Friday, August 19, 2011

A Wales of a Golf Trip


When I used to think of golf in the British Isles, I thought of Scotland or Ireland. Golf in Wales was not on my bucket list. But, after a recent golf trip to the south of Wales, I think you may want to put it on yours. Wales was good enough for the 2010 Ryder Cup, and it was plenty good enough for me.

There are more than 200 golf courses packed into this land of unpronounceable counties and villages, many of which cluster along the Heritage Coastline on the Bay of Bristol. You will find 800 miles of quaint townships such as Cwmyllynfell and Dolyddelan, but don’t bother traveling to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoc, a landlocked city that has 56 letters in its name but not a single golf course.

From the U.S., we flew to London Heathrow and then took a two-hour train ride to Cardiff. From Cardiff, travel by car southwest, through winding roadways along the craggy shoreline. Here in Wales, you’ll find true links golf—fast firm fairways, steep walled bunkers, plenty of gorse to eat up errant shots, sea views with crashing waves, grassy dunes with bleating sheep, and, naturally, the whims of Mother Nature. Expect wind to move your ball around all day. And expect to walk these courses. There are almost no carts available and no one uses them anyway.


Royal Porthcawl is now rated number 94 in the Golf Magazine “Top 100 Golf Courses in the World.”
On the first tee box of Royal Porthcawl, the most inspiring comment your golf partner can make is not “Good shot!” but rather, “I can still see your ball!” That’s because, the moment you launch your ball into the costal air, it seems to disappear into reflections of sea and sky.
This Welsh links course, founded in 1888, is both private and public and boasts expansive views of the ocean from almost every tee and fairway. The fairways run at lightning speed, giving you up to 90 yards of roll off the tee! Unless, of course, you veer into the gorse and broom, which makes up most of the rough. This dense stuff will steal your ball and rack up your scorecard.

Judging distance is a constant challenge at Royal Porthcawl G.C. since there aren’t any trees or buildings to use as a reference. One scrub brush looks the same as all the others! And the local heather seems to run seamlessly along every hole. If you manage to keep your ball in the relatively narrow fairways, you can run it onto most of the greens. Tiger Woods played his final event as an amateur here in 1995, losing in match play, with a few detours off the fairways. So, take care to control the roll!

The wind and rain are constant variables and tease your stroke-count. And finding your way to the12th and 17th tees might frustrate the first-timer, since there is little signage and some crossover fairways to negotiate. Often, one must scurry to find the tee and keep ahead of the well seasoned, fast-walking members! We played the final three holes withTwo Welshmen, both named Robert, guided us back to the cottage-like clubhouse with smiles and Welsh hospitality.

The “Royal” status of Royal Porthcawl G.C. was bestowed on the club by King Edward VII. How does a golf course get “Royal” status? Easy. If a member of the royal family plays it and likes it, they can dub it royal. There are just over 60 commonwealth golf clubs that carry this moniker.

Greens fees range from 55 GBP to 125 GBP depending on the day and season and package rates are also available.

Pyle and Kenfig Golf Club

This much younger course is almost next door to Royal Porthcawl. Nine holes were opened in 1922 and the back nine, which plays like a new golf course, opened in 1942. We were lucky these past two days with no wind and no rain—wind is usually your companion here by the sea. The greens here are in outstanding shape, better today than at neighboring Royal Porthcawl.

The front nine is inland and the rough on the front nine is light and it’s easy to find a shot that misses the fairway.

The back nine is like a different golf course altogether, as you cross the road and get closer to the sea It offers more elevation changes and twisted doglegs all nestled along the coast. Number twelve, for example, is a severe dogleg right and the instructions were “tee off toward the bouy out in the sea.” It is much more challenging and more likely to cost you a sleeve or two of balls. The course also has a yardage book, which helps find your way around.

Green fees are 50 GBP weekdays and 75 GPB on weekends.

Pennard Golf Club

The fabled “links in the sky” sits 200 feet above Three Cliffs Bay on the Gower Peninsula, was founded in 1886. The seventh hole alone may be worthy of a trip half way round the world. The seventh fairway is framed by a ruined church on one side and the ruins of Pennard Castle on the other. The green hangs on a ledge overlooking the bay. If that’s not enough, then the par-5 16th hole has bay views that may stop your golf game for a while.

Holes 1-5 are a welcoming start to your golf day, then 6-10 play over much harsher undulating land and 11-18 provide the grand finish.
Authentic links is the sandy soil that is the buffer between land and sea. What is unusual here at Pennard, is that this soil has been blown onto the bluffs up to 200 feet about sea level. Many would say playing Pennard is a bit like playing on the moon. It certainly is dramatic. We were fortunate that Jeff Joseph, a former captain of the club, joined us on the front nine and helped us find our way around this course. We did have a yardage book and there are aim posts on many of the holes, but there are plenty of blind shots here and several holes, like seven and eight, that move like a rollercoaster, or maybe more like a pinball machine. The fairways undulate and tumble through hillocks, hummocks and dunes. I rarely had a flat lie, but that may be one of the charms of Pennard. The greens were in terrific shape and the sand (I was in one too many bunkers) was quite playable.

One interesting aspect of Pennard is the land has what they call “commoner rights”. That allows for hikers, horseback riders and even some cows to roam the course. There are short fences around the greens to keep the cattle from grazing. You will rarely find a course like this, and if you are anywhere near here, you gotta come experience it. But be prepared for a challenging walk. I would love to come back and take this on after having seen it once.

Pennard, like many clubs in the UK, is private but welcomes guests and the public to play.
40 GBP on weekdays and 60 GBP on weekends.

Park Plaza Hotel Cardiff
This was a wonderful welcome to Wales, right in the heart of the city. It is a contemporary, boutique hotel with all modern amenities, including a fitness center, swimming pool, steam bath and whirlpool, delicious restaurant, and a very helpful staff.


Coed-y-Mwstwr Hotel in Coychurch
This is a quaint 35-room European hotel of distinction and a golfers’ favorite. Located outside of Coychurch, it is an old manor house built in 1888 for the Arthur John Williams family. If you want a quiet countryside retreat, this has all the charm, comfort and tradition you can ask for. The stained glass windows and floral fabrics help make it a cozy, peaceful respite on the hillside.

Enjoy menu selections of Welsh Lamb Rump, Loin of Breconshire Venison, or hearty Cottage Pie with Creamy Mash after a long walk on the links, or bathe in the steam and sauna before retiring. Just ask our stuffed animal—a dog named Cayuga whose collar reads, “Put me outside of your room if you do not wish to be disturbed, and let sleeping dogs lay.”

Cafe Valance in Mumbles
This was, by far, the best accommodation we had on this trip. We just loved it. It is in Mumbles, just down the road from Swansea, a very quaint beach town with wonderful shopping and great activities. Cafe Valance is a coffee shop, restaurant, and four-room hotel. The rooms have all been remodeled and the service is wonderful. So wonderful that when we asked for directions to the gas station, Andy, the proprietor, said, “I will get in the car with you and show you the way.” Now that’s service!! The dinner was wonderful too.

How did a town like Mumbles get its name? There are two islands off the coast that look like breasts and when the Romans landed here centuries ago they named it using the Latin word for breasts, which now translates to Mumbles. The tide in the channel here has nearly 35 feet of tidal change, one of the largest in the world. When the tide is high, the coast line is especially beautiful.

Golf in Wales is a treat. It may be as good as Ireland or Scotland at a fraction of the cost and much closer proximity to London.