- Neil White
“I would be delighted to introduce you to Rye,” said a member over a glass of Kümmel after we had shared a round at Royal St George’s.
“But if you and your wife want to play I won’t be able to join you because the club only allows foursomes and two-balls.”
In two sentences the bonhomie and tradition of Rye were summed up. We have never received a warmer welcome on our travels nor have we found a club quite as fascinating.
Oh, and how good is the course! I thought it was stunning and Mrs W claimed it was her favourite so far (she was judging it against the likes of Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, St. Enodoc, Castle Stuart and Royal Cinque Ports).
People in the town had told us the club was “very posh” and the folk at the rather lovely Royal Cinque Ports said we were “slumming it” by going there after we had played Rye.
Future kings (Edward VIII and George VI) and Prime Ministers (Balfour and Lloyd George) have been members at Rye and its patrons retain the love of lunch (sticking on a jacket and tie or female equivalent for some nosh post, pre or between rounds) is simply what you do.
The nuances of the club were obvious from our arrival. The pro shop is next to the dormy house across the road from the clubhouse but we paid our guests’ fees behind the bar where we received the friendliest of greetings before being handed our scorecard.
We ate bacon rolls and coffee on a table next to the seat of famed golf travel writer Bernard Darwin, bequeathed by his grandfather Charles.
Sitting in the bar is akin to being in a museum with memorabilia of past battles, especially between Oxford and Cambridge golf societies, adorning the walls.
The course continued a theme – top-notch presentation and deliciously quirky.
Three and fourballs are played only through special dispensation but while we appreciated the desire for brisk pace, we also wanted to soak up the fabulous lay-out.
Rye may only be a par-68 but that and the relatively easy opening hole (it’s only par-five) should not fool anyone. With the wind blowing off the English Channel, it is very tough to score well.
The opening three holes are hors d’oeuvres to some of the classics to come but the need to beware of the tangly rough is already clear from the opening tee shot to a fairway which leans from right to left.
The Camber sandhills play a key part at Rye and the undulations become more dramatic as the round progresses.
The course has been modified since the original Harry Colt design but there are plenty of raised greens, blind tee shots and intriguing doglegs which became his hallmark.
In my opinion, the first of the particularly memorable holes is the 6th with its drive over a huge dune followed by a long approach to green, well-guarded by bunkers. I was thrilled to nail a par-four.
I was not so fortunate on the 9th which, at less than 300 yards first appears to be an innocuous bending par-four.
However, I can attest to its hidden dangers, having lost two balls into rough off the elevated tee.
The true delight of playing at Rye is that I could see how almost every hole could be somebody’s favourite.
I was enamoured of the 10th – a dogleg demanding a decent carry from the tee and long second with bushes on the left and also the 11th with a lake on the right which threatened to snaffle balls wandering down the right.
But the crescendo was reached on the remarkable 13th with a green hidden over a huge ridge. Only the most skilful of golfers could play this as a par-four but everyone can enjoy its wonder – indeed, its idiosyncrasies have only been matched in my experience by the remarkable 7th at Broadstone.
The 16th is another par-four which tests accuracy and length off the tee, luring players down into trouble on the right where I can imagine the green staff giggling at misfortunes in their hut.
The difficulty is intensified at Rye because it is not a straightforward links, changing direction regularly and prompting players to think constantly about the wind direction.
It was against us on the 17th – a par-three of more than 200 yards which I was particularly pleased to par and similarly in the 18th, an incredibly tough finishing hole which rises before bending down to a trick-to-read putting surface.
I have reserved mention of the greens until last. They (and the fairways) were in spectacular shape during the last week of October.
The targets seem big but it is so easy to misjudge and find a run-off into a swale. And, while the surfaces are true, the greens have borrows which can defy the eye.
Rye summed up why I love the top 100 quest - history, drama, great views and lovely people. If the opportunity arises to play there, take it.