Tenby is a town with a lot of history. Originally a Norse settlement, the town has developed fairly peacefully for the greater part of its life. The architecture reflects the steady progress of history with some of the finest buildings remaining intact. For example the largest parish church in Wales, St. Mary’s. It is thought that this has been the site of a church since Norman times and the tower of the current church is over 700 years old. The 15th century Tudor Merchant’s House on Quay Street is the oldest furnished building in Tenby and still decorated with authentic Tudor fittings. However the most striking features of the town are the walls that were built following the destruction of the town by Prince Llewelyn in 1260 that surround part of the streets and alleyways. The narrow streets in some parts of the town give it an air of cosiness and warmth, at least for a great deal of the year. In the height of summer this protection from invading armies can become quite claustrophobic as the visitors push and jostle their way along the narrow, medieval streets.
This is in stark contrast to the golf course, situated close to the town, where the layout of fairway, rough and gorse give it the traditional links feel of being at one with nature. It embodies the word ‘links’ which literally means the linking of the land with the sea.
The town of Tenby is known in Welsh as Dinbych y Pysgod. This translates as ‘little fort of fishes’ which would have perfectly summed up the town and the surrounding walls for much of its long history where fishing has always been a vital part of the town’s’ economy.
The steady historical progress of the town came to an abrupt turn with the arrival of the double-edged sword of the railways in 1853. The town was seen as a health resort and Sir William Paxton, politician and merchant banker invested heavily in the town. The Napoleonic wars prevented the affluent Victorians travelling to Europe and soon the area became increasingly popular. This elite trickle of tourists in the first half of the 19th century became a flood of popular visitors as the railway arrived at Tenby in 1863.
To accommodate the influx of visitors and their increasing desire for sport and entertainment the business people of the town created the golf club. The club was also a focal point for local business owners to relax, play and meet. Although the club was officially founded in 1888 there is evidence that even 13 years earlier the game was played along the coast. In a report in the ‘Laws of Markets and Fairs’ it is revealed that that court proceedings were delayed as the Mayor of Tenby adjourning a case to play.
Tenby is the oldest golf club in Wales. It was established on September 31st 1888 after a meeting in the Town Hall. At the meeting 6 local residents decided to officially form a club. The first membership fees were 10/6d per year or 5/- per month (equivalent to £280 / year or £130 / month today)
Tenby Golf Club was the first affiliated club in Wales and a founder member of the Welsh Golfing Union in 1895 with Porthcawl (founded 1892), Swansea Bay (1894), Glamorganshire (1890), Caernarvonshire (1890), Borth – Ynylas (1885), Aberdovey (1892), Rhyl (1890) and Merionethshire.
The golf course is as perfect as you can make a golf course. The gently undulating but rugged land running along the coast is perfect for seaside golf. The rough and gorse have been used to its maximum effect. If you hit a good shot you’ll get a good result. It’s a course for thinkers not sloggers. It’s not a long course and each hole is different from each other, and different from the previous day. The wind has a huge effect on the course as it should with a links course. The views across Carmarthen Bay and the monastic Caldey Island are spectacular. The course uses the features of the area in a fascinating contest that echoes the original golfing layouts of Scotland. It especially echoes the course at Prestwick, the setting for the first Open Competition. It can be tough, but always fair. Although there are some blind shots they add to the flavour of an ’old-fashioned‘ course compared to the relative homogeny of today’s courses where WYSIWYG. At Tenby there is still that element of surprise and luck that modern golf architects seem to be determined to take out of the game.
This is no accident. The main designer of the course, and the man responsible for the feel of the course is James Braid. Braid a golf professional and course designer from Fife, Scotland won 5 Open championships at the turn of the 20th century. However, it was as a course designer that he felt his great passion and designed over 200 golf courses in Britain including Championship courses at Carnoustie, Troon, and Prestwick. He worked on 20 courses in Wales. He was prolific and worked the same way. He kept the greens committee happy by charging a low fee and communicating his ideas quickly and effectively.
James Braid was brought to the club early in its existence. In July 1902 he was paid £6 to inspect the course and suggest improvements. Five years later he returned with suggestions and the course was expanded to 18 holes. This new course was opened at Easter 1907 and has largely remained the same ever since.
The course has had a number of famous supporters; Lloyd George, the only Welsh Prime Minister and keen golfer was a frequent visitor and had a holiday home close to the course.
Dai Rees, the Welsh Ryder Cup captain that took the Ryder Cup from USA in the middle of a period where British golf was dominated by America was also a keen player.
An unusual feature of the course is that each hole is named after a feature. Dai Rees is commemorated with the par 3 3rd. Other holes include; ‘Monks Way’, ‘View O’Caldey’, ‘The Railway’ and of course, ‘James Braid’.
The American writer and golfer Robert Kroeger toured the links courses of Wales and summed up perfectly many golfers thoughts on Tenby golf course;
“Tenby was my favourite course in Wales. The blind shots didn’t seem overwhelming and the drama of high dunes and deep hollows more than compensated for this lack of visibility. The greens, true, fast, and always undulating, were the best we’d seen in Wales.” – Robert Kroeger
This article first appeared in Cambria Magazine December 2011