Rye, East Sussex
The Twelve Days of Christmas, #2
(This series is neither well planned or coherent. What it is, though, is the result of spending a few spare hours at Christmas 2021 looking through some recently located files of pictures, and thinking about my golfing journey to this point. I’ve been lucky to have played in some pretty special places, and made some lasting connections along the way, and year end seems as good a time to reflect back on a dozen of these as any. Who knows, it might inspire me to plan a few more exploratory trips for 2022…)
Some golf courses grab you on the first attempt, while others grow on you over time, their charms revealing themselves slowly, like a shy introvert. And once in a while, a course does both - a love at first sight then enhanced by the passage of time, and by further exploration. It always feels as if the degree to which my memory latches on to particular views or specific holes is worth observing here - if I struggle to recall the layout, or the overall feel of that first encounter, it suggests a certain “meh”.
With Rye, opening the photos from that debut visit to one of the world’s most revered links brings recollections of all kinds of aspects flooding back, and I have to edit heavily to reduce this to something vaguely readable. I recall the glare of the sun on the winding road out of town; the cars parked along the side, families overflowing from nearby Camber Sands; and the stifling, shimmering heat of this still day, in a car without air conditioning, or a functioning stereo.
In the summer heatwave of 2006, this trip to the ultimate winter course was different. My suncream was powerless against the brutal sun, with only faint whispers of cloud in the sky, and barely any of the coastal winds that exacerbate the challenge here on most other days. The recommendation to urgently visit Rye had come from golfclubatlas.com, and I remember thinking that after a two hour drive in these conditions, the course itself would need to be spectacular. It was; a first experience of this defiantly rustic wonder the start of a lasting relationship with a very special place.
The course threw me out heading south towards the sea, each green and tee like mirages of lush grass amidst an otherwise straw like landscape. An enormous ridged dune that seems to divide the Old Course in two started out to my right, then I played back along it - the unashamedly difficult 4th running its entire length atop it like a tightrope walker. Later, I’d play into it, over it, and through it, green sites hidden in the humps and hollows, the genius of several architectural giants visible at every turn.
The routing felt so natural, with stunning views across the links and beyond, and all the while the ball bounced hard and fast around hollow-sounding turf that was in hibernation, lying dormant until the rains came. This wasn’t my first exposure to links golf, but it was the first time I’d played a course like this - if there is another course like this - with an architecture or agronomy lens on.
Far from the stripes and definition of the inland courses, the presentation here was deliberately minimal, and the contrast magnificent. On these sands, the fine grasses flourish, and in the sward of each green any number of species displayed differently, depending on their drought tolerance on this harsh, windless day, but the experience of the ball roll eclipsed all expectation. Rye was burned out in places, but it played like it always does, as a shining example of what the game is all about, with tight lies and firm conditions requiring imagination, and a running game in good order.
And in the make-up of the individual holes, there were little details that just tie this whole picture together. The pot bunkers well away from the line of intent, with steps for ease of access to indicate that on a windy day, they are in play; the fine wire on the back of the benches to protect these welcome perches from guano; the sleepered shoulders beside several of the greens, whose presence I recently heard referred to as “Rye-brows”. I’d always wondered what to call them.
This element of quirk is a large part of the appeal here, and while several times I’ve heard people say they just didn’t “get” Rye, I don’t find any judgement in my reaction, but just a gratitude that I do get it, for my golfing life would feel a good deal poorer without this occasional and long-term relationship to consider, and cherish.
This process of first getting to know a golf course feels like I’d imagine speed-dating might - chucking out the key constituents early on, to save time, but with a more intimate understanding possible as the conversation builds. With Rye, as with a handful of others, it has been both an initial intoxication and a slow-burn on top, as I came to learn more about this beacon of traditional values.
As Patric Dickinson said (quoted in the golfclubatlas review that led to this initial journey) Rye is one of a “few which combine and gather into one place so many of those qualities which make the game of golf unique”, and this word unique could have been made for this place, busy protecting itself from decay or interference in a quiet corner of East Sussex.
The great golf writer Bernard Darwin lived at his beloved Rye for several years towards the end of his life, and while he deployed the term “Sui generis” (rough translation “in a class by itself”) about New Zealand Golf Club, he could easily have assigned it to Rye, whilst peering out of the window from that famous leather seat in the bar.
The road home from the coast was just as long as on the way there, and the air inside that black Peugeot blisteringly hot on my sunburnt forearms, but I don’t think the smile of this first flirtation with Rye left my face in those two hours, and perhaps a glimmer of it has stayed there ever since. This “Twelve Days of Christmas” nonsense is about recalling a few days that left an indelible mark on my golfing journey and the glorious memories of 19th July 2006 will last me out. The links had made their mark.
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