OGMORE-BY-SEA, WALES | After hosting their first Ryder Cup, the Welsh like to say it took 87 years to bring that biennial competition to their country for the first time. But they might as well add that it has taken about that long for most of the sporting world to discover what a great golf destination that charming land of three million people is. Especially for those who fancy the links game.
Prior to a late summer visit, I counted myself among the unaware, and abashedly so. I had been to Scotland a dozen times over the years, and Ireland six. But I had never before visited Wales, which boasts 189 courses, of which 22 are links. And all I can ask myself after recently spending a week in the southern part of that Celtic nation is: What took me so long?
Of course, it was the quality and variety of the golf that surprised and enticed me most, layouts with lyrical names such as Porthcawl and Pyle & Kenfig that are brilliantly designed and beautifully situated. They are parts of golf-centric clubs where the game is enjoyed in its most delightfully basic forms. Where the clubhouses are small and austere, the locker rooms charming if not a bit musty, and the members so hospitable they gladly share games and pints with perfect strangers (though no one stays a stranger for very long in Wales).
But there are many other allures for the golfer traveling to that country, which is roughly the size of Massachusetts. Like the scenery, which includes sweeping stretches of pale sand beaches, swaths of purple heather bending in the seemingly ever-present wind and rugged hills that can be crowned with snow in winter. And while it can certainly rain and blow, the weather is so temperate in most places – and the drainage so good – that golfers can play year-round.
Food is also a highlight in Wales, and I marveled at the flavor of its black beef and mountain lamb, the taste of the local butters and cheeses and the salty freshness of its fish. The trips from farm and sea to tables here are very short, and I never stopped applauding the deft ways in which Welsh chefs served as middlemen in that process.
Then, there are the people, as friendly as they are feisty, and fiercely proud of their country and heritage.
Friendliness seems a national trait. Five times I went to tee it up by myself. And five times I ended up playing or finishing rounds with locals – and finishing a pint in the clubhouse with them afterward. At Royal Porthcawl, I told the assistant pro I was going to nearby Pyle & Kenfig the next day. “I’m a member there,” he said. “Would you mind if I joined you?”
The same thing happened at Saundersfoot, a town farther to the west. I was lounging around the lobby at the St. Brides Hotel, golf clubs and shoes lying nearby, when the hotel owner, Andrew Evans, stopped by to introduce himself and then asked where I was playing. “Tenby,” I said, referring to the oldest club in Wales, founded in 1888 and set along the sea, just a 10-minute drive away. “I’m a member there,” he responded. “And I’d love to show you around.”
As I played with Evans that day, I asked why the Welsh are so welcoming. “Remember, we are Celtic, like the Irish,” he explained, “which means we are a warm people. A little shy and reserved at times, but very friendly and warm.”
But I could see they are also a tough sort, something born from the ways they endured invasions and occupations centuries ago by the Romans, Normans and Saxons. Equally as difficult was the longtime rule of the English, and the Welsh mettle was furthered strengthened by the hardscrabble livings so many of them had to fashion in more modern times in dank coal mines and gritty steel mills. There was nothing easy or soft about any of that, but you never hear the Welsh complain. They simply keep battling.
“Our history has given us that fighting spirit, that sense of never backing down or giving up and that attitude that the little one will always give the big one a good scrap if he has to,” Evans says at Tenby. “Remember, we like rugby more than football, and certainly more than cricket. And we did hold off the Romans.”
Suddenly, I think of Ian Woosnam winning the 1991 Masters, vigorously pumping his fist when his final putt dropped. That image of the diminutive Welshman explains it all.
Fortunately, I find the courses I play in Wales just as rich in character as the people. Like Royal Porthcawl, which was founded 100 years before Woosie’s Augusta triumph. It has been the site of six British Amateurs as well as the 1995 Walker Cup, in which the GB&I team whipped an American squad that included a young Tiger Woods.
Porthcawl takes golfers on an invigorating ride the first few holes along Rest Bay, where the steel-gray waters are pocked with white caps, and then turns inland, with farmland full of cattle, sheep and horses providing the new backdrop. The course is flattish, which means the sea comes into view on every hole, and not particularly long from the members’ tees. But strategically placed pot bunkers protect par quite ably, as does the wind. It can howl here, and members like to tell about the time 20 years ago that a gale blew over the ramshackle pro shop, scattering bits of the building in the parking lot.
Just a short drive away is Pyle & Kenfig, a course that should have two names because it has two very distinct nines. The front is what locals call a “downland” track, open and somewhat flat, firm and fast like a links, with pot bunkers swallowing up errant tee shots and guarding testy greens. But you enter a different world on the back, one of blind tee shots, calf-high rough and towering dunes covered with ferns.
It blows 20 knots, and I love the challenges that side presents, especially when I hit a pretty good tee shot with my driver on the 201-yard par-3 12th and watch hopelessly as it get yanked by the wind into the gorse at least 30 yards to the right of the green. I never find it and lose three more balls before the afternoon is done. However, I couldn’t care less.
I feel just as exhilarated by my morning round the next day at Southerndown, a club that was started in 1905. I tee off in the rain by myself so early that the pro shop is still closed – so I have no scorecard or course map. And there are times I can barely see through the mist 50 yards in front of me. But I manage to see just enough to find fairways that undulate wildly and greens that are tucked in and around dunes. I am thinking I have never been as alone on a course as I walk the fourth fairway when I suddenly look up to see a dozen sheep standing in front of me. I stop, and as we regard each other for a moment, I think of a statistic I had heard the night before, about sheep outnumbering people in Wales three to one. And I realize I am definitely outnumbered here.
Tenby, two days later, is just as beguiling, and a whole lot drier, with tight fairways, gaping pot bunkers and very short walks between greens and tees. The course runs along Tenby South Beach, so wind is often a factor here as well. But its proximity to Bristol Channel provides a constant array of water views. I am particularly taken with the one of the monastery island Caldy from the fifth tee, its verdant hills and lush meadows looming just off shore. I also like that several holes have shots so blind that preceding golfers have to ring bells after they hit to signal all clear for those behind them.
While Tenby was the oldest course I played, the Ryder Cup track at Celtic Manor was by far the newest. Called the Twenty-Ten and laid out in the lush Usk Valley, it opened in 2007 and was built exclusively for this year’s matches by billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur Sir Terence Matthews. Traditionalists will no doubt be disappointed that it is an American-style layout and not a links. However, Twenty-Ten is well conditioned and well designed and certainly worth playing.
The Welsh might be quick to add that it is also what brought the Ryder Cup here after all these years.