Off The Beaten Track
WEST MONMOUTHSHIRE GOLF CLUB
It was windy. Standing on the 9th tee I could feel the wind through my Primark backswing performance jacket, red, and I’m sure my brother in his Galvin Green Malone limited edition polo shirt (short sleeved) could feel it too. It was windy.
“How come the wind blows into your face on every hole?” John wondered. “Because it does” I replied enigmatically. I had played the course before and had gained this insight.
Pensioner Dave nodded and hit his tee shot. Short and straight. I hit my shot short and straight also. John was long and straight. We waited in anticipation. So far we had never all been on the fairway at the same time (well not the same fairway).
Andy hit his drive. It started straight then went left and left and left bounding over sheep, fairways, rough.
“I’m not looking for that,” came the sympathetic response from Pensioner Dave. John commiserated with Andy, “See you on the green”
I shrugged and went to help him look for it. We battled on.
I had driven from Newport where it was a glorious spring day – 22 miles, 22 years and 11 degrees ahead of Nantyglo. To be fair it was quite pleasant when we arrived at the car park and there was some debate about what to wear. I had played the course before. I opted to wear everything I had in the car.
The first two holes had been deceptive. They were fairly flat along the floor of the valley. The third was a long, long par five up the mountain. It was marked on the card as, ‘Long Pull’. This hole could be described as ‘challenging’. It was an almost vertical tee shot up the steep, steep slope of Mynydd Carn-y-Cefn, the mountain separating the Ebbw Fach valley from the Ebbw valley. Apparently the intense steepness is a result of the action of glacial ice in the Pleistocene era which started around two and a half million years ago.
“When Pensioner Dave was just a boy”, John remarked.
Monmouthshire County Champion 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925 V.H. Smith wrote an understated article describing each hole in the ‘Ebbw Vale Works Magazine’ a few years after the course was founded. He described the 3rd (Long Pull);
“Hole 3. Longest hole on the course. Requires a good tee shot which must clear ravine. Good second shot of 150 yards carry required to carry a hazard forty yards wide; all difficulties now being overcome a good iron shot will reach the green.”
Thirty minutes later we met on the green feeling like we had conquered Everest. We had each taken a variety of routes to the flag and no-one was likely to complete the hole in single figures without holing a twenty foot putt.
It was windy. We moved on.
West Mon is a course where the wind blows hard – always. It is rough, ragged and the fairways are sheep-lined. It’s a traditional valley’s course. It’s harsh, unforgiving and proud of it. There are a few still left in the South East ex-mining valleys. To the untrained eye the course looks like someone just went out one day with 18 brightly coloured flags and placed them around the mountain at random intervals. This isn’t entirely true.
The course was designed over a century ago by a remarkable Scottish professional golfer, Ben Sayers. Born in Leith, Scotland Ben had been an acrobat in his earlier life and took up golf aged 16. He was only 5 feet 3 inches and his life was taken up with his sport. He had every job you could imagine concerned with the sport. He was a golf ball maker, golf club maker, caddy, course architect, professional, and coach to royalty. He was second in the Open twice and unlucky not to win.
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.
Once we reached the 3rd green there were a few holes of relative flatness across the mountain top toward Ebbw Vale in the next valley. There a few excellent holes that can feel 600 yards long or 300 yards long depending on the wind direction. The greens are in amazing condition, true and green. For all the natural hazards of the course you can use as an excuse – you can never blame he greens.
The course is littered with sheep. Tough sheep. Sheep that own the course. On the par 5 eleventh hole John hooked a drive straight at the rear end of a grazing sheep. I thought the force of the stroke would have stunned a fairly bulky human being and killed many small cows. The sheep stopped grazing. He turned around and stared at John with a patronising look, “Is that the best you’ve got “, turned back around continued ruminating.
Walking across the mountain top with the greens and fairways subtly fashioned across and around the few features it is easy to imagine it a hundred years ago. It is an incredibly natural golf course. There aren’t too many modern day ‘features’ to ‘spice up’ the course – no ‘risk or reward’ holes, ‘signature holes’.
“I like it” announced 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.
The course is tough. The weather is tough. The ground is tough. The people were tough. What Ben Sayers achieved in 1905 was to carve eighteen unique golf holes out of a hostile environment. They have hardly changed since the course opened. He did a pretty decent job of it.
The course has a significant claim to fame in that it is the highest golf course in Great Britain. The tee to the fourteenth is the highest tee in Great Britain with a spectacular view of South Wales.
Before you reach this peak though you have to navigate the highest green in Great Britain – the 13th. This hole is truly amazing. It’s a vertical 484 yard par 4 up and across the mountain against the wind – “It’s always against the wind”, the locals informed me.
We staggering toward the green like 2 pair of Hilary and Tenzings. Low on food, oxygen and humour. We reached the green that had the temerity to have a series of subtle slopes and undulating borrows on it. It’s not enough to hit a perfect drive, two perfect woods and an immaculate wedge. You then have to relax, catch your breath and think.
Watching Pensioner Dave attempt to calm down after tacking his way up the mountain put me in mind of the biathlon where the competitors ski furiously for miles then have to stop and relax enough to fire five shots at a target.
We managed it somehow and remarkably everyone scored a point.
Then we had a walk up to the highest tee in Britain. The tee is 1500 feet above sea level. It feels higher. There are spectacular views of the Brecon Beacons to the north with the Sugarloaf mountain to the east. On the card it is called, ‘High Tee’. Really?
From this point it’s, literally, all downhill. The 16th hole is called ‘Round House’. This is a theme for the club. Nantyglo is famous, in Nantyglo at least, for its round towers. On the badge of the golf club there’s a yellow tower. The story of the towers illustrates the attitude of the people in the area better than anything else;
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.
“Ah, the struggles between rich and poor, haves and have nots”, I started to philosophise.
“We get it. Your shot.”
Reaching the end of the round it’s back to reality. Relatively flat final holes. Relatively less oxygen needed as we approach the short, squat, functional clubhouse. It’s been tough. It’s been fun.
The club is full of has function rooms, people and some history. There are framed minutes of the first meeting where a group of doctors and teachers established a golf course with a membership of 183 members. The entrance fees were half a guinea per member with subscriptions of one guinea for gentleman and half a guinea for ladies. There were 120 men, 54 women and 9 juniors intially.
“The prices haven’t gone up that much”, Pensioner Dave remarked to the secretary. The secretary pointed out that the current fees are probably the cheapest anywhere in Wales.
“Less than the cost of an 18 hole two ball at Royal Porthcawl”, he proudly announced.
“I asked once how much green fees were at Royal Porthcawl” he continued.
We waited eagerly.
“I was told that if you had to ask then you couldn’t afford it.”
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.
I’m sure we’ll be back there – When we’ve thawed out.
West Mon Golf Club
From the comments book:
“It’s bleak.” – S. Morrissey
“I creamed a driver, mullered 2 three woods and still ended up 20 yards short of the green.” – John Daly describing the 3rd hole.
“It’s cold.” – Captain R. F. Scott
– first published Cymru Culture ( 1 / 9 / 15)