Previewing Wales: Where courses are steeped in history, and beauty

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Wales |

I’ve actually been here before, sort of.

In the early 1970s, as a young sportswriter working for the now-defunct Sacramento Union, I took a vacation to Europe with a backpack, and spent a couple of days hitch-hiking through Wales. I remember staying in a youth hostel, where my job was to sweep the floor before heading to the pub for a pint with the supervisor. I remember taking the tram to the top of Mount Snowden, and remember the rugged beauty of the place.

I wasn’t thinking about golf courses back then.

Blaine Newnham, Tom Cade, Rob Perry and myself won’t have to hitch-hike through Wales this time. Our upcoming September trip is through the great generosity of Visit Wales, in the person of Jane Harris.

We will be playing the following courses, with roots in the 1800s:

 North Wales Golf Club: The course was founded in 1894 and overlooks Conwy Bay; the front nine runs along a railway line, the homeward stretch comes back along the coast. According to club history, founder Tancred D. Cummins named each hole. The par 3 13th, a  short hole playing directly into the prevailing wind he named “Hades.” The Church Commissioners from whom he purchased the land requested that the name be changed, as it was inappropriate to have such a name when the land had connections with the church. Cummins refused the request, but he did name the 18th “Paradise.” The names remain to this day.

Conwy Golf Club: Golf has been played on this site, at the mouth of the River Conwy, since 1869, and a 12-hole course was established in 1875, designed by Jack Morris, nephew of Old Tom Morris, who in 1895 extended the course to 18 holes. By the turn of the century, the course was one of the foremost championship venues in Wales, but it served as an army training site during World War I and was virtually destroyed. It was restored after the war, but then played a role in World War II — workers secretly built sections of a Mulberry Harbour — a huge, portable harbor — behind the second green, and that harbor, launched into the river and shipped south, played a role in the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Nefyn & District Golf Club: Ten holes run along the sea; the par 5 No. 12 hole features a blind drive, a blind second shot, a public thoroughfare, a “crater-sized” pothole, a public house, and incredible views. The unique 27-hole layout includes “The Point,” nine holes that only reopened last April after being closed because of the effects of a storm that brought 100-mph winds and extremely high tides. As noted on the club web site:  The re-designed course at The Point has been described as “breathtaking,” taking full advantage of the local terrain and topography.  “The 9 holes on offer hug the coastline and look as if they have been in play since the Club’s formation in 1907”, stated the Club’s Secretary Simon Dennis.

Porthmadog Golf Club: Dating to 1905 , designed by James Braid, the course is considered to have two distinct halves — the front nine, away from the coast, has a heathland feel; the back nine is more “pure links” with views of the sea. According to the club history, “James Braid is a true legend of golf course design and has probably been involved in over 400 courses. At the peak of his activities he would often simply stroll round a course, make some simplistic illustrations on the back of an envelope and then send it together with an invoice to the Club concerned. The precise timing of his visit to Porthmadog is not known but it is likely that it was around 1910. … Irrespective of his particular recommendations , there are certainly features of today’s course that have all the hallmarks of classic Braid design such as par 3’s that play in four different compass directions and bunkers such as those on the 11th and 12th holes bordering Samson’s Bay.”

Royal St. David’s Golf Club: In the book “True Links: An Illustrated Guide to the Glories of the World’s 246 Links Courses” there is a special entry for Royal St. David’s: “With the 13th-century Harlech Castle towering above the course and the mountains of Snowdonia in the background, Royal St. David’s can claim one of the finest locations in links golf.” According to “True Links,” the club was founded in 1894, and the course created to rival St. Andrews. Considered the toughest par 69 in links golf, the course features “a mixture of relatively flat land, rolling fairways, and imposing sand hills; fairways meander through this linksland to greens often created in dells or on higher plateaus … The course is noted for a succession of long par 4 holes and five short holes, and for the expansive size of its greens.”

In “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” there is a long description of No. 15, a 435-yard par 4: “Playing into the prevailing wind, the 15th demands two precisely struck shots to reach the green. With Mount Snowden in the distance, the scale and definition of the hole are perfectly balanced with the task at hand. … There are no bunkers here. The hole finds its defense from the sand hills, the wind and a hollow just short of the green. A running approach must negotiate the hollow, and a high, pitched second shot is left to the uncertainties of the Snowdonian wind.”

Aberdovey Golf Club: As recounted in “True Links,” “here we find a classic links returned to its natural glory in a remote and romantic setting, with many memorable holes, including the third, a blind par 3 known as Cader.” The course, in the middle of Snowdonia National Park, was a favorite of Bernard Darwin, the grandson of naturalist Charles Darwin and a noted golf writer who wrote that it was the golf course his “soul loved best of all the golf courses in the world.” Course designers James Braid, Herbert Fowler and Harry Colt all influenced the design of the course. Wrote John Hopkins in a 2005 story for Links Magazine: “When you arrive at Aberdovey today, there is no rush of young boys to carry one’s clubs, but in many ways what Darwin saw when he got off the train a century ago is the same scene that greets a present-day visitor. The 18th green is only a chip shot away from the clubhouse. Many tees adjoin greens of previous holes, as they do on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Golf at Aberdovey is a reminder of what the game was like in a bygone era, a time before noisy earthmovers scraped and shaped the landscape, before water was considered an essential element of a course’s defenses. As in those days, grazers here are allowed to bring their livestock onto the course (cattle in summer, sheep in winter).”

A possible sidebar to our trip will be England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club (Holylake). (Maybe.) Established in 1869. Robert Chambers and George Morris, brother of Old Tom, built the original course, on the site of a racecourse owned by the Liverpool Hunt Club. It is the second oldest of England’s great seaside links courses, behind only Westward Ho! in Devon. Tiger Woods won the Open Championship here in 2006, by two strokes over Chris DiMarco. Last year at Holylake, Rory McIlroy clinched his first Open Championship and third major title with a two-shot victory over Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler. In 2019, in its 150th year, the course hosts the Walker Cup.

As described in “True Links,” “There is not much in the way of great scenic splendor here on the Wirral, although the hills of North Wales are occasionally in view and Hilbre Island rises in glorious isolation from among an expanse of sandbanks. Nevertheless, the Holylake links is among the most authentic of them all.”

The first hole, a 429-yard par 4, is listed among “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes”, though perhaps mostly for historic reasons. According to the book, Jack Nicklaus proclaimed it “not a particularly good opening hole” in 1967, when he finished second in the Open Championship.  Also cited is the No. 8 hole, a 519-yard par 5, where Bobby Jones, en route to the 1930 Open Championship for the second leg of the Grand Slam, took five strokes to get down from the fringe.

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