Lessons Learned on the slight streets and fine fairways of Wales

"With a soft inland murmur. -- Once again/Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/That on a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky." - William Wordsworth

I arrived back in Toronto on Saturday night after a week of chasing golf balls in Wales. It was a fascinating, eye-opening trip that proved far better, at least in terms of golf and weather, than I expected. The wonderful Canadian Affair flight I took from Manchester to Toronto didn’t have a plug for my laptop, and the movie was in black-and-white on my communal screen, so it gave me time to think of what I’d done over seven days. In six playing days I managed ten rounds of golf. That included 36 holes of carrying my bag at Celtic Manor, Porthcawl/Pennard, St. David’s/Nefyn. Surprisingly I never felt run down after those days, though the Royal St. David’s/Nefyn day was a long one in that it also included three hours of driving all told. I shot in the high 70s six of ten rounds, not that it really matters. The best round was at Aberdovey, where I managed only five bogeys against a birdie and shot 75. I’ll always recall that course fondly, even its 18th hole, a 430-yard beast that I tried to better with two well hit 3-irons, got the best of me. I wonder if Titleist makes a 2-iron any more. Gotta check into that.

Anyway, here are my lessons learned. I’ll write about our final two rounds in England later this week.

  • If you’ve driven on the wrong side of the road enough, it isn’t that big a deal. I’ve done it six of the last 10 years and now find it simple.
  • The busiest course we were at was Celtic Manor. There is some affinity in the UK for North American-style golf. I don’t get it, but I’m also not going there to play those sorts of courses. That said, the 2010 course was not disappointing. In spots it was very good. But it had none of the character found on the other courses during the trip.
  • Don’t get stuck playing behind Germans. We ran into a three groups of four Germans at one of our first stops on the trip, all decked out in BMW rainsuits with caddies.  On a course that was otherwise quite quiet, that presented quite a spectacle. We ran into the Germans on the 12th tee, having played the first 11 holes in 1 hour and 20 minutes. They looked at us as if we were from another planet. Playing through was not an option. Instead we played a three hole loop of 9-10-11 again and still caught them by the 15th hole. “The continentals aren’t big on etiquette,” said one Brit who tipped it up with us at Birkdale. The Germans pulled into the club we were playing the next day just as we were leaving, getting out of a bus they were using to tour them about. They were heading to Pennard the next day — or so we were told in the pro shop — but we never saw them again.

Southerndown's Second: Links away from the ocean.

  • In the clubhouse of the bar tender recognized we had been held up by the Germans, who were hardly playing at a Blitzkrieg pace. I went up to order two Guinness for some post-round revelry. The only other people in the bar were the Germans and a host from the club. “These are on the tab,” the bartender said in a tone that suggested more of a fact than question. “Oh, we’re not with them,” I said confused. “No, these are on the tab,” he said, cracking a slight smile. “Oh, yes, indeed they are,” I said, getting the joke, grabbing the drinks and walking to our table.
  • After coming into the pro shop at Porthcawl after a three hour round, we struck up a conversation with the club captain and the pro. It was 11 am and he asked when we played. I told him we were done. “Well, in that case you can come and play any time,” he said, instructing the pro to give us his card. I’ll be back — I just don’t know when.

The tiny, super cool par-3 seventh at Porthcawl. Proof that even the holes away from the sea were great.

  • Discussion after our rounds usually involved talk about how many holes on each course were “all-world.” The conclusion was that Royal Porthcawl, which just cracked the Top 100 in Golf Magazine’s list of courses in the world, should be at least 50 spots higher. Pennard was slightly disappointing, with its odd routing on the front nine. But it still had a couple of tremendous holes, including the seventh and the 11th. Aberdovey was rock solid, with a couple of standouts, including the short 16th, an all-world par-4. It was also the firmest course we played and balls would bound another 20 or 30 yards and shots that landed short of the green rolled well on. Royal St. David’s was exceptionally good, with great holes like the opener and the third, as well as the 14th through the 17th. It ends on a bland par-3 though, which was a letdown. Nefyn and District was not nearly as weird as I’d been led to believe, though the 12th, with its rollercoaster fairway, was odd. The 13th, though, a long par-4 on the point, was as good a golf holes as I’ve played.

Don't fire at the lighthouse: The tremendous 13th hole at Nefyn and District

  • Conditioning at all the courses was pretty solid. Nothing compared to North American standards though. There were small flowers and clover in the fairways. And guess what — it made no difference. Instead the turf was firm and fast and great fun to play from.
  • The cost of playing in Wales as a member is nominal. Most clubs cost around $500 for the year, and most had no initiation.
  • Staying in the Dormie House at Aberdovey was a great experience. Nothing better than walking off the 18th and right to your room. Porthcawl also has rooms — and I’d recommend it to anyone.

The second at Aberdovey, playing off a long singular dune.

  • Welsh food was all quite good. They like their chips — French Fries come with practically everything. Thankfully I was walking 10 miles each day and carrying my bag.
  • Welsh roads take a long time to travel. The drive from Pennard to Aberdovey was 60 miles by Google Maps, and took nearly three hours to drive.
  • Anyway, we finished off with a round at Royal Birkdale and an unexpected surprise at Delamere Forest, a great golf club not a half hour from the Manchester airport. The last one was not planned, but set up by a couple of friends. We played the Herbert Fowler design in three hours and then made our trip to the airport. Nothing better than playing in the morning and arriving on a different continent at night.

St. David's 16th hole, with its lumpy fairway, was part of a pleasantly surprising course.

Conclusion: If I were to do the trip again, I’m not sure I’d venture north. I loved Aberdovey and the people there were warm and welcoming, but the drive is a long one. Instead I’d stay south, play Southerdown, Porthcawl (more than once), Pyle and Kenfig (which I didn’t see), Pennard (to try and see if it is less strange after more rounds), and venture down to Tenby. It would be a fine trip. One could also go down the English coast to see Bernham and Barrow, which looked great as well.

All in all, Welsh golf exceeded my expectations. Porthcawl is the standout, but the others were all very good as well. This is relatively undiscovered golf — probably like where Ireland was thirty years ago. The Ryder Cup will bring people to the fairways of Wales’ links, but the golf is of a quality that should convince people they didn’t need a big production to visit again.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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