All of the above courses are surprisingly well draining, heathland courses with running fairways. Crowborough’s head greenkeeper Mike Poole has developed over the last ten years a marvellous build-up of sandy top-dressing on the greens (see photo of 5” turf plug with grass roots coming through the inch of silty clay at the bottom). Mike’s purpose is to encourage the growth of indigenous, browntop bent and fescue grasses and give firm, true greens into which the ball has to be worked.
The De La Warr family have long played a strong supportive role, selling to the Club the title of Lord of the Manor of Alchornes in 1906, thereby giving it control over this common land, that was mentioned in the Doomsday book in 1086.
GT Langridge (whether related to the great, cricketing Langridges of West Sussex who provided the backbone of the Sussex team at Hove is unknown) was the first and very influential secretary during the time when JH Taylor (a member of The Great Triumvirate with James Braid and Harry Vardon) opened the course in 1895.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was captain in 1910 and it is thought that he attracted Harry Colt (England’s most prolific golf course architect who designed Rye, Sunningdale New, Swinley Forest, Royal Portrush, County Sligo, while remodelling Muirfield, Hoylake, Ganton etc etc ) to give advice to the club.
The layout of the course was changed considerably up to 1927 with GT Langridge co-ordinating and using also the design skills of the famous Dr Alister MacKenzie, creator of the courses at Moortown, Alwoodley, Cypress point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National, among others.
It is likely that the present first four holes, the seventh and the last three are still original Mackenzie routed holes. Of these, the second (449 yards), seventh (507 yards) and sixteenth (343 yards) call upon all of one’s cunning to decide how they should strategically be played.
Indeed, the first seven holes remind one of Royal Dornoch’s first six in their level of intimidation. It is easy for one’s ball to end in the heather if you have not made sufficient calculation!
There is a long carry over dense heather which continues down the right of the first fairway, played from a high tee that offers the first of many glorious views across to the South Downs. The tee-shot must not be drawn when the course is dry or one is easily in the trees down the left.
A start of four, four is quite likely to put you two up against the field! The second hole is a downhill, strong, right-hand dogleg and I am honestly not sure how one stops the ball on the green after a carry over the gully that bites in from the right, in front of the green.
If one leaves one’s ball to the top left, the most delicate of down-the-slope bump-and-runs is then required. In a medal, it might be advisable to merely accept a bogey and perhaps get it back on the fourth if one’s long drive can be held from running away to the right.
The fifth reminds one of The Addington or the thirteenth at Ashdown Forest, being played across a ravine to a rising fairway and a flat ‘downland’ green at the top of, and dug into, the hill.
Then we move to the par three sixth (‘The Speaker’ at 191 yards), perhaps Crowborough’s best remembered hole of all.
A carry of some 170 yards across a quarry to a side-shelf green is required, with gorse beyond and a fall-away on the left creating a tremendous hole that can be played as a par four up the right or indeed with a raking, running draw from the right.
Heather and bumps up the right of the long seventh that slopes, Crowborough-fashion, to the left, makes the taking on of the road, running across in echelon, into the prevailing wind, a substantial consideration.
Here at the eighth, we are at last on more stable ground where one wends back and forth and a steady intake of breath can be re-established.
This part of the course was changed in the 1950s and provides a particularly good par four twelfth and hittable par five fourteenth where the view is to die for. It is likely, that having Frank Pennink as an honorary member, he helped advise on these changes.
Many trees have grown up across the heathland Manor in the last hundred years and though the Club was fortunate that none of the ground was ploughed up during either world war, not all of these trees are a blessing.
The tenth green (like the fourth green) is tucked away in a corner, crowded around by trees. It is not a surprise to read in the Club’s enjoyable centenary history brochure both that advice was sensibly taken from the greatest ever agronomist, Jim Arthur, nor that he recommended a relaying of both these greens.
I can’t see how, from my amateur perspective, these greens with lack of air and sun can ever be up to the standard maintained elsewhere on the course.
The greens are in just two naturally damp spots and tree-huggers among the club membership are doubtless the culprits.
However, if only they would understand that the real environmentally conservationist approach is to re-establish more of the original open heathland, and gain airflow over the greens to help dry them out, matters would be improved.
Hanging onto deciduous trees on this course is not going to do anything for saving the planet but merely undermine the beautiful heather and promote annual meadow grass (Poa annua) with its concomitant requirement for lots of costly fertiliser, water and pesticides.
Having said that, the trees that were added on the outer corner of the dogleg sixteenth hole have definitely improved this Mackenzie hole which, as is usual with his designs, offers the player a strategic dilemma of risk/reward. This hole is called ‘Slaughtermans’ after the ghyll, or stream, flowing at the bottom of the gully over which one has to drive, the scene of a once famous and bloody fight between the Revenue and some smugglers.
There are interestingly a number of bunkers across the course, some of which have been grassed-in and may be renovated as part of a major review the club is undertaking, that look more Coltish than Mackenzie like.
This major review I am assured will focus on opening up the heathland with appropriate tree removal and initiating heather regeneration. The recent STRI agronomist’s report says that the course is in the best state that he has seen for the last 25 years and these changes can only further improve the percentage content of the fine grasses and thereby the further enjoyment of all levels of golfer.
There are a number of good par four finishing holes of grand design that come to mind (as at, say, Moortown and Moray) and Crowborough’s 440 yard upsloping eighteenth also delivers a fine finish, playing its every yard and finishing in front of an imposing clubhouse with its large overlooking terrace.
Apart from the short holes every green, perhaps with the exception of the fifth and sixteenth with their high shelves, can be approached with a running shot to naturally flat greens. These greens were originally built to hold water underneath and to this day continue to do their job of supporting fine grasses and firm greens which can be enjoyed by all levels of golfer.
The bump-and-run shot choice from natural undulations and heather hummocks around the greens, is the best percentage shot, while the subtlety of the old greens comprise “all sorts of teasing and little runs and borrows which at first are hard to see but”, as Bernard Darwin in the 1920s observed, continuing “there is no doubt that the ball will go in if it be truly and bravely struck”. It is not possible to do anything but admire Darwin’s great prose but on Poole’s fine greens I would prefer to use the word ‘rolled-out’ rather than ‘struck’.
The Club has always possessed an ‘upmarket’ membership and until recently a thriving artisan section called ‘The De La Warr’ which over the years produced as many top golfers as the ‘Canteloupe’ at neighbouring Royal Ashdown Forest. Both clubs have ‘Holmes’ as secretaries, the more senior club having the nephew to Crowborough’s Uncle! FineGolf much appreciates both of their’s strong support.
My own knowledge of the friendly Tankard family epitomises the Crowborough ‘spirit’ to me and Charles, with whom I was at school, has, like his father Toby, embodied much of the character to the Club; he has been an ideal chairman of green to Mike Poole. -Mike’s the professional and let him get on with it, while helping communicate with the membership the long term vision for which they seek.
In conclusion how can I possibly sum up the course better than the great Bernard Darwin? So I finish with a further of his quotes:
“The first things that will strike the golfer who comes fresh to Crowborough is the wonderful view. I do not suppose there is a wider or more beautiful one in all England. The holes are extraordinarily characteristic and easy to remember, all of them possess some dramatic and memorable feature.”
Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2012
I visited Crowborough recently. Views to die for are a plenty. In fact I have never played a course with such beautiful views. Friendly welcome from the pro and one of the best clubhouses with excellent catering to finish. A lovely day all round.On July 7th, 2014 Ken Barber Said:
I was the Head Greenkeeper at Crowborough Beacon back in the 80’s. Jim Arthur was my agronomist and together we worked hard at encouraging the fine grasses and the running game. I always have fond memories of my time there as well as playing golf.