HARLECH, WALES | Harlech, you might say, is in the armpit of north Wales and the word in is crucial in that sentence. Or you might say that Harlech, just below the arm that contains north Wales and curls around the Irish Sea, while undoubtedly far from anywhere, is the sort of place you are delighted to get to. Particularly if you have come to play golf.
There are two Royal golf courses in Wales and both are magnificent. Royal St David’s at Harlech is one; Royal Porthcawl, 25 miles west of Cardiff in the south, is the other. Founded in 1894, Royal St David’s is one of the youngest of Britain’s Royal clubs. Porthcawl and Harlech, as they are known, are the aristocrats of golf in Wales.
Harlech, which has hosted more than 70 championships, is a prime example of the British golf courses that might not have existed without railways. Aberdovey, just down the Wales coast, is one such, Royal Lytham is another, and Turnberry is a third. They tell a story at Aberdovey where the railway line forms a boundary on the par-4 16th and, occasionally, balls hit passing trains. A driver had stopped his train and was about to remonstrate at the damage done to his engine when the golfer said: “If you’d been on time, I’d have missed you.”
To reach Harlech you drive west along the Mawdach estuary as the sun is setting and painting the river red. Race through Barmouth as quickly as possible, and head north, and suddenly, the road swings to the right and in the distance are the majestic Mount Snowdon and the hills of Snowdonia while at your feet, so inviting you want to jump down into them, are acres of sand dunes adjoining a wide beach. Up a bit, round a bit, over the railway line and you’re at Royal St David’s with its unimposing clubhouse and imposing golf course and, towering over it, Edward I’s 13th century castle built to pen in the pesky Welsh.
Things happens at the Welsh Amateur at Harlech that don’t happen at, say, Augusta National. You tangle with the Welsh language and its seven vowels, for instance. Try saying this in a hurry: “Peidiwch og aros i wisgo as bydd y glach yn canu yn ystod y nos.” Don’t worry if you can’t. It means, “Do not stop to dress if the bell sounds at night,” and those words are the fire instructions in a local hotel.
You play on a course that is by the sea and you can hear it and smell it but unless you climb a scaffold on the 16th tee, you cannot see it. It is clearly a much-loved course. Some tees have wooden benches bearing inscriptions, such as on the 16th: “In loving memory of Mary S Warman 1916-2004” and next to it: “In loving memory of Zillah (Bobby) Warman 1923-2009.”
If it is not over-egging it to suggest that Royal Liverpool would not be the club it is today had it not been for Royal St David’s, it is not too far wide of the mark to observe that Royal St David’s might not be the force it now is in golf without the support of members of Royal Liverpool. Harold Hilton and John Ball, the two amateurs who won the Open, were pillars of the club on the Wirral and both travelled regularly to mid-Wales to play golf. Hilton won the Town Bowl in 1901 and 1902 and John Ball the Edward VII Bowl in 1920.
Hard as it is to imagine now, Harlech was quite a holiday destination in Edwardian Britain. In his book Every Day was Summer the writer Oliver Wynne Hughes paints an evocative picture of a thriving resort, which, because it was only 100 or so miles from Manchester and a couple of hours by train from Liverpool and Manchester and 150 from Birmingham, seemed as glamorous then as a Continental resort.
Little has changed on the golf course from that day to this. Noting its length and that it has five par 3s, it might appear to be an insubstantial test. Look more closely, however, and you see there are only two par 5s, that one par 4 is 463 yards and that on the homeward nine holes there are five par 4s of more than 425 yards.
The short holes play to the points of the compass so if the 11th is downwind, the 18th will be into the wind, and if the fourth and ninth are into the wind, then there will be a slight respite on the 14th. Should it be windy then gird yourself and be prepared to play one of the hardest par 69s you will ever play.
Other clubs buy more land, build new tees, add more bunkers, alter the shape of one hole after another, extend the clubhouse and lengthen the course but the Royal St David’s in August 2012 measuring 6,629 yards from the championship tees was much the same as the Royal St David’s I had played in the Welsh Boys’ Championship in 1961. Thank you for asking but I lost in the quarter-final and things have been going downhill ever since.