Aberdovey and Bernard Darwin

Aberdovey at Sunset

The links at Aberdovey, Wales, as you see, are not a difficult place to get up an afternoon’s worth of links golf you won’t forget, and if you’re lucky, a few good stories into the bargain.

As fine as Aberdovey the course is, its great legacy to golf in Great Britain is one of its members: Bernard Darwin, who narrated golf’s stories better than anyone of his era and set standards for the entire sportswriting genre that have never been eclipsed.  A grandson of the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, it was Bernard Darwin’s uncle who had introduced him to the Aberdovey links. As a child, Bernard witnessed the creation of the original Aberdovey course and, throughout his long and distinguished career as golf correspondent for The Times and Country Life, and in his many books on the game, he wrote frequently and lyrically about the delights of golf at Aberdovey.  In his own words, Aberdovey was the course that his “…soul loved best of all the courses in the world.”

You do not play alone at Aberdovey.  It seems unthinkable.  I suspected for a little while that this attentiveness was directed particularly at writers — everyone wants to come off well — but it’s not.  It’s simply the ethos of the place.  I had arrived in Aberdovey from the next village north, Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s.  Harlech’s links are inevitably campared to those at Aberdovey, and over dinner in the noise and roaring happiness of the village’s eating and watering hub, The Penhelig Arms, I had visitors aplenty stop by to wish me all the best.  And incidentally, to inquire about Harlech.  Competitions between the two clubs are are regular, fiercely contested, and thoroughly enjoyed.  A current of local pride runs just beneath the surface of every club’s politely generous assessments of its neighbors, and at Aberdovey it was all about Harlech.

Harlech, I said, was very nice, but I was looking forward to Aberdovey in the morning.  Yes, Harlech did have some attractive holes—a couple, in fact.  And yes, it was a shame that the Harlech links never reached the sea—it was always just beyond the dunes, and so it didn’t really play.  And wasn’t Royal Porthcawl something?  Prime, I said.  The Aberdovey members certainly wanted to hear that they had a links that overmatched Harlech, but nobody was soft-soaping the lordly dominance of Porthcawl.

All this golf chat was conducted to the defiantly unmusical pealing of a bell, periodically yanked to life by the bartender, whose domain also served as the service bar for the other — white cloth — side of the restaurant.  Evidently it was thirsty work, for the bartender, a hale fellow in his mid-60s, refueled his own inner man each time he shipped an order.  As the evening wore on, he grew more rubicund and the bell grew louder, more belligerent.  On that trajectory, the evening ended.

When I arrived in the Aberdovey car park next day, I could see the bartender standing near the practice green, and I thought I was going to have a very interesting playing companion.  He looked me up and down, told me to follow him, and headed for the clubhouse.  When we got to the door he turned to me again and told me to take off my hat.  We went upstairs.  He knocked on a door — the Club Secretary’s door — and I was given the honor of a formal introduction to Mr. Ian Hamilton.  The secretary hoped I would enjoy Aberdovey’s links.  With that, I was whisked downstairs.  And no, I wasn’t going round with my friend the bartender, who wasn’t playing at all, but had come over just for the rite of introduction.  He shook my hand and departed.

I played, in fact, with two young, well-to-do gents out for a few days from London’s Wall Street, The City.  Because Aberdovey is close to London, a simple train ride from downtown London to the clubhouse door, (a convenience Darwin loved), it is something of a summer colony.  Its strand is lovely, full of dogs walking their people, the sea air is bracing, and the shopping is more cutting-edge than old curiosity.  The links themselves are built on a thumb-shaped piece of coast pushing into the sea, obviously prime golf real estate.  The earliest course comprised nine holes, these being flower pots sunk into the turf. However there was soon a realization as to just how splendid the local linksland was, and the Club was formally founded in 1892.  The first 18 hole-course measured some 5,540 yards, and over time it has been tweaked by some of golf architecture’s best:  Harry S. Colt, James Braid, and Herbert Fowler.  Darwin said of Fowler that he had a knack for finding interesting routing with minimal invasiveness. His quiet hand touches Aberdovey in just that way.  There are few bunkers, and many greens are laid out at grade level.

Because the greens ride the landscape, the hardest thing about Aberdovey is hitting approach shots with conviction.  The lack of mounds, or flashed bunkers, makes distance estimation a problem.  Being told it’s 160 meters to the center is very different than knowing it’s 160 meters to the center.  Creeping doubt is a golfer’s enemy and one of the architect’s most subtle skills.  Aberdovey, while loping and unfettered-feeling, is still full of double bogeys.  Lank, heavy, club-stopping grasses are the enemy.  They also hide golf balls most effectively.  An Aberdovey man is, of necessity, a superb ball hawk.   And, bless him, a caddy of sorts.  For there are holes, in the center area of the basic out and back vee of a links, where several flags are visible, and the correct choice isn’t apparent.

On the first hole, between the tee box and the fairway proper, lies a pronounced mound.  Last of a lawn mower, I was told.  Hmm?  Yes, from back in the day when mowing was no different that tilling; a horse provided the pulling power.  And when this one up and died on the crew, there was no sense in doing anything but digging a hole and rolling him in.  Thus the mound.  I began to ask if that was really so, but I stopped myself.  A good yarn or a hard truth?  Is there a difference?

There is one hole, one unforgettable hole, the kind of hole you desperately want to nail, that violates the basic out and back structure of the course, and that is the par-3 12th.  It sits high up in the shining grasses of a dune and slyly offers just a peek at its redan-style green complex.  Far to the left the stick stretches its neck above all that you must carry or go around.  The hole plays towards the water, and into the prevailing breeze. The first time I played it I hit the ball just left of the throat, and we watched it begin a good-looking slide towards the hole.  Tap birdie.  But that’s not right, is it?  My second, and, I’m afraid, most recent, effort, involved a snipe, which proved a lost snipe.  Then, ball gone, hole tragically misplayed, I handled the pin for the other players because I was (metaphorically, since I had no ball) in the linen.  The walk to 13 is short, and was no doubt lovely that day.  I was looking at my shoes.

The last three holes head back to the clubhouse.  Going right risks another go-round in the thick stuff, but going left risks the train tracks, out of bounds.  Trains clatter through often, and I couldn’t help but feel that since virtually every man, woman and child in Great Britain plays golf, that there was some swing analysis going on in the passing coaches.  There was a last on-course story.  Our Pen Helig bartender, in the midst of his stretch run one afternoon, hit an awful hook.  A train, meanwhile, was gathering momentum out of the Aberdovey station.  There was that moment, that electric instant, when it became obvious that an intersection of ball and train was inevitable.  The only available emotion was fascination.  The ball, hooking hard, struck the train head on and spiderwebbed the engineer’s windshield.  He couldn’t stop fast enough.

“You’ve hit my train,” he shouted, adding some salty language to his wrath.

There was no denying that bare fact: the bartender, already out of bounds and most unhappy about it, was back on his heels, sputtering, nearing a dreaded l’esprit d’escalier, desperate for a rejoinder.  “Well,” he finally shouted back, he too dressing up his language for the occasion, “If you’d been running on time, you never would have been there.”

After the gauntlet of the final three holes comes the cure.  Upstairs in the clubhouse lounge are mounted the bits and pieces of a history that goes back more than 125 years.  I noticed a set of old golf clubs and ‘featherie’ golf balls neatly affixed to a wall.  They were presented to the Club by a member of the course-founding Ruck family, who wrote of them: “Set of golf clubs actually played with at Aberdovey about the year 1882.”

In the grill I asked about Darwin.  Surely his passion for Aberdovey didn’t go unremembered?

A member sitting with us excused himself, approached the barman, and said something I could not hear.  In a moment, a man whom I had noticed wheeling his clubs to the bag room minutes before, appeared in the grill.  I believe he had been waiting outside.  He introduced himself as Mr. O.G. James, and said he understood I cared to see the Darwin Room, of which he was the keeper.  He led me down a flight of stairs and unlocked a door.  There was — too bad for me — very little time to explore a place that begged for a good long browse. The Darwin Room is part memorial, part a library of sorts, full of Darwin’s prime products: books, both his and many others, and collections of his columns, along with clubs, balls and hardware that dates from an age that while earlier than ours, is hardly dead.  We know the game, and the way in which he writes of it: it’s all as fresh as the breezes that called him from his desk in London to the seafront at Aberdovey.  Mr. James, who plainly was familiar with every scrap and trinket in the room, gave me a cook’s tour.  I found myself as interested in him — the keeper of the flame — as of the room itself.  I didn’t know his name, had no notebook, and so when I inquired after him a month or so later, described him (to my eventual mortification) as an utterly genial, rather elfin-looking man.  I had this in return:

Dear Tim,

I have just picked up the email from our secretary Ian Hamilton about your visit around the Darwin room at Aberdovey golf club in Wales.  I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to collect this email and reply but my elfin duties have kept me busy!

My name is Owen Gwyn James and I have been a member of Aberdovey golf club for 40 years. When I first joined I was teaching in London and then I moved to Hereford where I now reside.  I have always made an effort to attend the Easter and summer meetings at Aberdovey and have been successful in one or two competitions over the years. My lowest handicap was nine. I now play off fourteen, not very well.  I am currently recovering from major surgery, so my golf is on standby. I hope to be fully recovered before long.  I have had the honour of being Captain of the club in 1999 and am currently Vice President, an honour which runs through 2010.

I have always taken an interest in the history of the club and when made Vice President I offered to become, with my friend, and former President, Dr. Edward Bell Davies, archivists for the club. So far we have listed all the books in the collection. These consist of most of Bernard Darwin’s published works, together with other historical golf books donated to the club by various societies and members. We have numerous photographs from the 1900’s onwards which we are in the process of cataloguing. Arranged around the room are other items associated with Darwin, i.e. articles from The Times.  Darwin whenever he was “lost” for a piece to write, inevitably wrote about golf at Aberdovey, whether it be the junior championship, or the Welsh championship.

Some interesting facts about Aberdyfi (Welsh spelling):  It is a founder member of Welsh Golfing Union 1892; Dennis Amis, former England test (cricket) player is a current member; and Ian Woosnam and Ian Baker, former Captain and Vice Captain of the Ryder Cup, are honorary life members, both having caravans on the club park.

If there is anything more I can do to help you, please let me know.


Darwin in his day found comfort and ease at Aberdovey (not to mention the occasional emergency column), although a line like  “…about this one course in the world, I am a hopeless and shameful sentimentalist and I glory in my shame….”  could never be written for the sake of expediency, but only from joy in the game brought to life by a favored links.  In the years since Darwin wrote that, the equipment has changed and changed again, book bindings have grown stiff, newspapers have gone yellow with time, but Darwin’s writing stands up, and so does the golf course he loved best.

One Response to “Aberdovey and Bernard Darwin”

  1. Steve Goodwin

    Makes me want to go Wales . . . and reminds me of the way it was not that long ago to travel in Scotland and Ireland. The visiting golfer was welcomed, quickly swept up by the local golf community. Sounds as though it’s still possible in Wales. Lovely piece.

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