When I went to Wales, I was sure that golfers here would prove vexingly deft, as sturdy as lighthouses--masters of every foul-weather, bump-and-run trick known to man. I had the classic American inferiority complex, links version. But at Aberystwyth--a short, mild layout designed by Harry Vardon--I began to reconsider. The foursome ahead of me were gents whose weathered caps and crab apple faces bespoke years of exacting play in wind and rain. But though it was a rare sunny day, with buttercups in flower and the meadow-grass greens defenseless, these guys were stinking up the joint. I mean badly. As I bent to putt on the twelfth, a shank from the par-three thirteenth whistled by two feet from my head. I peeked up to see a banty man waving apologetically. "So sorry," he shouted, "I've got a touch of the unmentionables today."
The shanker, it turned out, was longtime club secretary Wynn Hughes. I caught up with him at the clubhouse bar, where--choosing not to dwell on his round--he preemptively argued that Aberystwyth was even more authentically Welsh than all those seaside courses. "Many of the classic Welsh links were begun for, and kept up by, all the British from the Midlands who came here on holiday," he said. "Whereas we, and places like Cardigan, have golf clubs because the indigenous people started them." He banged his pannikin. "So though we're a meadowlands course, we're just as Welsh--more so!"
The bartender called Hughes to the phone. He listened a minute, then said, "Terrible pain and discomfort, is it?Spasms in the nerve sheaths?Like a toothache in the joint, stabbing at you?Yes, yes, just so. Well, you'll just have to live with it, I'm afraid. I've lived with it myself for twenty-five years. Righty then." He returned with a bouncy step: "Where were we?"
"Golf, more or less," I said, unable to stifle a grin. Hughes's dour good cheer typifies a certain contrariety in the Welsh soul. They love their golf, for instance--and they think it's the work of the devil. When wine began to be sold at Aberystwyth, the local populace went berserk, branding the club "the resort of tipplers and a temptation to immorality." Up the coast at Aberdovey, hundreds picketed against the introduction of Sunday golf, with one irate farmer tethering a "high-tempered mountain ram" to the seventeenth green to block play.
Even ordinary, sheep-free play proves a continual test. Doughtiness is required in a country where four weather patterns pass through in an hour: needling rain, hail, harmattans, plagues of frogs. And resourcefulness is called for at courses that often lack such fripperies as range balls, ball washers, sprinkler-head markers or caddies but are replete with such trappings of animal husbandry as Cardigan's rusted sand rakes, which look like medieval branding irons. Local hazards elsewhere include tractor marks, hoof marks, farm tracks, bridle paths, puff balls, dung, molehills, rabbit scrapes and--at Aberdovey--cows and sheep grazing on the course. Come to think of it, there is no such thing in Wales as sheep-free play.
Such epic struggles, such heightened feelings--these are the very stuff of poetry. Aberdovey's club motto--os nad wyt gryf bydd gyfrwys, or "If you are not strong, be cunning"--could be the poet's byword. And as my journey went on, I began to wonder why there were no great poems about golf in Wales, for it's a country that reveres poetry. Under Welsh medieval law, the bard was exempt from menial tasks, and no matter how indebted a family became it was always allowed to keep its harp. Nowadays, visitors worship at the windows of the tar paper shack that was Dylan Thomas's workroom in the town of Laugharne. The shack remains as it was a half century ago when Thomas drank himself to death in New York City's Chelsea Hotel: balled-up manuscript pages littering the floor beneath a chair missing two slats; empty bottles; a small, unlit stove. A cheerless setting. And yet Thomas looked out these windows and saw not merely water below but "the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea."
Indeed, all Wales, a land smaller than Massachusetts and containing only 2.9 million people, is a summons to poetry. It has tumbledown priories set on gentle green hills speckled with Herefords and Welsh black cattle, dark-green ranks of Sitka spruce, pale-green dunes unfolding to the stony sea and the odd yellow field of rapeseed, for pacing. It's a land made for sauntering country lanes at dusk as jackdaws chuff in the oak canopy and Queen Anne's lace waves from the drywall and hedges.