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Rye

Yardage
6497
Par
68
SSS
71
Built
1894
Architect(s)
Harry Colt, Frank Arnold, Tom Simpson, Sir Guy Campbell
Nature:
Traditional, foursomes Club, with fine grassed, running-golf links and 5 superb par threes.
Location/Address:
On the Camber Road by Romney Marsh in East Sussex. TN31 7QS
http://www.ryegolfclub.co.uk/
Secretary
Jimmy James
Telephone
01797 225241
Professional
Matthew Holland
Green Keeper
Alan Banks & Garth Grand
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Access Policy:
By approval of the Secretary
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs welcome
Open Meetings:
Bernard Darwin in March
Fees in 1960s
75p
Fees today
£140

Review

 

There are many fascinating aspects to Rye Golf Club that I will, with trepidation, attempt to explore. It does as a club represent more purely than most other clubs, traditional golf, and in its essence it represents so much of what  FineGolf stands for.

Therefore one has to step carefully in not being too effusive in my praise but maintain an objectivity and like Denis Vidler’s amusing and well written book ‘Rye Golf Club, the first 90 years’, adhere to the truth.

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Dexter in front of 9th & 18th greens and clubhouse. Click to enlarge

Since Rye has remained a two-ball course only and with predominantly foursomes being played (at least this is so for the men, with the women playing more single competitions) and having seldom saught a connection to the ‘professional’ golf world and associated media coverage, it is likely that for the majority of golfers, Rye is a rare experience, in a similar way to Royal West Norfolk.

Unlike Perranporth in Cornwall, whose course and agronomy FineGolf puts on a pedestal of traditional ’joy to be alive’ merits, Rye has from its first days been led by those with upper class, establishment connections and its history reflects the advantages and disadvantages of this culture.

While emphasising the warm and well mannered welcome the Club gives to all visitors and particular some of the leading golfing societies, Vidler is not afraid of quoting a quite terrified ‘errant golfer’ of 1929 who starts his description of the Club with “ This is not a Golf Club. It is a mullioned castle, albeit of wood and corrugated iron, with a frowning portcullis of Vested Interest, which closes it against the vulgar golfing world. The golf itself, from its first to its last fateful tee, is superb – with a quiet, grave dignity, an aloofness, an atmosphere of pained, well-bred tolerance towards the nervous non-member.”

rye golf club, dexter, tom simpson, frank arnold, sir guy campbell

Par three fourteenth

I see from my golf diary I first played Rye’s Old Course ‘in shirt sleeves’ back in April 1966 but did not play Frank Pennink’s Rye Jubilee course, opened in 1979, until 2016.

A couple of years ago when playing the Old, I popped over onto the Jubilee’s third green from the Old’s eighth tee. I found a green not only with  an interesting surface and  pleasing, well-cut contoured run-offs but the agronomy was almost 100% fescues and so, when the opportunity arose to combine playing both courses, I signed up for the English Hickory Championship in 2016 run by the British Golf Collectors Society.

rye golf club, dexter, tom simpson, frank arnold, sir guy campbell

Members playing to the sixteenth

The Old’s greens are known for the high quality of their winter firmness and trueness of putting but actually, despite being predominantly fescue/browntop bent fine grasses, they also contain quite a lot else and do not attain the Jubilee’s quite outstanding quality. The difference, as Alan Banks (with 41 years service) and Garth Grand (with 31 years service), Rye’s joint course managers (Garth’s two brothers are course managers locally at Littlestone and North Foreland) remarked to me, it may have something to do, in terms of compaction and wear, with the difference in the number of rounds played across the two courses.

We played the Jubilee off white tees of 5834 yards though the back, blue tees extend it to 6363 yards which is only 134 yards shorter than the Old’s back tees. Add to this the jungle rough on the Jubilee in contrast to the mostly perfect wispy fescue/bent rough on the Old and though it is across easier, flatter ground, you will realise the considerable challenge the Jubilee poses. It is much more than just a family holiday course, possessing twelve holes and eighteen significantly different tees.

rye golf club, dexter, tom simpson, frank arnold, sir guy campbell

A young Harry Colt

The Old course has gone through many dramatic changes from its 1893 start with Harry Colt, secretary here for three years to 1897, laying out the first established eighteen holes. Colt may have had the creative ideas, but it was apparently the Rev. J.L. Bates’ energy and determination and ability to get things done which translated those ideas into fact. This was Colt’s first course design in a prolific career as one of the foremost architects of the ‘Golden Era of strategic course design’.

An important part of the Club’s heritage is that throughout its life this club has been blessed with long-serving employees, and of particular mention are: A.H. Simpson, the professional from 1918 to 1946 throughout which, with inflation unknown, he was paid a £1 retainer per week. He also used part of this £1 to employ an assistant, who in the mid-twenties was the young Henry Cotton, who later became Open Champion and a knight. Helen Kirkpatrick who invented the ‘Buttered Eggs’ for which Rye is renowned; the Oaks (stewards for 27 years); Blower Pierce, the caddy (more of him later) and most importantly Frank Arnold, head greenkeeper (previously at Aberdovey) from 1929 to 1973 until his retirement at age 80, from whose memoirs Denis Vidler was able to write more on the importance of greenkeeping to the club than any other of the numerous centenary books I have read.

The sliding eighth

The sliding eighth

Two lessons might be learnt from this: the importance firstly, that good greenkeepers acquire the skills of communication, these days so important with their golfing memberships; and secondly that Rye, like all the finest clubs, recognises greenkeeping professionalism as crucial to the membership’s enjoyment.

Arnold’s initial view of Rye is recorded as being “a first class course, the condition not a patch on the holiday course at Aberdovey. Fairways just stones and star-weeds and the greens a mixture of all the meadow grasses Poa annua, Ryegrass and Yorkshire fog”.  The stones may have been a bit of an exaggeration but as they say, when you can recognise a problem you are halfway to solving it. Arnold in addition had a major leather-jacket plague to curb, when he arrived at Rye.

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The sixth hole with Dexter

Over the next few years, the partnership of Nathaniel Lloyd (Chairman of  Green) and Arnold were successful in turning the course condition round. Already in the 1930s ‘expert’ siren voices, including R.B.Dawson from the Bingley research station, were proclaiming the virtues of chemical fertilising of greens to stimulate growth. It was fortunate their combined knowledge appreciated that such over stimulation would be fatal for fescue grass. Arnold used “a gentle organic manure sparingly applied to restore the humus loss to the greens from cutting and wear and tear”. The result of this policy is that ninety years on and continued by Trevor Ockenden, head greenkeeper from 1972 to 2006, the Rye greens still consist in the main of red fescue. These offer to the golfer putting surfaces cut at 4.5 mm in the summer which remain both bouncy and smooth and remarkably firm and fast in the winter. Pitch marks on greens are not often more than a merest slight indentation at Rye.

The Club has decided recently to add an automatic watering system for the fairways. This decision was met with some scepticism among the membership as they enjoy their brown running fairways, when it doesn’t rain and since installation there is no doubt they have been greener these last two years. Nevertheless I am advised that this has allowed a major fescue over-seeding of the course with the young seedlings enjoying the moisture control now at Garth’s behest. As these young fescues mature and the fairway grass cover knits together, we will see if the fairways are allowed to brown-off ever again!

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

Frank Arnold operating the scoop in course construction

All of the extensive changes to the course were done in-house by Arnold’s team, working closely with golf architect Tom Simpson in the thirties and Sir Guy Campbell in the fifties. These changes were driven essentially by the need to take account of the increasing number of cars on the Camber road and the amount of damage suffered by the front nine holes during the Second World War.

Should the club decide to put names to their holes, I recommend that one be called ‘Frank Arnold’. The only other golf hole named after a greenkeeper in the whole of the UK is the eleventh at Carnoustie in honour of John Philp, who by leading the change of grass back from weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua) to fine fescue/browntop bent brought The Open Championship back to Carnoustie in 1999 after a twenty one year absence. Arnold should be seen as one of in the  great greenkeepers such as John Philp M.B.E. (Newmarket/St Andrews/Carnoustie), Walter Woods (Notts(Hollinwell)/St Andrews), Billy Mitchell (Perranporth),  James King (luffness New), George Thompson (Goswick), Mark Broughton (Aldeburgh), Chris Whittle (St Annes Old Links/Muirfield/Royal Birkdale),  John Muir (West Lancashire), James” Shaig” Logan B.E.M. (Muirfield) and of course Old Tom Morris (Prestwick/St Andrews).  A controversial list to create but well worthwhile, if based on those greenkeepers who have successfully managed fine grasses over a decent period of time and who have had the courage to create an environment for running-golf. Those with further ideas of additions please do be in touch at lorne@finegolf.co.uk  so a full Pantheon of the Finest Greenkeepers can be assembled.

Colt’s course crossed this road in three places when the road itself was hardly used, because golfers preferred to arrive by the Camber tram. In a similar way to Western Gailes, Ayrshire, using this mode of transport added greatly to the camaraderie among the membership in early days.

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Playing to the raised third green

Tom Simpson, one of the most creative of golf course architects in the Golden Era, gave us today the teasingly birdie-able ninth hole (300 yards), the raised third green (437 yards) – though amended later by Sir Guy Campbell – the doglegged tenth (442/420 yards), the par three seventeenth (245/222 yards), the present sixteenth (437/419 yards) and eighteenth (439 yards) tees and the par three fourteenth (184 yards). However, Sir Guy Campbell later opened up the approach to the fourteenth, and added the diabolically brilliant sleepers on the right of the green. If Simpson ever saw these sleepers he would have applauded, as they confuse the mind in the way so much of his own work demanded imagination from the golfer’s play.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

The hogs-back fourth fairway

Sir Guy Campbell created the present first hole, the only par five at 481 yards on the course and the famous ‘marmite, loved by match players or hated by card and pencil players’ hogs-back fourth (440/411 yards), the testing sixth (468 yards), where a par four feels like a birdie, the sliding dogleg eighth (442/388 yards) with its seemingly innocent drive that needs to be precise to avoid losing length on the left or being caught by bumps on the right, with the ridge running in echelon across the fairway. And finally the tenth green (442/420 yards) with its hidden and deceptive front swale.

The beautiful seventh

The beautiful seventh

It was the club secretary Major Tippett working with Arnold in the late forties, who created the par three second (180 yards), of which, with its deep bunkers, I am advised a bump-and-run from the front bank is the clever play. Also the seventh (159 yards), the short par three often seen in photographs depicting the course, is theirs and apart from hitting the right club, at the right angle and direction depending on the ever present, normally right to left wind at the top of the dune, I am not aware that anything apart from attaining the tiny green is clever here!

The present layout of the course with five par threes and one par five, giving a par of 68 and SSS of 71, has remained unchanged since Frank Arnold retired, with just a few tweaks to some bunkers and tees.

The membership from early days had a large number of Parliamentarians, including two Prime Ministers, Balfour and Lloyd George, and a colonial secretary, Alfred Lyttleton.  A little later one of Churchill’s War Ministers, Oliver Lyttleton, later Lord Chandos, played an incredibly important leadership role at the Club over a long period, becoming its president in 1945. The Club also possessed in even greater numbers, members of the legal profession. The Bar Golfing Society continues to play here though it is the Oxford and Cambridge University Golfers who have been most influential.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

Seventeenth green from 18th tee

Judge Horace Avory, who was president from 1914 to 1935, is described as a terrifying character whom nobody dared to oppose and who frequently slowed down the making of many necessary decisions!

Despite the eminence of the above among the membership, at this juncture allow me to digress and refer to two instances when Rye’s ability to bring about influence was twice ineffective.

The first occasion was when in the 1920/30s the Club offered honorary membership to two Royals who both accepted and each subsequently became King, George VI and Edward VIII. However, following a request by the Club president, Rye was judged unqualified to be granted Royal patronage. Perhaps His Majesty just did not like the ring of ‘Royal Rye’?

The second was the Club’s devastating inability, along with a combination of several wildlife, environmental and local inhabitants groups and all democratically elected representatives, to prevent in 2009 the building of twenty-six subsidised, gigantic wind turbines close to the course on Romney Marsh. This cacophony of whirling scissors dominates the view from across the course. It is not surprising that the Club understandably seeks to play down the impact of this construction; you will not find any image on the Club’s website portraying a turbine in the background.

 

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The views from this links course have never been dramatic, due to the presence of the surrounding marshland, unlike at many other links courses, and the sea can only be glimpsed from a couple of  tees high in the dunes.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

Bernard Darwin in the rain

There are too many famous amateur golfers who have loved Rye to mention them all, but Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers in the golden era (1900 to 1930s), was a member and highly supportive of the Club throughout his life. He spent many weekends staying in the ‘Billy’ dormy house towards the end of his life and the Club honoured him by appointing him captain a second time, fifty years after his first appointment and in his eightieth year.

His enthusiastic description of the eighteen holes up to 1932 in Denis Vidler’s book is  heart-felt and with only six of them unaltered significantly or disappeared, this allows me, if you will permit, to crib Darwin’s take on those six here.

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Par three fifth

The fifth (171 yards) “A truly noble hole it is – from a high tee across a chasm to a plateau green, with a drop into nothingness on either side of it. How the wind can blow on that tee, blow especially on our backs so that we tumble on our noses and slice to glory. This is a really great short hole”.

It should be added that the green has sunk a little over the years from its more convex shape in Darwin’s time and so perhaps today’s slightly over-enthusiastic putt does not so often end down in the valley where the green was originally created, before R.H de Montmorency, an Eton master, suggested a move to the top of the hill in 1907.

The eleventh (324 yards) “A capital second to a plateau green, having a magnetic cabbage patch on its left flank, a bunkered hollow in front and a baby railway line behind”.

The finances of the Club have veered at times to the quite perilous and as well as solid support from the local Lloyds Bank over a long period, the ability to sell gravel extraction rights did help keep things afloat. The lake that is now in front of the eleventh tee that squeezes the drive here, is another benefit of the gravel extraction.

The Twelfth hole (460/420 yards) “A good four, with a natural plateau green well guarded on either hand by the natural fall of the land”.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

The dune to be summounted for the 13th hole second shot.

The Thirteenth hole (430 yards) “The drive is, as regards room, comparatively simple; the second is awful. The ground is hard, flat and unfriendly. I know of no brassy shot I fear more or miss oftener. It is played over an imposing range of sandhills into space. We pass up the mountains to see a vast green surrounded by a sea wall”. It was Clement Archer, chairman of green in 1907 who moved the green over the dune to transform this hole. At that time, because at high tide the sea lapped the sea wall around the new green, some called it ‘Clement’s Folly’. Darwin who supported the change, wrote about it as ‘Archer’s field’ and subsequently with the sea receeding, it has stayed.

(I note that coincidentally, both Burnham & Berrow and Rye have built wonderful second courses on ground from which the sea has gradually retreated within the last century. Sea levels perhaps are not so alarmingly rising everywhere as some would have us believe).

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

The fifteenth green from behind

The Fifteenth hole (458/425 yards). “A very good two shot hole with rough and broken country everywhere where we ought not to go”.

The Sixteenth hole (437/419 yards) “As fine a hole as can be found. We had better not think too much about fours but take a five and be thankful”.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

The eighteenth tee, with sixteenth green behind

The Eighteenth hole (439 yards). It was 320 yards in length in Darwin’s day with a drive over a mammoth sleepered bunker from a tee sited down on the level of the seventeenth green. Now that the tee is on top of the dune, let us take his quote from the fairway “our second is along a fairly narrow alley-way to the green. If we hook we shall bombard the Clubhouse windows which are barred against our attack, and if we slice – but I do not want to be an alarmist. At any rate it is a great hole and a great ending to a great course”.

Every aspect of this Club is enjoyable and of  high quality. Typically, nowhere on my travels to fine running-golf courses over the past fifty or so years across GB&I, have I encountered a better short-game practice area than the original ninth green, located over the Camber Road, next to the Billy and pro shop.

Bump-and-run practice from forty yards or less needs naturally quirky movement in the approach ground, as found at Rye, to confound and exercise your imagination. Rather than this being a mechanical shot, as described HERE in how to practice it, it is best played with soft hands allowing the straight-faced club to work the ball naturally with confidence.

Yes, of course everybody enjoys whacking the driver a country mile but a well-thought-out and executed bump-and-run on a running-golf course with well-cut run-offs around the green, is the real pinnacle of golfing skill and delight, while simultaneously saving more strokes than any other shot. When accomplished well it gives the ultimate golfing ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling to this writer and Rye with its inspired green complexes, gives so many opportunities to play the bump-and-run.

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The birdiable ninth in front of clubhouse

The Rye clubhouse today has a similar outline to the first temporary structure in the 1890s. Obviously there has been internal up-dating (including recovery from a bomb hitting it in the Second World War) and it provides a distinctive functional facility offering fantastic wide open views across the course. I can’t remember whether there is still 1950s  brown linoleum on any of the floors but the understated taste is a part of the culture of the Club, in comparison for example, to the décor that is reported, admittedly by a hostile media, to be found, say, in The Donald’s Tower.

Let us now return to the Oxford and Cambridge golfers who were destined to wield a far greater influence than any other body on the character of Rye. The President’s Putter singles knock-out tournament started in 1920 and has always eccentrically been held in January, attracting every decent O & C golfer of any note in the hope of having his golf ball hung from the trophy putter.

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Three British Amateur Champions, Ernest Holderness, Cyril Tolley and Roger Wethered have each had five victories and Leonard Crawley, the golf journalist, who lived in the Coastguard’s cottages behind the third green, and knew the course perhaps better than anyone, was not far behind. Gerard Micklem, the most celebrated of golf administrators, entered no less than thirty-six times.

rye golf club, tom simpson, dexter

Roger Wethered

The putter gives me a sly way of mentioning my beloved, the now late (see obituary), black Labrador, gun and golf dog, named Dexter.  He is named after my sporting hero Lord Ted, who was a double putter winner in 1983 and 85.

The Club is quite upfront in its advice to would-be members about the unique character of the organisation: it offers excellent winter golf conditions and traditional fast running summer links golf; rounds of golf are expected to take no more than three hours; individuality/eccentricity are accommodated; the two-ball foursomes format is preferred; the taking of  lunch encouraged; observing Club traditions as distinct from being merely old fashioned; ensure good relations with staff and fellow golfers alike; the Club believes a sense of brotherhood is engendered by a shared like-mindedness in a passion for all of the above.

I will finish by mentioning the story of W.G. ‘Blower’ Pierce, who started caddying from the age of nine when sandwiching caddy duties between an early morning fish delivery in Rye for his grandfather and an evening paper round in Camber. He became the most proficient of caddies and Oliver Lyttleton, who knew a good thing when he saw it, paid him a weekly retainer of 2s & 6d (12.5p in modern money) to be on call when required. Pierce was a natural games player excelling as a schoolboy at football and cricket while taking to golf like a duck to water.

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Blower and Lyttleton

While continuing to caddy he played for the Rye Artisans Golf Club. In the summer of 1939 Oliver Lyttleton, who famously liked to win, shrewdly promoted him to be his foursomes partner in a series of matches against Vidler, father and son, and Denis remarks he was not disappointed in his choice.

Blower enlisted, was captured at Dunkirk and was a POW for five years in the Sudetenland, the last six months fleeing westwards on foot, ahead of the advancing Russians.

After the war he became a member of Rye’s green staff, while dominating Sussex amateur golf tournaments and almost beating the holder of the British Amateur championship, Joe Carr in the fourth round at Royal St George’s in 1959.

His election in 1962 as an honorary member of the Rye Golf Club, in those days a singular honour extended only to a select few such as Bernard Darwin and Sir Winston Churchill, was both a tribute to him as a golfer and as a man, a mark of affection and respect from members and a celebration of his long connection with the Club. He said with justifiable pride “From caddie boy to Honorary Member, I like that”.

Rye, in so many ways, certainly gives a five star ‘joy to be alive’ feeling.