefully against the hillside.