Until the Ryder Cup of 2010 Wales would not have been a country people would naturally associate with golf. It isn’t Scotland, to be fair. The Ryder Cup played at the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, was a huge success with an estimated 615 million viewers around the globe. This single event put Wales on the map for golfers and visitors across the world. It catapulted Wales and Welsh golf into the world spotlight, finally.
Wales has had its fair share of great golfers over the years, from Dai Rees and Brian Huggett to Ian Woosnam and Jamie Donaldson. Wales, less publically, also has a number of exceptional, world renowned golf courses.
There are 176 courses in Wales and they cater for all golfers and all golfer pockets. There is a myth I was brought up with, that golf is a game for the elite. It was thought of as a game for doctors and bankers. There was the belief that you needed to be rich to join a golf club. There were, and in some cases still are, elements of that but this has been generally eradicated over the past few decades. Social change and television has meant that more children, and adults, believe they can play golf. In the past decade which has seen businesses struggling financially, golf courses have had to open their doors, challenges old habits of elitism and become professional in order to survive. Far more children now play golf in wales than ever before. Part of this is due to the number of Ryder Cup initiatives where an estimated 200,000 people in Wales tried out the game.
Wales has had a surprising long history of golf. The earliest recorded golf game in Wales seems to be at Tenby where a passage from the ‘Laws of Markets and Fairs’ (1875) tells of court proceedings being adjourned whilst the Mayor took time off to play golf. However, this claim as the first golf club is contested by Borth & Ynyslas which has evidence of golf from a similar date.
There are a number of quirky features for Welsh golf courses. For instance the West Mon Golf Course, Nantyglo boosts the highest in the United Kingdom with the 14th tee situated over 1500 feet above sea level. Or Llanynynech, which advertises itself as the only dual country course in Europe. On the 4th hole you drive in Wales and putt out on the green in England.
In the South West of the country there are two of the finest golf courses in the world,
Royal Porthcawl and Machynys. Both of these links courses are ranked in the top dozen courses in Wales. Royal Porthcawl is ranked number one in Wales, and 86th in the world, whilst the up and coming Maychynys course is already ranked just outside the top 10 courses in Wales.
These courses are incredibly different in so many ways but in other ways they are so similar. They are both links courses, that is golf course built along the seaside with numerous bunkers. They both appeal to the whole range of golfing abilities in different ways.
They were designed and developed over 100 years apart. Royal Porthcawl was designed and developed by golf professional Charles Gibson with other legendary golfers and course designers including James Braid, Open winner on 5 occasions, involved at various stages in the development.
Machynys was designed and developed by Gary Nicklaus on behalf of his father the legendary Jack Nicklaus, 18 major wins. The project cost an estimated £3.5 million and introduced 25 acres of salt and freshwater lakes, 12 miles of irrigation pipes and 6 miles of drainage pipes. It opened in 2005 and is an amazing development. Situated just outside Llanelli it is bordered by the Millennium coastal path and Carmarthen Bay to the south and the Wild Fowl and Wetlands Trust at Penclacwydd to the West.This gives the course a natural feel with water being a huge feature.
The club was opened less than a decade ago and was voted best new links course in 2010. In its brief history it has hosted a number of prestigious events, including the R&A Seniors Open Amateur Championship in 2012, the Ladies British Open Championship in 2013 and has become part of the Ladies European Tour holding the ‘S4C Wales Ladies Championship of Europe’.
The reason for the praise is the quality of the golf course. It is a spectacular, flexible, modern golf course that like all of the best courses changes frequently depending on the wind and the weather. Golfers have a challenging course to battle as the course navigates its way through the water, sand and marsh land.
It can be a tough course, especially when the wind blows. Although there is a fair amount of water to contend with, but it is fair. As a golfer you know where it is and need to avoid it. The greens are deep, slick and true. The course rewards good players with no hidden tricks which is all you can ask for really.
Beyond the course there is the club house. This attractive, modern building is the centre for the golf, spa, restaurant, conference centre, bar and pro shop.
Less than 30 miles south east from this modern icon is a golf course that was opened over a century early yet embodies the same challenges and excitement to golfers. Royal Porthcawl was opened in 1892 and is as traditional a golf club as you can get.
The course was founded by a group of coal and shipping businessmen from Cardiff in the later nineteenth century. It has developed with the wind and rain and the encouragement of many of the world’s top golf course architects, James Braid and Harry Colt amongst them. It is a typical natural links course changing subtly over the years like many of the finest Scottish courses.
On 30th march 1909 the club was given the rare privilege of being called ‘Royal’. It was just the 26th golf club to be granted that honour. The story of how that honour was attained is shrouded in mystery. However the result was a letter from the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone concluding that “after enquiry and consideration I have felt able to recommend the King to permit the club to use the title “Royal” and that His Majesty has been pleased to approve the recommendation.”
Perched on the Bristol Channel, subject to the winds and storms, playing Royal Porthcawl is a unique experience. You are so aware of the history, the traditions. It is the epitome of a links golf course. You can see the sea from every hole. The bunkers protect the course, which is not particularly long, by todays’ standards. The greens are superb and fast.
At Royal Porthcawl no two holes are played consecutively in the same direction. This may seem a minor point for non-golfers. For golfers it means you constantly have to adjust your swing and your aiming to allow for the wind.
The course has many remarkable features. On a clear, windless day it can seem to be an extremely benign course. However like many of the seemingly benevolent links courses the wind is rarely quiet for more than a few hours or days at a time.
There is a great passage in the writing of possibly the finest golf writer of all time, Bernard Darwin. He played Royal Porthcawl in 1910. On the first day there was no wind or rain and at the Welsh Championship meeting; “all sorts of wonders were observed. A competitor holed a full brassie shot and 3s were as plentiful as blackberries.” The following day conditions had changed. He continued;
“I remember being left with a putt of some eight or ten yards, and banging the ball past the hole with a light and careless heart, fully prepared to see it trickling in. Alas! The green was a little wet that morning and the ball stuck firmly on the opposite bank and refused to come back.”
It really is a special golf club. It consistently figures in the top courses to play by many magazines and professionals. It has hosted many leading amateur and professional tournaments, including the Walker Cup, the Amateur Championship (six times) Curtis Cup, European Team Championship, the Home Internationals, the Ladies British Open Amateur, Dunlop Masters. It’s the course where Tiger Woods lost his singles in the 1995 Walker Cup to Gary Wolstenholme and the USA team lost 14 -10.
Now it seems there is the possibility of Royal Porthcawl achieving the ultimate accolade for a British golf course – it is being seriously considered to hold the Open Championship. It was always felt that the travel infrastructure and lack of space around the course would never make this possible. It now seems these obstacles could be overcome and who knows, before 2020 Wales could hold its first Open Championship.
article with images first published in Cymru Culture 2014 :