As far as golf travel to Great Britain is concerned, Wales – the small nation of three million souls tucked between the central section of England and the Irish Sea — is simply not on the radar for most Americans. John Hopkins, the golf correspondent of The Times (of London) and a Welsh native, has a practical explanation. “Wales doesn’t have the pure number of courses (approximately 200) that Ireland and Scotland have, nor do we have so many marquee courses. Just as importantly, we don’t have the tourist spend that those countries have. What most outsiders don’t realize is that we have more castles (641), a history of music and drama (think Catherine Zeta Jones and Anthony Hopkins), a distinctive culture with warm and friendly people and tremendous scenery (including 687 miles of coastline)—and a dozen truly great courses. Since Wales is a small nation, you can take in the highlights of each region (North Wales, Mid Wales, Southwest, Southeast) in a relatively short time without spending all of your trip driving. For all these reasons, Wales is the undiscovered golf secret of Europe.”
With the Ryder Cup coming to the Celtic Manor (resort) in Newport, South Wales in October of 2010, the secret may soon be out. In the interim, John shared a few of his favorite venues, sweeping from the north to the south, and beginning at Nefyn & District Golf Club, on the Llyn Peninsula. Nefyn may be the world’s only 26-hole track—the first ten holes are shared by the Old and New; the Old’s last eight holes head out onto a precariously narrow peninsula called The Point (playing golf here has been likened to playing on an aircraft carrier) The New’s final eight unfold along an inlet. All are fine holes, but the Point is particularly alluring, with the sea on one side, sandy beaches on the other, and on a clear summer evening, a vista of the Wicklow Mountains, 57 miles across the Irish Sea. Both James Braid and J.H. Taylor contributed to the course’s initial incarnation. “I started visiting Nefyn when I was a boy,” John continued. “We’d go on holiday from England, and I played there for ten or eleven successive summers. The inland holes (New Course) were built because some of the members found The Point too narrow and potentially dangerous, and, because there were roads and paths leading down to the beaches and there were conflicts with non golfers. The 13th hole (a 405-yard par-4) is still
vivid in my memory. You tee off from the top of a cliff. If the wind isn’t against you, you can try to carry the inlet that’s on your left to give yourself a short-iron to the green, though it requires a brave drive. A more cowardly tee shot plays to the right, where you have a long-iron in. It’s so much more satisfying to go over the inlet.”
From Morfa Nefyn, you’ll head down the coast to Mid-Wales and the sleepy resort town of Aberdovey and its beloved links. James Braid had his hand in the design of the course here, as did Harry Colt and Herbert Fowler. The efforts of this brain trust were not wasted, as this romp through the dunes near the mouth of the Dovey River showcases a wealth of original and creative holes. “I learned about Aberdovey from the great Times golf columnist Bernard Darwin,” John explained. “His love of the course helped foster my affection. The links are sandwiched between the hills and railroad line on one side and the waters of Cardigan Bay on the other. Visitors can still take the train from London to Aberdovey; you step off the train and walk 100 yards and you’re at the club. Its proximity to the railway helped bring the course to some prominence. Aberdovey has a half-dozen tremendous holes, but the 17th – a 428-yard par-4 – is my favorite. It runs between the railway line on the left and the rest of the course on the right. You have a lot of room to the right, and the wind coming off the water will blow the ball back toward the fairway. It’s the second shot that’s tricky, as it’s difficult to judge how the wind will impact your shot.”
The last stop on your introductory tour of Welsh golf gems brings you to the southeast and Royal Porthcawl, perhaps the one venue that’s widely known beyond Wales’ borders. This classic links, with nary a tree on the field of play, rests on the Bristol Channel and Swansea Bay. The sea is in view from every hole thanks to the sloping land, and the absence of large dunes; without a break from the sea, the wind is always in play. The club itself was established in 1891 and the first 18-hole layout appeared in 1899. It was refined twice in the coming decades, first by Harry Colt (1913) and then by Tom Simpson (1933). “Royal Porthcawl could easily host major professional events if there space to accommodate the crowds,” John said. “It’s that good. The fact that it’s too small for pro events increases its charm for me. That charm extends to the clubhouse. The two bars look just as they did in the 1890s, when the clubhouse was moved to its current resting spot by the sea.” The tone for a round at Porthcawl is set immediately with three strong par 4’s right along the beach front. For John, a peak is reached at the diminutive par-3 seventh, a mere 122 yards. “It shows that a one-shotter doesn’t have to be 190 yards into the wind to be difficult. It’s so beautifully bunkered that you can be on the green in places and almost need to chip the ball. I compare it to the 7th at Pebble Beach and the 8th at Royal Troon, in terms of challenge.”
As a writer covering professional and amateur golf, John often finds himself far from home. When he thinks of Wales, he can imagine himself at Royal Porthcrawl. “I picture myself on the 18th tee at Royal Porthcawl, being buffeted by wind and rain, water running down the back of my neck and soaking my grips, knowing that there’s nowhere else in the world that where I’d rather be.”
John Hopkins is the golf correspondent of The Times newspaper (of London), a position he has held since 1993, following in the footsteps of Bernard Darwin. He has covered golf for The Sunday Times, where Henry Longhurst was a predecessor and for The Times for the past 30 years. John has attended more than 120 of the four annual major championships, 16 Ryder
Cups, 12 Walker Cups and 10 Solheim and Curtis Cups. Born in Wales, John and now lives in the Vale of Glamorgan, although much of his time is spent travelling the world attending golf events. He is the author of Golf Wales (www.golfwalesuk.com), a guide of Welsh courses.
IF YOU GO…
Getting There: If you decide to begin your exploration of Wales in the north, fly into Manchester or Birmingham, England and drive west from there to Nevyn. If you begin in the south, fly into London’s Heathrow Airport or Cardiff and and head west to Portcawl.
Course Information: Nefyn Golf Club (+44 1758 720102; www.nefyn-golf-club.com) in the village of Morfa Nefyn plays 6,609 yards from the back tees to a par-71. Green fees range from £21 to £44. Aberdovey Golf Club (+44 1654 767493; www.aberdoveygolf.co.uk) in the village of Aberdovey plays 6,870 yards to a par-72. Green fees range from £35 to £45. Royal Porthcawl (+44 1656 782251; www.royalporthcawl.com) in the town of Porthcawl also plays 6,870 yards to a par-72. Green fees range from £75 to £120.
(Photo courtesy of Aberdovey Golf Club.)