In England at least, Rye is the epitome of old-fashioned links golf. And in much the same way that a dog often resembles its owner, this eccentric, unique, beguiling, unconventional, traditional and uncompromising course is very much reflected in the clubhouse and membership. Rye is home to the President’s Putter, a scratch knockout for Cambridge and Oxford alumni, that is held every January and delights in such apparent perversity. Each year, the great and the good stock up on woolly hats, hip flasks and roll-necks and head down to this corner of East Sussex, close to the Kent border.
While visitors are now accepted, the form is to do so in writing and, preferably, well in advance. This is a significant advancement; for many years, the only way to play here was at the invitation of a member.
Play on the Old course is strictly twoballs only, so you have a straight choice of foursomes or singles. Pace of play is a subject close to the club’s heart and you should certainly not expect to spend much longer than three hours on the links.
Steeped in history, Bernard Darwin, the legendary golf writer, was captain here twice, once in 1906 and then exactly 50 years later. He lived in a flat overlooking the course until his death.
Rye was the first course designed by Harry Colt, then a solicitor aged just 25. This was in 1895 and what a debut it was. Since then, refinements have been carried out by Tom Simpson and Sir Guy Campbell, largely to obviate the need to cross an increasingly busy road to play holes on the far side.
All this work was carried out before the Second World War, and since then the only notable changes to the Old course have come in the form of new tees to add length.
Rye is rightly famous for its short holes, the second shots to which are described as the hardest on the course, meaning that you should miss the greens at your peril.
Even from the back tees, the course measures under 6,300 yards. Yet it is regarded by some as the hardest in England. How so? Well, the first thing to consider is a parsimonious par of 68.
There is only a solitary par 5, and as this is also the 1st hole, for many it will come too early in the round to take advantage. Of the 12 par 4s, nine exceed 400 yards and only two are under 385.
In addition, Rye is rightly famous for its short holes, the second shots to which are described as the hardest on the course, meaning that you should miss the greens at your peril.
They are often played to table-top greens and defended by an unusual but effective means, namely rows of short, vertical sleepers, which preclude the use of a putter and demand mastery of the wedge.
Two ridges of dunes form a backbone for the course, a little like at Hunstanton, and play is generally through valleys between them, from one high point to another and even, on two occasions, starting at one side of a ridge and finishing on the other.
The fairways are rumpled and so a flat stance is a luxury. By and large, the wind is across, which is always more difficult to cope with than a headwind.
As James Finnegan puts it in his book All Courses Great and Small: “This triple harassment – length, topography, wind – produces a sternly exacting course.”
In the summer, Rye gets brown, fast and firm like almost nowhere else. Controlling the ball is an art form in such conditions, especially on holes like the incredibly awkward 4th, where the fairway takes the form of a hog’s back and anything slightly off target is callously propelled into rough hollows.
After a relatively quiet beginning, this is the hole where the fun really begins. A fine short hole follows before a rare intrusion of technology at the stroke-one 6th, where a traffic light system is employed to let those on the tee know the fairway is clear.
A draw is required to follow the shape of the hole and only the best will find the green in two. Next comes what is arguably Rye’s finest par 3. Played slightly uphill to a raised green, find a bunker on either side and you will be unable to see much, if any, of the flag.
When the green gets hard and firm, it is all too easy to chip from one side and off the other. The front nine ends with a driveable short 4, but the angles are awkward and the target narrow, so many will exercise caution and aim to pitch on instead.
If the 10th and 11th have more of an inland feel, the latter played across a flooded gravel pit, things get back to normal quickly at the stern 12th, another long 4, before you prepare to cross the spine of dunes again.
The drive is straightforward enough, then you must take aim and fire into oblivion, though the green on the other side is mercifully generous and unprotected.
Missing the short 14th to the right will bring more sleepers into play and the rumpled green at the 16th complicates what would otherwise be a relatively simple approach.
Some believe the 17th to be the poorest as well as the longest of the short holes but in its defence it is hard to imagine many good shots going unrewarded.
Finally, aim must be taken at the clubhouse on the 18th, which is always disconcerting, but it is well out of range and the lie of the land will sweep the ball away to the right of it. It is a long shot in but at least a helpful bounce forward can be anticipated towards and hopefully on to the home green.