The journey starts 30 miles North East of Newport on the Wales-England border. The historic county town of Monmouth has been the scene of many battles between England and Wales throughout its thousand year history. In the middle of the bustling market town stand the remains of the 12th century castle overlooking the River Monnow. This was the birthplace of Henry V and scene of many conflicts throughout the centuries. These days English visitors, especially golfers, are more than welcomed and the town boasts two superb golf courses.
Monmouth Golf Club rightly describes itself as ‘arguably the prettiest golf course in Wales’, but follow the winding B4233 road west for three miles, past the legendary Rockfield recording studios, and you come to the tiny village of Hendre and the impressive Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club.
John Rolls, MP and later 1st Baron Llangattock, bought a shooting lodge on this site at the beginning of the 19th century. Over the next 200 years John and his descendants expanded and developed the house and garden to form the 600 acre Rolls estate. In the 1980s the estate passed from the Rolls family and has since been transformed into an exceptional golf venue.
The stone clubhouse is the former workshop and garage of Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls Royce Company. The house, a Victorian country mansion is magnificent, but it’s the golf course that people come for. The club opened in 1982, with – bizarrely enough – Greg Norman attached as their early touring professional. Nowadays, the Rolls is regarded as the ultimate venue for dozens of golf societies in these parts who visit through the year – the treat.
It’s a treat because the course is perfectly maintained with each hole presenting a different challenge. It’s a classic parkland course, weaving across the hill with the Black Mountains forming a wonderful backdrop. There are huge oaks and undulating greens. The course is not ridiculously long, but it is fair and a real test for of all aspects of your game. The opening par four sets the tone for the round – a quite majestic hole played through a defined corridor of tall trees and one that demands two well struck shots to reach the green. And, for many, that’s where the fun really starts. For at the Rolls, it is the quality of the greens – pure, smooth and very slick – that perhaps offers the course its best protection. And it is that same quality of playing surface that brings golfers of all handicaps coming back time and again to experience the pleasure of golf in such a setting.
The round culminates with a par three. Standing on the tee the view is inspiring – a hole of around 200 yards with the historic manor house forming the backdrop. This is perhaps the most dramatic – and most dangerous – finishing hole in Wales.
From the Rolls we drive just 30 miles south of Monmouth, a journey that has you running parallel with the English border, to arrive at the ancient Roman settlement of Venta Silurumat Caerwent. A mile south of Caerwent is Dewstow Golf Club & Gardens, a place that ought to be the contemporary model for all clubs up and down the country thanks to the way in which manager John Harris has continually developed and diversified his operation to stay ahead of the game. Since opening in 1988 the club has added a top-class restaurant along with a venue that has won local acclaim for live music- and that’s in addition to two very fine golf courses, both of which are hugely popular with locals (from both sides of the border!). Neither of them are particularly long – the wooded Valley course is just 6,091 yards – and yet both pose a challenge for low handicappers while being great fun for all. The Park course is flatter, a little longer, and boasts a number of unusual features: the 6th is the only par six hole in UK, while at the 15th you encounter a 60-foot totem pole in the middle of the fairway.
One thing you’re always guaranteed at Dewstow is a warm welcome, and by all accounts the members need little excuse to throw a party. There will be activities here throughout the year in the run-up to the Ryder Cup – check their website for details. Oh, and for the horticulturalist, there’s a further treat in store: the Victorian Hidden Gardens and Grottos of Dewstow House were discovered in the grounds a few years ago and are now a tourist attraction.
Heading west along the M4 (beware rugby players in golf buggies!) you reach the Newport turn-off after just 15miles. On the right it’s impossible to miss the Celtic Manor resort, rising like a medieval castle out of the cliffs. Although this is the focus for Welsh golf this year if you travel a few miles east you arrive at Newport Golf Club with its symbol of the Great Oak.
The club is a traditional one. Founded in 1903, Newport retains its standards and values and has a warm, settled, comfortable feel. Changes have been made recently, both to the Clubhouse and the course. And it strikes you they have been implemented with a great deal of thought. The course is not over-golfed,members are very well looked after and there’s an unmistakable air of calm about the place.
The course, in a word, is ‘lush’. Built around the ancient Llwyni Woods – which has been in existence since 1600 A.D. – the fairways are undulating and the greens fast and tricky. The course is traditional in length, at around 6,500 yards, but to score well requires a thoughtful approach and an accurate iron game. There’s little water to speak of but there are 78 strategically placed bunkers to navigate. Mature trees line the fairways and give the course an exclusive, peaceful feel. Always immaculately maintained, the course is host to a number of professional and top amateur events through the season.
There’s a lovely (and generous) balance with five par fives, five threes and eight par fours. Many holes are fairly narrow and require precision rather than power. The 11th is typical of the course, a 374 yard par four played as a slight dogleg, and superbly framed through an avenue of trees.
The par threes are particularly appealing, and as early as the second you face the ‘signature’ hole with a pond protecting the green. The 14th is another standout hole, a lovely par three completely surrounded by bunkers.
The lasting impression of Newport Golf Club is one of leisurely and classy golf. Not a bad combination in my book. From Newport we make north along the Usk valley and toward the heart of the Welsh Eastern Valley region.
This area is synonymous with coal, iron and rugby. The coal and iron has all but disappeared over the last half century but the passion for the national sport remains. To get to Pontypool Golf Club you climb up – and up – the mountain until you reach the club perched on top, at the southern tip of Brecon Beacons National Park. Given its location you won’t be surprised to learn your journey will be rewarded with stunning views stretching across the Bristol Channel to Minehead on the Somerset coast and even beyond, as well as a wonderful panorama of Pontypool and valley towns and villages in all directions.
The club was formed in the same year as Newport Golf Club and is a friendly, welcoming place with around 500 members. Without hesitation, club secretary Les Dodd describes the course as ‘parkland golf on a hill!’. And it’s exactly that. The course uses the contours superbly as it weaves its way across the mountain top. It’s a challenging par 69 and the yardage – 6,000 – is virtually irrelevant. Uphill, downhill, into the wind, sailing with it – you get the lot here. There’s immense variety to be enjoyed and it’s fantastic value. And, as the title of the Centenary book declares, “There’ll be a welcome in the hillside.”
Moving southward down the parallel Ebbw valley you approach the flatness of the coastal plain. On the western outskirts of Newport (and the eastern outskirts of Cardiff) you find the small suburb of St. Mellons. However, it can be quite tricky to find St Mellon’s Golf Club. It’s fairly well hidden away, ironically, between South East Wales’ two largest cities, Cardiff and Newport (there are holes within each city’s boundaries). But the effort to get there is more than worthwhile. For the course at St Mellons was designed by none other than Harry Colt (in 1937) and it’s a delight.
The holes are beautifully framed with well designed fairways, and spectacular views over the River Severn, especially from the 6th and 16th. St Mellons has been a members club since 1964 and the members are quite justifiably proud of it. The memorable par three 3rd hole is named ‘Cotton’s Choice’ after three time Open champion Henry Cotton described it as one of the best par three holes he’d ever played.
Travelling through – or more speedily around – Cardiff takes us to Penarth, an exclusive, tree-lined suburb of the capital city. The Glamorganshire Golf Club was the fourth to be opened in Wales and the first in South East Wales It was established in 1890 when Lord Windsor donated land to the newly formed club for a nominal rent. The course is not particularly long but can prove extremely difficult as it twists around Down’s wood. Such is the layout that it’s rare for two consecutive holes to be played in the same direction. You’re driving into the wind, then playing against the wind, then across, not giving you a chance to establish a rhythm.
The view from the 16th green is stunning – overlooking the Bristol Channel to Weston-super-Mare. Apart from the hill leading to the 16th the course is relatively flat with a large variety of trees defining the narrow fairways. Originally there were over 200 bunkers but in 1933 the renowned golf course architect Tom Simpson redesigned the course removing a large number of them and planting more trees. There are still 80 bunkers to protect the greens but the course has became more subtle and a great deal more interesting.
The club is the birthplace of the Stableford scoring system devised by Dr. Frank Stableford at the start of the club’s history. He tested it out on the members on 30th September 1898. Dr. Stableford served in the Boer War and on his return continued to play at the club as well as Porthcawl and later Wallasey Golf Club in Liverpool, where his system of scoring eventually became accepted and increased in popularity.
The Glamorganshire is a familiar, well established and well-loved club in Wales and embraces its tradition. It’s a very social club with around 1,000members and a great deal of social and charitable activity.
A few miles north and a century further on there’s the vale resort, home of the Vale of Glamorgan Golf Club. This is the modern golf resort – new, shiny, brash, confident and luxurious. It’s a corporate and customer-focused operation and a highly professional one. In a number of ways – not least in their accessibility to all-comers – resorts like this and Celtic Manor are the future of golf in Wales. The resort is superbly situated a mile from the M4motorway. Its 650 acres are situated in the lush, rolling landscape of the Vale of Glamorgan on the site of the historic Hensol Castle estate. The complex consists of a hotel, spa and two superlative courses, both of which are open to visiting golfers year-round.
The Lake Course is the members’ course and the older of the two and a stunning 6,436-yard course built around the Lake. More than half the holes feature water with the ‘signature’ hole the par four 12th having the green positioned on an island.
The Wales National course is an enormous 7,433 yards, typical ‘American design’ course. The fairways are long and immaculately maintained. The greens are expansive – and fast – and the whole effect is magnificent. The course, barely seven years old, has already been the venue for a number of Challenge Tour events and the Wales Senior Open. An unusual feature here – and a refreshing one – is that players have the choice of playing from whichever tee they fancy. This has provided extremely popular with visitors and, as Golf Operations Manager Clive Coombes explained, there’s an added bonus in terms of saving on the tees: “The wear and tear on the tees is now fairly evenly divided as the load is spread between the four flights of tees.”
The course itself looks and plays splendidly. The 2nd is the longest par 5 hole in Wales at 607 yards. The 6th is an excellent par 4 risk and reward hole with a 200 yard carry to the green or a lay up and a wedge. The 14th, 15th and 16th are also exceptional holes around the lakes and are some of the best holes in the region. The club has a well-developed coaching scheme and a Ryder Cup centre of excellence venue. It is rapidly becoming one of the best clubs for juniors in Wales.
First published in Golf International Magazine May 2010