Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David's Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle

The PGA Championship is underway, and so this should begin the run-up to the Ryder Cup Matches in September. The two events are inextricably linked, after all, not just by their proximity on the golf calendar but also by the fact that all but the at-large Ryder Cup places are etched in stone, for the U.S. team anyway, based money list standings immediately post-PGA.

But as we all know, this is not the case: The run-up to the Ryder Cup Matches in Wales — set for Oct. 1-3, at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales — began pretty much the moment the last bit of bubbly was slugged down at Valhalla two years ago. One cannot blame Welsh tourism authorities for their promotional ardor. The Ryder Cup is viewed by Euros especially as a plum of the first order, a boon to golf tourism pretty much without equal. I’m not so sure about this. I don’t see golfers falling all over themselves to visit the British Midlands (home of The Belfry) or the Costa de Sol (home of Valderrama), not American golf tourists anyway.

I don’t mean to be such a curmudgeon. It’s just that there are myriad reasons to visit Wales with your golf clubs and none of them have much to do with the Ryder Cup or any of the courses at Celtic Manor. The golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding, and when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

In any case, Royal St. David’s was and remains fairly sublime. The opening holes are a bit ordinary and flattish, hidden as they are behind (and not amid) the giant dunes at seaside. But the back nine rollicks through some truly extraordinary dunesland. Great stuff.

The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

Afterward we stashed our clubs in the boot and walked a few hundred meters up the hill to Harlech Castle, which, we learned while playing the course, overlooks the course, the town and the entire countryside. Built by King Edward I during his late 13th century conquest of Wales, it also served as de facto capital of an independent Wales between 1404 and 1409, when it was held by Owain Glyndwr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

I’m a voracious fan of the historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, whose Arthurian trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles (comprising The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur) was all published about this time, the mid-1990s. I wasn’t aware of him at the time, which is a shame, because it’s about the best, most accurate and compelling take on the Arthurian tales I’ve yet read, and much of it is set in Wales.

Indeed, when they made a movie loosely based on Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, in 2004, they filmed part of it in Harlech (alas, the film — titled “King Arthur” and starting Clive Owen and Keira Knightly — was crap).

So, yeah. Golfing in Wales doesn’t have to be, some would argue that it shouldn’t be, about resorts and tourism initiatives and marketing synergies. It’s about watching your future wife drill one straight down the middle, then mingling with the spirits of rebel kings and pre-Christian sorcerers in a real, live castle afterward. Try doing that at Pinehurst.

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