The Worst Kept Secret in Wales

View from the 18th tee

I’m not sure I should be writing this. I may well be ostracised from the South Wales region of the Golf Societies Organisers. As with a number of organisations there is a certain amount of information that is classified. The Rolls of Monmouth is one of those pieces of classified information. It is the venue where a number of golf societies come for a special treat – usually the final outing of the year. But don’t tell anyone else – it’s confidential.

There are many reasons the Rolls of Monmouth is exceptional – the course, obviously but much, much more. There’s the location, probably one of the finest parts of country. It is set in the Monnow Valley, close to the town of Monmouth, at the confluence of the rivers Wye, Monnow and Trothy with spectacular views of the Black Mountains. The thousand year old market town of Monmouth and the story of The Rolls, contain a wealth of history – ancient and modern, drama, danger, death and destruction.

The market town of Monmouth dates back to the time of Roman settlement in Britain. Monmouth, just a few miles west of the English border has been the scene of a number of bloody encounters between the English and the Welsh throughout its history. The town was destroyed in the Battle of Monmouth and although not directly involved in the Glyndwr rebellion was an important stronghold. Notable features of the town include the only Norman fortified bridge remaining in Britain and the 12th century castle overlooking the River Monnow. This castle, developed by Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster in the early 14th century was the birthplace of Henry V in 1387. Geoffrey of Monmouth, educated at a Benedictine monastery in the was the author of a number of books including a fictitious history of Great Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae (1136), which included legends of King Arthur and King Lear.

If you follow the winding B4233 road to Abergavenny, west of Monmouth for a few miles you pass through the tiny village of Rockfield and the innocuous building that is the legendary Rockfield recording studios. Opened in the mid sixties as the first residential recording studio in the world it has been host to some of the finest artists of the past 40 years including Queen, Mike Oldfield, Adam and the Ants, Simple Minds, Manic Street Preachers, Nigel Kennedy, The Stone Roses, Coldplay, etc etc. A little further along the road and you will arrive at the impressive Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club.

As you enter the estate you will be overwhelmed by two aspects – the trees and the tranquillity, and then stunned by the magnificence of the Hendre Mansion House. The house was owned by the Rolls family from 1767 until 1987. John Rolls, MP for Monmouthshire 1880 to 1885 and later became 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 magnificent 900-acre estate as it is today.

The stone clubhouse is the former workshop and garage of Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls Royce Company. Charles Stewart Rolls was a remarkable man. He was a man with a real passion for speed and danger. Born in 1877 he was part of the late Victorian / Edwardian era of technological innovation. In 1904 he teamed up with Frederick Henry Royce and co-founded Rolls-Royce manufacturing firm. However his passion changed to flight and after a career as a balloonist he gaining his flying licence in 1903 (second licence granted in Britain) he became the first person to cross the channel in both directions in one flight. This passion for flying ultimately led to his death in a flying accident at Bournemouth. He was aged just 32 and was the first Briton to be killed in a flying accident. He is buried in the church at Llangattock-Vibbon-Avel, a mile from the estate. In the 1980s the estate passed from the Rolls family. In 1982 Ubis Planning designed and built the superb, classic parkland golf course.

The course is a mixture of old and new, traditional and modern. The course looks and feels mature. The course is set in mature parkland with huge oaks and mature avenues of trees. The route feels well-established as it winds it’s way around the immense estate. There are also modern aspects in that there are few blind shots on the course and each of the holes are different and have real character. This is perfectly illustrated in the par 3s. There are four par 3s – all very different to each other. The first, the 4th hole is a fairly straightforward 167 yard shot to a tight green surrounded by bunkers. The 13th, a downhill 190 yard to a long narrow green tricks you into believing once you’ve hit the green you’re job is over – it isn’t. The green is extremely tricky and the final hole, of which more later.

One of the things that strikes you when playing the course is the quiet. There could be a number of golfers out but there is rarely any noise. There is so much space and the holes so clearly defined that you feel you could be the only ones playing. The reason is the way the large 900 acres estate has been used. A number of courses in South East Wales valleys, seem claustrophobic. There is the feeling of restriction The courses have been built on sparse land and there is, naturally limited space. Tees and greens are pushed back to the edges of the courses. With this comes the feeling of constraint and limitation. The Rolls has space, lots of space, too much space. It’s nerve racking. It’s almost agoraphobic to a Welsh valley’s golfer like me – but in a nice way.

The true secret of the Rolls of Monmouth golf course however are the greens. The greens are always perfectly maintained and immaculate. They are extremely difficult, fast but fair. Simon Aston, golf professional at the club believes these are the strengths of the course. He maintains that, “the greens offer the best possible protection for the course”. This is one of the reasons the course doesn’t need a mass of bunkers around each green, or excessively tight pin positions. Golfers need to think carefully about every shot. It’s not enough to get on the green and assume you will 2-putt. You need to think carefully about where you want to be on the green. The whole of the course needs careful management. It’s a course you need to play a number of times to get to grips with. It’s the reason that when you finish a round you can’t wait until the next time you play it. It’s a course where you need to keep learning, in order to keep score well.

The round culminates with the par 3, 18th. Standing on the tee you see the final flag 224 yards in front of you over a lake with the historic manor house forming the backdrop. This is perhaps the most dramatic, and dangerous, finishing hole in Wales.

You have to hit your shot between trees on the left and a stream on the right, over a small pond onto a fantastic green. The setting is superb and a fitting finale for a challenging, thoughtful, wonderful round of golf.

The Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club
The Hendre,
Monmouth, Monmouthshire NP25 5HG

Golf professional – Simon Aston

Office manager – Linda Kedward

6733 yards par 72


Celtic Manor Resort: extract from ‘Tenby to Celtic Manor: A History of Golf in Wales’

 CMR_TwentyTen_KM_18th_c (2)

Celtic Manor resort– Founded 1995

In 1888 one of the factors behind the opening of Tenby golf club was to attract visitors to the town. Once there they would stay in the hotels, spend money in the town and enjoy the golf. There is obviously an element of that at Celtic Manor resort. To assume that the whole venture is solely a money-making scheme would be as naive as believing it’s a totally philanthropic exercise on the part of Sir Terry Matthews.

Sir Terry Matthews is Celtic Manor resort. In the same way that the coal barons of Cardiff and Penarth bought and developed land in Cardiff and Porthcawl for their sport, so Terry Matthews, virtually single-mindedly has done the same with his golf resort. The parallels with early golf club founders are obvious but so are parallels with the modern day moguls, the football club owners. Terry Matthews is the Roman Abramovich of Welsh golf.

There is a great deal to admire about the way the resort has developed. Throughout the development there has been a willingness to share with other golf clubs in Wales.

Jim McKenzie, Director of Golf Courses and Estates Management, is passionate about the good Celtic Manor can do for golf in Wales. Greenkeepers visit the club to look at different techniques, secretaries visit to network and talk about the future. Jim quoted Einstein’s definition of insanity “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This was the way some clubs in Wales behaved. Golf needs to change in order to survive.” He talked about the £2 million Ryder Cup legacy fund has helped golf clubs throughout Wales. It was set up to encourage players new to the game to play golf. There have been projects from Caernarfon to Carmarthen. There have been projects such as the Driving Change training programme designed to help club officials.

“But more than that,“ he added “there seems to be more of a sense of a Welsh golfing community”. He feels that golf had to become more business focused, “Golf alone is never enough to sustain golf these days.” Jim’s passion is obvious as he talks about the unique opportunity we have in Wales, “Tiger Woods made golf cool. Youngsters have become interested in golf. This is a great chance for golf. “ Unsurprisingly, behind much of the Celtic Manor values and approach is the business philosophy of Matthews. A number of the initiatives are training courses, partnerships, with the emphasis being on working with golf clubs not giving handouts. The quote from Sir Terry Matthews seems to encapsulate this, “I like things to be profitable and sustained, then they are stable and last a long time. If they are not profitable they will eventually die.”


It’s easy to forget that Celtic Manor is a golf club. It has several hundred members, monthly competitions and Gareth Edwards as the honorary captain .It’s easy to forget because the Celtic Manor is primarily a resort. It’s a golf club but more. It’s unlike any golf club I’ve ever been to in Wales. It’s impressive. There are estimates that it has cost £200 million to build. It looks like it has. It’s cathedral quiet, non sexist, non ageist. As a lady or a junior you can play the same times as the men. It costs a lot of money to join. It’s expensive. It’s almost too perfect.


The focus of Celtic manor resort is the Manor House. This was built by Thomas Powell in 1860. Thomas Powell was the largest coal nine owner in South Wales and the biggest coal exporter in the world at the time.  The house changed from this to a hospital. It was here in 1943 that Terry Matthews was born.  Thirty something years later and the story goes that Sir Terry was driving back from Cardiff to London and saw the old hospital where he was born up for sale. His company, Celtic Inns Ltd purchased the derelict Manor House in 1980. Although there is a tinge of romance there the venture is a commercial venture. Sir Terry saw the potential in the site and has invested a massive amount on the project.  Now, almost 30 years later the resort now has; a 19th-century 69-bedroom 4-star hotel; a 334-bedroom, 32-suite luxury 5-star hotel; 2 Presidential suites;a 1500-delegate conference suite; an exhibition hall; 40 function rooms ; 5 restaurants ; 4 bars; 2 health clubs; a shopping centre; 2 tennis courts; a golf training academy and 3 Championship golf courses.


The Roman Road championship course was built by the late Robert Trent Jones Sr. around the many Roman roads that cross the area. It hosted the Wales Open in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Robert Trent Jones Sr., was born in Aberystwyth and has designed over 500 golf courses. They include Firestone in Ohio, Spyglass Hill in California and Valderrarma in Spain. He was an advocate that golf should be a “no risk, no reward” sport. The par 59 academy course for beginners, Coldra Woods was opened in 1996 and later replaced by The Montgomerie. This was also designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. which was described as “one of the finest short courses in Great Britain.” The Wentwood Hills course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1997 had a number of changes due to the opening “ski-slope holes” and difficult climbs.  The Montgomerie opened in 2007 and incorporates elements of the Coldra Woods and Wentwood Hills courses. It was designed by Colin Montgomerie. Montgomery has designed a traditional parkland course that has elements of a links course – deep pot bunkers for instance.  Under the supervision of architect Ross McMurray of European Golf Design the course for the Ryder Cup is the Twenty-Ten. The course has been specifically designed for the 3 day event 1-3 October 2010. The course is designed to be exciting and watchable. There are water hazards on 9 of the holes and great visibility for spectators. It’s set in a “big, wide, windy and largely treeless bowl of the Usk Valley” It’s believed that 15 – 20,000 spectators will be able to see the 18th. Ross McMurray,“We wanted to create a fantastic stage for the players to walk down.”

Origins of Ryder Cup – extract from “Tenby to Celtic Manor”

In 1926 a group of American professionals arrived in England to play in the Open Golf Championship at Wentworth. They had time on their hands while they waited for the Open to begin. To kill time they competed against a team of British professionals, but lost 13½ points to 1½ points.

Samuel Ryder, a wealthy Englishman, watched the competition, and agreed to provide a trophy to encourage the matches to be played on a regular basis.

The inaugural Ryder Cup matches were played the following year at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, and thereafter every two years, with the venue alternating between England and America. In 1973 the Cup was played for in Scotland for the first time, at Muirfield, and in 1979, after a period of American supremacy, it was decided to include European players in the competition. Since then the contest have been close, and the score remains Europe 7 wins, America 7 wins, and one tied match.

The Ryder Cup remains one of the few great sporting competitions that is played for no prize money.

October 2010 will see the Ryder Cup held in Wales, for the first time ever. The Ryder Cup is a three-day competition between teams representing Europe and the USA. It is the third biggest sporting occasion on earth, surpassed only by the Olympic Games and the football World Cup. It is watched by billions of people across the world. In 2010 the matches will be played on the Celtic Manor Resort’s new ‘Twenty Ten’ course in Newport, Wales: the first golf course specifically designed to host the biennial event.

But golf in Wales does not begin and end with the 2010 Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup will obviously be fantastic for Wales, for tourism, for the economy, but for golf itself the hope is that it will bring world recognition that Wales is a great place to play golf. Although there are fewer than 200 Golf Clubs in Wales, compared with over 7,000 in the rest of the UK, the diversity and beauty of the courses is superb. It is hoped that more people will realise that golf in Wales can be a rich and varied experience, every bit as exciting as golf in Scotland or Ireland.


“Tenby to Celtic Manor”- My Book – What It Is, What It Isn’t

Tenby …..

My book, “Tenby to Celtic Manor.” (Carreg Gwalsch) (on sale from 31 July) is not;

a travel book detailing the 160 mile journey along the A4218, A478, A477, A40, A48, M4, A48 (again),  and B4236 between the South West seaside town of Tenby and the imposing Colditz-style fortress on the eastern side of Newport that is Celtic Manor;

a golf instruction book that includes an opening chapter about your grip with illustrations, a chapter dealing with the 10 most common faults all solved by hitting the ball close to where you’re aiming, chapters called, “Putting – The Game Within A Game”, “Understand Your Swing” or “Warming Up Before Your Round”;

A book with a foreword by a famous player I’ve never met (the best I could hope for is Bradley Dredge as my mum knows his mum, slightly) and as a member of Bargoed Golf Club my other link would be that I’ve had a drink or two in the Bradley Dredge lounge;

a book of colour illustrations of me, or more likely Bradley, shot on a Spanish golf course standing in a gorgeous yellow sandy bunker looking wise.

Reviews of the book will not be the same as the reviews of many golf books found on the shelves.

Reviews will not say;

“this book is the defining point of a lifetimes’s theories… free from jargon… contains everything you will ever need to know ” -‘100% Golf’, David Leadbetter;

(the book is) “offering a fast track to a lower handicap for all” – ‘The Golf Instruction Manual’, Steve Newell;

“this eye-opening tutorial will empower golfers” – ‘The Negotiable Golf Swing’, Joseph Laurentino.

People will not say the following about my book;

“this masterpiece of simplicity offers a fast track to a lower handicap for all…each chapter offers fascinating insights that are guaranteed to save you shots. – P. Alliss ;

“it’s about as funny as someone shouting ‘one’ when your ball falls off the tee. – B. Forsyth”

“when I started reading this book I rarely broke 100. By page 10 I was playing in single figures. By chapter 5 I had won the weekly club stableford competition 3 times. A week later I was playing off scratch. By the time I had finished it I was on the professional circuit…… I can thoroughly recommend it. – B. Dredge ”.

What the book is a history of golf in Wales illustrated by a range of diverse golf clubs, with a number of themes running through the book; the role of women, religion, industry, poverty and class.

Extract 1: Acknowledgements

“This book is a selective trawl through the history of Golf in Wales to the present day. I’ve tried to get a mix of large Clubs and small Clubs, members’ Clubs and owners’ Clubs, urban Clubs and rural Clubs. This is a snapshot of golf as I saw it and heard it in the summer of 2010 in Wales.

Many thanks are due for the help, support and patience I’ve had from the Golf Club managers, secretaries, captains, members, Club historians and professionals across Wales. Special thanks to the people who have patiently hunted for papers in the backs of cupboards, answered my queries, sent me notes, records, books and photos.

Particular apologies to the club officials who don’t find their Club in this book. In attempting to give the widest range of Clubs in Wales I’ve had to be incredibly selective – sorry. “

Extract 2 : Origins of golf

The last fifty years of the Victorian era were a time of dramatic change for Wales. The population virtually doubled between 1851 and 1901. In 1851, 35 per cent of the population of Wales earned their living in agriculture. By the early twentieth century this was down to 10 per cent. In 1850 almost all elected MPs were members of the land-owning classes; by 1914 only three of the thirty-four MPs representing Welsh constituencies were part of the landed gentry. The rôle of women was about to change, as was the power of the Church.
Golf, and sport in general, reflected of the changing times. In 1876 the Football Association was formed in Wales. In 1881 the Welsh Rugby Union was formed. In 1888 Glamorgan County Cricket Club was founded. In 1895 the Welsh Golfing Union was formed with a meeting of seven existing Clubs: Tenby, Porthcawl, Swansea Bay, Glamorganshire, Caernarvonshire, Borth-Ynylas, Aberdovey and Merionethshire…

… to Celtic Manor

Celtic Manor

Celtic Manor Isn’t the only Golf Course in Wales: A Journey Around South Wales

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.

View of 18th green

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.


View from 18th tee

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.


View from 13th tee

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.

View across Ponytpool golf course

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.”

St Mellons

View of 9th green

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.

Club house at the Glamorganshire

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.

Twilight at the Vale

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

The Story of ‘Royal’ Porthcawl

Porthcawl is situated 30 miles west of Cardiff and 22 miles east of Swansea. It is set on the South Wales coast overlooking the Bristol Channel and, with a number of beaches around the town, has evolved into a seaside town since the Victorian era and remains one of Wales’ most enduring holiday resorts.

1st Hole at Royal Porthcawl


Royal Porthcawl is undoubtedly the most prestigious golf club in Wales. It originated when a group of Cardiff businessmen met to form a golf club in 1891. Many of the founders were involved in the export of coal and in other shipping activities. This period was extremely fruitful, as many made fortunes over the preceding decades. The coal from the valleys was plentiful and in much in and many coal and rail entrepreneurs and owners acquired a great deal of wealth.

Between 1851 and 1901, Cardiff increased its population sevenfold and the city was the place where many of the wealthy merchants of South Wales and southern England eventually settled. During this period where workers had their rugby clubs, the business owners were looking to build a place for their sport. Thus, the Golf Club at Porthcawl was set up by a number of businessmen and built on traditional Victorian values, espousing “positive, moralistic and upstanding.”

On November 13, 1891, the first meeting took place to decide the club rules and a place for a golf course. As many of the founder members made their living through exporting coal from Cardiff and Barry Docks, they were familiar with the coastlines around these towns. Not surprisingly, they settled on Porthcawl, an 18th-century coal-exporting center and a place that was just beginning to become a popular tourist destination.

Early lists of members read like a “Who’s Who” of the rich from Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. On the members’ register at 1895 are many ministers, solicitors, army and navy officers, doctors, professors, and even Lord Tredegar of Tredegar Park, Newport. The club still seems aware of what a special position it has, and the place has developed an atmosphere of exclusivity that goes with the knowledge that Royal Porthcawl is the best.

The staff is polite, courteous and a little deferential. There is a sense of awe when you enter the changing rooms, almost like that of walking backwards into a Victorian Era, with a feeling of “class” permeating the place. It seems to be something that goes with the club, its members and buildings. The rest home next to the clubhouse is where the famous nurse Florence Nightingale worked; the walls in the bars and changing rooms are filled with photographs of famous members and visitors.

As John Hopkins wrote in “Golf Wales” (Graffeg, 2007) of Royal Porthcawl’s members: “For well over one century they have hung their jackets on hooks that look as though they are over one-hundred years old, sat on benches that have served thousands of golfers down the years and noted the memorabilia that surrounds them – the photographs of the club captains for example, the portrait of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales, who would become a patron of the club.”

This sense sets Royal Porthcawl apart from most other Welsh clubs, but it may be a problem in the future. As golf becomes a more and more democratic and populist game, will Royal Porthcawl be able to survive charging over £100 a round and recruiting new members by invitation-only? I suspect the answer will be “Yes.” Modern business theory would say that although 99% of businesses survive by being “fit,” lean, dynamic and flexible, there is still the 1% – Ferrari, Harley-Davidson, BMW, Gibson Les Paul, St. Andrews and Royal Porthcawl – that survive by being “sexy,” unique, timeless and prestigious.

1995 U.S. Walker Cup Team at Royal Porthcawl

The fact that the club hasn’t got the necessary infrastructure, transport systems, space, hospitality accommodation and other facilities to hold major tournaments seems a double-edged sword. No doubt, some are pleased the Royal Porthcawl can resist the change. Others, however, feel differently.

Leo McMahon, writing in “Royal Porthcawl 1891-1991,” sums it up: Regrettably shamefully, short-sightedly or mercifully, depending on one’s viewpoint, Royal Porthcawl has not had these ingredients (the infrastructure) in measure enough to attract much in the way of professional golf in recent years, while in years gone by there was probably little fire in Members’ bellies to pay much heed to professional golf.”

Nonetheless, it’s rated the top course in Wales and has a place in the prestigious “Top 100 Golf Courses in the World.” Royal Porthcawl 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 (eight times), the Ladies British Open Amateur, Dunlop Masters, the Penfold and the Coral Classic. It’s the course where Tiger Woods lost his singles in the 1995 Walker Cup to Gary Wolstenholme and the USA team fell 14-10 to Great Britain and Ireland.

Walter Hagen Teeing off at Royal Porthcawl

“Royal” Porthcawl

“The Lord Mayor of Cardiff received the invitation that it was the intention of His Majesty to confer the title ‘Royal’ on the Porthcawl Golf Club. This is the result of efforts which have been made for months past by Mr. Wyndham Jenkins, captain of the Club, to secure Royal recognition of the institution.” South Wales Daily News, 1 April 1909

How the “Royal” came about remains a mystery. The documentation that exists shows that the club had petitioned for the designation before, but the reply from the Home Secretary of the time, Herbert Gladstone, indicated that this was not likely to happen: “Having regard to the precedents which govern such grants, after careful consideration I am unable to advise His Majesty to grant the desired privilege.”

However, just six months later a letter arrived, again from Gladstone, this time informing the club 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.”


In the excellent centenary book, “Royal Porthcawl 1891-1991,” there are a number of excerpts that give a flavor of the club and the attitude of the members:

“Over the years it was decided to allow men into the Ladies’ room after 6.00 p.m. and on weekend afternoons. However, this is not encouraged and very few gentlemen visit.

“In 1969 it was decided trouser suits would not be worn in the clubhouse as they might be offensive to the men.

“During the First World War all commanding officers and the officers of the Regiments stationed in the area were made honorary members. This was stopped in 1919.

“In 1943 American troops were stationed in Porthcawl and their officers were made honorary members.”

Royal Porthcawl’s Lord Glanely


One of the early club presidents was William James Tatem (1915-1942), who later became Lord Glanely. He was born in Appledore, North Devon, and became one of the richest men of the day having founded the Tatem Steam Navigation Company. He became a director of most of the shipping companies operating from Bute Docks, Cardiff, which further increased his wealth. He was a racehorse owner, chairman of University College Cardiff, High Sheriff of Glamorgan, and by all accounts a buccaneering figure. How he gained his peerage has become the stuff of legends. He allegedly handed over a check for £50,000 to the political organizer working for David Lloyd George. The organizer asked Mr. Tatem why the check was signed “Glanely.” Tatem replied; “Because my name is going to be Lord Glanely, and if it isn’t, you won’t be able to cash that check.” He became Baron in 1916 and, in 1918, gained a peerage as the 1st Baron Glanely of St. Fagans.

In 1919, Tatem had two horses entered in the Derby. His favorite steed – which he told everyone – and the race favorite, was Dominion. His other horse, Grand Parade, who he secretly bet on, romped home at 33-1 odds. His horses also won every other classic, including 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger.

Lord Glanely died in a bombing raid on Weston-super-Mare, Somerset in 1942.

The Approach to the 2nd Hole at Royal Porthcawl
(the above photos are courtesy of Royal Porthcawl)

The Course

Porthcawl is a typically demanding, seaside-links course. It was originally designed by Charles Gibson and later renovated by Tom Simpson. A feature of the course is that the sea is visible from every hole. The views are magnificent.

The course is designed to test golfers as the holes continually change direction to play against, with and across the wind, and it is frequently very windy here. The layout offers no protection from the wind in the form of trees or high dunes. The magnificent greens are fast and difficult. As McMahon describes the speed of the greens: “Putting into bunkers is quite commonplace, and one renowned lady golfer of yesteryear is alleged to have lost her ball putting downhill and downwind on the fifth green.”

From the back tees the par-72 course measures 6,740 yards. For many Welsh club-playing amateurs, it is their “Augusta National,” the place to play before they die. There is an aura about the club, and it is special.

As Michael Williams wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Royal Porthcawl epitomizes all that is best about the game, as it once was, even down to a creaking clubhouse that is as unchanging as the magnificent links and unrivaled hospitality.”

Golf in Wales

Opening day of Newport Golf Club, 1903 (courtesy Newport G.C.)

Golf in Wales will not begin and end with the 2010 Ryder Cup. There are other courses in Wales apart from Celtic Manor. There are also golfers in Wales not called Ian Woosnam. For a country the size of 8,000 square miles (smaller than all American states apart from Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island), and a population of just under 3 million, there are 176 golf courses. This is perfectly adequate for our needs – after all, we’re not Scotland are we?

However, the Ryder Cup will come to Wales in October 2010 and, for a week or so, Wales will be the focus of the golfing world. For any golfer that has been trapped in a bunker for the past decade or so, the Ryder Cup is a three-day competition between teams representing Europe and the U.S. It is the world’s third-biggest sporting occasion, surpassed only by the Olympic Games and soccer’s World Cup and watched by billions around the world. In 2010 the matches will be played on Celtic Manor Resort’s new “Twenty Ten” course in Newport, Wales, the first facility specifically designed to host the biennial event.

Llandrindod Wells Ladies Day
(1910 – courtesy of Llandrindod Wells)

Sir Terry Matthews

In the same way that the coal barons of Cardiff and Penarth bought and developed land in Cardiff and Porthcawl for their sport a century ago, Sir Terry Matthews has virtually single-handedly done the same with his golf resort. Sir Terry Matthews is Celtic Manor Resort.

Matthews, a high-tech entrepreneur, has dual Canadian and British citizenships. He was born in Newport, Wales, in 1943 and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He commutes regularly between both countries and became Wales’ first billionaire when he sold Newbridge Networks to Alcatel for over $7 billion.

Thirty or so years later, Sir Terry was driving back from Cardiff to his home in London and saw the old hospital where he was born up for sale. He purchased the derelict Manor House in 1980 along with the surrounding woods and fields. In the following decades he built the resort and hired the world’s best golf course designers, including Robert Trent Jones Sr., to fulfill his dream of bringing the Ryder Cup to Wales for the first time in the event’s 82-year history.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the resort has a 19th-century, 69-bedroom four-star hotel; a 334-bedroom, 32-suite luxury five-star hotel; two Presidential suites; a 1,500-delegate conference suite; an exhibition hall; 40 function rooms; five restaurants; four bars; two health clubs; a shopping center; two tennis courts; a golf training academy; and three golf courses, one of which, the “Twenty Ten,” was built for the Ryder Cup.

Modern-day Aerial View of Llandrindod Wells
(courtesy of Llandrindod Wells)


The story of golf in Wales is one of resilience, and is imbued with a sense of not giving in. In a number of ways golf in Wales echoes the story of the country and the culture. For the past century and a quarter, every Welsh golf club has risen, fallen, risen, fallen – but survived. Virtually every one of the existing clubs has had to endure two World Wars, economic depressions, recessions and now, a world-wide credit crisis. Yet the feeling is that most clubs will get through it – somehow.


Perhaps the best example for me was the story of the smallest club I visited, Rhosgoch, Powys, while researching my book, “From Tenby to Celtic Manor: a Cultural History of Golf in Wales.” To get there I left the main Brecon to Builth Wells road and took a sharp right turn. I climbed the narrow road past Llandilo Graban, heading upward into the mountains overlooking the Wye Valley. I thought I’d taken the wrong turn as I passed field after field and more small villages: Llanbedr, Painscastle. Then I make another corner and find Rhosgoch Golf and Leisure Club.

This club is an example of the diversity of Welsh golf clubs. The nine-hole, 2,500-yard layout is a neighborhood center and a members’ club, while serving as the social focus of the community. There are 50 to 60 adult members and about the same number of juniors. On Saturdays, children from Rhosgoch Primary School play the course. Throughout the summer they receive lessons from a visiting professional, and compete in a monthly tournament.

The members run the bar, mow the greens, tidy the bunkers and put the flags on the greens. Norman Lloyd – the club secretary, club steward, bartender and anything else that needs doing – told me that the mower they bought a few months ago involved a bit of a journey as they had bought it on eBay. The facility was formed as a proprietary club in 1984. In 1998, the owner went bankrupt and 16 members bought the property. Since then it has been run as a community facility, with the land leased to the members, most of whom are farmers, builders and manual workers, all local.

The sign at the bar says: “There is no dress code; all that is required is respect for the course and courtesy to fellow golfers.”

(courtesy of Tenby GC)

Origins of Golf in Wales

The last 50 years of the Victorian Era (1850-1900) were a time of dramatic change for Wales. The population virtually doubled in this period. The Industrial Revolution hit the country and the people moved from the countryside to the towns. Suddenly, Welsh men and women had more time – especially the wealthy, and they began looking around for something to do with their leisure hours.

Golf and sport, in general, were symbols of the changing times. In 1876, the Football Association was formed in Wales. In 1881, the Welsh Rugby Union was founded. These sports were the activities for the working classes. In 1895, the Welsh Golfing Union was created after a meeting involving seven existing clubs: Tenby, Porthcawl, Swansea Bay, Glamorganshire, Caernarvonshire, Borth -Ynylas, Aberdovey and Merionethshire.

Golf was not a new sport for the Victorians, as there were reports of golf being played in Scotland as early as the 12th Century with shepherds knocking balls into holes with sticks (or knocking “chuckies” into “hawls” with “crummocks”). Eight-hundred years later, the chuckies may well now be Titleist Pro V1 and your “crummock” could have a polymer-cord, hybrid-black grip. Yet, essentially, it’s the same game: your task is to get the pebble into the rabbit hole with the least number of “cloots.”

The Coming of the Railways

By 1900, the largest impact on the game in Wales was the arrival of railways, which were used to transport coal, iron ore, goods, food and people. Railroads affected every part of Welsh life, with the Industrial Revolution giving holidays for the middle- and working-classes. Three seaside towns in particular were established as tourist centers: Aberystwyth, Swansea and Tenby. Not surprisingly, golf clubs sprang up around these and other tourist areas in Wales.

The tourist industry, although a large contributor to the boom in Welsh golf, wasn’t the only reason golf became a viable activity in the country. The other and perhaps more important driving force behind establishing a golf club was that like-minded business people wanted to play a course just among themselves. This was the mark of elitism in some towns, with waiting lists growing for interested members and a rigid selection process for who would be accepted to join the exclusive gentleman’s club.

The people running the courses and playing golf in the first half of the game’s Welsh history have been stereotyped, rather unfairly, as “the silly trousered brigade.” This alludes to the dress code and attire golfers traditionally had to wear. Whilst there was an element of “us and them,” it often belied a great deal of hard work and financial commitment that went into creating and maintaining a golf club, especially in the financially difficult years between the world wars.

Boom & Bust

The boom years of the 1960s and ’70s were great for golf in Wales. Demand outstripped resources and this period was a time when farmers and other landowners decided the game could help secure their futures, so more and more clubs opened and fields converted to driving ranges. Farms were changed into golf courses and the number of players increased exponentially.

However, the boom of the past 30 years has started to wane, with the international credit crunch affecting all aspects of life, and many golf clubs are facing real difficulties. A number of them had, to some extent, become lazy and complacent with full membership rosters and long waiting lists. If operational or capital costs went up, the club simply increased the fees, with some complaining by the members, but not much. After all, there was nowhere else for golfers to go.

However, as costs have continued to rise over the past decade and more clubs have opened, the waiting list numbers began to diminish. To address the situation, a number of clubs underwent transformations by realizing they were businesses and began acting as such. Yet for some clubs, especially over the past year or so, times have been very difficult. Yet all seem to be aware of the dangers and are working hard – and smarter – to keep golf alive.

Golf clubs are social centers for many towns and villages across Wales and no longer places where only the well-off go to quaff their “G and Ts.” It’s a sporting area, a community meeting place and often the focal point for residents.


Socially, golf clubs have generally realized that this is the 21st Century and that Victorian values are a thing of the past. The early disputes involved playing golf on the Sabbath and allowing drinking in the clubhouse. Today, this all seems a bit silly. Yet the same battle has been fought concerning the roles of women and youngsters. Most clubs say that this kind of discrimination is passé, yet females and juniors are often treated very differently. They have special times set aside to play, are not allowed to sit on all committees, and not allowed to enter competitions.

More and more clubs have had to realize that excluding women and youngsters is not just morally wrong but financially ridiculous. Today, many clubs are encouraging groups that were previously excluded, and not just women and children.


In 1888, one of the factors behind the opening of Tenby Golf Club was to attract visitors to the town. Once there, they would stay in the hotels, spend money in town and play golf. There is obviously an element of that at Celtic Manor Resort. It’s easy to forget that this place is a golf club, with several hundred members, monthly competitions and Gareth Edwards as the honorary captain. It’s a golf club and more, unlike any club I’ve ever visited in Wales. There are estimates it cost £200 million to build, and that looks like a fair assessment. The impressive venue is cathedral-quiet, non-sexist and non-ageist. As a lady or a junior, you can play the same times as the men. But it costs a lot of money to join. It’s almost too perfect.