I finally get golf.
I understand all the mysteries of the game.
I even remember the day I achieved this state. It was the final competition of Summer 2013. I had been in a particularly relaxed frame of mind- I’d played some decent shots, some pretty poor shots- but it all seemed to fit. The ball went more or less where I wanted it to – If I hit a bad shot I ended up in a bad place. When I hit a good shot I ended up in a good place. I had reached the golfing equivalent of achieving karuna. Now if only life was as simple as this….
The following week Winter Golf began…
I’m not sure ‘Winter golf’ is the right term. It’s not really golf is it? Or ‘it’s golf Jim but not as we know it’. Perhaps we should call it something else – ‘flog’ perhaps..
The following week Winter Flog began…
In the course of 7 days the golf course had changed from a pristine, emerald, slightly undulating, tightly mown, interesting, tree-lined, water-featured, offering a different challenge on every hole, sandy bunkered and undulating (oops already said that), slick, challenging, but fair greens into a scene resembling the trenches from World War I. There were temporary greens, temporary tees, temporary everything. There were 487 new rules all designed to stop you hitting the ball, and a totally new attitude to go with it. A week ago there was a riotous rabble of jolly chaps and smiley ladies laughing and having such a hoot of a time. Now this was real male, manly, macho time. The testosterone was so intense you could sense that the neural areas of the brain the metabolites were influencing changing patterns of behaviour due to increased neural connectivity and neurochemical characterization.
Winter Macho Flog had begun…
It doesn’t help that this the golf club is at the top end of the Rhymney valley, feels slightly further north than the North Frigid Zone, is 29,030 feet above sea level and colder than a mother-in-law’s love (oops sorry).
There was a time when I was a big, big fan of 365 days a year golf. I even played in the ultimate macho competition – The Winter League – ‘Cock of the North’ as it was called, which summed it up on so many levels. One of the many, many rules of the league was that you had to play on a Sunday morning – whatever the weather – or forfeit the match ( and feel the shame and derision of not playing). The only way out of this was if you and your partner and your opponents mutually agreed to call it off and call it a draw. The winners of the Cock of the North and the club poker champions were invariably the same pair;
Scene – 8:28 on a Sunday morning in the clubhouse looking out at a blizzard;
“I really fancy it today.”
“Me too. I had an early night and whacked down a load of vitamins so look out today.”
“Me too. I love it when it’s nice and fresh.”
“I find I play better with a touch of frost bite in my fingers – helps my putting.”
“Let’s call it a draw and I’ll get the first round”
“Brandy for me.”
……………………………. happy days
But non-league Winter golf is supposed to be fun. When you’re teeing off from a rectangle the size of a small face flannel it’s not too much fun. When you’re slipping around in the mud like Bambi on ice it’s not the best feeling. It has prompted one of the best retorts I’d heard on a course though. After getting harangued for putting his opening drive out of bounds a colleague was heard to remark that it was because he had a bad lie on the tee.
However, you eventually succeed in getting your drive away and march resolutely after it praying it’s in the rough or 151 yards from the green. Because (and I’m not sure how universal this is) in our club if you’re 150 yards or less away from the flag you must play off Winter mats. These abominations ( and yes I know all the arguments about why we use them) are the most annoying piece of gold equipment since tassels on the front of golf shoes, and just as useful. They are roughly 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, six inches thick and curled up at the edges like a 3 day old cheese and lettuce sandwich. To be honest it’s easier to play out of a bunker.
You reach the ‘green’. Green it ain’t. The dictionary describes green as;
a. “The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between yellow and blue, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 490 to 570 nanometers; any of a group of colours that may vary in lightness and saturation and whose hue is that of the emerald or somewhat less yellow than that of growing grass; one of the additive or light primaries; one of the psychological primary hues.” ,
i.e. a colour
or b “ The culmination of a golf hole, where the flagstick and cup are located and where a golfer will “putt out” to end the hole. The area of closely cropped grass surrounding each hole.
i.e. a green
Well green the colour it definitely is not – more a greyish, reddish, blacky-brown and ‘an area of closely cropped grass” – I don’t think so either. It’s like trying to putt on a field that has been ploughed by an angry farmer with a team of heavy, drunk shire horses.
However this is only part of the problem – the physical. Mentally….. next time………..
You’re on the green at the uphill par 5 514 yard 3rd at West Mon Golf Club (the highest golf club in Great Britain). It’s blowing a gale and there’s that curious West Mon weather which is a mix of wind, rain, hail and snow. It’s like an angry, but dexterous, polar bear throwing hard rice pudding at you. It stings. You’ve hit the best driver, 3 wood, 3 wood, 3 wood and you’ve just 3 putted from 8 feet. You look at your frozen golf partners and silently ask “Why do we do it?”. They silently shrug back at you and you move to the next tee.
The mental side of Winter Golf is pretty much the same as Summer golf except that it’s magnified. It’s tough.The main problem, for me at least, seems to be an accelerated lack of confidence, and a short term memory. There’s also a concept called private logic;
The first day of Winter golf feels like you’ve never seen a golf club in your life before. Where a week ago( at least in your head) you’d hit an 8 iron to the centre of the green today you’re taking a 6 iron and still leaving it short. The logical part of your brain is saying – “hit a 5 next time. It’s obviously wetter – no run on the ball, colder air, bad lie, uphill ” yet the illogical (private logic) part of your brain would remember the 1 occasion you actually hit the green with an 8 iron and conveniently forget the dozens of times it fell short. It would argue that a 5 iron would be ridiculous and that your playing partners were all hitting 7s or 8s (irrespective of the fact that they were better golfers and still leaving their shots short).
Your mind is composed on 2 parts; logic and private logic. The logic part is well… logical. The private logic element taps in to all your private fears, insecurities, doubts.
For instance, setting aside the shot selection angle for a minute and turning to the condition of the course. Winter golf conditions vary considerably. Some days it’s frosty, the next day it’s raining – the same drive can go 290 yards with a good bounce and a following wind one day – then sink into the soft mud at 200 yards on another day. You know this and your logical part of your bran knows this. However your private logic part of your head still goes through the stages of change; immobilisation, denial, anger, bargaining, depression ………
As I said at the beginning everything is magnified. An 80 yard pitch to the green that would be fairly routine (to think about, not execute) in Summer is a potential nightmare in Winter. In Summer you’d select a club, aim for a spot on the green, swing the club, miss the spot, miss the green and trudge after the ball. In Winter you think about the ground (hard, soft, normal), the green (temporary, cut up, slow) the club you choose (pitch it all the way, bounce it in). In the end you’re so busy worrying about everything you’ll concentrate so hard on getting a wedge 2 inches onto the green 3 yards up from the pin that you forget how to swing the club and end up taking an air shot.
Similarly putting – by the time you’ve worked out how much break to allow, what the wind will do, what would be the best position if you don’t make it, whether the mud is lying toward you or against you, you forget to hit it and leave it 6 feet short (which for a 5 feet putt takes some doing).
Now I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in Summer it’s just exaggerated.
The realisation I’ve finally arrived at is that Winter is not a enchanted time. Winter pixies do not sprinkle their magic Winter pixie dust over Bargoed Golf Club and reverse the principles of Nature – downhill is still downhill. The laws of physics still apply to golf balls in December. Greens that are on a slope in August are still sloping in January. The 14th is still 172 yards long.
Roll on Summer ………..
Rhys ap Tewdwr, born 1065, was a descendant of Capell ap Rhodri, King of Seisyllwg, son of Rhodri the Great. He lived a short but eventful life. He seized the throne of Deheubarth in 1078. It was not an easy time however as he had continual political unrest – alliances and battles with Caradog ap Gruffudd ap Rhydderch and Gruffydd ap Cynan . In 1088 he was forced into exile in Ireland but returned for more coalition and chaos with fellow Welsh princes and eventually the Normans.
Rhys was slain in the Battle of Brecon by Bernard de Neufmarche in April 1093. One can only imagine the fear, noise and bloodshed of the battle over 800 years ago. The site of the encounter was the village now called Battle, a few miles from Brecon and a mile from the golf course of Cradoc.
Walking around the tranquil, beautiful course it is impossible to image that 800 years before there would once have been armies, mayhem and destruction. The Battle of Brecon was an important event in Welsh history and for many at the time seemed to indicate the end of the reign of Welsh princes and the capitulation of Wales to their of Norman conquerors.
Rhigyfarch al Sulien, a monk who later wrote a life of St David, wrote a long poem, ‘Lament’ at Llanbadarn Fawr. The opening few lines captures the fear of the time;
“Alas! that the present time led us into this state of things,
where a cruel power threatens to drive away by its authority
those who are duly reading this poem.
Why have the blind fates not let us die?”
This dire pessimism, however, was not warranted and by the turn of the century most of the territories belonging to the Normans had been reclaimed by a resurgence from the Welsh.
The stark contrast between this period and a round of golf at a parkland course such a Cradoc could not be greater even though the land is the same. The course at Cradoc is so quiet, so tranquil. The tree-lined fairways let you believe you are the only players on the course for a good deal of time as it winds along the valley floor and up and across the hills.
It is a remarkable golf course in a remarkable setting. It was designed and build in 1967with the drive and commitment of local members especially John Morrell and Les Watkins.
The Scottish course architect CK Cotton has been responsible for designing and remodelling a number of amazing courses, amongst them Royal Lytham and St. Annes, Pennard near Swansea, St Pierre in Chepstow as well as many in his native land. The courses all share similar characteristics ; they all use the land effectively. At Cradoc he used the changes in elevation to form spectacular views and some challenging holes. There are stunning views across the valley from many of the holes.
Another feature of Cotton is the par 3s. These short holes on each course are all unique and each has a different challenge.
Cradoc is a nicely balanced course with 2 par 3s on the front nine and 2 on the back. The first short hole you encounter, the 3rd , is only 125 yards. There is however a pond in front of the green waiting for you. The hole is played from an elevated tee and looks spectacular, and dangerous. The 7th hole looks deceptively straightforward with its large green. However it can be difficult to 2 putt if you’re on the wrong level. The 12th hole down the hill is a par 3 with bunkers to the left and right and a steep drop over the back. The final short hole, the 17th is the longest. You need a straight long iron to ensure your round stays on track. If you can survive the par3s the chances are you are playing well and will be having a decent round. They test your skill and iron play and if the wind blows can be a really challenge.
The journey around the course takes you from the undulating. tree-lined, opening holes to the middle mountain section and then back again on to the valley floor. Along your path you will encounter different views of the of the Brecon Beacons National Park, a variety of views of Pen- y-fan the largest peak in South Wales, and some surprises; the fourth green is set in front of the mansion that once belonged to the owners here at Penoyre Park; a number of the holes are laid out as dog legs where you have to decide if you want to risk cutting the corner or playing safe.
The course is immaculately kept and incredibly peaceful. The greens are green, fast and true. This is only half the charm of the day though. The organisation and running of the club are as immaculate as the layout and maintenance of the course. There are superb practice facilities – large driving range, warm up nets and good sized practice putting green. The pro shop is well stocked and the clubhouse has amazing views of the 1st tee and fairway and the 18th green set against the backdrop of the mountains.
The atmosphere of the club is welcoming, caring and professional and little wonder it was Welsh Golf Club of the year in 2005.
The past decade or so have been difficult for golf clubs across Wales and beyond. The recession bites hard on recreational activities in these times. Fortunately the manager of the club, Richard Southcott has been proactive and instrumental in developing a creative programme for a number of years to help generate interest in golf in the area. The Heart of Wales consortium comprises the golf clubs Cradoc, Builth Wells and Llandrindod Wells. The idea is to encourage golfers to visit this area and play all three unspoiled, quality golf courses at a reduced rate. It seemed to have worked well and has generated a lot of interest in the area.
The serenity of the course is reflected in the relative serenity of the area, even in the traditional market town of Brecon. The town is situated at the confluence of the rivers Usk and Honddu in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National park. With a population of just under 8,000 Brecon is the focal point of the area. It has established itself as a place for tourism, arts and culture in recent years. Visitors enjoy the activities in the area as well as the peace and quiet.
The cathedral in Brecon has a history tracing back to the year 1093 where Bernard de Neufmarche ordered a priority to be built after his victory. The priority was destroyed in the reign of Henry VIII and became the site of a parish church and in the 1920s was designated a cathedral.
For a short period each year Brecon loses its tranquil nature as it becomes the centre for music fans from around the world as it hosts the Brecon Jazz Festival. Since its inception in 1984 it has grown and developed into a genuine world-wide phenomena.
Practically all the leading jazz artists in the world have performed at the festival including George Melly, who lived locally, Courtney Pine, Humphrey Littleton, Amy Winehouse, Van Morrison, Joan Armitrading and Hugh Masekela.
The site of Cradoc golf course has seen a great deal of gory history over the centuries but there are few more peaceful places to enjoy a relaxing (well as relaxing as golf can be) game with superb scenery and delightful facilities.
I came back and sat down behind my desk. I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at the wall. I’d been away from the village for seven years and nothing seemed to have changed. Aunty Mary looked exactly the same. The streets looked the same. The weather was the same. Always on the verge of raining. Except when it was raining, of course.
You think something would have changed in seven years. I had. Or at least I thought I had. It was difficult for me to remember. I had what the doctor had called ‘amnesia’ or ‘reduplicative paramnesia’ or ‘just plain old forgetfulness’. I considered it not plain, more acute in that I had forgotten the last seven years. On the positive side it didn’t look like I had missed much in Mynydd Eimon.
I could remember my childhood in the village – strange and sad though those memories were. I could remember the past three months. What I wasn’t so great on was the bit in between. However, the lost seven years were starting to come back. Slowly. Extremely slowly. It wasn’t as depressing as you’d imagine it would be. It was just what it was. I accepted it. I had had a lot of shit in my childhood and it didn’t bother me too much to not remember for a while. In a way it was like going on holiday for a while.
I squashed the cigarette in a glass tray and focused. Something was wrong. Something about Aunty Mary’s manner had alerted my senses. I had read somewhere that a private eye should always trust his instincts. My senses were tingling as I replayed the scene in my head. I couldn’t help but notice how unsure she was of who she would kill. I wondered why she had come to visit me. I would be of no use to her. She knew all the answers I had given her and she hadn’t once mentioned golf. It might be an idea to look at the golf club. I had a paying client and could start investigating. Why was she wearing her Sunday best to visit me? And that bonnet. What was it about the bonnet?
Something clearly wasn’t quite right. Why was she retiring from her job at the golf club? She was ancient two decades ago when I remember seeing her for the first time. She had frightened me looking at me in my pram. People say you don’t remember those things. I know I remember it accurately. She wore the same bonnet she wore today. I shuddered. Aunty Mary’s life was the golf club. The golf club was Aunty Mary’s life. Her retirement was coming up in a week or so and there would be a big party. What was going on at the golf club ?
As a poor boy from the bottom end of the village, golf had been as alien to me as English people were for the first ten years of my life. The only people I knew who played golf were priests, headmasters or solicitors. I had always thought it was not the game for me, or any proper Welshman.
I reflected on the time I’d been back in the village and set up my detective agency. My agency was surprisingly busy for a small village at the top end of the Welsh valleys. I had dealt with a number of cases, all unexciting inevitably. However they all paid the rent. In fact the investigating business was remarkably, consistently steady.
I heard my secretary making secretary-type noises in the outer office and I reached out to press the intercom to check my appointments. I then realised I wasn’t a proper American private detective who could afford a proper intercom. I looked at my finger hovering over my writing pad and felt pleased no-one had seen me.
I looked at the framed, signed print of Bobby Jones on the wall and thought about my short golfing career. I thought again about Aunty Mary and yet again concluded that perhaps it was time to take a closer look at the golf club.
And what was Aunty Mary’s problem with me and the priest? Perhaps it was time to take a closer look at the priest as well. Perhaps it was time to take a closer look at a lot of things?
I picked up my hat, I did have a proper hat, and walked out of the door without telling anyone where I was going, not that I had anyone else to tell – parents lost, no wife, girlfriend or children to worry about me. I looked around. Even my secretary seemed to have disappeared again. What I did have was a coat, a hat and a gun.
Yeah, perhaps it was time to take a closer look at a lot of things? Well no, probably the golf club and the priest would be enough to be going on with. I finally left my office with a headache. A migraine. A recurring headache you know no pill will ever cure.
It started with a dame. It always starts with a dame. This dame was different – like they all were. She was older, a lot older. She was the golf club treasurer. Respectable, church-going and old. Very old. How old? I was going to find out very soon.
It was an ordinary morning, as they all were until something happened. I was walking along grey and grim Sebastapol Terrace and although I didn’t know it I was about to be asked to investigate the possible murder of Michael Seren.
What was particularly unusual was that I had dreamt that Michael was dead. I dreamt the sky was on fire. I was looking out of the window when I saw someone fall from the roof. It was Michael and his face cracked as he hit the ground. I wasn’t sure if the fall had killed him or something had happened before. Neither option mattered much to him at that moment.
Unsurprisingly I was a little tense when I woke.
I knew Michael wasn’t dead as I had seen him five minutes ago. I had been in the corner shop talking to Mrs Evans’ when Michael had walked in. I picked up my packet of Lucky Strikes and a pint of milk, nodded at Michael and walked out. He looked a little pale, but definitely not dead. I reached the end of Sebastapol Terrace and turned right into Coronation Road.
Coronation Road was quiet. Mynydd Eimon was quiet. Not just because it was a Monday morning, but because Mynydd Eimon was quiet. Boring. Dull. A typical Welsh valley town. Grey. Cold. Dull. Quiet.
Musing, I walked toward my office. Perhaps office was a little grand in that it was two small rooms on the first floor of my house. It didn’t look much like an office but it was. It was the office of Sam Fisher, private investigator. That’s me. I was a bone fide ‘ditectif preifat’. I was in the phone book and the local rag. I couldn’t help smiling at the exquisite lettering on the door of the office, “Samuel K. Watcher … Investigations ”. I didn’t have a middle name but thought the K added a touch of class. I went to unlock the door to the outer office, formerly a coalhouse – knocked through, but found it had already been opened. I stepped in. The room contained an old black davenport desk, two odd chairs, a bit of carpet and two doors – one to the real world and the other to my inner office. Everything was neat and tidy just as I liked it. There was the light grey carpet and dark grey walls. I had designed the room myself based on films I had seen.
What the room didn’t contain was my secretary who I had assumed had unlocked the door. I moved carefully toward my private office and opened the door slowly.
My private office had a similar colour scheme to the outer office and had a larger desk, a Reliable wall safe and a little state of the art, Prestcold fridge.
I saw the dame. A frail old woman dressed in a long black dress, grey shawl, and tight bun with a lethal looking hair slide sitting near the fireplace. From the back she seemed very peaceful as she stared into the empty fireplace. Her coat and bonnet were hanging up on the oak coat stand near the door and she seemed to have made herself completely at home.
I sat behind my desk and turned my chair to face her. I reached in my pocket to get a cigarette, looked at the dame and thought better of it.
“Aunty Mary.” I said “What are you doing here.”
“It’s about a murder, cariad, I’m ashamed to say. It’s about the murder of young Michael, my nephew.”
“Michael!” I feigned astonishment for some reason, “But I’ve seen him just now in Mrs. Evans’.”
She thought for a minute. ”Well the murder may not be Michael and anyway it’s not today.”
“I see.” I clearly didn’t. I sucked hard on my pen in a way that I thought may convey serious thoughtfulness.
”So what is it you want from me?” I inquired.
“I need some information, some advice if you will.”
“How am I looking if I were to murder someone?” she asked thoughtfully.
I sat down and continued working on my thoughtful expression, “I imagine you would be put in jail.”
“Ah,” she paused, “I thought as much. But what about my soul?”
“Well that would be one for you and the priest to negotiate.”
She looked disappointed.
“And the soul of the victim?”
“Again the priest would be the one to talk to.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I guess so.”
“And I would definitely go to prison.”
“Very, very likely.”
She sighed, “So how long would I get?”
“Probably ten years or life.”
We both silently assessed who would win that particular race.
“I’d like you to investigate the murder, when it happens. Would you do that for me?”
“Thank you Samuel,” she continued as she stood up, “You’ve been very helpful. Now how much do I owe you?”
“Aunty Mary you know I couldn’t take money off you.”
“You’re a sweet boy,” she said as she ruffled my hair and gave me a shilling coin, “Now take it and let’s hear no more about it.”
I took it and helped Aunty Mary put on her warm coat and black bonnet. I shivered slightly then I walked Aunty Mary out.
Deep in the Ebbw Fach valley lies the small village of Nantyglo . The village lies at the northern end of the Ebbw and Ebbw Fach rivers that runs from the highest town in Wales, Brynmawr in the north to the city of Newport in the South.
As you leave the village westward you find Mynydd Carn- y –Cefn. This is the large mountain separating the Ebbw Fach vale from the Ebbw valley . The slopes are extremely steep, a result of the action of glacial ice in the ice age, apparently. Whatever the reason, the road gets seep very quickly and within a few hundred yards it becomes a rugged mountain track littered with sheep. This harsh terrain forewarns you of the challenges ahead. Passing the sheep and occasional horse wandering across your path within a few hundred yards you reach the gate then the squat, functional clubhouse of the West Monmouthshire Golf Club.
The clubhouse is squat, functional and stable. The people are warm and welcoming. It’s a real clubhouse – well used and well loved. It’s like the people and the area – unfussy and real. The members live locally and are at the club because they play golf. There are few ‘non golf’ members. The members are golfers and its ‘their’ club and they are proud of it. There are no airs and graces at the club. On talking to them it’s a firm handshake and an introduction to Brian, Lyn, John and John. The only grand aspect of the club is the long name ‘West Monmouthshire Golf Club’. It is known locally as West Mon.
It’s fair to say the course would not win any beauty prizes when matched against the majority of parkland courses. There is however a ruggedness and honesty about the land here. It’s a tough course, but a fair one. There won’t be any free drops from sponsors’ hoardings here. There is however a local rule allowing you a free drop should your ball lie in a sheep track through the green. The sheep act as nature’s green keepers grazing in the roughs and fairways across the course.
It has the feel of a traditional Scottish links course, without references to the sea. It’s wind swept, sparse on vegetation and generally left to nature to manage. It’s unsurprising it has the feel of a Scottish course as the designer was a golf professional and architect from North Berwick, a traditional links course.
Ben Sayers was a fascinating character. Born in Edinburgh he lived most of his working life in North Berwick as a ballmaker and golf professional. He was a great player representing his country on numerous occasions. He won 24 tournaments but never the Open where he was second twice. He was a respected teacher and amongst his pupils were Queen Alexandra, the Prince of Wales (later to become King George V) , Dorothy Campbell ( the dominant female golfer in the 1910s including Women’s Open and US Open Champion) and Arnaud Massey (the first overseas player to win the Open) . He was also a golf architect designing the East course at North Berwick, and courses at Rothesay and Craigielaw amongst others. However he is most remembered for the range of golf clubs that still bear his name. He was joined by his 2 sons as golf professional and golf club maker and his innovative clubs became more and more popular.
In 1906 Ben Sayers was given the task of designing the original course at West Mon. It is no surprise given the terrain he had to work with, and the environment he was used to, that he designed a very natural, challenging course. The land is heath land and at the mercy of the wind, rain, snow and occasional sun. There are few water features or bunkers to ‘spice up ‘the course. It is an authentic straightforward test of golf. What Ben Sayers did was to work with the land and make each hole as different as possible. The 3 par 3s are all challenging. There are reachable par 4s and the 3rd is one of the toughest par 5s in Wales with the wind against you. It’s a 519 yards and you feel every one of them up the hill.
The course has one remarkable claim to fame in that it is the highest golf course in Great Britain, with the tee to the 14th being the highest tee in Great Britain. This tee is situated over 1500 feet above sea level and can be a ferocious place in the snow of mid-winter looking across the Welsh valleys.
Another feature of the course that reflects the spirit of the club is the names of the holes; the record 14th is simply called ‘High Tee’; the uphill monster 4th is the understated ‘Tidy Pull ‘. Other holes reflect the humour of the area – the Cwtch (hug) describes the close to home short 17th and the Ware Teg (fair play) is the name for the tough par 4 5th hole.
A highlight of the course, unsurprising, is the panoramic view of the area. There are views of the Brecon Beacons to the north with the Sugarloaf mountain East. There are spectacular views of the valleys. You can even see a part of local history, the North Round Tower. This is the surviving member of a pair of towers built to keep the locals at bay between 1816 and 1822. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Ironmasters brothers Crawshaw and Joseph Bailey constructed two round towers to protect themselves against the locals due to the unrest concerning high wheat prices. There was serious rioting in the village and the industrialists defended their property by building the last castle fortifications to be built in Britain. One stands today as a reminder of a difficult period in the village, and Wales’ history.
The industrial history of Nantyglo mirrors the history of the South Wales valleys. In 1801 the population of Nantyglo was 805. Thirty years later the population was 5,992. The attraction to the area was coal and iron making. In the mid 19th century Nantyglo was one of the largest iron producers in the world, in 1844 employing 3,500 men, women and children in the Ironworks and coal mines.
The next century or so saw a time of relative prosperity and in the Edwardian era that West Mon golf club was established it seemed to be the perfect time for Wales and the people of the valleys. There were many sporting clubs opened; soccer, cricket and of course rugby union. The general election that year returned no Tories in wales for the first time ever. There was more free time for workers. The middle classes were also more affluent and had more time on their hands. So it seemed natural in 1906 that a group of doctors and teachers would establish a golf course with a membership of 183 paying entrance fees of half a guinea per member with subscriptions of one guinea for gentleman and half a guinea for ladies.
Over the past century and a half the industry of the area has moved slowly towards steel and Ebbw Vale. Coal was still a principle product of the area until recent times. The past 30 years or so has seen the decline in coal mining in the area with the subsequent loss of jobs. Similarly steel making has declined and then finished leaving a hole in the valley.
In the past few decades the financial crisis has hit clubs like West Mon hard. The closure of the steel works and high unemployment in the area have put a strain on the economy of the locals and a subsequent drop in membership, Fortunately the members at West Mon are a hardy resourceful bunch and the club survives on initiative, hard work and a good social scene. There have been cutbacks and the club manages. There are few visitors and the number of golf societies visiting has declined across the whole of Wales.
“We don’t get much passing trade” one of the members wryly informed me.
The club carries on. There is a community there. The social events held in the clubhouse and function room help a great deal these days. It’s still about the golf though. The members are a tough breed out in most weathers braving the elements. Standing on the highest tee in Great Britain on a sunny day looking around at the view surely makes it all worthwhile.
Act 2: “Look Ma – top of the world!” (“Edrych ma – ben y byd!”)
Before we began the round I went to the clubhouse to talk to a few people. I was shown the visitors book. I was amazed to see the range of people who had taken the time to write in it after playing the course;
I was not surprised that local hero, Bradley Dredge (my mother knows his mother, you know) had written in it, or John Daly. I was quite surprised that Hollywood legends like James Cagney, Judy Garland and rock stars like Morrissey had also contributed. I decided to write these quotes on a piece of paper and use them to motivate my colleagues as we played the back nine.
We were on the 10th tee when I read my first quote from the visitor’s book;
“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…not going all the way, and not starting.” – Bradley Dredge
They were impressed. Almost moved to tears but they managed to hide it well behind sarcasm and scorn.
We moved onwards and upward. Upwards, ever upwards.
The 10th was a long par 3. In the match between Andy and Pensioner Dave versus myself and Brother John, we were 3 up. Pensioner Dave was sulking. John had won practically all the holes for us. I was mainly being used to read the yardage on the signs, point John towards the green and keep score.
“I don’t mind losing,” lied Pensioner Dave, “but I hate when we lose to just one person.” A remark aimed at me.
“It takes a big man, with no ego to play as badly as I do.” I explained, “I’m motivating my partner.”
This seemed to be amusing to the others.
West Mon is a rough, ragged course. The fairways are sheep-lined like a scene from the mountain stages of the Tour de France and just as sparse. It’s a traditional South Wales valley course, with a typical South Wales valley mentality. It’s harsh, unforgiving and proud of it.
I tried to keep the spirits up with another entry from the visitors’ book;
“Great God! This is an awful place” – Captain R. F. Scott, explorer, scratch golfer refering to the climb from 13th to 14th tee.
We halved the 11th and 12th moving higher and higher. Colder and colder. The air thinner and thiner. It played tricks with our minds. I imagined I made a putt. I did. We were now 3 up. No one cared any more.
At the base camp just below the 12th we rested. Preparing for the final push. We sit in silence consuming our meagre rations. I ask what the scores are. There is silence. I understand. It’s all about survival now.
The wind wasn’t blowing so much either . Presumably because we had worked our way through the tropopause and were now entering the stratosphere. We didn’t mind. It wasn’t quite so cold. In fact the higher we rose the warmer it became, which was unusual – “getting closer to the sun” Andy reasoned. We nodded. We just wanted it to be over. One way or another.
We moved to the tee of the 13th. The infamous ‘Morning Star ‘. A vertical 484 yard par 4 up and across the mountain against the wind - “It’s always against the wind”, the locals informed me.
John Daly described how he played it in the visitor book ;
“I creamed a driver, mullered 2 three woods and still ended up 20 yards short of the green. ”
We paused on the tee for reflection and to remember those who had gone before. We looked around. To the untrained eye the course looks like a Welshman just went out one day with 18 brightly coloured flags and placed them around the mountain at random intervals. This isn’t entirely true – He was Scottish.
He was a juggler, professional acrobat, golf ball maker, 5 feet 3 inches tall, golf professional, twice Open championship runner up, caddy, golf instructor to the Prince of Wales and Princess Victoria, exporter, factory owner and golf course architect. All of this is true. His name was Ben Sayers. Born in Leith, Scotland. In 1906 he designed the West Mon course. The terrain must have been familiar to him brought up on the links courses of Scotland. West Mon has the feel of a traditional Scottish links course, without references to the sea. It’s windswept, sparse on vegetation and generally left to nature to manage. The only thing missing from a links course is the sea. The sea is a long way from the top of Mynydd Carn-y-Cefn.
Back to West Mon. 17,000 feet above clubhouse level and getting higher as we struggle up the 13th past oxygen tanks, skulls, tattered flags, eventually reaching the green. We were low on food, oxygen, golf balls and humour. Remarkably the green is difficult and sloping. Come on. If you are going to hit 6 three woods to the green you want a flat putt. We putt out eventually with a combined score approaching Pensioner Dave’s age.
We see it; “The highest tee in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
The tee is 1500 feet above sea level. It feels as if they missed a few zeroes from that figure. There are spectacular views of the Brecon Beacons to the north with the Sugarloaf mountain to the east.
“You can see Ebbw Vale if you look west” I read.
“Why would I?” replied John.
I had no answer. We look down the mountain.
“Look ma! Top of the world.” I read without much enthusiasm. Then I quote from the visitor’s book entry from Judy Garland, American golfer, actress and singer, handicap 17 ; “It’s lonely and cold at the top…. Lonely and cold”
We silently nod. We hit our tee shots. It’s the first time ever Pensioner Dave has hit a drive approaching 200 yards.
On the way down the mood lifts. We become buoyant, energised. We laugh and move down. Down. Down. Conducting our post mortem on the course;
“I like it” announces Pensioner Dave, ever the traditionalist, “hit it – find it – hit it again”. He’s a man of simple pleasures. It’s easy to imagine him and Ben Sayers having a ten second conversation on the design of the course.
On the 17th we see a man on the women’s tee. He is crouched over his ball going through his elaborate pre shot preparation. As we pass Pensioner Dave has to interfere;
“Stop” he shouts, “You’re playing off the women’s tee.”
The man backs off, looks at Pensioner Dave and goes back to his elaborate pre shot preparation.
Pensioner Dave starts walking quickly toward him, “Wait. You’re playing off the women’s tee. The men’s is 10 yards behind you.”
The man stopped again. He walked toward Pensioner Dave and said something to him.
Pensioner Dave turned around and walked back to us in total silence. The man hit his shot and walked unenthusiastically after it.
We asked Pensioner Dave what the man had said to him;
“He told me to shut up and to let him play his second shot in peace.”
Approaching the end of the round it’s back to reality. There ares a number of relatively flat holes as we approach civilization and the short, squat, functional clubhouse. It’s been tough. It’s been fun.
We chat in the bar to a few members. The main topic of conversation is finance and how to keep clubs going these days. The club is a survivor. There is a community there. The social events held in the clubhouse and function room help a great deal these days. It’s still about the golf though. The members are a tough breed out in most weathers braving the elements.
“We don’t get too many visitors,” one of them tells us. He continues, “We don’t get a lot of passing trade.”
The club carries on. There is a community there. The social events held in the clubhouse and function room help a great deal these days. It’s still about the golf though. The members are a tough breed out in most weathers braving the elements.
I’m sure we’ll be back there some summer – once we’ve thawed out.