In which the purpose of the task is expounded and our Hero introduces his travelling companions
The aim of this series of blogs is to unveil some of delights of Welsh golf. There are 2492 golf courses in Wales, 1 for every 12 people and each of them unique (golf courses, not people). Some of them are incredibly unique. Some are more unique than others. This series will show each course through the eyes of some ordinary Welsh golfers. Some of them are more ordinary than others.
The cast of characters include some or all of the following;
Bryn – our hero – serious golfer – handicap 21 – will never be less than that because in the words of his brother, “ He thinks far too much”.
John – brother – younger – less serious golfer – handicap 12 – would rather hit a drive 301 yards than make an eagle putt – will never be less than 12 because he believes thinking about your shot, the line, the wind, the distance, is basically cheating. He would rather eat 4 golf balls than lay up on a shot of less than 250 yards. Always in a hurry.
Pensioner Steve – older (not wiser) – slow (not steady) – unofficial semi-professional golfer – living off the regular income from winning Saturday ball school money – handicap 17 – but I would bet on him against Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods if they played for cash. Always cold.
Andy – cousin – younger – wild – golf is an expensive hobby as it costs as much in lost golf balls per round as it does in green fees – handicap hovering between 10 and 28 depending on the wind, the course, the level of alcohol in his blood stream. Always optimistic (for some reason).
Dai Copy and Dai Proper – twins – Dai Proper the eldest by 7 minutes – good players but you can’t put them in the same group. Always twins.
Dai Snips – barber from somewhere in the Rhondda valley – nothing else is known about him, not even his handicap. An enigma, possibly.
There is no hard and fast rule about which courses should be included except these three hard and fast rules;
1. ‘The annual green fees of each course we visit should be less than the price of a four-ball at Celtic Manor on a Saturday in July.’
2. “If we don’t have to drive up a single track lane to reach the clubhouse, we don’t play it.”
3. “If there aren’t sheep on the course, or evidence of sheep on the course – it’s not a real course and we don’t play it.”
Undoubtedly the worst look I’ve ever seen on a golfer’s face came a month or so ago at Bargoed Golf Club. It was a normal friendly, tense, bickering, frustrating, but very entertaining Saturday morning Ball School. There were 4 in our particular group and, as is the custom, it was a stableford competition (For non-golfers Dr. Frank Barney Gordon Stableford a Glamorganshire club member invented the system and first tried it out on fellow members of the club on the 30th September 1898. He later went on to join Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. His system meant that golfers get 2 points every time they complete a hole as they should – subject to all the bracketed conditions further on).
Having played for many years the handicaps had sorted themselves out and we all tended to finish pretty close, most weeks. On this particular day, however, we had a newcomer, a brother of a friend of someone who worked with someone who was married to someone who knew my cousin. He was young, keen and excited. He looked out of place.
However, he was a very nice lad (i.e. anyone under 40 at our club is a lad) who had just taken up golf and was playing off 28. (For non-golfers you get awarded a handicap based on your current level of skill, honesty and ability to put up with the taunt ‘bandit’. If you have a handicap of 28 it means that Tiger Woods and you would be evenly matched on a round of golf if you had a 28 shot start…. Well not exactly as Tiger is probably off +10 or something, but theoretically a scratch golfer would give you 28 shots and you would tie).
None of our Ball School were scratch golfers although one of them, the one with the face (which I referred to earlier, and will come on to later) was playing off a handicap of 9.
The morning was progressing steadily and the scores were pretty close between our 9 handicapper and the newcomer. The rest of us suffered with the usual mixture of hangovers, bad lies, bad luck and over-optimism. After the 13th our 9 handicapper was on a steady 26 points, a few points behind the newcomer who lead the way with a worthy 28. The 14th hole is a fairly unremarkable but quite narrow par 5, stroke index 10 (For non-golfers all those numbers must sound a bit odd. Basically they mean that this was the 14th hole out of 18 , the target for a scratch golfer was to complete it with 5 shots and it was the 10th most difficult [stroke indexes relate to difficulty – Stroke index 18 being the easiest] hole).
The man with the face played the hole exceptionally well; nice drive, long iron, pitch and 12 foot putt to get his 3 points (for non-golfers, see Stableford bracket – keep up) and announce it calmly; “4 for 3” (i.e. four shots and 3 points). He now felt he had a distinct advantage, especially as he had seen the newcomer hook into the trees from the tee. We had all gone a-searching and found the ball under a branch. Somehow he managed to chip it back out onto the fairway. He then topped a three wood that still trundled 150 yards before it dived into the rough. We found this for him as well. He somehow managed to hack it back out onto the fairway. The next shot bent like a banana, looked like it was going out of bounds, hit a branch and plopped in the bunker at the right of the green. He found that one himself. He managed to get it out of the bunker by some means and it rolled and rolled to within a few feet of the flag. He strode up and confidently missed the putt by inches then backhanded it into the hole with a groan.
As we walked away from the green our newcomer was counting his shots. He counted them in the traditional golfing way by looking back up the fairway and mentally replaying the scenic route he had taken. We moved on to the next tee with the newcomer still counting. Our inane chatter stopped as the 9 handicapper strode to the tee, placed his ball and made a few practice swings. The newcomer looked up from his scorecard and quite calmly, quite loudly and quite shamelessly announced that he had still scored a point even though he had played the hole as badly as anyone ever had in the history of the game. His actual words were “8 for 1.”
The 9 handicapper stopped and turned around. Then came the look. The look was one of utter, utter disbelief. The face that had seen 52 years of pain and anguish took on a new expression. The face that had seen highs and lows, weddings and funerals, death and destruction was now resigned to life just not being fair and there was nothing he could ever do about it. It was a face that questioned God. He was practically in tears.
The remainder of the round he never scored a point. He spent the rest of the time wandering off into far flung corners of the golf course looking for his ball muttering under his breath. All we could hear were semi-crazed mumblings and the occasional manic laugh, “8 for 1; 8 for 1; 8 for 1.”
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was playing golf at St Andrews a few days after the death of her husband, Lord Darnley the previous Sunday (10th).Life was pretty shit for her. She had returned to Scotland from France and her Scottish subjects didn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifices she had made. There was even talk that she was implicated in her husband’s murder.On top of that she was having a bad round and needed cheering up.
She had just three-putted the easy 9th and her drive at the long tenth had ended up in the long, thick purple thistles. Her caddies had been sent in to find it and she’s set her watch for 5 minutes. Having found it she had hacked out then managed to hit her approach to the front of the long double green. She played well normally and had an advantage over many of her opponents – she was considerably taller, almost 6 feet, and so generated a fair amount of power, she had played a good deal of golf in France and Scotland. Also she was Queen. This tended to work in her favour when raising her eyes at her opponent looking for a three feet gimmee.
She walked toward the green with her company of courtiers, doctors, advisors , media consultants, psychologists, astrologers and cooks.She was nearing the ball when suddenly James Hepburn, 5th Earl of Bothwell approached her on horseback. He had a rod in his hand. It looked like a putter.
“Where did you find this?” she asked as he presented it to her.
“It’s local. It’s a present, your majesty from your loyal priest here at St Andrews.“
“Really?” she said as she held it and practiced a few swings.
“It has a history your Majesty, and he really would like it returned to the church.”
She sank the 44 feet put. Unsurprisingly the club was never returned.
Saint Regulus sailed for many years from Constantinople. He had many adventures before he was finally shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland.
At the same time King Oengus, son of Fergus, had been having a terrible few years. As King of the Picts he seemed to be was constantly at war with Ireland, England and Wales. He was in Civil War with other Picts, fighting Northumbrians and the Gaels. Things weren’t going too well and he was psychologically exhausted. Being a ‘tyrannical slaughterer’ was hard work.
One night he had a vision of a company of angels who promised to send him an apostle of Christ to defend and guard him.
The following morning Oengus and Regulus met on the beach.
“Finally I’ve arrived in Wales” Regulus announced.
“Uh, yes.said Oengus, “We’ve been expecting you.”
“You must be called Oengus, son of Fergus, named after the Celtic god of love and beauty; patron deity of young men and women.”
“Ah yes. That would be me.” Oengus replied, “But there is a reason I’ve been looking out for you?”
“How so?” asked Regulus warily.
“Last night I had a vision” the king announced.
Regulus’ heart sank. The last time he’d heard that sentence was four years ago and in the four years he’d endured all manner of hell sailing from Constantinople.
“Yes, A company of angels appeared to me telling me to build a church to keep the relics and staff of Andrew. They told me you would bring his bones and his club. I am to accept these from you, defeat all my enemies and build a magnificent church at Kilriment.” continued Oengus.
“Kilriment in Wales?”
“Uh yes that’s right.”
And so it came to pass as the angel with the sceptre at Constantinople had promised. Oengus prospered and built a church for Regulus at Kilrimont, Fife. Later called St Andrews.
“Regulus, my favourite monk. I’ve had a dream.”
“Emperor what is it?”
“It’s a series of mental images and emotions occurring during sleep. I thought you would have known that”
“I do know that. I mean – describe it,the dream, to me.”
“An angel appeared holding a sceptre looking like a walking stick and a very small white orb.”
“And he told me we had to move Andrew.”
“The angel dropped the orb, hit it with the sceptre and said that we had to deliver the relics to the West, in the utmost part of the known world.’”
“The angel told you that you had to move the relics to the most distant, uninhabitable part of the world.”
“No. Not me – you.”
“I should have guessed. So I’m off to Wales then.”
“Did the angel mention anything else?”
“Yes. You must take Andrew’s holy rod with you.”
“The stick he was buried with?.”
“Did the angel mention anything else?”
“Just one thing. Beware the one they call Daly.”
Regulus set sail that very evening.
“So, what was he like then, as a boss?”
“Good. A bit quiet, but really good to work for.”
“In what way?”
“Well. He just left you alone to get on with really. Trust. He trusted you totally. What more would you want in a leader?”
“Nothing…sounds good. You were the first weren’t you?”
“I was. Probably alphabetic”, he laughed
“….. and now the last.” he sighed.
It had been a hard ten years but now it was nearly over. The clouds were dark and the sea looked angry. They had been a month in Patras and their journey was coming to an end.
They walked further along the seafront towards the rocks. Andrew bent over to pick up a longish piece of driftwood and started examining it.
“Gopher Wood.” he announced
“Wasn’t that the wood from the ark?”
“It was,” announced Andrew as he started swinging it. Maximilla found some circular pebbles and before long the pair were hitting the pebbles along the deserted beach. The sun had appeared through the clouds and it seemed like this was the final perfect moment.
Suddenly the moment of peace and tranquillity was ruined as the wind sprung up and the waves crashed against the rocks they were walking on. Aegeas and twenty one men soldiers rushed forward and grabbed Andrew. They began dragging him away toward a decussate cross. He leaned over to Maximilla and resigned to his fate, whispered, “Remember these last moments”
The year of the inaugural Rider Cup saw the advent of the SMBS or to give it it’s full title the MBGC SMBS.
The original members were Ianto Rider, Fred the Bread (local baker), Aneurin Bevan and Keith. Over time most of the personnel have changed but the principles of fair play, respect, camaraderie and fairness are as distant today as they were nearly a century ago. This is Welsh valley’s golf. It’s not pretty, and it’s not English, It’s rough, raw and a bit sweary.
Every Saturday since 1926 there has been a Saturday morning ball school, apart from a brief period in 1941 when German bombers rendered the course unplayable. As a memorial to the war the course remains as it was after that day – harsh, unplayable, with a dozen 40 feet bomb craters lining the 5th fairway.
The principle rule of the SMBS is turn up, moan, pay up. Although it is now possibly illegal to pay for cash and still be considered an amateur there are members of the SMBS (well one) that has had to declare the SMBS as his primary source of income for tax purposes. The Club is fairly catholic in that any player born within a radius of almost 3 miles from the club, has a relative, or friend played and is willing to lose £1 a week for the first 6 months can take part. Under these restrictions it would be difficult to get a person non-eligible as it is a truism that there are only 3 degrees of separation between any Welsh person – fact.
There are rules, I suppose, although they tend to vary from week to week. There is however one constant – fun. You’re not allowed to have any. Over the past 8 decades there have been many SMBS members who have gone on to bigger and better things – amongst them Bradley Dredge, Ian Woosnam, James Dean Bradfield, Kathryn Jenkins and Ban Ki- Moon. All, in their way have contributed to making the world a nicer place – with the possible exception of Moony who left under a fairly substantial Cumulonimbus and still owes £1 (1,800 South Korean won) from his last game when he lost a bet and failed to make 4 after a great drive 80 yards short of the 18th.
Dredgie was a regular in the school in the 80s but was forced to move away from the area, turn pro and take a drop in wages after the 1991 scandal involved Dredge, Dai Snips and Keith. Nothing was ever proven and the Steiff bears were all eventually found and returned to the Museum of Childhood Memories.
Dai Snips who had a lucrative barber shop in the middle of Deri with celebrity clients including Julian Cope was forced to sell up and move to Calgary, Alberta, Canada where he became a butcher and business consultant.
Keith has missed just 7 of the 4,888 Saturday games and still uses the same tee he was given for the inaugural event by Ianto Ryder. Keith has played on the professional circuit, finished runner up in the Welsh Open on 3 occasions and has won 5 cars for holes in one in the past year alone. He is currently playing off 15. He hasn’t handed a card in since 1956 and has 7 children.
In 1924 a group of Llanfairfechan professionals arrived in South Wales looking for work, women, beer and sport. They had had a long drive from the North and had little money or food after the disastrous opening of the Welsh Highland Railway the previous year. All they had were their flock of torddu sheep they drove from field to field, town to town, pub to pub, jail to jail on their journey south. They wandered through the huge expanse of mid Wales to the industrialised valley towns of South Wales looking for work or lodgings for themselves and their sheep.
However there was very little work or lodgings available and they soon became despondent. After a few years of this they had a tip off telling them of the fields and caves of Brawdafad and with no other option started making their way along the mountain pass. On November 30th 1926 they arrived at the village of Mynydd Brawdafad and discovered the ramshackled, rundown, dilapidated golf clubhouse. It was perfect for them. The course was perfect for the sheep and here they found people they could relate to – fellow golfers, miners and people extremely knowledgeable about torddu sheep. They unloaded their gear in the pro’s hut and relaxed for the first time since lambing season. It was a regular Friday evening at Mynydd Brawdafad and the weekend was looming with the prospect of 2 days rest from the relentless search for work. Friday evening at the clubhouse is pretty much as it is today – slow and filled with a handful of men drinking beer and talking about the glories of yesteryear. The Northerners joined in willingly and after a few legal, then illegal beers with the regulars a wager or twelve was inevitably stuck and a weekend competition was agreed.
The travellers from Llanfairfechan played against the team of Mynydd Brawdafad seniors over two days in atrocious weather and won 13½ points to 1½ points. Ianto Ryder, a wealthy Welshman, who made his money from sheep, coal, raccoon coats and the Symington side lacers, played in the competition and at the Sunday post match celebrations drunkenly agreed to provide a trophy to encourage the match to be played on a regular basis.
The inaugural Ianto Cup match was played the following year at Mynydd Brawdafad Golf Club, and thereafter every two years, with the venue alternating between North and South Wales, as the Llanfairfechan team made their biennial sheep migration North, then South following the lay lines of centuries past. The matches were even played during the war years as many of the competitors were too old for the First World War let alone the Second.
The battle didn’t become the ferocious, bitter contest it has become today until the early 1970s. Up until this period The Northern ‘Gogs’ had been winning the contest regularly due to the advent of cutting edge technology and technique far beyond the reach of their Southern counterparts. In the 1930s it was the Northern team that used carbon / titanium composite drivers for the first time whilst the Southerners relied on niblicks and guppies. In the ‘40s the advent of plastic tees and ‘real time DVD analysis’ by the captain and his 4 assistants continued this winning spell as the Northerners regularly defeated the Taff rivals. The 1950s saw the South using balata golf balls for the first time but they inevitably succumbed to the Haskell balls with compressed air core of the North.
However by the end of the 1960s the technology had pretty much levelled out with both teams looking indistinguishable from each other with perms, check trousers and v necked sweaters. The North still had the edge although it was getting closer. By this stage there was pressure from the West Walians and their sponsers, ‘Glynhir Cyflenir Hwrdd’ to get involved in the 1971 the North incorporated the West Walian golfers predominantly from the Abertrallod Golf Club into their team as a means of handicapping them. It was decided that at least 4 West Walians competition. In would play for the Northern team this was designed as a means of making the matches more competitive. It seemed to work. At this juncture the legendary and best West Walian golfer, Dyl Siglen played off a handicap of 24 with borrowed clubs and lost his match 10 and 8. Suddenly it was a real contest.
Since then the contest have become closer and closer and whilst the West Walians in the North and West Wales team still haven’t had a player off single figures this has more than been compensated for by the North Walian regime of taking their best physical children at the age of 4 and rearing them in their Belarusian-style Golf Academy, Coleg Golff Llangefni for 61 years until they are eligible for the team. At present the score remains Southern Taffs 14 wins, Northern and Western Goggs 34 wins with one tied match. However in the past decade the score is 5 wins apiece and the biennial contest still held in November is the flagship event of the S4C calendar year (biennially). The Ianto Cup remains one of the few great Amateur sporting competitions in Wales that is played for no official prize money and a negligible amount of on-course betting. Last year it was voted 43rd most popular sporting event in Wales.
The course has plenty of wild life to crow about. It is a course scarred by nature and the ground staff (I.e. Ron Smith and son Ian) continually battle against nature. It was designed, or more accurately, hewn out of the landscape by Ron’s father’s father and a few friends drinking at ‘The Ram’s Revenge” over a hundred years ago on the back of a receipt. It’s not one of those classic Robert Tent Jones designed course where “our golf courses are of the earth but for the spirit.” It’s not a uplifting Jack Nicklaus course where the “number 1 goal in terms of creating individual shot values is to make the player use his mind ahead of his muscles — to control his emotions sufficiently to really think through his options before drawing a club from the bag”.
It’s a course where the war against nature has been fought every day for 31176 days and, for the moment at least, nature is taking second place.
It’s a mountain valley course hewn out of the Carboniferous Limestone against the unrelenting forces of nature. In the first years of the club electric wires were placed around the greens to keep the sheep and cattle off the greens. These are a thing of the past and today the wire is still used, but only as part of the armoury surrounding the car park against the marauding natives of Cwmbalc.
1. Bloods 2. Norte 3. Surenos 4. Crips marinating
On the course there are gangs of wild sheep bustin their moves along the fairways from nearby hoods with their dogs and they are are very tough Bloods indeed. Perhaps the more dangerous ones are the 4th fairway Crips and the 9th green Norte. There is an intense gansta rivalry for land. The other wildlife, the squirrel Thugs ‘n’ Harmony on fairway double 99 and the T’bird magpies are frequently seem marinating near the pond and the seventeenth. But it’s the sheep that have the respect. The sheep really are tough mothers.
I was playing with Dai Snips one day when he hooked a drive off the fourth tee straight at the rear end of a grazing sheep. The ball struck the sheep and split in two (the ball, not the sheep). I thought the force of the stroke would have stunned a fairly strong human and killed most sheep. The sheep stopped grazing. He turned around and stared at Dai with a patronising look as if to say, “Is that the best you’ve got?”, turned back around and continued ruminating.
The greens aren’t that green. At the last members and guest day they were measured as -1.5 feet on the stimpmeter uphill and +14 feet downhill. The greens are a mix of Bermuda grass, wolfsbane, slate, oleander, spinach and a local variety of angel’s trumpet. It’s not so much that they are fast, it’s that they’re invariably on a slope. On the 8th, for instance, the green in Escher-like in that every point on the putting surface leaves a slick downhill, left to right putt. Dai Snips a notoriously aggressive putter once scored an 8 on the par 3 12th having been on the green with his tee shot – This was the only occasion I’d seen anyone take a provisional putt.
On the par 4 tenth you have to send a scout out. The scout has to trudge 150 yards to the top of the ridge and keep an eye on the drive. It’s not that the terrain over the ridge is harsh, or particular sloping – it’s because the fairway has quite thick rough alongside it. The problem isn’t if the ball lands in the rough – at this point of the course the rough is not so bad. No, the problem is the gangs of school children hiding in the rough who will leave their hideouts in the rough to creep onto the fairway and steal your Pro V. It has been known for naïve visitors to buy their balls back at the end of the round via a third party (Johnny Sticks, the golf pro).
Brawdafad is a tough course, in a tough part of the world. the land was bought in early 1925 (year of the Ammanford Anthracite strike, founding of Plaid Cymru, birth of Ruth Ellis) and a few short weeks later was opened. A report from the local newspaper makes fascinating reading;
“At the opening ceremony Captain Dr. K. Rowlands asked Dr. Gwyn T. Bara, Chairman of the club to declare the course open. Dr Bara, their enthusiastic and highly efficient chairman was presented with a wonderful weapon, a golf driver, with which to drive a mighty ball from the first tee (laughter and applause). He thanked the lady and gentlemen of the committee for honouring him by asking him to open the course. He refered to the early beginnings of the club and its uphill struggles and said that were it not for the generosity of a local businessman, Mr. D. S. Snips of Aber Annwyd the club would never have reached its present state (enthusiastic applause).
Dr. Gwyn T. Bara explained that the situation reminded him of a remark Mr Ramsay Macdonald, the ex-premier made that ‘Life is like golf. The more you face the less you cover.’ (embarassed silence). Dr.Bara duly took the first hit on the course and hooked it through the clubhouse window.” –Brawdaf and Annwyd Valley Express Monday June 8th 1925
The club was bombed during the Second World War by a rather wayward squadron of German bomber. It was reported after the war that with all the bomb damage the course had never looked better.
It is a mountain course. It is rough and rugged and sheep-lined. It must be pretty much how many early Scottish courses looked. However, not many early Scottish courses were built alongside council estates. There is a scarcity of land at Brawdafad and every inch of the ground is used. It feels like someone has placed a full size snooker table in a small lounge. Each tee seems to be against a fence and at times it seems that you’ve barely enough room to take a full backswing.
The rough is very rough. Pensioner Steve once sliced a drive into the rough off the 6th tee and against all our advice went chasing after it. He disappeared from view for a good few minutes. Feeling slightly anxious we called out to him;
“Pensioner Steve have you found your ball?” we called.
“Not yet,” came the reply, “But I have found a golf bag and a set of clubs.”