And then there is Rye
Golf's Pastoral Symphony...
“A picture paints a thousand words” - Fred R. Barnard
There is always this sense of arrival at Rye. Not in the same way as some clubs, where you feel the intentional grandeur in the polished gates. It is, like most things here, different…subtler.
The approaching roads are so unassuming it’s easy to imagine you’ve taken a wrong turn somehow, but then the tarmac sweeps left, and you spot the wind turbines up ahead, and before long an old building appears above a dusty car park. As you turn off the engine and walk up the gravel path, it is like passing through some secret portal into a different realm, where golf is the central point of life, and you are invited to fall under some magnificent spell.
There are, of course, a number of headlines about Rye that many are aware of. The occasional guest will arrive with some knowledge of what to look out for, but it is hard to put into words just what an experience - what a privilege - it is to play there and see these things for yourself.
The course has some classic holes, which would interest the serious player and the architecture student, such as the narrow, perched fourth (pictured above), or the challenging thirteenth, which my host describes as “almost impossible”. You might also marvel at the routing, which deploys a central, diagonal dune as a feature on many of the holes, or the way the course is always changing direction to utilise the ever-present breeze.
You could be charmed, or perhaps confused, by the tiny ridges of sleepers that appear at the side of a few greens and nowhere else on the planet, which occasionally prohibit the long approach putt that is vital to playing well here. I’ve heard these called “Ryebrows” of late, and while I doubt the locals have adopted that term, they do appear to indicate a frown in the direction of errant strokes, of which I play many.
These features are cited as part of the “quirkiness” of Rye, but as I reflect on my latest visit, I wonder if the outside world has it all wrong. Perhaps, in its alluring simplicity, and idiosyncratic style, it is this thing called Rye - this collection of kindred spirits with a love of the pure game - who are right, and the rest of us are the quirked ones, following other clubs’ stylistic prompts like the sheep across Camber Road.
The finest golf writer there ever was, Bernard Darwin, lived here towards the end of his charmed life. You’ll notice the odd person smuggle out their phone to take a discrete photo of his leather armchair or the plaque that remembers him on the windowsill. Bernardo called New Zealand Golf Club - surely a distant cousin of Rye in its ambience - “sui generis”, which the Latin scholars amongst you know roughly translates as “in a class by itself”, but if there was ever a course, a club, a place that deserves that label it must surely be here, at Rye.
We move on with other features that get talked about - the traditional dress code, the emphasis on “proper lunch”, the extraordinary winter playing conditions, and the turf - that incredibly firm, dry, strong turf - that resists your blade as you try to pinch the ball from it.
Or the rustic but always welcoming Clubhouse, which can feel like a retreat after the rigours of this exposed and magical links. It is not hard to imagine Darwin holding court from his chair, with his cohorts around him, as they peer out at the landscape that envelopes this quiet corner of Sussex.
Most of the golf here is in the form of matches, often foursomes, but the most famous competition at Rye - The President’s Putter - is singles matchplay between the members of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society, and this will go ahead each January come rain or shine. Or fog or hail. Or frost or even snow, with the single exception of 1979, when presumably the white blanket must have been deeper than 1.62mm.
Apart from that, only the war and the pandemic lockdown of 2021 has stopped play in this event since its inaugural staging in 1920, and if you look carefully, the fifth ball hanging from the warped hickory shaft of the original Putter - donated by the then President of the society, John Low - is the winning sphere of Darwin himself, a few yards from his customary perch.
There is enough history to explore at Rye to not have time for golf at all, but if there is one thing that is most striking about this wonderful Club, it is that nothing - not even the endless archives and photos and details - are important enough to stop golf taking precedence. Golf remains the central reason to be here, and a reproduction photograph of the Club in the late forties - the roof still unrepaired after bomb damage, and the players without clubhouse facilities for several years - shows how secondary such considerations are round here.
We drain our coffee, and head out the door, and on this February day we are blessed with the sun, though the turbines that lie to our left are gathering pace as we start that familiar, southerly move towards the third green. It will be mild, and dry, all day, but the weather is rarely an impediment at Rye; just part of the immersion in this elemental golfing environment.
We are first off, and set the pace by haring round the course, as is the custom here. I soon become conditioned to the sound of the wind in my ears, and as we work our way around this genial routing, leaving the rest of life behind, other sensory information gathers around me. Under this vast sky, the treeless links seems so spacious, and the fresh, salty air of the breeze off the Channel clears away the cobwebs in seconds.
Golf here is stripped bare of the usual baggage and furniture of inland golf, and I marvel at the symphony of different sounds that drift around. One moment it is the jangling masts of the boats in the nearby harbour; the next the insistent cry of the herring gulls. It happens to be the week when the skylarks have arrived, blown across by the same stiff breeze that holds my ball short of the seventh, somehow leaving me between yet another set of sleepers and a hellish bunker.
Later, we will strike the brass bell beside the thirteenth green, which indicates that the leap of faith that is the second shot over the vast dune behind us is now safe to attempt, and while the following group is now several holes back, and will never hear the reverberating echoes, the sound grabs me like a meditation bell, returning me from thoughts of elsewhere back to the matter in hand - soaking up the glory of this game, this sacred place.
As my host plays crisp iron shots from the immaculate fairways, I stare across this soft green and brown oasis, the fescues blowing in the wind, and it occurs to me that it is as pleasant to look at as any watercolour could ever be. The collaborative work of the architects, greenkeepers, and Mother Nature over many decades, Rye is as timeless and artistic a sight as there is in golf, those pastel colours and long shadows so beautifully natural.
Here, in and amongst the slowly shifting sands of England’s coast, lies something so precious. It is, to paraphrase my host, “almost impossibly” fine; a sublime time capsule from a simpler age, and a monument to all that is valuable about this game. Fifteen years after I first stepped onto this masterpiece, I suddenly realise that it is, without a shadow of doubt, my favourite place in golf. Where else could the irresistable sense of humour that pervades the Clubhouse coalesce with such a clear manifestation of the original game? Where the hard bounces and firm approaches are complemented by a “wine” list for kummel alone?
I imagine Darwin, whose work has delivered a million smiles to golfers all over the world, sitting in that chair of his, and peering out at this same view, and I wonder if even he, that master of language, felt it was wasteful to use mere words in the face of what lay before him. Somehow, as my jacket flaps in the wind and my irons clink together, this picture in front of me is worth so much more than I could ever explain.
I’ve no idea who Fred R. Barnard was, and I’m too busy thinking about Rye to look it up, but if he was standing in the middle of the fifteenth fairway when he coined the above quote, I know exactly what he meant. I have tried to put the happiness of another day on the links into a thousand words, and failed, by some degree; this being a little over fifteen hundred by now. Editing has not been a strength of mine, to date. But no words could adequately describe how I feel as I soak in the view on this glorious, glorious day.
There is this thing - this game, this hobby, this passion - that is golf, and it is varied and marvellous. And then there is Rye.
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