Golf in Wales: No Hurry to Go Anywhere Fast
|The feel of northwestern Wales is sheep, sea spray and thick pasture – and the visceral satisfaction that it’s always been this way.
Here, on the chunky knob of the United Kingdom facing the United States, the days coast by slow and relaxed, in no hurry to go anywhere fast.
Conwy hosted the first Welsh Q-round venue for the 2006 British Open Championship and is regarded as the toughest test of golf in North Wales.
About an hour’s drive southwest of Conwy lies Nefyn, another seaside town with an impressive setting. The path to Nefyn takes you past the world’s smallest habitable house, just outside Conwy’s medieval walls. The home – originally built for two – barely accommodates one these days, a 14th century timber and plaster hovel no bigger than a coat closet. A couple of towns beyond the smallest house lies Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantisiliogogogoch, the railroad station tagged with the longest name in the world. (The name means “the Church of Mary in a white hollow by a hazel tree near a rapid whirlpool by the church of St. Tisilio by a red cave.”) Snaking your way along single-lane roads that seem to lead to nowhere in particular, you finally dead-end in the town of Nefyn.
Nefyn Golf Club clutches a craggy coastline as harsh and imposing as Pebble Beach, and as bucolic as Bandon Dunes. As with Conwy and North Wales, Nefyn’s official 6,200 yards belie the impact of the winds and the elevation changes. The 18-hole layout opens with a long, downhill powerhouse then moves out along the ragged cliffs cantilevered above the sea for a number of spectacular holes before heading back. You never really lose sight of the water or the light spray of saltwater on most of the course.
The par-5, 12th hole confronts you with more distractions than should be permitted. First, there are the expansive views of the bay from an elevated fairway. Add a blind drive, a blind second shot and a public road that runs along the side. Then there’s a crater-sized pothole bunker, a fairway precariously clinging to the top of a cliff and a small house near the green. Not an ordinary house, but Ty Coch Inn, a pub that’s open to the public – including thirsty golfers.
Since you’re walking the course (and there’s no beverage cart), stop by the Inn for a pint during the round; nearly everyone else does.
With its dramatic views and excellent conditioning, Nefyn is a fine course and a blast to play. It’s no wonder that Nefyn Golf Course is among Ian Woosnam’s favorite courses. With 10 of its holes running beside the sea, this is one course you’ll want to play twice.
Another hour farther around the southwest tip of Wales, the town of Harlech and the Royal St. David’s Golf Course promise more wind and yet another castle. Deep in Merlin country, the locals regard St. David’s as a magical place, full of history and majesty.
The course is splayed out below the towers of a castle Edward I built in the 13th century to keep his Welsh subjects under control. Now, in an ironic twist, the Welsh run the countryside and English visitors must ask for permission to play on these same grounds.
A four-club wind blows nothing but trouble across the sand dunes, where only once in its 6,601 yards do two successive holes play in the same direction. Most regard St. David’s as one of the top five courses in all of Britain.
Michael Hiller is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the Golf Writer’s Association of America. He is the Contributing Editor of AVIDGOLFER Magazine.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of comfortable accommodations throughout most of Wales, but locals often head off to vacation towns for long weekends, so don’t travel without securing at least preliminary lodging arrangements.
Close to Royal St. David’s, Hotel Portmeirion and Castell Deraeth (www.portmeirion-village.com) sit in a self-contained village bordering the sea. The Castell has huge, modern rooms with low-slung leather furniture, sleek bathrooms, cosmopolitan styling, while the Hotel is more formal, more classic.
Golf in Wales plays leisurely like that, too. It’s something to be enjoyed, like a sip of whiskey or a pint of local ale. Golf here is usually links, on the sandy dunes and fingers of native grasses that lie between the sea and the town road. Over time, gorse and heather take root, as do a few trees and bushes. But links courses are mostly flat with a few challenging undulations – and requisite pot bunkers dug here and there.
While each course retains its own character, the wind has uniquely shaped and sculpted each swath of land over hundreds of years. All that golfers had to do was sit and wait long enough for Mother Nature to create the bulk of the course.
Farther inland from the sandy transition zone between sea and fertile earth, the loamy soil is more hospitable to farming and ranching. Sheep graze nearly everywhere, easily outnumbering the other livestock beasts. Their pasture grasses are deeply greened and a foot tall or more. You can follow the wind as it sweeps across a meadow, the grasses bowing then rebounding as the wave clears.
Spring and winter rains usually drop torrents of water, but what is golf in Wales (or Scotland or Ireland, for that matter) without rain and wind?
On this trip, though, not a drop is predicted, which pleases both us golfers and the sheep.
Nearly 200 golf courses interrupt the pastoral roll of the land, each the favorite of its local members. In the hamlet of Llandudno, trains whistle by the left edge of the seventh and eighth fairways every few minutes, whisking their passengers to grander cities, but not much can beat a round with North Wales Golf Club captain Alex Harvey.
“Real connoisseurs of golf appreciate this course the most,” Harvey boasts. “No two shots from the same position ever play the same because the winds are never the same.”
In this quadrant of the U.K., as in much of Wales, the wind can be either friend or foe. And the threat of a good golf match seems to bring out the wind’s worst. At North Wales Golf Club, short par 3s can require anything from a 9-iron to a strong 3-wood.
Under a patchy spring sky, sea gulls ride the air currents effortlessly, gliding in from the bay, hoping to snag a nibble of fried shrimp from a complacent member at the clubhouse.