Golf in Wales arrived at a crossroads the moment the final putt dropped at the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland. The next time the matches return to European soil, in 2010, they will be played at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales—marking a coming of age in the eyes of the golf world for this small, fiercely proud nation that possesses some of the world’s great unsung links. For many golfers, Wales is the final frontier in the British Isles; of its roughly two hundred courses, only one—Royal Porthcawl—is widely known. Many hope things will stay that way, for Wales is a nation of hidden treasures, offering everything from delightfully scruffy holiday nine-holers to epic adventures on remote sea cliffs. Along the way, visitors are just as likely to hear Welsh spoken as they are English, and the group playing through is more likely to be a flock of drowsy sheep than a foursome from Cleveland. Off the course, there are plenty of urban diversions in the burgeoning capital of Cardiff, but the heart of Wales is found in the countryside, where a host of excellent inns and small hotels make perfect bases from which to explore.
Wales may not have the rollicking spirit of Ireland or the powerful aura of Scotland’s ancient links. Instead it offers a quiet but genuine kind of charm—friendly, unpretentious and enticingly affordable. And for a few more years, it can be our (not so little) secret.
Where to Play
Pennard Golf Club
It’s become a stock phrase to say that a course “ seems like it has been there forever,” but that expression certainly applies to Pennard Golf Club, on the rugged Gower Peninsula near the city of Swansea. Playing across the unspoiled land, among wild ponies and wildflowers, around the ruins of a twelfth-century Norman castle and with transporting views of plunging sea cliffs and lonely beaches, the distinction between the real and the unreal melts away. Pennard is golf in its purest state, a minimalist course on maximal terrain. At times it is unclear where the fairway ends and the rough begins—the golfer simply chooses a line and lets it fly. Blind shots and hanging lies abound, as do stellar holes of so many shapes and sizes that it’s hard to single out just a couple. But Pennard profits most from two dazzling short par fives late in the round—the sixteenth, which explodes from high in the dunes before heading down toward land’s end; and the dogleg-left seventeenth, with a canted fairway that directs drives away from the shortest path to the green. Pennard might not have the manicured perfection of an elite club or the seriousness of purpose of a major-championship venue, but it possesses a radiance all its own.
2 Southgate Road, Southgate, Swansea, West Glamorgan. Architect: James Braid, c. 1908. Yardage: 6,267. Par: 71. Greens Fees: $80-$100. Contact: 011-44/1792-233-451, pennardgolfclub.com.
Royal Porthcawl Golf Club
Royal Porthcawl is the country’s premier championship links, host of six British Amateurs and a Walker Cup and the caliber of course where a British Open would not be at all out of place. It is visually striking: Every hole affords some perspective of the Bristol Channel, and its deep, revetted bunkers give the layout a powerful, focused look. When the wind is up—which is always—it’s tough as a wounded bear. The dunes and natural contours are used beautifully; there’s even a hint of heathland in the course’s interior. But charming and sporty Porthcawl is not. Try to land a shot on the terraced green of the 212-yard fourth. Or ponder the wind’s effect on both shots of the par-four finishing hole, with a sixty-yard-wide gully interrupting the fairway and with a gorgeous downhill approach in which shots fly straight toward the sea.
Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Mid Glamorgan. Architects: Charles Gibson, 1892; H. S. Colt, 1912; Tom Simpson, 1933. Yardage: 6,829. Par: 72. Greens Fees: $160-$200. Contact: 011-44/1656-782-251, royalporthcawl.com.
Aberdovey Golf Club
Aberdovey is a special place. Maybe it’s the atmosphere of a sleepy seaside village, with its narrow main street ambling along the waterfront past tidy shops, whitewashed hotels and sailboats bobbing in the harbor at the mouth of the River Dovey. Maybe it’s the spirit of the great golf writer Bernard Darwin, who made this links his sentimental home. Or maybe it’s the course itself, tracing a graceful figure eight around and through the dunes. It’s a captivating journey, packed with challenge but playable for all. The loss of the towering Cader dune on the par-three third, once one of the game’s most famous hazards, only slightly diminishes Aberdovey’s wealth of original holes. The sixteenth is an ingenious par four of 288 yards routed along a gentle bend in the railway line. The safe play yields a semiblind approach, but those taking an aggressive line must contend with out-of-bounds on the left from tee to green. After one member of my group hooked his drive onto the tracks, we watched his ball meet an untimely end beneath the wheels of the Harlech-bound 5:32.
Tywyn Road, Aberdovey, Gwynedd. Architects: Maj. R. M. Ruck, 1892; W. H. Fowler, 1920. Yardage: 6,454. Par: 71. Greens Fees: $60-$120. Contact: 011-44/1654-767-493, aberdoveygolf.co.uk.
Royal St. David’s Golf Club
“ There are Harlech people and there are Aberdovey people,” said an assistant pro at a club in mid-Wales, offering up a duality I found to be quite perceptive. These two links are an hour apart and on roughly comparable land, but they manage to be totally different. The young pro was a Harlech, or Royal St. David’s, man, as are many skilled players who prefer the tough yet fair layout at the foot of the mighty Harlech Castle to Darwin’s sporty home club down the road. With no fewer than eight two-shotters breaking the four- hundred-yard mark and only two par fives, St. David’s plays to a stern par of sixty-nine. The dunes are always in sight, but at times—especially on the front nine—it feels as if you?re playing a course next door to the famous links. But when visitors arrive at the 432-yard fifteenth— a hole that demands an intrepid drive to a fairway set on a diagonal between dunes, mounds and ditches—they would be forgiven for being too stunned to respond. The inspiring feeling of playing on the sea floor is all too fleeting, though, because the course soon leaves the dunes and ends on the down note of a forgettable par three.
Harlech, Gwynedd. Architect: Harold Finch-Hatton, 1894. Yardage: 6,601. Par: 69. Greens Fees: $90-$130. Contact: 011-44/1766-780-361, royalstdavids.co.uk.
Southerndown Golf Club
Southerndown isn’t the easiest course to characterize, partly because it’s the compiled work of four architects but more so because of its unusual terrain. It can be described fairly as downland—the topography and broad views are similar to those of other layouts across the chalk hills of the United Kingdom—but with a major advantage: the presence of loess, a layer of acidic topsoil that was carried here by high winds at the end of the last Ice Age. The loess allows Southerndown to look, feel and play like a links. You’ll want to have your game in order the moment you step out on the springy turf: As Henry Cotton once said of Southerndown’s opener, “ Bracken to the left, bracken to the right, and a fairway rising up to the sky.” No breather comes until the fifth, and even this mid-length par three, its green seemingly formed by volcanic eruption, can cause plenty of trouble. Southerndown lacks inherently great holes, but on any given day a number of them can be touched by greatness, depending on the wind, the weather and the shots in the player’s imagination.
Ogmore-by-Sea, Bridgend. Architects: Willie Fernie, 1905; W. H. Fowler, 1908; Willie Park, 1914; Harry Colt, 1920. Yardage: 6,449. Par: 70. Greens Fees: $90-$130. Contact: 011-44/1656-881-112, southerndowngolfclub.co.uk.
Nefyn & District Golf Club
Set on windswept cliffs above Caernarfon Bay, Nefyn & District is in the same league as Old Head and Pebble Beach in terms of scenery. The course, however, doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. The openers are full of promise; the day’s first tee shot takes flight against a perfect backdrop of sea and sky, and the second hole describes a spectacular arc against a bend in the cliffs. But this dramatic prologue is nothing compared with the utter madness that unfolds after the turn, where the course forges onto a rocky, diamond-shape promontory. Out here shots fly over and around (and sometimes into) the void, and the demands are so heroic it verges on the bizarre. Make sure to play the Old course: The two routings here share the first ten holes, but it’s the Old that takes you out onto the headland. The club is feeling the effects of coastal erosion and recently built eight new holes (the New course) in part as a hedge against the tragic scenario of the promontory holes one day becoming unsafe for golf. In other words, play it now, while you still can.
Morfa Nefyn, Pwllheli, Gwynedd. Architect: Braid Taylor, 1907. Yardage: 6,108. Par: 70. Greens Fees: $70-$110. Contact: 011-44/1758-720-966, nefyn-golf-club.com.